You may have just heard of living soil recently, the truth is cannabis cultivation has occurred in nature for thousands of years. For almost all of that time it happened in one form: organically. But over the past 50 years, and specially over the last 10 years, indoor cannabis cultivation has grown to a commercial level and more industrial growing methods like hydroponics, aeroponics and synthetic mediums have become more popular.
So not everyone grows in soil anymore, however most cannabis connoisseurs and organically mindful growers and consumers prefer naturally grown cannabis.
What’s in a name? People refer to it as living soil, true living organics, real organic living soil, super soil, organic cannabis and more. Although there are small differences between these definitions, most of the defining parameters in all these systems are the same. We will refer to it as living soil.
WHAT IS LIVING SOIL
Living Soil is a growing method centered on the microbial life inside the soil. Through evolution over thousands of years, Mother Nature has developed a symbiotic relationship between the plants and the microbial life in the soil: fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and many other types. These microorganisms form a soil food web that help feed the plants, in exchange from carbons and sugars that the plant releases (extrudes) through their roots into the soil.
In this organic style of growing, the power is given back to the plants, who as living beings have evolved over time to learn to feed their own needs by finding what they require in the soil in which they live. It is this ecosystem in the soil and its relationship with the plant that we call living soil.
If living soil is the best, why do some commercial grows choose anything but living soil?
In an effort to cultivate commercially at scale and reduce variables in the system, many growers chose to take the feeding choices away from the plant and un-naturally force-fed the plants nutrients even when they do not want or need them. Growers that choose a hydroponic or coco-perlite medium remove the natural sources of elements and replace them with synthetic nutrients.
How is living soil different from other growing methods?
Living soil differs vastly from synthetic nutrient solutions and chemical additives. We harness the power of the microlife in the soil to let the plant feed itself what and when it needs it. We as growers just supply the right conditions to help the plant and the soil-food web do their work.
How do plants eat in nature?
Plants eat via their root system in an area called the rhizosphere (the area immediately surrounding the roots). There, the plants communicate with the microlife that lives underground and exchange their needs, as shown in this simplified diagram from “The Soil Food Web Inc” which depicts the process known as nutrient cycling.
What is nutrient cycling?
Graphic courtesy of Dr. Elaine's Soil Food Web
Think about it as a marketplace--where the plant offers certain elements in exchange for appropriate microlife it wants. These microbes create nutrients that the plant needs and exchange them with the plant. This precise interaction between two different biological organisms (plants and microlife) can be mutually beneficial for both parties and it can last indefinitely as it does in nature.
With the method of living soil cultivation, we try to mimic nature and therefore bring out the best potential of the plant. This natural method allows us to maintain a sustainable system with minimum waste and maximum productivity and quality.
How is the soil food web different than feeding plants nutrients?
The symbiosis (balance of the exchange) in soil can be interrupted by adding liquid nutrients that are chelated using organic acids or salt-based nutrients.By using such products, the microbial population will decrease, resulting in a less healthy soil. Therefore, having a system that perpetually requires human input and with it more human error.
What exactly are chelated nutrients? According to The Rev in his book “True Living Organics”: Chelating nutrients means encasing nutrients within the chelating elements, which are then easily (or rather, forcefully) absorbed by the roots of plants, along with any nutrients trapped within. We want natural chelates from the microlife to work for us and our plants, but we don’t force- feed through excessive chelation because it isn’t natural and it does not last, it’s not sustainable.
In an unbalanced situation the microlife cannot give all that the plant needs and it can eliminate most of the microbial life in the soil with pH changes.
What makes living soil “living”?
What we mean by living soil it is literally alive with biology that eats and feeds. Much like the biological food-chain we know between humans, animals, plants and insects of different sizes, there is a delicate dynamic in a growers container’s soil mix.
There are smaller and larger actors in the soil, and they are all important. Living soil actually recognizes these complex relationships and allows them to work for us. With conventional cultivation methods, growers force-feed plants a diet they think they want. How effective of a method is this with other crops? Well, think of the large tomatoes at the supermarket—large and a bright red color, but most of the time they have no flavor and are actually lacking nutrients.
Soil Food Web Infographic by USDA
But it is not just a matter or quality, According to Dr. Elaine Ingham of “The Soil Food Web Inc”
“The soil food web also provides the plants with protection form pests and diseases, protection from drought and flooding. It is natures operating system.” Furthermore, Dr. Ingham states that “Humans have disturbed the soil food web in almost all of the soils that we manage, causing it to become unbalanced. All these due to the mass use of modern machinery (tilling the land) and the extreme use of chemical nutrients, fertilizers and pesticides which kill the microbial life (beneficial bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes) in the soil.”
Therefore Living soil is also important for our environment. Specially because in this stage of global warming we must protect nature’s ecosystems.
The role of nutrients in organic living soil
Nutrient elements are like everything else in nature’s design; they all work together. So many times I hear growers talking about nutrient deficiencies, toxicities and lock-outs. Trying to solve a specific issue in the system (even when we are right) may come at the expense of disturbing the balance of the system. That is why we like to focus on whole-plant-health and providing the right conditions for the plants to combat disease, instead of trying to fixing them for the plants.We work with the plants and the microbial life soil to regain balance. We don’t like playing God, because its hard😉. But we do understand the perfect relationship of all these players in the soil.
According to Jeff Lowenfels: “Plants gets energy from the sun and uses it to produce extrudates (sweat) and drip them through the roots, they attract bacteria and fungi, eat the carbon in the extrudates. Bacteria and Fungi in turn attract Nematodes and Protozoa who eat them (for their carbon) and poop out the excess nutrients (diverse and abundant) in a plant usable form. The extrudate mix from the plant attracts more of what it needs to grow. The plant is in control.”
Plants need the chemical components to grow, especially oxygen, nitrogen, and calcium. Some are absorbed from the air and others from the soil.
According to The Rev on his "True Living Organics" book:
CARBON Carbon forms the backbone of many plant’s bio-molecules, including starches and cellulose. Carbon is fixed through photosynthesis from the carbon dioxide in the air and is a part of the carbohydrates that store energy in the plant.
HYDROGEN Hydrogen also is necessary for building sugars and building the plant. It is obtained almost entirely from water. Hydrogen ions are imperative for a proton gradient to help drive the electron transport chain in photosynthesis and for respiration.
OXYGEN Oxygen is necessary for cellular respiration. Cellular respiration is the process of generating energy-richadenosine triphosphate(ATP) via the consumption of sugars made in photosynthesis. Plants produce oxygen gas during photosynthesis to produce glucose, but then require oxygen to break down this glucose.
VITAL NUTRIENTS FOR CANNABIS PLANTS
According to Jorge Cervantes “Cannabis Encyclopedia”: Cannabis Plants must obtain the following rate of mineral nutrients from the growing media:
Here is a glossary from the USDA on common terminology of the soil food web:
How can growers encourage this natural process?
Introducing microbes is different than introducing nutrients(even if they are organic) that is why we mostly use just microbial teas brewed using natural herbs and no synthetic nutrients.
Synthetically chelated nutrients, most pesticides and many fungicides perturb the balanced relationship between the microbial life and the plant, therefore we don’t use them. Instead, organic teas are brewed to develop a large number of microbial life that then is introduced in the soil to increase that vibrant living population that will feed the plants. This is similar to drinking kombucha to get your probiotics. By adding these microbes in the teas we mimic the outdoors soil that is constantly fed by nature’s perfect system.
The introduced microbes process organic matter and break down mineral elements in the soil which “serves” an easier to up-take food for the plants through their roots.
Relying only on premade mixes many times results on inert soil after 1 or 2 harvest cycles, which means the need to replace the soil often—a costly and wasteful practice we don’t encourage.With living soil, growers amend their soil mix to replenish it using granular nutrients and brewing teas.This way the soil maintains balanced pH and nutrient levels with a healthy microbial life in the soil food web.
So if you want to know if a grower is truly cultivating in living soil, check if they are reusing their soil, how much liquid nutrients are they using and how much do they need to balance their pH.
Why choose a living soil cultivation method for cannabis?
With a living soil system, our main goal is to take good care of the soil life so the soil life will take very good care of your plants. We feed the soil, not just the plants.
All the most impressive genetic qualities of each different unique cannabis strains are expressed to the fullest in living soil, those flavors, aromas, colors and psychoactive effects that we enjoy medicinally or recreationally. And that is why most connoisseur communities prefer living soil cannabis.
Learning to grow your cannabis in living soil will allow you to cultivate the most natural and finest, top-shelf marijuana in the market. Most people don’t do it because, much like in the restaurant business, it is easier to prepare mass-market food than a delicious nutritional mean. But, if you can master the living soil method, your product will always be superior.
Yields can be a bit lower depending on the strains, but the quality commands a much higher price that compensates for total revenue and margins. Better yields in many cases has to do with genetics, pruning and having the right environmental conditions (temperature, humidity and airflow).
Inhaling organic, living soil cannabis is smooth and tasty, the type of high is cleaner and you need less of it to achieve incredible healing and recreational experiences. In times when we find many harmful inhalable or ingestible products in the marketplace (like those deadly vape-cartridges) it is extremely important to know that our cannabis is clean.