Growing Soil for Cannabis, the Regenerative Way

Soil preparation for the garden begins in the fall at harvest time, and the process is completed in the spring. Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to run out and buy bags of different powdered nutrients, premixed fertilizers or a bottle off the shelf that has all of these nutrients in their proper proportion—and maybe even says organic on the label—but where is the fun in that?

Here at Swami Select, in California’s Emerald Triangle, we source materials as close to home as possible. We’re trying to save the planet by moving agriculture away from petrochemical ingredients and revitalizing the soil through natural inputs and regenerative practices.

Benefits of Cover Crop

Cover crop at the home of Swami Select, in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle.

The basis of fertile earth starts with planting a cover crop of legumes and grasses just before or right after harvest in October and November, or in the early spring. Cover crop seeds are available in different formulas of premixed bags, often called Organic Soil Builder or OSB. Alternatively, some nurseries let you combine your own selection of seeds. Sweet pea, vetch, fava beans, alfalfa and ryegrass are some of the most common “green manure” crops.

The advantages of planting a cover crop in the fall are many: The soil is protected from erosion during the winter rains; beneficial plants prevent unwelcome weeds, malevolent fungi, bacteria or other pathogens from growing. Best of all, the bacteria around the roots of the cover crop legumes gather nitrogen in a form that can be easily utilized by the cannabis plant after the cover crop is harvested in the springtime. This is called “nitrogen-fixing.”

The cut plant material is then used as mulch or green manure. Alternatively, the cover crop can be turned over so the roots of the plants are up. But, it is better to just cut down the above-ground part and let it lie where cut to form a mulch.

It’s also beneficial to leave the stalks and roots in the bed after harvest so as not to disturb the microbiology in the soil that has developed during the growth cycle. The stalks are then pulled out in the spring when the cover crop is harvested, but by now, the finer ends of the roots have been composted into the soil, adding organic material. In addition, fungal hyphae have developed about the root ball. Cannabis prefers a predominantly fungal environment in the soil—like the trees in the forest—rather than a bacterial environment such as the meadow grasses.

The Theory of No-Till Farming

In the practice of Regenerative Agriculture, there is either “no till,” or tilling is kept to an absolute minimum, only mixing in the amendments in the topmost layer. The theory of no-till farming rests on the fact that different microorganisms thrive at different depths in the soil.

Bacterial life is most abundant below one-and-a-half feet, and if it is turned over and brought to the surface, the bacteria will binge eat all the available nutrients near the surface. Once all of the nutrients are gone, they die from exposure. This actually depletes the soil. If every different microbial life form in living soil remains in its optimum depth environment, the soil food web is not disturbed and fertility increases.

Disposing of soil after each harvest is a bad idea. With the right regenerative practices, each year you can improve the soil and its fertility, substantially reducing the costs and benefiting the environment by doing so.

Testing the Soil

Swami testing the soil.

Early spring is the time to take a soil sample. There are basically two kinds of tests: a mineral/chemical test or a biological/microbial test. The first assays the amounts of NPK and other elements the plant needs to thrive, such as calcium, magnesium, boron, iron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, sulfur, chlorine, manganese and nickel.

The biological test surveys the microbial life, identifying beneficial and detrimental bacteria, fungi, nematodes, ciliates, flagellates, amoebas and more. This test is three to four times more expensive, but it should be done when starting a new garden site, or if there are fertility or pathogen problems. Healthy living soil is more resistant to pests or pathogens.

Contact a local testing lab and they will send you information and instructions for gathering a soil sample to mail in. It is relatively cheap and definitely worth the price—without any soil tests, you are literally operating in the dark. The test should be done annually in different parts of the garden, which will give a baseline and guidelines for how to increase fertility over time.

Reduce Costs, Preserve the Planet With Living Soil

Making wood chips for cannabis soil
Swami making his own wood chips for their garden’s living soil.

How we create living soil is by using compost, worm castings, wood chips, manure, straw and alfalfa mulch, rice hulls and coir as soil amendments or top dressings. This year, we are using homemade biochar in the mix to help reduce our water usage. During the growing season, we make compost teas to energize and augment microbial life, and we also grow companion plants or trap plants as part of integrative pest management.

Bags of compost, worm castings, manure and other items can all be purchased at a nursery or from a local farmer. There are many different kinds of manure, but you want to be sure the animals haven’t been treated with antibiotics or other medications. Compost bins and worm bins can be made at home, but for a large cannabis garden, you will probably need to purchase these items, unless you have a large farm and can produce your own animal manure and straw mulch.

Once you have the soil tests with their recommendations, you can choose what amendments to add. If you are hoping to jump-start the garden, then you can use certain mined mineral products such as gypsum, glacial rock dust, greensand, oyster shell, Azomite (which is crushed volcanic rock and contains many necessary trace elements) and insect frass. I prefer not to use bone meal, blood meal or feather meal, primarily because they attract bears, but also because I am a vegetarian and wonder about the treatment of the animals in the slaughterhouses.

I have also moved away from using bat guano, sea bird guano and perlite. Although they are all effective in the soil, each of these has environmental issues. When bat guano and sea bird guano are collected, it disturbs the hibernating or nesting areas of the animals, threatening their survival. Additionally, imagine the working conditions for those who do the collecting: shoveling bat shit or bird shit all day.

Perlite isn’t approved because when soil with perlite is disposed of (a common practice for indoor and greenhouse farms), the perlite gets in the water supply and then into the stomachs of fish and other wildlife.

After a year or two, if you are adding the right organic ingredients, you won’t have to resort to these granulated additives. If you want to go hard-core regenerative, you can skip the mined mineral additives altogether and rely on wood chips, manure and compost teas. It will just take a bit longer. Wood chips are best made from your own trees. Leaves are gathered in the fall so they have the winter rains to stimulate the microbial growth in the piles.

After the cover crop has been harvested in the spring, it is time to mix all the aforementioned gathered ingredients into a big pile. Once all the amendments are thoroughly mixed—either in a wheelbarrow, cement mixer or tractor with a bucket—each plant bed should get an equal portion of the pile.

Water it in, then top it all off with organic straw mulch. You can start with the routine of a compost tea soil drench every ten days or two weeks. When you repeat this process every year, you end up making a layered lasagna of organic ingredients. After three or four years, the beds will become truly fertile with a living soil food web. Your plants and the Earth will thank you.

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The No-Till Revolution

Josh Khankhanian walks barefoot through his Mendocino cannabis farm, pulling up pointed dark green leaves of comfrey and dropping them back on the soil. It’s the first day of October, which is an active time at any outdoor cannabis farm, but Khankhanian exudes an air of lucid calm as he decides which plants should be harvested today at Moon Gazer Farms.

Khankhanian’s walk takes him through tangled rows of beautiful cannabis in full flower, nestled around other plants, flowers and herbs. Comfrey, Jerusalem artichokes, bergamot, bog sage, holy basil, kale, fava beans, calendula and torch tithonia (also known as Mexican sunflower) all find a place among the farm’s raised soil mounds.

“Diversity is the big thing here, that’s why we have a lot of diverse kinds of plants,” Khankhanian tells me as we walk through the garden. “But even within the cannabis [on our farm], it’s as diverse as it can be. When you plant from seed, every plant is different.”    

PHOTO Claire Weissbluth

Moon Gazer Farms is the vision Khankhanian created with his wife and business partner, Sandra Khankhanian. By growing sustainable cannabis, the farm provides the pair with the means they need to live on their country homestead while raising their four-and-a-half month old twins Leo and David.

The farm’s cannabis crop comes in small batches, which can be as low as one or two pounds per strain per season or as high as 40 to 50 pounds, and every strain is grown from seed. While they do work with established genetics, Josh and Sandra also create their own strains from genetics they acquire from friends. Moon Gazer offerings include unique strains like Cherry Lemonade, an Athena Cherry Kush x Lemon Bliss cross, and Pinkle Jam, a Pinkleberry Kush x Jamaican Lions cross.

On my day in the garden, Josh and Sandra are joined by two young sisters with sunny dispositions and boundless energy who help with the children and the cannabis harvest. After I meet the crew, I duck among the rows of plants, pulling in the scent of fresh herb ready for harvest and marveling at the purple hairs on some of the buds. I pull a bunch of bergamot to make into a tea and I eat a lemon cucumber straight off the vine, taking in the clean crisp refreshment on the warm day. Later, I share a joint with the crew under the shade of a tree and the whole scene feels both idyllic and purposeful. Sandra tells me this is the place where she is supposed to be.

“We’re pot farmers,” she says. “I love weed, I smoke weed, this is what she wants me to do. You know? This is what we want to do together. This is our collaboration.”

Hügelkultur for Herb

Josh, who is originally from Los Angeles, and Sandra, who is originally from Michigan, met on a goat farm in Israel in 2010. They started their lives as farmers in California’s Mendocino County on a biodynamic vegetable farm and married in 2016, which is the same year they moved to their current property and started to grow cannabis, first as medical providers and then, following the opening of California’s recreational cannabis marketplace in 2018, for adult-use sales.

When it comes to their farming practices, Josh and Sandra pull a lot of inspiration from Jesse Dodd, the grower behind the Arcata-based cannabis project Biovortex. With Biovortex, Dodd promotes regenerative cannabis agriculture, which is defined as farming practices that rebuild soil and restore biodiversity. To spread the word, Dodd created a Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award that was first presented at the Emerald Cup, the premiere event for outdoor cannabis, in 2016.

Moon Gazer, which ended up winning the Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award in its inaugural year alongside Green Source Gardens and Dragonfly Earth Medicine, grows most of its cannabis with the hügelkultur technique, which involves creating a mound with decaying wood and filling it with compostable materials to create a rich soil.

“Hügel is basically like a lasagna layer of different things,” Josh explains. “We’ll layer some logs first, preferably oaks because they break down real nice — fungal life really likes the oaks — and then we’ll layer it with straw and material from our goat barn.”

These raised soil beds mean that Moon Gazer is a “no-till” cannabis farm, because the soil is not disturbed, instead it is built upon itself year after year. Proponents of no-till farming say that it helps protect soil from erosion, traps moisture in the soil and improves the health of soil microorganisms.

“It’s mostly just layering carbon,” Josh says. “We’re able to grow this way and be sustained because we’re growing on a small scale. To me, it’s super ideal to do this no-till system where we literally are not tilling the soil, we’re not disturbing the soil at all, we’re just layering. I like to say we’re giving back always to the earth, we’re not doing any disturbance.”

While there are still some plants planted directly into the soil at Moon Gazer Farms, most of the approximately 150 plants of about 30 different strains grown from seed are now planted in these layered beds.

“We love Hügels, we’re going to keep building Hügel,” Sandra says. “Actually somebody thought we should name one of the boys ‘Hügel’… [Hügelkultur] is about using what you have, which is what we’re all about.” 

Choppin’ & Droppin’ 

A big part of growing cannabis in a regenerative manner involves creating a rich soil from elements sourced on the land. That means Moon Gazer often uses their other crops to support the soil that feeds their cannabis. “The comfrey is a really big aspect of our fertility program,” Josh says of the leafy shrub, which has been noted for its medicinal properties as far back as 400 BCE. “Our goal as a regenerative farm is to be as closed loop as we can be. So we’re not bringing in inputs from the store, we’re not buying liquid fertilizer. These comfrey and other plants like nettles, they’ve got tons of nice micro-nutrients and macro-nutrients too.” 

Comfrey, which Josh explains can also be brewed into a tea and poured directly onto the cannabis plant’s roots, provides the soil with nutrients such as potassium, phosphorus and nitrogen. It is an excellent plant in terms of its ability to regenerate, so it’s pulled up regularly.  

“We’ll go through a few times a season, we’re choppin’ and droppin’,” he says. 

Function Stacking 

Josh explains that under the biodynamic growing style, certain plants are great “function stackers,” meaning they fill many roles on the farm at once. For example, the Jerusalem artichoke is a root vegetable the family can eat, it has flowers to feed and attract pollinators, it provides a biomass that goes into building the soil and it can serve as food for the goats. At Moon Gazer Farms, the goats are often put to use on the cleanup crew. 

On the day of my visit, Josh invites me to help with the harvest and I put on gloves and grab some trimming shears and break down a Sapphire Sue, a strain rich in CBD. I trim off the branches by finding the natural y-shaped hooks that the sections will be hung to dry from. Then, I join others in the garden to “big leaf” the crop, or remove the large fan leaves. Once I fill a bucket with the leaves, I bring them over to the goat enclosure, where the goats are ecstatic for their mid-afternoon snack. While I watch the goats munch on fresh weed leaves, I note the silhouette of the moon against the last of the day’s light. Back in the garden, Josh is humble and says he’s growing all of this amazing outdoor herb “following the rhythm and cycles of the moon and the photoperiod of the sun.”

“Really,” he says, “what we do is we grow the soil and the plants grow themselves.”

TELL US, have you ever seen cannabis growing outdoors?

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The One-Straw Revolution

The One-Straw Revolution,” a book by Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka published in 1975, helps complete the picture behind the indoor no-till movement. The book promotes “do-nothing techniques,” sustainable practices that use the land to repair and replenish itself, including no-till farming.

Fukuoka’s book is one of Snow’s main inspirations, a list that also includes Mountain Organics, the alias of a cannabis grower who propagated the “no-till indoor” methodology on internet forums.

“I want people to understand [no-till indoor growing] because I think it will honestly make the world a better place if more people are adopting these types of cultivation methods for indoor cultivation,” Snow says.

He adds that, in a properly functioning no-till system, it’s actually easier for the indoor grower.

“It cuts out a lot of the work at the end of the day, too, because you have all these things working for you,” Snow says. “I don’t need to add any nutrition, I just use water the entire cycle — cycle after cycle after cycle in the same medium of soil without ever breaking up the soil, mixing it or using any techniques like that.”

(Strain: Crushed Berries)

Growing Great Ganja

If any of my original skepticism about indoor no-till cannabis remained, it disappeared when I tried some of the Snow’s pot. Buds from Snowtill are so frosty they’re almost unreal. Glassy and fragrant, a nug of Mirage has some of that ever-so-popular Tangie citrus, but with a fresh twist. Snowtill’s signature strain is GoTime, a cultivar which originated from a cannabis breeder called Jinxproof who took a Cheese x Sour Diesel cross named Norton and then crossed it with Jesus OG. Complete with a mix of citrus and fuel, GoTime is just about as dank as they come.

“We’re not here to say that we do it necessarily better than they do it outdoors, but there’s obviously some advantages and disadvantages with each method,” Snow says. “Some people say you get a better terpene profile in full-spectrum sunlight, I would say that you get a more resinous plant and a healthier plant to harvest by growing it indoors in a controlled setting.”

Ultimately, Snow sees indoor no-till growing as a way to bring the lessons of outdoor to an indoor environment. Inside, the grower can control the inputs the plant is receiving and minimize the amount of pests and contaminants that could influence a plant’s growth.

“Some of those things that naturally we don’t have outside, that we need to bring indoors — that is what indoor no-till is all about,” Snow says. “It’s trying to mimic that outdoor setting inside, but at the same time maintaining a superior level of control over the final product.”

TELL US, have you ever seen an indoor cannabis grow?

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