Growing cannabis outdoors, and not safely hidden away in pristine grow room, is like being a commander in a war zone. Outside, you must defend your plants and grow site from potential attackers. Some of these attackers are humans. Others are animals. Some are diseases, some are molds and fungi.
You’re also battling ambient conditions. Weather, sunlight hours, fires, floods and windstorms are among the conditions you can’t control, yet can quickly make or break your season in a matter of hours.
As an outdoor grower veteran, my years of garden battles have led me to see outdoor growing as a series of skirmishes that start in springtime and end in autumn at harvest. Each season has predictable battles I’ll face pretty much at the same time in the same way every year. I know who my plants’ enemies are, and when and how they’re likely to rear their ugly heads.
However, just because I’m privy to their methods and madness, it doesn’t mean I have an easy job ahead of me. I have to be alert and on duty at all times. And if I let an enemy slip through my seemingly impenetrable defenses, my plants could die.
Weather Conditions Can Make Or Break Your Outdoor Grow Season
I start my plants indoors in March or April, so they’re at least a foot or two high before I transplant them outside for May. The first war I must wage is against transplant shock. While my indoor-outdoor approach involves putting my young plants out in the sun for increasing hours per day to get them used to the great outdoors, some plants will not like the sudden permanent transition from being grown in a controlled, comfortable, safe environment, to being stuck outdoors and left to the wilds of nature. They’re not used to high winds blowing grit, relying on the sun, wide temperature and humidity fluctuations, plus the unpredictability of watering and feeding.
If I’m not using movable grow bags — and especially if the plants are rooted in the ground — then they will be immobile, so I have to guard them where they are. This means unfavorable weather and natural disasters are an unavoidable reality. I’m fortunate to not have been growing in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle in the past five years, as climate change has crept in to make the formerly wet region unnaturally dry and fire prone.
Encompassed by Shasta, Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, the Emerald Triangle used to be an ideal place for cultivating massive cannabis trees. Growers there produced thousands of tons of weed every year. There were still plenty of hardships (especially with regard to late-season rain, police and thieves), but Emerald growers who had the right location, strains and grow skills could always count on massive harvests. Sadly, climate change has taken away those assurances. Drought and massive fires are the new normal in NorCal and elsewhere in the West.
When I’m growing outdoors and see a weather forecast during bloom phase that predicts several days of rain and fog to come, I become fearful. The same goes for weather forecasts of abnormally hot and dry conditions, or if a wildfire is heading toward my grow site. I know this could be a fight to the death for my crop.
Cannabis Attackers That Float In On The Wind
Sometimes, outdoor growers must face the realities of plant genetics and morphology. Any cultivator who uses regular cannabis seeds instead of feminized ones will spend anxious hours hunting for male flowers, so they can take down those male plants as soon as they reveal their gender. You won’t want cannabis pollen anywhere near your crop, because you don’t want seeded buds. You also have to be on the lookout for hermaphrodite plants, which start out looking very female but end up sprouting pollen sacs. This can happen even with feminized seeds.
Where I grow, I also have to be aware of waves of insects that buzz in on air currents. Last year, starting in August, I noticed the stippled topside of leaves, indicating a pest infestation on the leaf undersides. I had been foliar spraying the plants with Nirvana, Rhino Skin and AzaMax, but there’s no way to stop all pests, unless you use deadly poisons, which I refuse to do.
I spent a week battling aphids and spider mites, sometimes foliar spraying twice a day and cutting off infested leaves. I’d done my due diligence by selecting strains that have been naturally resistant to pests, but insect pests evolve, and they’re hungry, and they’ll find a way to get to your plants.
Then, the aphids and spider mites went away, with no new ones arriving by birth or by wind. I relaxed and was finally free to catch up on sleep, but I knew there’d be some new pest arriving soon — and sure enough, I next noticed leaves that had been half eaten or their upper surfaces marred, and some buds had a foul smell, but not the foul smell of gray mold.
This is a sign of leaf cutters, leaf miners, budworms or caterpillars. They’re resistant to non-poison foliar sprays — and besides, I don’t like to spray anything on my buds after week three in bloom phase, because what you spray on the buds stays on them (unless rain washes it off), tainting the consumer experience.
I use magnifying glasses and a small flashlight to pry into the buds near where the half-eaten leaves are located, because somewhere in there is the pest. One telltale sign is their poop — little pellets of organic debris, sometimes white, sometimes brown or black, depending on what’s eating your crop.
Caterpillars and budworms are found very close to where they’ve eaten and pooped. They don’t move fast, but they do move deep. Budworms are clever, and nature has disguised them well. In these situations, I’ll pry open or cut away part of a bud as I follow the trail of dead, eaten leaves, worm poop, and leaves that are falling out of the bud, because they’ve been cut at the base by the insect.
Hidden away deep inside the bud, sometimes trawling up and down the bud stalk so that it is partially eaten, will be a fat caterpillar the exact same color as the bud. I also find caterpillars inside cocoons on the underside of leaves. If you see leaves tightly curled down toward the bottom, look underneath them — there might be a cocoon hidden there.
I pluck the budworms and caterpillars using a precision trimming tool, cut the pests in two, and throw them far away out of my garden. Next, I cut away the area where the pest was found and use a foliar sprayer, similar to what people use on orchids for misting, or compressed air to wash garbage out of the wound.
One year, when my plants had an epidemic of budworms and caterpillars, I worked long into the night, using tweezers and a green flashlight (green light doesn’t disrupt flowering like other light wavelengths do) to remove pests.
When I find mealybugs, I know I have a lot of work on my hands. In the past, mealybug infestations I’ve endured have mostly been on main stalks and fan leaves. It’s relatively easy and fun to crush the cretins with my fingers. These little monsters don’t look like bugs — rather, they look like tiny, mottled rocks. They have a hard shell on them that makes foliar sprays pretty much useless if you’re trying to eliminate them, except if you’re using limonene spray. It just so happens that limonene is a primary terpenoid in cannabis strains that are known for citrus scent and taste, such as Jack the Ripper and Chernobyl. If you’ve had mealybug or scale infestations in the past, try a lemon cannabis strain, so that its natural limonene can help deter pests.
Perhaps the worst thing about the likes of mealybugs, aphids, spider mites, leaf miners, thrips and corn borers is that the wounds they create when eating your leaves, buds and stems weaken the plants, allowing a pathway for opportunistic gray mold, powdery mildew and similar plagues.
The site where pests have been eating or sucking away at your plants is where gray mold may soon find a foothold. As a form of preventive triage, I often remove an entire section of a plant that has severe insect damage, and I put a healing sealant at the site of the removal to prevent the plant’s inner tissue from being exposed to open air. Every grower should have this sealant on hand.
One of the weirdest pests I’ve ever seen looked like white ash sprinkled around where I had noticed leaf and bud damage. At first, I didn’t think it was anything other than airborne debris. I couldn’t find any caterpillars, budworms or typical cannabis pests, so I used a compressed air pack to blow it off.
But the next day, the white ash had returned. I used a super-magnification device to discover that those white ashes were weird, sci-fi-like creatures about 1/16th of an inch in diameter, with multiple legs and bizarre antennas. They were sucking on leaves and building tiny webs, and were so innumerable on some plants that I couldn’t fathom how I could ever possibly get rid of them all. Once again, I tried blasting them with compressed air and shaking the plants. It helped a little, but ultimately, I had to mark those plants as destined for cannabis concentrates processing. This is one of the tactics that savvy outdoor growers get used to — marking plants for end use based on how much damage, insect debris and contamination a plant has endured.
Processing Damaged Buds Into Concentrates
When I have plants that are otherwise healthy and are going to yield me many ounces of bud, but said buds are compromised with insects, webs, insect poop or debris, I’ll mark the plant for concentrate use. That way, the cannabinoids and terpenoids won’t be lost, but the garbage on the buds will be purged out during sieving, making bubble hash, or doing solvent or CO2 extraction.
But just because I flag a plant for making concentrates, doesn’t mean I’ve given up on it. I still want to block or remove as many pests as possible. If it’s too late in the season for foliar spraying, I use systemic insect repelling feeds such as SNS-209 or AzaMax, whose repellant compounds are taken in by the roots and distributed to plant tissue.
I also conduct root feeds that include Rhino Skin — a potassium silicate feed that strengthens cell walls, so they’re tougher for pests to penetrate — and Nirvana, which contains compounds that stimulate plant immune systems and strengthen cell walls not just to repel attackers, but to make the plant stronger. With this plan, whatever losses happen due to insect feeding, the plant will still produce big, fat buds and lots of cannabinoids and terpenoids.
The battle continues into late season. By then, the skirmishes usually involve dealing with torrential rains, cold weather, and/or high humidity that favors gray mold. You can’t stop the weather other than placing your plants in a greenhouse or putting rain shields over them (highly impractical in many outdoor grow ops), so you’re at the mercy of moisture and whatever molds it brings.
I’ve spent many an hour in the rain, peering deep into my buds to see if mold is starting to form. If it is, I cut that bud out immediately and take it far away for burial. I mark that plant as a mold plant, and it affects whether the plant’s buds will be used for retail flowers or concentrates processing.
You don’t want any mold or mildew on buds marked for consumption. This can cause big health problems for your customers. If I believe those pathogens are present, the bud is used only for solvent concentrates or extraction that’ll remove and kill all biological contamination so that end consumers remain safe.
Hunters, Rippers And Cops Vs. Your Outdoor Cannabis Grow Op
In the last two or three weeks of outdoor cannabis growing season, and after months of caring for and protecting my beloved plants, cold and rainy weather will likely be a problem. However, your biggest problem will still be people.
Hunting season starts in some regions before cannabis is ready for harvest, engendering human intruders on ATVs with dogs and guns, which might become your big problem. In some places, such as the Emerald Triangle, harvest season swiftly becomes rip-off season. Gangs of people who know where growers are likely to have placed a pot garden are out in the woods doing reconnaissance — and they’ll steal your crop in a heartbeat.
You’ve never known heartbreak until you’ve trekked up to your garden site after being away from it for a period of time to see only sorry, naked stumps in the place where your towering forest of buds once proudly stood. I’m totally against drone technology, simply because rippers use aerial camera devices to detect our gardens, and this practice is happening with alarming frequency.
Preventing people from being out in nature where your crops are located is a tall order. I’ve resorted to decoy and detour tactics, such as putting up signs to deter people that say things like “Road Closed,” “Danger: Blasting, Keep Away,” “Unsafe Conditions,” “Bombing Range,” “Warning: Poisonous Snakes,” or “Private Property.”
I’ve used bolt cutters to cut locks off road gates, replacing them with my own locks. If I have enough physical strength or have a helper or two, I’ve put boulders and fallen trees across roads.
Of course, there’s one set of interlopers you don’t want to tangle with: police. In some parts of the country where outdoor cannabis growing is a popular pursuit, police on foot, in vehicles and in helicopters spend the warmer months of August, September and into October hunting down outside grow ops.
If police are on their way, you have one smart choice: Run fast and far away.
One season, while nodding off up on a ridge, I heard the familiar sound of helicopter rotors, and opened my eyes to see police choppers operating about three miles away. I knew eventually they’d head my way, and my plants were well exposed, so they’d be easily seen from the air. It was several days from ideal harvest time, but I chose to cut and run. I ran through the plants with a machete, chopping the biggest, stickiest, most profitable colas, threw them in heavy-duty plastic bags, and then, bent over like an old pack mule, I trudged toward my exit/entry point.
I quickly headed to my drying facility and hung those colas. Then, I went back to my entry point, crept up to higher ground, listening carefully for sounds of helicopters and cops, and cautiously went back to my grow op. The police hadn’t found it, but I surmised they eventually would.
The plants needed about nine to 10 days before the buds would be ripe and ready for harvest, but I made a compromise/gamble and gave them an additional two days. I then harvested and got the hell out of there.
Cannabis growers are like guardians of plants. Whether you’re an outdoor grower or prefer growing indoors, your plants will undoubtedly face off against a host of enemies. Indoor gardens can be made almost perfectly safe so that plants grown in this pristine, sanitized environment never face a windstorm, firestorm, hailstorm, swarm of voracious insects, thieving humans, the gun-and-badge gang, molds and mildews.
Outdoors, you inevitably face a never-ending stream of attacks and threats, all while hoping you’ve seeded enough of the right strains so that whatever inevitable casualties occur, a sufficient number of plants will survive to allow you to harvest a truckload of buds — and without using so much as a single unit of energy.