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Training and Trellises: Make the Most of Your Space

cannabis grow room

When it comes to organizing your cannabis grow room, at least that much time and energy should go into the process. The process doesn’t bear quite as much of a resemblance to 3-dimensional Tetris, but the end goal is still the same. You have a finite space, and you want to fit as much growing area as you can without sacrificing quality or putting your crop at risk.

Only a couple of months ago, I moved across the country, and like many Americans looking to move on the cheap, I used a container shipping service to do it. The company dropped off a metal shipping crate, I filled it with everything I didn’t immediately need, and two weeks later, they delivered it to my new home for me to unpack.

As anyone who’s gone through this process can attest, it’s hard work. Packing a shipping crate with all your worldly possessions is more time consuming than it might seem, for two good reasons. First, unless you’ve done a lot of pre-measuring, you can’t be certain you’ll have room in the crate for everything you want to take. Second, you have to pack in such a way that nothing will be damaged during transit, so a lot of thought and energy goes into the order of packing, and where everything is put.

Fortunately, growers have had decades of prohibition to come up with some very clever ways of maximizing limited grow spaces. So now we’re going to cover the more popular options and go over some of the considerations that go into choosing the techniques that work best for you.

To get some perspective, let’s start by taking a look at what growing looks like when you have all the space you can ask for. At Phantom Farms in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, Tyson Hawkins, operations manager, says they grow both outdoors and in greenhouses. According to Hawkins, even with so much growing space to use, they recently changed how they use their outdoor growing space.

“The more common method is doing mounds, where you have one plant per mound and each mound is around twenty feet away from any of the others,” he said. “But what we’ve tried recently is we have eight foot by sixteen-foot boxes, that are 24 inches deep, and we put in either seeds or clones into each box.” The boxes are 24 inches deep, and they offer a more controlled growing space than simply planting in the center of a mulch circle.

Oregon doesn’t limit the number of plants an outdoor grower can have at a time. Instead, a cannabis grower’s license specifies the number of square feet that can be used for crops. Phantom Farms’ tier 2 license can legally support a growing space of 40,000 square feet, the only caveat being each growing space must be 10 feet from every other growing space.

That might sound like a tricky limitation to work within, but Hawkins can organize each designated grow space however he likes. Each growing boxes setup is designated as a single growing space, the same as a mound. That applies to Phantom’s greenhouses too; each is its own growing space. The system gives growers the freedom to organize their grows however they like, while still putting a cap on the amount a single license can cover.

That’s an important protection for small growers, especially in maturing cannabis markets, where large companies, with access to greater economies of scale, could potentially push Mom and Pop growers out of the market.

In Phantom’s orchard, cannabis plants are supported by a combination of T-posts and netting that forms a trellis along each row, and over the top of each plant as well. “The goal is to have that trellis placed so the plant is growing up through it,” Hawkins explained. “These things get bigger than they’re able to hold themselves. That becomes really important when the weather turns and it starts to rain, because when they’re flowering they’re really heavy. The trellises hold them up and hold them in place until you can cut them down.”

Of course, indoor growers aren’t working with that much space. We can’t succeed with a strategy of placement that separates our cannabis plants so they aren’t competing for resources. Instead, we regulate the supply of resources so that we’re sure no plants are deprived by their neighbors.

While we’re optimizing what our plants receive, we can also optimize what they produce. With a little training, a sinsemilla female can be manipulated into growing multiple colas or a single cola of incredible potency. So let’s talk a little about the different training options, the risks involved, and what they can do for you.

First, understand that all training puts stress on your cannabis plant. Plant training works because it triggers mechanisms designed to maximize a plant’s chances of survival and reproduction. At its furthest extreme, we’re poking the vegetable equivalent of a fight-or-flight response, and there’s a cost to that.

Plants that are highly stressed are expending their emergency reserves to survive, the same way a person will break down their muscle for fuel if they start to starve. If we don’t respect how strong the signals we’re sending our plants are and plan accordingly, we’ll end up with worse yields than if we’d done nothing at all, or even dead plants.

Let’s have a quick refresher on the anatomy of mature cannabis plants. When it reaches the flowering stage, a female cannabis plant produces a bud from its tallest, central stalk, dubbed the cola. While the plant does grow other buds, the cola is the female’s most prominent one. That bud gets the most resources and grows the largest, because it’s the best positioned to catch pollen wafting from male cannabis, and is the most likely to reproduce.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to taking advantage of this behavior for our benefit. One approach is to focus on the cola to the exclusion of practically everything else, which is called Sea of Green, or SOG. The other approach is to spread the plant out so that it grows wide, rather than growing tall, and each plant grows multiple buds on top rather than a single, main cola. This approach is called the Screen of Green, or SCROG.

Each has its plusses and minuses, so before we get into the nuts and bolts of how each is done, let’s go over the factors. A SCROG setup is wider and shorter than a standard growth pattern by design. Instead of growing little Christmas trees, you’re making a flat-topped hedge (or something close). That makes it much easier to provide even lighting to all your plants. A SCROG setup also maximizes your cola/plant ratio, making it ideal for municipalities that put a tight cap on the number of plants you can grow.

However, SCROG has its eccentricities as well. You’ll need a trellis of wire or nylon mesh to enforce the widening of the plant, and support the multiple buds. It also involves an investment of time and energy for each branch on each plant to spread it into the ideal shape.

At Alpinstash in Lafayette, Colorado, company owner Danny Sloat estimates that they spend about a half-hour per day guiding plants in their SCROG setup. “As the plant grows up we spread it out,” he said. “It might grow up to one cell in the netting, then a couple of days later it’s two inches longer, so we’re able to pop it under the adjacent cell.” Should a plant die, it’s a greater investment lost.

The SOG method, on the other hand, provides a fair amount of redundancy, because the idea is to fit many plants into the same area that a single plant would occupy using SCROG. In SOG, plants grow straight up, into a similar mesh support, but they don’t need as much finagling to produce an even height. If one plant fails, the others nearby will simply fill in the newly opened space.

SOG tends to have a faster growing cycle, with more frequent harvests, but on the other hand, bud sizes tend to be smaller as well. SOG also introduces more potential for variation in a crop compared to SCROG, because there are more plants and greater opportunity for any given one to thrive or struggle as compared to the others. Plus, in a SOG setup, it can be much more difficult to reach certain plants.

Sloat also points out that there’s a lot of work involved in up-potting when employing the sea of green method. “If I’ve got 32 plants in a 4 foot by 4-foot area, that’s a lot of individual plants to keep track of, and because we do everything by hand here, it’s a lot of watering,” he said. “We have 4×8 trays that each have stands and wheels, so we’re able to spread them out, move them around, and clean around them.”

For both setups, airflow and canopy control can be an issue, because cannabis is not designed to grow like a privet hedge. Densely packed foliage can trap heat and humidity, and provide an ideal environment for pests, molds and mildews to flourish. If you decide to use either of these approaches, regular inspection is key, and your floor plan should allow you to actively tend to each plant.

Whatever method you choose, you’ll have to decide how you want to manipulate growth in your plants, and there are a number of techniques to choose from. Bo Green is the manager at BG Family Farms in Josephine County, Oregon, and he explained how to use one of these techniques, known as super cropping, to stop a particular shoot from flourishing.

“When you’re super cropping, you pinch the stem, but not hard enough that you break its outer shell,” he said. “You just squeeze it and rub it between your fingers to loosen it up; then you can bend it over without breaking the actual plant. After you super crop a stem, it will send hormones to the rest of the plant, which will think it’s cut off. It’s like topping, but you get to keep your top afterward.” The branch will knuckle up in two or three days and then grow from the new, more horizontal position.

Hawkins isn’t afraid to cut off the top of a plant to encourage wider growth. “A lot of people will pinch off the top of the stem as it’s growing, when it’s still small, so that it will grow wide instead of topping,” he said. “You want to let the plant get established, though. If you put your plants in the ground in May, start topping around June, then wait and see how they split off.”

He estimates that a grower can fit three toppings into a season, but warns against topping in the two or three weeks before flowering. You want your plants to be hardy and strong when they’re going into flowering.

Needless to say, anytime you cut a plant open, you’re literally removing layers of protection it has against pests and infections. Any tools you use for the job should be kept studiously clean. Particularly if you’re doing a bunch of topping at once, a single infected tool can spread disease through your whole crop if you don’t take proper precautions. Many people simply leave their shears in a dish of rubbing alcohol between clippings as a quick and easy disinfection method. It takes about one or two minutes for each disinfection, but it’s better than spreading disease through half your crop.

Other growers, like Sloat, are proponents of low stress training (LST) methods and don’t do any damage to their plants at all. Instead, in LST, branches are bent to where you want them to go and, when the pressure of the plant isn’t enough to keep them there, tied in place. A little LST early on goes a long way to helping your plant grow out not up.

The cannabis growing community is far from united as to what is or isn’t an acceptable level of stress to put on a crop. On one extreme, there are growers who insist that their plants be disturbed as little as possible. At the other extreme, some growers are willing to take their plants to right to the edge of survival in hopes of a larger, or more potent yield.

However, for most growers, a simple commonality will result in at least some use of training techniques. Whether it’s space, or plant counts, or the difficulty of a particular strain, sooner or later we all run into a situation where a little planning could make our lives easier, and our plants more productive. When a single policy change can result in a significant efficiency increase, how can we avoid thinking about the best use of our space?

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