Five biggest grower fails
With all the new growers jumping on board with gardens, problems, mistakes and goofs are numerous and at times, disastrous. Our informal survey has defined five major catastrophes that can and often do happen to unprepared growers. Total garden loss is uncommon, but large losses in harvest can result if unknowing growers don't take precautions to handle pest infestations, molds and mildews, complications due to weather changes, improper feeding and post harvest care. We'll be posting these in sections over the next couple months, so be sure to check back for new installments.
Cheap as dirt? Not so much
Hydroponics not withstanding, the biggest factor for healthy plants and a heavy yield is the quality of soil the plants are grown in. Native soil is rarely of a quality that will give the best results. Great soil drains well so the grower can water and feed more frequently without sacrificing air in the root zone. For organic growing, a healthy microbial rich soil is vital. Growers can mix their own soil from bare ingredients, or they can pay the experts who have developed complex formulas that are time proven. While the self-blending is always cheaper, unless you have a good understanding of soil biology, you will not likely get near the results that you would from the engineered soil. Often the cost savings is rather insignificant in the big picture; you might save a few hundred or even thousands of dollars by skimping on soil, but that choice will cost you many times that amount. For Quail Mountain Ranch customers, we suggest they base their entire garden on the soil budget. Buy the best quality soil you can afford, then figure on how many plants you will be able to grow based on about a half yard per plant. If you can afford six yards of soil, then figure on growing about 12 plants.
For growers who don't have a pest prevention program, a garden can go from glorious to grunge in a matter of a few days. For the western region, the major pests in recent years are the broad/russet mites, thrips and oakworms, as well as the ubiquitous spider mite.
For most, the spider mite is a known problem, and often is an accepted pest that can be kept under control by maintaining a bug unfriendly environment . The damage these insects cause is easily visible in yellow dots or stipling of the leaf surface. They are actually living on the underside of the leaf, and their sucking causes the dots on the leaf surface. In a bad infestation, leaves might get bleached out and webbing might be present. Spider mites are a big problem for greenhouse and indoor growers who allow the temperature in their spaces to get high. The hotter it is, the faster cold-blooded bugs go, eating more and breeding more. Also, natural predators are not as likely to help by eating the mites since they usually must be introduced to the protected space. Spider mites can kill weak plants, but they are fairly easy to control. Allowing them to continue to exist on the plants will reduce plant vigor and yield.
While you may never be completely rid of spider mites, effective controls include keeping the temperature down when possible. Foliar feeding whenever possible helps wash bugs and eggs from the plant. A systemic treatment of azadachtrin, the concentrate of the active ingredient of neem oil, helps keep the mites weak and vulnerable. Finally, pyrethrin bombs and sprays will knock them back when plants are infested. Some effective azadachtrin products include Azamax (OMRI listed), Azasol and Azatrol. Neem seed meal is another option when used as a soil amendment; it also has nitrogen and phosphorous. For sprays, Monterey Take Down is a popular concentrate. Mighty Wash and Mega Wash get good reviews, but they are ready to use, and therefore rather expensive. Both can be used up until the day of harvest, however, a big advantage.
More serious in the mite family are the smaller broad and russet mites. In recent outdoor seasons, growers have seen entire gardens decimated by these pests. If a large plant becomes infested with these mini mites, controlling them can be difficult and even impossible. These bugs will start low on the plant, and move steadily upward often eating the flowers as they develop. Leaves often take on a canoe shape, and the new growth is yellow/brown and feeble. Most growers initially suspect a nutrient deficiency, so start to treat with a calcium or magnesium supplement. When the plants don't respond in four or five days, it's enough time for the bugs to get out of control.
While pest control product manufacturers often brag about how their products can control the mini mites, we've had involved discussions with meticulous growers who systematically tried all the touted products and checked for results after each treatment. Despite the brags from the manufacturers, sulfur based sprays were the only ones they found effective. In a brand name, Safer 3 in 1 is an example.
Thrips have been bad in the past couple seasons in Northern California. The damage is a lot like what is seen in a mini mite infestation with the canoeing leaves and yellow-brown new growth. Using a microscope is the only way to tell whether the plants have thrips or mites. Examine the underside of the leaves. If you see small wormlike bugs wriggling around like maggots, you are seeing immature thrips. Mature thrips are winged, and look like specs of pepper with the bare eye. They will jump and fly when you try to touch them. If you have the smaller, fast mites, you might never see the bug itself, but the small, round eggs will be visible. Once you determine the bug type, you can apply the treatment. Sulfur based sprays aren't as effective on thrips. Instead, use a spinosad based spray like Monterey Insect Spray.
Once you've dodged the microscopic pests, your plants will be vibrant, healthy and will outgrow damage caused by other less destructive pests like leafhoppers and grasshoppers.
There is one pest waiting in the wings that can cause major damage in the final weeks of flowering. Oak moths now not only drop eggs on oak trees, but also on medicinal plant colas. Once the eggs hatch, the oak worms start to eat into the flower leaving dead material and feces as they move toward the center of the flower. Sometimes they will girdle the cola, and the entire flower above the site will die.
Newbie growers often misdiagnose caterpillar damage as botritus or bud mold because the dead flower will become moldy. Finding the black pinhead sized feces left behind by the caterpillars is a sure sign that the mold came after the worm damage. Once in the flower, the worms must be hand picked out.
An easier solution is to treat the entire plant with a bacillus thuringiensis inoculant spray. Safer Caterpillar Killer and Monterey BT are two name brands. While spraying developed flowers heavily is never a good idea, you can spray a light coating of the BT early in the morning without creating high humidity issues. Once the BT is on the plant, most insects that take a bite will ingest the bacteria and the BT will start to digest the bug from the inside out. BT works best on leaf eaters like leafhoppers and caterpillars, and is not so effective on mites and other sucking pests. BT should be reapplied after rains and foliar feeding to insure the bacteria is present when the moth starts laying eggs.
One final pest to keep alert for is termites. While rare, sometimes they will completely devour a plant at the soil line. One day the plant will be large and vibrant, the next wilting. Avoid planting near old decaying stumps and logs to minimize the chances of termite attack.
Beneficial insects are another great addition to the grower's pest arsenal. You can purchase live ladybugs, praying mantis egg sacks, green lacewing egg cards, caterpillar eating wasps, and others to help control pests in an organic garden. Just remember that the beneficials are usually more susceptible to insect sprays than the pests, which have often become tolerant be repeated sprayings.
Continued opposite column
Soil too dense
Soil too woody
Soil overcharged with nutrients
Soil with too little nutrients
Not enough good soil
Broad and russet mites
Vital supplies for your pest program:
Hand held illuminated microscope
Azadachtrin product for systemic control
Diatomacious earth for physical barrier
Organic oil based, biological or enzyme based concentrates for foliar treatments
Sprayer (hand, pressure or atomizer depending on needs)
Failure to flush
Harvest too soon
Harvest too late
Flowers mold in drying room
Flowers allowed to over dry
Flowers too wet in curing container (smells like hay)
Flowers left in trimming machine too long (dull, no crystal)
Flowers trimmed poorly
Killing with kindness
Plant nutrients can be wonderful boosters, and there are many to choose from. One of the biggest mistakes beginning growers make is to believe that if a little is good, more is better. Particularly with synthetic nutrients, excessive build up in the soil can cause nutrient lock out, burning and reduced growth rates.
If you prefer to grow organically, using soil amendments and other organic fertilizers, the odds of over feeding is lessened. Even the organic grower can create problems by adding to much food to the soil. In organics, the amendments are broken down by microorganisms in the soil. Overfeeding, especially with carbohydrate rich foods like molasses might result in a bloom of microbes, and in poor drainage or over watering, that might result in anaerobic soil conditions. That can lead to root rot and other diseases. Plants with root rot diseases will often exhibit a sudden death of a portion of or all of the plant. The symptoms start with wilting, then within a few hours a section or the entire plant will die. Allowing the soil to dry out will suppress anaerobic disease causing bacteria, and an application of biological compost tea will restore the good microbes. The tea shouldn't be applied until after the soil has thoroughly dried out. Plants with root disease can only rarely be nursed back to health.
Organic fungicides like Actinovate can be applied to the soil as an anti-fungal inoculant, but the key to avoiding root disease is to avoid overfeeding and poorly draining holes or beds. Too many new growers dig holes in the poor draining native soil, then put high quality potting soil in the hole. That can form a swimming pool affect with the hole filling up with water. Plants suffer when the root zone is too wet, but again, the big danger is the development of anaerobic biology. Fabric pots are popular because they allow great soil aeration and excellent drainage. Plus you don't have to carve a hole out of the often rocky and hard native ground.
With synthetics, overfertilizing leads to salt build up in the soil, which hampers the ability of the plant's roots to absorb nutrients. Salt build up can also displace microbes, which can help break down the salts until they become too concentrated. Signs of over fertilizing include a dark green color of the plant leaves, burned tips on the leaves and sometimes dead patches in the leaves. In severe cases, lockout causes the plant to droop as well. A good flushing agent will help clear out the salts, and an application of biological compost tea will help restore soil microbes.
With all the hype about supercropping, bending, and other plant pruning practices, some growers spend way to much time terrorizing their plants in an attempt to achieve higher yields and productivity. Have you heard of the practice of pruning off all the big shade leaves to allow more light to the flowers? Those leaves actually play a big part in the ability of the plant to produce food from the sun, and trimming them off doesn't help, it hurts. One grower actually performed a test with three identical plants in the same growing conditions. One was severely pruned of shade leaves, another just partially pruned, and the third left completely alone. Guess what? Plant number three had the best quality and highest yield by far. A little pruning can really help, but overpruning causes stress and reduces yield and productivity. Limit your pruning to the occasional leader pruning to produce a bushier plant, and to trimming the sucker like branches at the bottom of the plant that don't produce much. When done in June or July, these branches can be trimmed down into clone clips and rooted for future projects.
To cover or not to cover, that is the question
Big plants with heavy branches loaded down with flowers need support. This is particularly important when the first rains of the season arrive. The added weight of water on the plant will quickly turn a productive garden into a flattened nightmare.
Branch breakage will start to occur on most plants by mid-August as the flower weight increases. Feeding silica solutions help to strengthen plants, but growers who don't provide structure will face disaster eventually. After all, the plan is to produce the heaviest flowers possible, and to get this done, we add extra amendments and nutrients that boost flower size, a condition that is not natural in normal growing conditions.
Growers should start their support systems early. Some prefer steel mesh, others like trellis used either vertically or horizontally. Bamboo, plastic or steel stakes can be used to stake up plants or build a structure for the trellis. The plants can grow through the support webbing, and as the weight builds, the plants can rest on the webbing.
Sudden rains, summer thundershowers and windy conditions can play havoc with a garden without these support systems. Broken branches can often be repaired, but a little support provided in advance can be time saved later.
Sometimes breakage occurs even with a support system. If the leaves start to wilt, it's likely the vascular layer is separated, and the branch is lost. If the leaves stay turgid, the branch can likely be saved. It will likely need to be splinted, wrapped and tied up until the branch heals.
As harvest time approaches (October for most plants), the risk of stormy weather increases. A hard rain and hail can damage trichomes and cause fading and weathering of the flowers, reducing aroma and attractiveness. So, many growers will build a superstructure that can support clear plastic sheeting to protect the plants. If properly built, a sturdy structure can shield plants from weathering, increasing the quality.
Conversely, improperly designed structures can backfire. As rain accumulates in sags and pockets in the sheeting, water bubbles form. As the weight increases, the potential for a catastrophic failure of the structure increases. If the structure collapses with all that weight on top, the plant will be crushed. The point is, if you can't build a proper steel framework effectively sloped to allow rain to run off, you should just tie up plants and let the weather do what it will.
Post harvest foul ups
So you've put up the funding, worked seemingly endless hours over the season, babied the plants with the best care and nutrients, and soon you will harvest. This is the worst time to take shortcuts. Harvest and processing requires the proper timing, the right environment, correct tools and enough labor resources to get the job done in a timely fashion.
Every strain, and often even individual plants will finish at different times. A handheld microscope will tell the grower when the plant is ready by the color of the trichomes. When the majority of the miniature mushroom like crystals are creamy white and a few are starting to turn amber is the right time to harvest. Unfortunately, there are time sensitive processes that must be performed to insure the flowers are of the best quality. Take flushing, for example. You'll want to have been flushing for about a week or more before harvesting, yet how can you predict when to start to flush when you're not sure when the trichomes will show the flowers are ready? This is where growing becomes more an art than science. You can watch the trichomes mature steadily. As they swell and the clear crystals start to show their first cloudy white, you should plan on starting the flush. That way, when you get the 10 percent amber, you are ready to chop.
Planning the harvest should include these key elements. First, the flowers should be handled as little as possible. Second, the drying flowers should be given priority attention. When they are dry and ready for curing, they need to be put in a container that can more carefully manage the amount of moisture and air circulation to affect a quality cure. Third, when trimming the flowers, do it in small amounts so that the are quickly handled and returned to curing space as soon as possible. Keep them out of the sun, and in a safe structured tray system where they don't get crushed.
The most efficient way to dry without causing wear or damage to the flowers is to cut stems and hang the plants by the string method. The bigger the branch, the longer the drying time. To make the whole process streamlined, cutting branches approximately the same length will shorten the window of time that the drying will be completed. In other words, the crop will be ready for the next step about the same time.
For most growers, the trimming of the crop is the least attractive part of the entire season. Both hand trimming and machine trimming have advantages and disadvantages. Hand trimming requires more handling by humans, can add weeks or even months to the process, and, if you hire help, can bring more human variables into your home and garden than you may be comfortable with. Still, a good human trimmer can produce a better appearing finished product, and there is no cost that would be associated with the purchase of a trimming machine, albeit that cost is usually much less than the labor of the human trimmers.
Machine trimmers fall into a few different types. There are the hand crank salad bowls mainly suitable only for small b grade flowers. Pretty much any trimmer with rubber fingers to roll the flowers around will degrade the quality beyond the benefits of using the trimmer. Then there are the table top type, where the trimmer rolls the flower around on the grill and allows the blades and airflow draw from the blades to pull the shade leaves down for a quick grooming. These might streamline the process, but are not in the finish category of machine trimmers. Drum type trimmers do the best job. Some are designed to trim wet, or green, and others trim dry. Wet drum trimmers (for example, the Twister), are very expensive, require blade sharpening and other maintenance, and will definitely reduce the crystals visible on the outside of the flowers. The flowers are more durable when dried, so dry drum style trimmers (for example, the Trimpal) perform the best as finishing trimmers, and are considerable less expensive than the wet trimmers.
A dry drum machine trimmer is much faster than hand trimming. First of all, since the flowers are trimmed dry, the garden can be harvested over a period of several days, the flowers hung to dry, the prepping of trimming down the flowers from the stems, then the machine is employed over a couple of days to trim a large quantity. This makes using a rental unit feasible, or co-op purchasing a trimmer with a couple friends.
Even if you choose to touch up the flowers after the machine does its work like most, you can get through a lot more weight than hand trimming alone. While you can let a dry drum trimmer do 95 percent of the work for you, some flower wear will occur if you leave them in the trimmer long enough to do that much. A better solution is to do a 60 percent trim, then touch up the flowers by hand.
Once trimmed, your harvest must complete the curing process. You must burp daily to allow moisture to escape from the container. When opening to containers, be sure to check the texture of the flowers. If they get soggy again, you may want to leave the container open, or even bring them out to dry on a rack. The ideal texture is crusty to the touch, but with substance. Flowers dried like popcorn, fluffy and light, are over dried. While they will store fine, the loss of weight and poor cure will affect the quality and volume of your harvest. The curing process is gradual; after a week or so, you can reduce the burping to every other day. Then every third or fourth day, and finally once a week. Do continue to check your containers to insure there is no mold developing, and that the flowers retain their original pungent aroma.
If long term storage is required, the best way is to use glass jars stored in a dark, cool place. Some growers swear by freezing, but once thawed, you need to use it quickly. For large quantities in long term storage, nothing beats the vacuum sealer systems like Shield N Seal. Shield N Seal makes a black out bag that keeps the flowers in the dark as well as conventional clear, clear/black and mylar materials.