Experimenting with a variety of cultivation styles is commonplace for many cannabis farmers as they aim to hone their craft. This is largely due to the multitude of options for cultivating cannabis: indoor vs outdoor, hydroponic vs soil and soil-less mediums, conventional vs alternative.
Today, I’ll be sharing my experience using tilling and no tilling methods for indoor cannabis cultivation compared to conventional methods of growing. I’ll be honest, I am more of a proponent in the no-till methods but have seen unbelievable results in the indoor “tilling” methods and will always stand by both results. And don’t get me wrong, there are incredible growers who use a hydroponic system or grow in a more conventional setting but generally, when you see flower at dispensaries grown under those conditions you can tell right away. They smell like hay, taste like nothing and look hard as a rock from all the PGRs and salt nutrients that are pumped into them.
With living organic soil, you are allowing the plant to showcase its true genetic potential. The aromas are outstanding and the flavors of the smoke really shine when you grow organically.
INDOOR TILLING METHOD
When I lived in Denver, CO I grew for one of the most renowned commercial indoor cultivation companies that essentially utilized an indoor “tilling” method. It’s hard to truly call it a “tilling” method because there are no plows or tractors (or even tillers) involved. But for the comparison sake of the article, I will refer to it as a tilling method. In my time there I witnessed 18 growth cycles using the same soil basein their 10 different flower rooms without ever removing that soil. At the end of the harvest (generally 9 weeks after transplanting), we would test the beds to see how well the nutrients were utilized by the plants and whether the soil was lacking in nutrition.
To prepare the beds for a new crop, first we would remove all the root balls, and then “till” the beds using shovels and our hands. We would break up any clumps in the soil and return it to a fluffy, aerated, even composition. We would test the levels of (N) Nitrogen, (P) Phosphorous, and (K) Potassium as well as the pH level and electro-conductivity of the soil, and re-amend accordingly using natural dry amendments such as alfalfa and kelp.
We would then mix it all by hand attempting to spread the amendments evenly throughout the soil. This is one benefit of tilling and re-amending soil as compared to the “no-till” method because it allows for a quicker decomposition of the nutrition for the plants to utilize.
BENEFITS OF INDOOR TILLING
This system is proven to yield top-shelf quality cannabis at a reduced cost compared to conventional methods.
This system proved to cut costs on soil by recycling and re-amending it at the end of every cycle.
Using an indoor till method, you also don’t have to pay someone to clean pots/water trays or have to continuously pay for plastic bags to end up just throwing out nor do you have to pay a trash collection company to haul it away. If you are an owner or investor you know every cent counts.
There are some downsides to the till method however. For one, we found it necessary to add supplementary organic liquid fertilizers on a consistent basis. Even so, the additions were far less than in a conventional setting.
Another time-consuming effect of this method was the dust and dirt in the grow rooms after each till. Masks were necessary while amending and hand mixing the beds due to some of the guanos and other dry amendments we used.
In addition, after removing 130 large root balls, an abundance of soil was left on the ground which would inevitably turn to mud after watering the plants. Hours were spent sweeping and cleaning up after each new cycle of transplanting. While the results of this method were desirable, I feel that using the no-till method would have achieved a similar result with simpler processes and a minimized workload.
NO TILL METHOD
No-till is, well kind of self-explanatory: you don’t use any tools to break up the soil in order to prepare for the next cycle of plants. Plants are harvested at the base, leaving the crown of the root ball in the soil. The only disruption to the soil is a hole large enough to fit the transplant. Easy peasy… well, kind of...
“No-till” methods have been around for a very long time (it is Mother Nature’s way of regenerating) but have become a common practice among growers in the last few years and gaining more and more traction daily. When growing in a no-till system a fundamental knowledge base is necessary in order to be successful. For example, you must have an understanding how plants grow and anticipate their needs before they actually need it.
In a conventional system, if you see a nitrogen deficiency you can easily hit it with a synthetic nitrogen source and will typically see results the next day. No-till systems use a top dressing to provide nutrition to the soil and this could means it takes days, if not weeks for the nutrients to be accessible and available to the plants. Applying a compost or earthworm casting tea will help speed up the process but it won’t be an instant fix like if you were using synthetic bottled nutrients. So knowing that in two weeks your plant is going to need an extra boost of calcium or magnesium is essential so that you know precisely when to apply it.
Another fundamental learning in a no-till system is understanding the ecosystem created by compost, biology, worms and mulch. The utilization of worms and a mulch layer is an aspect that separates the indoor till and no-till systems. Worms create aeration throughout the soil as well as help break down organic matter, turning it into plant-available nutrients. The mulch layer is essential for the no-till system to thrive, and drastically reduces the amount of water needed to keep the soil at a healthy moisture content. One common type of mulch used is a blend of nitrogen-fixing cover crops such as vetch and clovers. Cover crops have many benefits but mainly it is to create a mulch layer that you can chop and drop every few weeks/months to provide organic matter to your soil which turns into food for the worms which in turn provides nutrients to your plants.
One downside I will add to this point though, is some of these cover crops are loved by pests you don’t want. They can attract spider mites and thrips and provide a lot of surface area and cover for these pests to hide making it a lot harder to eradicate with foliar sprays.
ORGANIC CULTIVATION POINTERS
When transitioning into organics, whether you choose to till or not to till, changing your Integrative Pest Management can be another learning curve. Conventional farmers will spray whatever chemical they want on the plants to eradicate pest problems. For a long time people used Eagle 20 to prevent powdery mildew or Avid for pest problems. Both of those have been found to have carcinogenic properties and should never be used in any garden for any reason whatsoever.
I understand why they used them (because they work really well) but now you have a tainted product which could potentially harm the consumer. The use of beneficial insects and essential oil blends have become much more popular these days but also come with their own set of challenges. For example, when using essential oils, it is important to emulsify them properly or else the oils will separate from the water and will not distribute evenly onto the plants. I personally like to use Ag-sil 16, a potassium silicate to emulsify my essential oil blends.
Similarly, using beneficial insects is a great way to fight pests, but comes with a huge learning curve to utilize them correctly. To be successful, it is necessary to know the type of bugs needed to fight your specific pest, when to apply them, and how many to apply. I have had great results using beneficial insects in a small home garden set up with a handful of plants. In large commercial facilities however, I have seen a lot of money spent on beneficial insect pest management with little positive results.
If you want to learn how to use beneficial insects for your IPM, there is a woman who calls herself “The Buglady,” Suzanne Wainwright. She is one of the top entomologists and is a consultant who will help create a proper IPM for you and your grow facility. She also travels to a lot of the larger cannabis conferences and talks about her newest findings and what her experiences as a consultant in this industry has been. She also has a great Instagram page and many YouTube videos you can watch and learn from. While I do believe the use of beneficial insects is the most organic approach, make sure you know what you’re buying, why you’re buying it, and if it fits in your budget before ordering a bunch of insects because you heard they work.
Whether you choose to go the tilling route or the no-till method of organic indoor gardening, a lot of the same principles are there: stay on top of your IPM, deliver balanced nutrition for the plants, maintain a clean growing room and environment. It basically comes down to the knowledge of the head grower and your budget. Whichever way you choose to go, you will be saving money and producing a truly safer and healthier product compared to conventional growing using chemicals. Using the tilling method is much easier to transition into if you are a hydro or conventional style grower.
Once you have that method perfected you’ll have time to learn the benefits of using mulch, cover crops, worms and compost and eventually the work load will be drastically reduced as well. Once you see the final product, whether it be tilled or not tilled, flower or concentrate, you will be convinced that growing organically is the superior and most responsible way to grow cannabis.