Making the Transition from Indoor to Outdoor Growing
From the earliest days of marijuana prohibition, pioneer growers have cultivated indoors, out of sight of the law. With laws changing in favor of legalized marijuana, indoor growers are moving their gardens outdoors. How do you take the best practices of indoor growing and merge them with the environmental benefits of outdoor growing? How do you find safety in your community?
Danny Victor shared his thoughts on these questions and more at the November meeting of Women Grow-Southeast Michigan chapter at Bloom City Club in Ann Arbor.
Victor is the founder of Gulfstream Gardens. He is an expert cannabis cultivator, greenhouse and facilities designer, and attorney who served on the Michigan Medical Marijuana Task Force in 2010.
His growing career began outdoors in 2008, but he soon moved indoors and remained there until 2016, when he partnered with a multi-acre landowner who wanted to use his property for growing and an outdoor grower with over thirty years of experience who, as Victor says, “has been evolving his genetics throughout that time.”
“The stars aligned and the three of us built the garden, dug the holes, mixed the mix, and planted!”
He left his indoor garden, which he operated under a 2,000-square foot canopy inside a building half again as big. The outdoor canopy is now four times as big on a 10,000-square foot area. A drying and curing building occupies 2,000 square feet; the trimming/storage building is 1,000 square feet.
The new team’s first challenge was evident: The soil in the planned garden area was largely clay. Their solution: Create the best composite medium possible using practices that had worked for him indoors:
We amended topsoil and compost with perlite, vermiculite, time-release micronutrients, high-porosity coco coir, mycorrhizae, lime, bone powder, and blood powder. We augured out 72 four-foot by four-foot holes and waited for the sun and heat to bake the interior of the holes and turn them into ceramic pots to hold the mix.
They also adopted a more traditional indoor-style feeding schedule, based on milliliter of nutrient/gallons of water ratios; and used two 200-gallon reservoirs to hold water.
Because there was no electricity, they used rechargeable 12V tractor batteries to power pumps and foliar sprayers.
We relied on experience from adjusting pH indoors, and we supplemented rain water, which has a naturally occurring pH of 5.6, with nutrient-enriched spring water from a well with a pH that was sometimes as high as 9 after adding macronutrients. I like hand feeding indoors so we drenched each plant’s root zone with a five-gallon drench tailored to adjust for rainfall and desired pH, which is lower during vegetative and higher during bloom.
The second challenge: Become accepted by the community.
The property is in horse country and the garden abuts a popular horse trail so there were always people riding by and checking it out. Our attitude was that the horse trail was there before the garden, so instead of blocking the trails and redirecting traffic, we tried to ingratiate ourselves to the community by making the garden completely un-taboo. We invited people in, gave tours, and eventually it was no big deal anymore.
How Do Indoor and Outdoor Growing Compare?
To Victor, working and growing outdoors are healthier for people and the plants can grow to their true potential. To begin, indoor problems are mostly human-made so it’s difficult to know if the solution should be natural or synthetic.
Outdoors, the problems that occur are natural, and nature finds a way to correct such problems on its own. For example, animal life within the garden creates a natural solution to pests. Indoors, you can’t rely on the insect food chain; it is harder to tell what went wrong that is causing you trouble.
Environmentally, he notes, growing cannabis indoors is energy-intensive and therefore has a large negative net impact on the environment. In Michigan, for instance, roughly half of the net electricity generated comes from coal, much of which is transported by rail from Wyoming and Montana. He compares the energy-intensity of indoor cannabis cultivation to data centers, which, he says, are up to 200 times more energy-intensive than conventional office buildings.
With indoor cultivation on the rise nationwide, outdoor grows will become a necessity not only for purposes of environmental protection, but also because energy consumption of increased indoor growing will stress the power grid nationwide to the point of widespread cannabis-focused energy regulations, thus further increasing the cost of growing indoors on a commercial scale.
Other points of comparison:
- Cost: “It was at least 50% less expensive to grow outdoors. Next year I think I can increase the savings by an additional 25%. Nutrients cost a lot less. Light and heat are free and do not require any capital outlay. It’s a totally different financial model.”
However, one budget item will be higher outdoors. Light deprivation is the general process of controlling when the plant is in darkness.
It is used the same way, both indoors and in greenhouses. Indoors it is simple and easy. Lights on/lights off. There are no additional costs except for timers. In a greenhouse, the process requires the installation of expensive machinery and equipment that blocks out the sun by cloaking the interior. Light deprivation is itself natural, but indoors the rate at which it occurs is much faster. The sun rises and sets slowly.
- Space required for growing: “You need much more space to grow outdoors. The plants will grow until the sun and temperature tell them to stop. So you need enough space to let the plants do their thing.”
Merging Respective Benefits
So how do you merge the best practices of indoor and outdoor growing? To Victor, trial and error is the answer. “A lot of growing is about trusting your gut to get it right, get it close, or find another way. After a century of prohibition, experimentation is truly the best way to merge indoor with outdoor growing.”
- Soil: Today he creates a super-soil base using iron, manganese, boron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, nickel, sodium, and silicon. He mixes an organic, time-released micronutrient supplement into the soil and incorporates an organic micronutrient solution into his feeding program.
- Sunlight: “The sun (and the outdoor environment) facilitates natural transpiration that creates pressure that forces water to the plant’s exterior. In the morning, as the dew evaporates and the internal pressure of transpiration eases, you can see the plant ‘perk up’ and reach for the sun. Indoor lighting doesn’t give the grower or the plant that same experience. The sun’s full spectrum gives the plant the energy it needs to uptake the entire range of micronutrients that blend to fill out the full flavor profile potential within the plant’s genetics.
Effects of Prohibition and Prospects for the Future
According to Victor, prohibition has had both societal and cultivation effects. Overall, the result has been devastating: “Prohibition has decimated generations of families whose primary providers have been prosecuted as criminals. A mass incarceration epidemic has put the industry in the hands of those who have to be good at not getting caught as well as good at growing and distributing marijuana.”
From a cultivation standpoint, prohibition has forced people to grow indoors, where they consume unnecessary amounts of energy and pollute sewer systems with wastewater.
Because the federal government does not yet sanction marijuana cultivation, it is important to identify real concerns and establish prophylactic measures to address them. Turning a blind eye to something is usually not a good strategy—but turning a blind eye while the other eye is already shut is just stupid.
Still he envisions a bright future for the industry, which, he says, already employs millions of people and “is about to explode exponentially.”
Meanwhile, big business is waiting on the side to snatch the best minds in the business:
What we need to know is that big business has always been in the cannabis industry and always will be. But big businesses make mistakes too and will need experts to either avoid those mistakes or help turn them into big business lessons. To put things in perspective, my guess is that big businesses will be relying on the industry’s existing skilled labor force for decades to come.
For now, if you’re just starting to plant outside, Victor advises patience: “Plants aren’t on human time. Try to turn your mistakes into lessons and ask for help.”