As the first hints of spring bring warming temperatures and longer days, the hardy crop of home growers who cultivate their weed in outdoor gardens begins a growing season that won’t culminate until autumn, when sticky, dank buds are ready to be harvested and cured. Although the process is steeped in tradition and lore, growing quality herb is within the ability of most home gardeners, even novices. With a little knowledge, work, and a sunny spot outside, your first crop of homegrown bud could be just months away.
One of the first decisions to make at the beginning of the growing season is whether to start the garden with seeds or clones, which are small plants taken from mature, so-called mother plants. Both options have their benefits and drawbacks, but the proliferation of online seed banks and limited options for obtaining healthy clones make seeds attractive for many gardeners.
Starting Plants From Seed
Gardeners who choose seeds have the option of hundreds, if not thousands of strains, available in three categories: regular, feminized, and autoflower. Michael Ben Mcgraw, director of cultivation for the vertically integrated cannabis company PharmaCann, suggests that beginning home gardeners start with seeds for autoflower strains, which will flower and produce buds without requiring an uninterrupted period of darkness each day. After gaining some experience, feminized seeds, which produce only female plants (with few exceptions) that will not start to flower until days begin getting shorter at the end of summer, give gardeners the option of an extended growing season. With a longer period of vegetative growth, the cultivator can produce larger plants and bigger harvests.
Regular (i.e., not autoflower or feminized) seeds produce male and female plants, at a rate of roughly half and half. While you’ll find the largest variety of strains available as regular seeds, Mcgraw does not recommend them except for experienced gardeners with the time and skill to identify and remove male plants, which do not produce smokable buds. If left in place, male plants pollinate female flowers, making the buds seedy and less potent.
“One male plant can produce enough pollen to seed the entire crop, so you must identify and remove them as soon as possible,” Mcgraw warns in a virtual interview.
Seeds are available from dozens of online sources. Both Mcgraw and Dean Schwartz, founder of cannabis home grow resource BudClub, advise doing a little research before you choose a seed bank to buy from.
“Once you’ve decided on what you want to grow, seed quality is the most important factor to consider when growing cannabis,” says Schwartz. “It’s important to buy your seeds from a quality breeder and to look for seeds that provide test data on content and effect. It’s also important that they come with a germination guarantee because seeds are expensive.”
Experienced cannabis gardeners employ several methods to sprout, or germinate, their seeds and begin the new plants’ life cycle. One common method involves placing the seeds between a couple of layers of paper towel in a shallow tray or dish. To use this method, wet the paper towels, so they are well-soaked, and pour off any extra water. Then cover the dish with plastic wrap and leave it in a warm place indoors. Carefully lift the top layers of paper towels each day until you see the white root tip beginning to protrude from the seeds, at which point they can be transplanted into your desired growing medium. Seeds can also be germinated in rock wool cubes or organic peat plugs or planted directly into small containers filled with potting soil. Grow your seedlings in a bright windowsill or under grow lights until they are ready to transplant outside.
Starting the Garden With Clones
Home growers can also start their outdoor cannabis garden with clones—small plants produced from shoots that are cut from mother plants and encouraged to grow roots. Although they are generally harder to find, clones have a few advantages over seeds.
“With clones, you can get started much quicker than with seeds,” notes McGraw. “Also, the clone is an exact copy of the plant it was cut from, so you can expect the same traits to carry over—no guessing on flower time, growth rates, or flavors.”
When choosing clones, Schwartz recommends selecting plants with robust, white roots protruding from the growing medium. Avoid clones that show brown, shriveled roots, yellow leaves, pests, or other indicators of stress.
“A strong, healthy clone should show visible signs of growth such as sturdy leaves and new growth at the nodes,” he adds. “The new leaves will be a bright green color but may get darker as the leaves mature.”
If you’re planning to obtain clones of photoperiod cannabis varietals for the outdoor garden, wait until the day length in your area reaches 13 to 14 hours per day to help ensure that your new plants do not begin to flower right away and then revert to vegetative growth as days get longer. You can also extend the day length with supplemental lighting until the days are naturally long enough to stimulate robust vegetative growth and prevent flowering. If you get your clones sooner, pot them up and grow them indoors under grow lights until the time is right for transplanting outdoors.
Transferring Young Plants Outdoors
Once any danger of frost has passed and the days begin to warm, your seedlings or clones can be moved to be grown in outdoor containers or a well-prepared garden bed. Schwartz recommends a different process for seeds and clones but notes that both must be handled with care to ensure a healthy start in the outdoor environment. Seedlings should be gradually transitioned from indoors to outside, before being transplanted into the garden for the growing season.
“One to two weeks before you want to make the move, start bringing them outdoors to acclimate,” Schwartz says. “Afterward, place the plants in a well-shaded spot for a couple of hours, then slowly build up the amount of sunlight and hours of outdoor time they receive each day. Be sure to bring them in each night.”
Clones have been grown in a controlled environment, so the transition to the garden must be accomplished with care. Keep them moist but avoid overwatering and provide shade from direct sunlight until they show signs of new growth. Clones can also be grown in small pots under more controlled conditions until they grow more roots for a smoother transition outdoors.
Whichever you choose, both seeds and clones can be the start of a successful cannabis home garden. But of course, getting the young plants into the ground is only the beginning of a process that can last up to six months or more. Consult a quality growing guide for information on the care needed throughout the growing season, including watering, fertilizing, and harvesting your plants. Before you know it, you’ll be basking in the satisfaction of a sweet buzz from your homegrown herb.
This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.