Cannabis production doesn’t always take the form of high-tech grow rooms and LED lights. Some Licensed Producers grow at least some of their product the traditional way — in the ground and under the sun.
It’s an old-school, back-to-basics method, one that’s favoured for its simplicity, reliance on the natural elements and typically lower costs.
“One of the greatest advantages of outdoor growing is being able to offer consumers excellent value because Mother Nature supplies much of the light, water and nutrients that we would otherwise engineer in a controlled environment,” says Chris Ientile, operations manager at Aleafia’s outdoor cultivation site in Port Perry, Ontario. “But it's a double-edged sword — while Mother Nature gives us a lot, she can also throw us for a loop.”
So how do Producers maximize nature’s bounty while weathering its elements?
Aleafia, Jonny Chronic and Thrive Cannabis gave us the inside scoop.
Picking the Right Place and Space
An indoor growing environment can be built almost anywhere. But not every patch of soil is ideal for growing cannabis. Producers have to identify a suitable region and planting zone that can best support a cannabis crop, and then receive approval from Health Canada to proceed with outdoor production on their selected site.
It’s not just about finding a wide-open space. Producers must consider factors like climate, weather patterns and soil quality, and whether a strain is suited to growing outdoors — the plant must be hardy, and its flowering cycles need to line up with the area’s growing season. As part of their research process, Producers may test soil samples or even trial strains by planting a small batch of plants outdoors.
“We test dozens of cultivars each season, the best of which we plant in subsequent seasons,” says Tyson Cramer, chief technical officer at Thrive. At Aleafia, the team chooses strains with “robust genetics for our outdoor crops, because these ladies will be exposed to so many variables,” says Ientile. “Every season is a learning experience.”
Getting Ready to Grow
Outdoor growing starts indoors. Before planting outside, which in Canada typically happens in late May or early June, Producers are readying their plants inside. Some Producers may start with seeds, but Aleafia, Jonny Chronic and Thrive all start with clones from mother plants.
“We have genetics from all over the world but when we plant our outdoor crop, it’s 100 percent propagated from our indoor mother plants,” says Robert O’Neill, principal and CEO of Jonny Chronic. “Our clones for the outdoors are cut in mid-April. They will spend a couple weeks in our cloning room prior to being transplanted into small pots, and then moved to our greenhouse to climatize prior to going in the ground.” The clones are tended to carefully during this stage; Ientile of Aleafia says “starting with the best possible material lends itself to a healthy harvest, so we spend a great deal of time and effort ensuring that our clones become strong, vigorous plants.”
Planting preferences vary from strain to strain and Producer to Producer. Thrive plants in pots and uses peat moss as the planting medium, which Cramer says “allows us to push the plants harder than you can in soil while still holding good water content through the hottest days of the summer.” Both Aleafia and Jonny Chronic plant directly in the ground, letting the natural living soil work its magic.
Thriving and Surviving
While outdoor growing is largely dictated by nature, like any type of farming it still requires plenty of oversight and human touch. Once outside, Producers continue to support the plants’ growth by protecting them from potential threats (such as invasive insects or inclement weather) and supplementing their nutrition.
Thrive installs trellises to protect plants from strong winds and uses predator bugs to defend against potentially damaging pests. Aleafia plants crops like alyssum, marigolds and golden yarrow around the perimeter of the cannabis fields — “companion crops,” says Ientile, “to attract ladybugs, lacewings and other beneficials that help to naturally control the pest population.” Jonny Chronic has partnered with the University of Guelph to develop an Integrative Pest Management (IPM) process; like Aleafia, they use companion plants, as well as predator insects, to control and defend against unwanted pests.
Rainwater is often not enough for the crops. Many Producers supplement by watering through an irrigation system, similar to what’s used in other forms of agriculture, sometimes daily during particularly hot weather. The plants are often fertilized as well; Producers may work manure into the soil, use hydroponic nutrients during irrigation or create their own custom fertilizer blend. To determine what the plants need, growers often walk the fields daily or clip leaves to analyze.
Jonny Chronic often uses 10-year-old chicken manure as a soil fertilizer
From Harvesting to Processing
Late September through to mid-October is typically harvest season for outdoor-grown cannabis — commonly called Croptober — though exact timing will depend on how a particular strain has matured. “Each genetic will require its own time frame for maturity,” says Ientile. “Our master grower takes great care in ensuring the trichomes have turned a rich amber colour prior to harvest.”
Aleafia, Thrive and Jonny Chronic harvest their outdoor cannabis by hand, working in crews over long days and weeks to cut the plants and hang them to dry indoors. The plants may be bucked (a hand or machine process that removes the flowers and leaves from the plant’s stalk) before or after drying.
In 2020, Aleafia harvested approximately 31,000 kg of dried flower
What happens next will depend on what a Producer intends to use their yield for. Thrive, for instance, strictly uses its outdoor harvest for concentrates. “At the moment, we flash-freeze 100 percent of our outdoor crop to be used in a hydrocarbon extraction process that retains terpenes and a full spectrum of cannabinoids for our Greybeard Live Resin Terp Slush and Greybeard Live Resin Vapes,” says Cramer.
Aleafia and Jonny Chronic analyze the cannabinoid and terpene levels before deciding how to process and format their outdoor yield. Aleafia may allocate its harvest to sell as flower, or to be milled or extracted. Jonny Chronic’s yield goes on to become pre-rolls, extracts, vapes or tinctures. “Our outdoor strains are perfect for pre-rolls and extracts. They are full of cannabinoids, full of terpenes for great flavour, and nice and smooth when cured properly,” says O’Neill, who adds that they may consider releasing their outdoor harvest as dried flower in the future.
Labelling and Packaging
No matter the format, all outdoor-grown flower undergoes the same federally mandated testing and analysis — for cannabinoids, microbial levels, heavy metals, toxins and pesticides — and is packaged with labelling that includes the standardized cannabis symbol, health warning message, brand name, THC and CBD content and other required product information, plus the federal excise stamp, which shows the product is certified legal.
Outdoor cultivation may be less high-tech and more unpredictable than indoor growing environments, but that doesn’t mean it’s a dying practice. Health Canada reports that the number of Producers applying to grow outdoors is doubling every year. As consumers seek greater value and express interest in more natural products and processes, expect to see more sun-grown cannabis hitting the market in the near future.