The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only. While we endeavour to provide accurate and up-to-date information, there may be instances where information is outdated or incorrect. The contents of this article should not be taken as legal advice nor should it be relied upon in making any business, legal or other decisions. We encourage readers to consult with a qualified legal or professional advisor to obtain proper advice based on your unique circumstances. Cannavigia disclaims any liability for any loss or damage arising out of or in any manner connected with the use of or reliance on the information provided in this article.

Different strokes for different folks, as the old saying goes, may not be more relevant in any business than it is for cannabis. There are continuous choices to make and that is beyond the usual how, when and where. What heating, what drying, what additives, what light, what SOPs, GMP, GACP? Hell, some people even have to decide what country they want to grow in.

But right in the beginning, just after you have decided the “where”, you have to decide the “how”. This may be one of the most important decisions you will make in your whole life. We’re not saying that you can’t change your mind later, we’re just saying that if you make the wrong choice, it may set you back a few bucks and a few years. So, in keeping with our willingness to make you the smartest cannabis person on your block, let’s have a look at different growing methods, their pros and cons and how it is wise to make the right choices for your needs. 

There are lots of ways to skin a cat and there are also lots of ways to grow cannabis. The way you choose to grow may be a reflection of your personality (are you old skool or a technology lover) or your needs (“I want to be a small grower” versus “I want to have a huge crop”) or even how much you love Mother Earth (that one is self-explanatory). 

Cultivation methods and systems 

Hydroponics and aeroponics 

In Aeroponics you don't use any substrate. Water will be exclusively the way you deliver nutrients to the root zone. The water droplets can be different sizes, the smaller they are the faster the uptake of the nutrients. True aeroponics is considered if you break the droplets down to nanometer size and disbursing them with higher pressure via a nozzle on the root zone of the plants. With hydroponics you can use a substrate that has none to almost no buffer and you deliver the nutrients via water to the root zone. Your farmer great-grandfather is most probably turning in his grave, but that’s the price of progress. Basically, the only difference between the two systems is that aeroponics provides crops with much stronger and healthier root systems. Both these systems are expensive, takes a high grade of expertise and is high maintenance. The main disadvantage is that there is very little room for mistakes such as a pump failure or lack of feed solution quality. A lot of things can go wrong and the margin for error is really small. Like we said, it takes a lot of maintenance and a lot of expertise. There is also the chance of micro-organisms that are water-based or air-based that can creep in rather easily. Furthermore, production is limited compared to field conditions, if a disease appears, all plants in the system will be affected and without soil to serve as a buffer, if the system fails plant death will occur rapidly. 

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you have the money, the expertise and the manpower, this system will serve you very well. It is obvious that these systems can be put up anywhere, including small space like garages and spare rooms. It uses a lot less water than any soil-based or other growing system and you are growing in a sterile environment. In an aeroponic/hydroponic system ideally you grow in a controlled environment and try to keep to short plant cycles. You still need to give the plants a lot of light. Your DLI is most likely higher indoors (aeroponic / hydroponic) than it is outdoors or in a greenhouse. Still a lot of companies with hydro systems use IPM methods. Because the plants are smaller you will need less space for the same amount of plants than growing outside and because you can recycle the water, you will use a lot less of it. Because these systems are not bound to the weather outside you can grow any time of year and have more than one crop per year. Because of the tight control and monitoring, this may also be safer for the consumer. 

If you have the capital and you are growing for the medicinal market, this is probably your safest bet.  

Soil cultivation 

This is the way grandpa would have done it. It’s the most natural, the most tried and tested and also the most popular – you plant your cannabis in the ground. It’s been done like that for thousands of years and will most probably continue to be done in this way for a long time. It also takes up the most space, is very labour intensive and especially if you are working with seeds that do not come from the area, your chances of having problems are quite high. You may also find that your environmental impact can be quite high. It is cheap though. It is a great choice for novice growers and also allows you to do it your way. Soil can be ramped up with a variety of additions that can either be natural or synthetic. So, the advantages are that it’s cheap, sustainable and that your terpene content will be of a high quality. Your chances of picking up pests and diseases are high though. You can also cultivate in a controlled environment in soil, but soil cultivation is great for novices It has a steep learning curve and cultivation in living soil has produced some of the highest quality weed. 

Aquaponics 

As the name indicates, this means growing with water. Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture which is the growing of fish and other aquatic creatures in a tank. Aquaponics is a symbiotic environment where the aquatic animals’ discharge or waste feeds the plants growing on top, and the plants remove toxic levels of waste from accumulating in the water. Aquaponics systems have been in use for many years, but it is arguable that they weren’t perfected until relatively recently. As is expected there are advantages and disadvantages. Let’s kick off with the advantages. Ironically enough you will use less water than expected. Generally speaking, your water usage will be low. Seeing that the fish are providing the plants with nutrients, you don’t have to do that. Your usage of chemicals will be either non-existent or very low. Because of a lack of outside influence, they chance of pests and diseases will be less. The downside will of course be the high upfront costs and it will generally be higher operational costs than growing in soil. There will also be high energy requirements and intensive daily maintenance. You will also have to be pretty skilled to make the system work.  

Deep water culture (DWC) 

Deep Water Culture (DWC) is a special type of hydroponics where you grow plants with their roots immersed in an aerated nutrient solution. In a DWC setup, the plants are suspended in special pots or nets, with their roots stretching down, immersed into a pool of aerated, nutrient-rich water. In a good DWC set up with the right nutrients and strain, cannabis can grow as much as 10cm in a single day. Reduced risk of pests, plants can grow bigger and of course there is the low-maintenance aspect. That’s the good news. The bad news is that any form of equipment failure will destroy your crop in no time. The ideal grow temperature for DWC is between 18 and 20 degrees. This may sometimes be difficult to maintain. DWC growers also need to regularly monitor and adjust fluctuations in nutrient concentration, water level, and pH. Constantly checking and fixing these issues can become quite a chore. BUT cultivating medicinal cannabis in aquaponics is a dream and really hard to achieve from a practical perspective. This seems to be more of a “on paper” idea rather than a working practical one. The cannabis plant does not get all the nutrients it needs from the fish poop. With DWC, as in other hydroponics systems, is the interplay of water and air. DWC has its own air supply for each bucket, and this is the big advantage. With every hydroponic system the pH and EC have to be controlled more systematic compared to soil as there is no buffer in the substrate. 

Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) 

A NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) system comprises a reservoir below and tray above that the plants in rockwool cubes permanently sit in, allowing them to bottom feed for the duration of their lifecycle. As the top tray is angled downwards slightly, gravity allows the nutrient solution to flow evenly down a white rooting mat and to return back to the reservoir where a small-sized pump will release the nutrient solution back down the upper part of the tray. Nutrient film technique works by allowing a continuous streaming motion without the concern of drowning the roots. This is a cheap system to get going and is considered a good entry level growing technique. Maintenance levels are low, plants grow quickly, and it can take up very little space. In NFT systems, very little water passes through the plant roots at a time. Plus, it's a recirculating system, which means the water that is pumped out of the reservoir is captured and reused. Because it's able to collect and reuse water, it needs significantly less than systems that use new water every single time. The main disadvantage is that moisture cannot be stored anywhere because the roots have no medium to grow in. As a result, if the water pump fails, the cannabis plants will receive no nutrients.  

Cultivation environment 

Indoor growing 

Growing indoors gives you complete control of the growing environment, including temperature, airflow, humidity, light, and water. This makes indoor growing great for people who want their grow set up a certain way, but it also allows you to avoid the pitfalls of unpredictable weather. Growing inside prevents the natural weather, light, and humidity variations from affecting your crop, ensuring that you have a more consistent end-product. When growing indoors, you don’t have to worry about light cycles changing outside and affecting your crop, so it’s not a big deal if you start a little late or early. Bonus: if you’ve got the time and energy, you can grow one crop after another rather than stick to a specific growing season. Growing indoors however does come at a cost – literally. It is an expensive set-up because of lighting and ventilation. Because of lighting and ventilation, it means your energy consumption is way higher than any other growing methods. This means that you are not being very green and that the offset you get by driving an electric car is now falling away. Your indoor grow is isolated. This means that you can control the outcome very tightly. It also means that you are more liable to have pests because there is no natural protection against it. This means that you may have to use pesticides. Indoor grow for sure can provide more control when compared with other growing systems. Yet, pests still can appear if mitigation measures are not in place. Pests can appear on imported clones not efficiently inspected, workers that bring them inside the facility in their clothes, lack of growing procedures between rooms, etc. Preventive measures should be taken such as beneficials release that cover most of the existing pests. Regarding pesticides, they may be required in all growing systems, not only indoor.

Outdoor growing 

Growing outdoor, when done correctly, is a lot kinder to the environment than any other form of growing. Your operating costs will be much lower than other growing methods as well. There is also the advantage of unrestricted growth that means your plants can grow bigger and yield more. On the downside you may have a quality control problem as the way you are growing is not always consistent. Unexpected rain, heat or cold may influence your yield. Your level of control will be less which means that it may not just be nature that can throw you a curveball.

Cultivation medium 

Coco coir 

Manufactured mainly in Sri Lanka and India, coco coir (pronounced “koy-yer” or “kwar”) is a coconut harvest byproduct. Not only is the coconut chock full of health benefits, the husks of the coconut, when processed, produce a superior growing medium. It's the perfect option if you want to get a large yield from your plants but you're worried about losing quality. Coir is becoming increasingly popular with cannabis growers because of its ease of use and precision in nutrient delivery and pH monitoring. Coco coir is a by-product which means that you are recycling as you are using it, it’s great for holding moisture and its gull of nutrients, including being pH-balanced.

Peat

Also known as Sphagnum, peat moss is a genus of around 380 separate species of mosses. Growers need to properly prepare peat moss before adding it to a soil mix. The moss is known to be particularly resistant to absorbing water at first, and therefore needs to be well-moistened. Advantages are that it enhances soil health, it is effective at retaining water, it contains key nutrients, and it helps to acidify the soil. Disadvantages are that it can be environmentally unsustainable, it’s lengthy pre-prep time and that it can lead to compressed soil. 

Rockwool 

Rockwool is a rock-based mineral fibre comprised of basalt rock and recycled slag. Basalt is a volcanic rock and slag is a by-product of the steel industry. The minerals are melted and spun into fibres. Originally designed as insulation material, it is becoming increasingly popular for people to grow cannabis in. For some people this is sacrilege, for some it’s a new door.  

We’ll start with the “new door” people: It prevent pathogens from multiplying, it helps seeds germinate and facilitates good drainage. Because it’s created with heat it is sterile on arrival and because it’s not organic, it helps to protect against microbes. If your plants are ever in a situation that they need to be replanted, you literally take the cube that it’s growing in and put it in the soil. There is no need to remove anything. The chances of you doing this is slender, but it does serve as a back-up plan of some sorts. It’s also easy for the roots to move through the rockwool. Even though we have never heard of roots struggling to get through well maintained soil, this should come as good news for those who like to do as little as possible. Lastly, because of what it is made of, it serves as good drainage. 

Those who do not like the usage of rockwool, have a few criticisms that you should take into consideration. It is not very environmentally friendly is the first point that they will usually mention. There is a chance that it can shift the pH balance, so it is something that you will have to keep a steady eye on. Critics also mention the fact that it’s quite expensive and that algae can build and that the fibres are dangerous when they get airborne.  

Phenolic foam 

Phenolic foam are lightweight high-quality and inexpensive thermal insulation materials that can also be used to grow cannabis. Phenolic foam is another soilless option for growing cannabis. Phenolic foam is a relatively new soilless substrate that is generally presented as an alternative to rockwool. It is a sterile substrate which allows for a clean and pathogen free start. The material is more fragile than rockwool when handling. Despite its fragility, phenolic foam cells are stable and are able to maintain the original air space after continual watering. As opposed to rockwool, there is no need for protective gear or clothing when handling. PF is usually non-biodegradable and therefore can remain as waste in the environment.