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In regions where growing is legal, more and more people are beginning to take a stab at cannabis cultivation. The great wide world of marijuana horticulture can be a little daunting if you don’t have much experience with plants. To help you get started right and to clear up some confusion, we’ve started the Super Soil series. In the first segment, we’ll address a basic question many have prior to getting started: what’s better, a hydroponic system or soil?

Growing philosophies

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If you’ve ever met a marijuana grower, then you know that people tend to get very picky when it comes to correct growing methods. Many people swear that soilless or hydroponic systems produce the best results, while others wouldn’t dream of using anything but soil.

Once you’ve decided on your method, there are then a huge number of variants when it comes to growing philosophy. In this Soil 101 series, we’ll walk you through several different philosophies about growing from soil, as well as give practical tips for putting these techniques into practice. This series will discuss the basics of conventional soil growing as well as take a good look at more sustainable, environmentally-friendly methods.

To kick us off, we’ll examine the pros and cons of the two most popular growing mediums: hydroponic systems and good ol’ soil. Both systems have their pros and cons.

Why is your growing medium so important?

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Your plant is a reflection of what it’s grown in. Your growing medium is the base for everything that you do. The plant’s overall health, ability to fend off pests and infection, its production of nutrients, and its cultivation of coveted cannabinoids all depend on the herbs access to the perfect growing medium.

The nutrients and microbes available to the roots while the plant is growing are what ultimately determine the plant’s potency, terpene expression, and medicinal and nutritional properties. To create an end product that is truly wonderful, you’re going to have to make sure that your marijuana has everything it needs to perform its plantly duties.

Soil vs. hydroponic systems

Hydroponic Pros

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There are several different kinds of hydroponic systems. Each of them have their own unique benefits. However, since this series is specially about getting the most from your soil, we won’t go into all of the details in this article.

Discrete

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If you’re looking for a discrete way to get a decent sized, consistent, fast crop, investing in a hydroponic system might be a great option for you. By “discrete”, we mean that you can set up a hydroponic system indoors, away from prying eyes. The actual equipment itself isn’t all that discrete. It can take up a bit of space.

Ultimate controlled environment

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With an indoor hydroponic system, you eliminate one potentially devastating variable: nature. Especially if you’re growing outdoors, your crop is subject to the elements. Issues like rain or heavy wind can do some serious damage to your crops. Introduction of contaminated soil can disease your plant. Your plants may also turn into food for other pest or animals if they’re left outside.

Though some of these problems can be mitigated by a greenhouse or indoor soil growing, a hydroponic system gives you the ultimate control over your plants environment. Rather than rely on what’s in the soil, you are the one supplying the plant with everything that it needs. This gives you the opportunity to create a stable, repeatable crop every time.

Quick with high yields

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Light cycles and feeding schedules are what trigger exorbitant growth in plants. But, the amount of control you have over your hydroponic garden means that once you hit your stride, you can easily create a replicable system that gives you rapid growth with more or less expected results each time.

Sustainable

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Hydroponic systems use 90% less water than traditional soil methods. This is excellent news if you live in an area prone to drought, are looking to conserve, or want to save money on a water bill.

Of course, indoor growing, in general, is very energy intensive. Between lights, ventilation, and temperature control systems, indoor grows can suck up a lot of energy resources. Regardless of whether  you’re using a soil-less or soil system, keeping things inside reduces sustainability.

Hydroponic cons

We can never fully replace nature

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There are over 75,000 different species of microbes inside healthy soil. Scientists still aren’t sure what all of these different microbes do. But, we do know that plants interact with them to help them grow and produce the secondary metabolites (chemicals like THC in marijuana) that they use to communicate, ward off insects, and protect themselves from environmental harms and diseases.

People have obviously been extremely successful in creating potent marijuana in soil-less systems. Many award-winning cannabis strains have come out of hydroponic gardens. Yet, many of the common additives only provide a fraction of the nutrients and biodiversity an excellent quality soil can give. Sure, we’ve got the big ones like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and those have produced great results when you’re measuring for THC and CBD content.

If growing hydroponically, inoculating your plants with a high-quality compost tea can add vital social microbiology to your soilless system. This ensures that you expose your plants to the vital soil diversity it needs.

You have to pay attention

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Growing hydroponically can be a little fussy. Because your plants are relying on you to add everything in, you’re the one who has to do the work to make sure your plant has everything it needs. This means that you have to keep a close eye on your plants and products, constantly adjusting based on how your plants are doing.

Soil pros

Closer to nature

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In an ideal world, marijuana could be grown outside in great top soil in an environment that mimics its natural ecosystem. However, as mentioned earlier, the legal status of marijuana makes this quite challenging in most regions. Though growing in containers may slightly limit the soil biodiversity, overall, planting in a really good potting soil is going to give you a wide range of beneficial microbes and fungus.

Coupled with some high-quality compost or compost tea inoculant (more on these in later segments), you’re able to create a much more diverse growing environment for your plant than in a controlled hydroponic environment. To quote Dr. Elaine Ingham, Founder, President, and Director of Research of Soil Foodwe. Inc. in her interview with Sustainable World Radio:

Let your plant start choosing those organisms that will do the work for them. The plant is putting out the cakes and cookies, those exudates going into the soil, and they’re selecting for specific species that they need in every single condition that those root systems are moving into. So, let the plant do that work for you instead of you thinking that you’re going to be able to supply all of the right kinds of foods in the right places, and the right concentrations and balances. We have no idea what the plant requires, so we just need to supply full diversity.

Research over the past 20 years has uncovered that plants have much more complicated and involved relationships with their environment than is commonly thought. So, Dr. Ingham speaks from that environment. Stay tuned to our Soil 101 series for more information on the optimum soil conditions for marijuana and tips on how to safely achieve greater biodiversity in your soil.

High levels of nutrients and terpenes

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Many growers believe that soil-grown cannabis tastes better. Why? There’s a synergy between the chemicals emitted by the roots of the plants and the metabolic processes of microorganisms in soil. When soil has access to plenty of healthy microbes, fungus, and oxygen, compounds like iron, magnesium, essential oils and essential fatty acids are able to be created. They then become available in plants due to interactions between the plant and the soil microbiology.

Having access to a diverse and plentiful amount of healthy bacteria and fungus means a greater capacity for positive interactions that make for healthy plants. The healthier the plant, the more opportunity for diverse terpene expression and nutrients. This is good news for those who are interested in using every part of the plant or want to gain as much medical benefit as possible.

It’s estimated that we don’t know 90% of the chemicals that plants make. While marijuana is probably one of the more studied plants thanks to psychoactive THC, maintaining diverse, healthy soil gives us a greater opportunity to reap the benefits of these plant compounds.

Organic and good for the earth 

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This is especially true if you’re a home grower who has opted to grow your cannabis outside in your garden. Taking good care of your soil and keeping healthy plants helps regenerate topsoil over time. Our agricultural practices have caused us to lose half of our topsoil in the past 150 years. Poor topsoil means that our medicinal plants (like cannabis) are less potent, more susceptible to disease, and increases the risk of pests. This is a basic organic gardening principle. Let the soil and the plant do the work for you, and limit the additives you put in.

Even if you’re growing in containers, once you’re finished with your soil you can always mix it into your compost or add it to your vegetable garden. The majority of the marijuana plant is useable in some way, but you can also add any unwanted clippings or stocks for a nice addition to your compost as well. What does good compost make? Better topsoil.

Soil cons

Level of uncertainty

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Because you purchase and add everything into a hydroponic system, you know exactly what is going into your plant. This is not necessarily the case with soil. When you pick up a bag of potting soil or something from your local grow shop, you’ll often be able to read a bit about the product on the packaging.

But, say you’re using soil from a local farm or some other source. You probably won’t be able to tell exactly what you’re getting. Because there are thousands and thousands of different microbes and fungi, you really want to make sure you’re picking up a quality product before you plant your seedlings. The last thing you want is some improperly processed compost contaminating your whole harvest.

You’ll want to do a bit of research ahead of time to ensure that what you’re getting is actually going to be what is most beneficial for your plants.

Risk of lower yields

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If you’re growing out of a container or in a raised bed, you won’t have any trouble getting a high-yield from your plants. Though, not as readily as you would in a soil-less system. However, if you want to take the most sustainable route and plant directly into the ground (with some nice compost or added topsoil), then it’ll take some time before you will get the results that you want.

There’s really very few places in the world nowadays that have topsoil healthy enough to support a strong marijuana harvest. For an example, let’s picture a typical backyard. Do you have dandelions? Daises? Thistles? Those plants grow in disturbed soil.  For cannabis to grow well, it needs to have its desired ratio of fungus to bacteria inside the perfect soil.

If you keep planting cannabis and other companion plants in that soil over time, however, you’ll be able to increase the health of your soil and eventually the plant will produce a nice harvest. This takes a while, though. Might be a better option for those interested in organic gardening and permaculture or growing for fun rather than for those looking to create a fast, lush, useable harvest.

Takes longer

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Growing indoors can speed up the process quite a bit. But, if you want great, outdoor bud you’ll have to wait for the plant to do its thing. In both hydroponic and indoor soil methods, you can force plants to flower once they reach a sturdy size. This gives you more control over them timing of your harvest. You can come to expect a nice crop on relatively regular intervals.

If you’re growing outside in soil, you can expect a crop in about three to four months. But, ultimately, nature will take whatever course it wants.

When it comes down to it, every grower develops a method that works best for them. There are many tired-and-true methods that have become fairly commonplace in the world of cannabis cultivation, but there’s also a lot to learn from new understandings of how plants grow and interact with the soil in their natural environments.

The next installments of the Soil 101 series will dive into some of that new research, as well as give information on some more mainstream techniques that have consistently garnered great results. Ultimately, as you practice and become a better gardener, you’ll learn to distinguish what’s working and what’s not. Next up in the series? Find out what marijuana looks for in the optimum soil.

What do you think? Soil or hydroponic? Share your thoughts with us on social media or in the comments below.

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Delilah Butterfield

Delilah Butterfield is a Pacific Northwest native with a passion for cannabis and natural health. Contact her on Twitter @delilahbfield.
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