What’s In A Grow-Op?

Photo Courtesy of Phantom Farms

If you’re looking to get into cannabis growing, then great! We’re here to help. There’s a lot to keep in mind when getting going and this article, as well as the rest of this series, is written to be an easy-to-digest intro on the subject. We’re going to start out with an overview of all the components of a grow operation, to give you an idea of the factors to keep in mind.

First and foremost, it’s probably good to remember that a growing operation or ‘grow-op’ has a different meaning to the general public than it does within the cannabis industry. To media and law enforcement ‘grow-op’ refers to a space that has been illegally converted to grow cannabis covertly. To growers, it just means a setup for cannabis cultivation.

To be clear, we do not support illegally growing cannabis. This is a guide for people looking to set up their first growing space with an eye towards meeting state law. Every state and municipality has its own particular set of rules about what a grower must do, and what they can’t do. It’s impractical, if not impossible for us to cover all that ground here.

So a good starting place is to learn about your own local rules and regs. Many states differentiate between cultivating cannabis for commercial use, and growing at home for personal use, and have more stringent requirements for commercial operations. Then you’ll want to get in touch with local officials to get a picture of what the municipality requires of starting growers.

The goal here is two-fold. First, you need to know your rights, as some municipalities don’t want anyone growing in their area, and state law may or may not allow them to prohibit it. That’s why the brush-up on state law is important. Secondly reaching out to them, shows local officials that you intend to run by the book, and aren’t trying to cultivate for the black market.

Outside of your legal requirements, the shape and composition of your growing area will be determined by the plant itself, and how many of them you’re looking to grow. Cannabis comes in a wide variety of sub-species and strains, and that’ll be the subject of another article, but each has optimal growing conditions that you’ll have to figure out.

Make no mistake, cannabis is a fairly hardy plant that’ll grow in the side of a ditch if you let it, but a plant in the wild is just trying to survive long enough to reproduce, and we’re aiming a bit higher. We want to optimize our grows to increase our yields, to grow efficiently, and to allow us to experiment with different strains or growing techniques.

All this can be done by planting outdoors, and there are some benefits to that. Nature provides its own supply of irrigation, lighting, and ventilation. However, growing outside also affords the grower the least control over their growing environment, and growers are limited by the turn of the seasons. Depending on the strain, you could end up with only one harvest in a year.

An indoor growing space offers the maximum control for the grower, but it also brings the maximum responsibility. If we don’t provide our plants with what they need, they’re not going to walk outside and get it on their own. So with that in mind, here’s are the basic components of a growing space.

Step one, replace the sun. We’re taking plants indoors, and we can’t just set it on the windowsill like some potted fern, so we’ll need to make light, and plenty of it. The incandescent bulbs ubiquitous in American households for so many years won’t provide enough light, so we’ll need to buy lights that put out a little more glow.

Fortunately, light producers have responded to the demand from indoor growers, and there are a plethora of options on the market to consider. Some of the most common options are fluorescent (CFL) lights, high-intensity discharge (HID) lights, and light-emitting diode (LED) lights. Each of these has their plusses and minuses, but the key here is to remember that we’re weighing only a few factors in what makes a light good.

A light has to provide enough light for the plant to thrive, preferably without overheating the room or running up a seven-figure power bill. Cannabis plants will want different amounts of light depending on their genetics and depending on where they are in their growth cycle. For the most part, the more light the better, but there are limits. Getting the right amount is as much about pruning, positioning, and the number of lights, as it is about the type of lights we’re using.

HID lights come in two varieties as far as growing is concerned: metal halide (MH) lights and high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights. Both of these are excellent at producing a lot of usable light, but they eat up a lot of power in the process. LEDs and CFLs both use a lot less power than HID. CFLs are cheaper than LEDs but need to be replaced regularly, as they stop producing enough light to grow well before they go out entirely. LEDs are a higher initial investment, but they can last for years and are very efficient in their power consumption.

Another requirement for keeping anything alive is water. You’ll need to have some sort of irrigation system to keep your plants alive and thriving. There’s no one right answer here, just the one that works best for your setup. Some install drip irrigation or sprinklers that they turn on and off as-needed. Others water manually and some go to the other extreme, installing hydroponic or aeroponic setups with computer-controller irrigation systems.

When you’re starting out, it’s important to remember that overwatering is more common than underwatering. Both cause plants to wilt or lighten in color, and the knee-jerk reaction to a wilting plant is to water it. We can avoid this by measuring the amount of water available to the plant. This can be accomplished with soil moisture sensors, or by tracking the weight of the plant and the soil it’s in, or even by the simple expedient of sticking a finger in the soil to feel if it’s wet below the surface.

However, that’s a bit trickier to judge if we don’t have any soil to feel. The growing medium is another important component for growing, and there are a few options here. Hydroponic setups use non-soil mediums like vermiculite, coir, perlite, or rock wool. The important thing is that cannabis wants slightly acidic conditions to thrive. Ideal soil acidity ranges between around 5.5 pH to a high of 7 (the pH of water). Soil is probably the most forgiving medium, as it retains nutrients and water pretty well, and can be amended with relative ease.

Which brings us to feeding the plants. Plants in the wild are fed by wind-blown topsoil, decaying plant and animal life, and other plants in their ecosystem. We’ll have to make up for that on our own, by giving our plants the nutrients they need to survive.

Just like humans consume fats, carbohydrates, and protein, plants need nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These are represented on fertilizers by their atomic symbols, N, P, and K, respectively. Cannabis also needs a few secondary nutrients: calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Then there are a pretty wide variety of other, micronutrients that are functionally cannabis vitamins.

Micronutrients are generally found in a balanced plant diet (i.e., included in your fertilizer), and you only notice them if they become a problem. To become a problem, they have to be totally absent for a long time, the same way that vitamin C deficiency, or scurvy, only became a problem among sailors after they’d been at sea for months.

Then there’s the last of the plant’s needs: air. It might seem silly to have to worry about air, but ventilation is actually a very important part of any but the smallest setups. Cannabis produces oxygen and needs carbon dioxide to fuel photosynthesis, for one thing. For another, cannabis likes a warm, humid environment, generally speaking, and proper ventilation can maintain that atmosphere.

Cannabis likes its weather just slightly warm, in the mid-70s or the mid-80s. It can tolerate a wider range of temperatures than that, and a little variation between ‘day’ and ‘night’ cycles can be good for your plants. That said, unless you’re trying to shock your plants, the air around your plants probably shouldn’t rise above 88 or below 60.

Humidity, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. Humid air can encourage molds and fungi to grow, which can ruin a crop. Not to mention that we’re going to be running lights for many hours a day, and water and electricity get along like a house on fire, which is what can result if wiring gets wet or corroded. Keeping a good air flow, and humidity at a manageable level, will keep your plants happy and your room safe.

Safety is also a major consideration and should be the first priority of any setup. Growing involves fire risks, working with hazardous chemicals (fertilizers are basically bomb components) and potentially hours of exposure to ultra-violet radiation.

Even if your design includes safety features like smoke alarms, fire sprinklers, good ventilation and good drainage, there’s the human factor to keep in mind, and not just human error. Cannabis is a high-value crop, and growers have to take their setup’s security seriously. What if someone tries to break in?

Because any system can be defeated, security is mostly a matter of deterrence. We can’t eliminate the possibility that someone will break in and steal our harvest, but we can lower the odds that they will make the attempt, by taking a few steps at the outset. The ways in and out of any grow rooms or storage areas should be locked, preferably with something up-to-date and at least as strong as a deadbolt. Security cameras are a good deterrent too.

Keeping a strong separation between the inside of your cultivation space and the outside is good for a number of other reasons. When your plants enter the flowering stage, it’s important that the room’s dark periods are pitch black. Any amount of light could cause your crop to flip back into the vegetative stage. Molds, bacteria, and pests will all want to become unwelcome guests at the plant smorgasbord you’re carefully growing.

This can be prevented by treating your grow area like an operating room. Some growers require anyone entering the growing room to don masks, shoe covers, gloves, and aprons. Some increase the air pressure in their grow rooms so that when the door is opened, no air from outside slips in. Others accept the risk as the cost of doing business, and simply keep a close watch for any signs of either, removing infected plants and monitoring for pests.

Then there’s the stuff on the inside that you don’t want getting out, namely, odor. Plenty of people like the smell of cannabis, but plenty of others don’t. For some cultivators, it’s a legal obligation to control the smell of their crops, and for others, it’s a matter of courtesy. Either way, carbon filters and ozone generators are a couple of measures we can use to keep from stinking up the neighborhood.

There’s a lot to consider in each of these components, and we’re barely scratching the surface here. We’ll be producing a few more of these tutorials, and diving in depth on these subjects as we go. So check out some of our other pieces, and we’ll have a new article up soon.

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