Growing with Less Water — Jeff Hickey’s 2021 Grow Recap

Nov 9, 2021 | Blog, News

Photo of Jeff Hickey's cannabis garden

Hello again. I’m back with a recap of the 2021 grow, which was my most interesting and influential grow to date. I had planned on growing several plants of one cultivar, Magic Jordan, for the purpose of harvesting CBG. Unfortunately, the ten Magic Jordan seeds I had were all male. So I gratefully turned to several feminized seeds I keep around for just such a situation. We have been in a major drought in California, and the prospects for more dry growing seasons seems inevitable. We are completely at nature’s whim regarding rain.

Some of you may remember that last year, inspired by how my tomatoes were doing after I stopped watering, I began using dry farming techniques on a couple of my cannabis plants, just to see if I could do it in my beds. I was not going to try this on a full crop until I felt relatively certain I could still grow and harvest effectively. The two Rainbow Kush that I tried on last year were the two most potent and terpene-rich plants I had grown to that point.

In order to effectively do dry farming, you need to have had at least 20 inches of rain in the year prior. Last year, we only had 16 inches of rain, the year after only getting 22 inches of rain. This is not an insubstantial amount of liquid, but in 23 years of living where we are, we’ve averaged 39.7 inches of rain per year. There are El Niño years where we’ve had over 70 inches of rain. It is, typically, a rain zone. Fortunately, the majority of our rain in the past year came in the early spring, relatively close to planting. So I turned the soil and compacted part of it well below the topsoil, and waited to see what happened. 

After two straight rain seasons of well less than average, rationing came into play in our little valley. Some people simply stopped growing anything this year; especially those who depend solely on the local water reserves. Some growers I know grew fewer plants than in previous years, and I was one of those growers. I grew six plants this year.

We are fortunate to have a spring on our property that does not impact local water distribution. Our own spring fell to a slow, but steady trickle. Even before merciful rain returned in October, water was still rising from the earth and filling our 1,550-gallon container at over 50 gallons a day. When water is abundant, it fills at hundreds of gallons a day, and the overflow helps fill a stream that runs down the middle of our valley. Some local springs higher up in the hills dried up this year, but not ours.

However, we have never used less water than we used this year. I have grown with less water before, but never as drastically as this year. I wondered if this was the year plants wouldn’t grow with the same vigor, size and tree-like structure that I’ve become accustomed to. My concerns were needless.

For those who have never attempted dry farming, the basic concept is to capture whatever rainwater you receive. The method for doing this involves turning and compacting rain-soaked soil so that a reservoir of moisture remains deep in the ground for plant roots to discover and draw from. In other words, you rely on the plant to find the cache of groundwater well beneath the surface. You give the plant just enough water to keep the roots moving in that direction. At a certain point, (the start of flowering) you stop watering and allow the plant to finish based solely upon the reserves in the ground, and in the plant. You make the plant reach for the water, and in the process, she eventually grows to a state where watering is no longer necessary. This is not something I would attempt with clones. I believe I’m able to do this because I grow with seeds. Seeds have taproots and those roots are responsible for finding the deep moisture.

Sometimes, it helps to be reminded that cannabis is a weed, and as such, a hardy plant used to fend for itself in the wild and find creative ways to complete the growth cycle. My grow last year, trying dry farming on two of my cannabis plants, demonstrated their hardiness and resilience. Those two plants responded well. That’s why this year, I went all in on a dry farming approach for every plant I grew, cannabis, vegetable, or flower. What they got from me regarding water was consistency.

I mentioned that I have a spring up the hill on my property and I capture that spring water via eight catch basins I’ve built into a ravine that sits below the spring source. Inside each of those basins is granite that washes the water as it enters. I have PVC piping running from each of those basins that meet in a main line that flows into a 1,550-gallon tank. In California, a tank below 5,000 gallons does not require a permit. It is from this tank where we water our plants, utilizing an electric pump because gravity alone isn’t enough to feed that water into all 22 beds.

Every weekend, I ran drip irrigation for one hour. In that hour, close to 200 gallons of water dripped into the beds, which is an average of a little over nine gallons per bed. Each plant received approximately a quart of aerated compost tea on the same morning. Other than condensation from fog and mists, this is the only water my plants received. 

On exceptionally hot days during veg growth, which are rare for us, maybe one or two a season, I would run 30 minutes of drip at dawn to keep the plants from becoming shocked, but that was the only exception. Luckily, on days these plants were thirsty, all they had to do was reach for it, and they’d find enough moisture to sustain until the next drink. There were no signs of water stress in the plants. They all grew tall, with luscious, healthy flowers, and serve as excellent examples of their respective cultivars.

There were additional bonuses due to the reduction in water. Not one time this year did I let a hose spray a cannabis growing surface. I was dedicated to using the drip system. I was not going to waste a drop by spraying. Drip not only allows you to precisely and gently target root zones without wasting water, it also helps reduce ambient surface moisture for the growing medium. This is critical for both the control of slugs and for reducing the amount of active pathogenic activity remaining on the surface of the soil.

We all know that both pathogens and powdery mildew live in the soil. It’s one of the main reasons I solarize every year. But during the growing season, reducing ambient moisture will help reduce pathogenic flare-ups. For example, mold needs moisture to exist and survive. If the ground soil is more dry than wet, there is less ammunition for mold to start or maintain. As for slugs, they need moist surfaces to thrive. They can create their own moisture to travel across dry surfaces, but if the surface remains dry, the slugs will retreat, usually deeper in the soil, to where there is a more ideal level of moisture. This year, I had fewer slugs than I’ve ever had. I even stopped pouring beer in the beer traps. I did not kill a single banana slug this season, though I’m certain the drought had a lot to do with that, too.

Of course, for outdoor growers, we know there is virtually nothing we can do for our flowers if humidity remains above 80% night and day. We can inspect, cut off mold and treat, and harvest early. We can’t stop the mold if humidity will not allow for drying out. 

Close-up photo of dew drops on flowering cannabis

Some days, because of humidity, it took many hours of sun before the dew dried on flowers.

Those that read the Isolation Grow blog last year will remember how I battled with the trees surrounding my property to try and maintain enough light to prevent early flowering, and also enough light to maximize the flowering process. Last year, I managed to increase the amount of direct, sustained light by two more hours.

This year, by drastically pruning a couple of trees to the east of my grow site, I increased direct sunlight on my plants by two more hours during the flowering phase. I had no plants attempt to flower early and I doubt I will ever face that again. More importantly, during the first month of flowering, because of the pruning, my plants were still getting over ten hours of direct sun per day. The increase in trichome activity was noticed, as the plants protect themselves from direct sunlight. When I first began growing, I had no more than six hours of direct sunlight on my plants during the flowering phase, so this one improvement is having a huge impact on the potency potential of each plant.

This year, as soon as each plant began to flower, I stopped watering. They got a quart of nutrient-rich compost tea every Saturday for the first month, but then no moisture after that except for foliar sprays, and foggy days.

I watched each plant carefully. Not all behaved the same. A couple of plants showed a lot of yellow through the two months of flowering, but others showed barely any aging at all. It will take a number of seasons doing this to understand how much of these variations are based on the genetics of the particular seed, or on the soil in respective beds.

I grew an AK47 for the first time, and while I was warned to expect bud rot, (which did not happen on that plant), she retained her youthful vigor throughout the grow and only had a handful of yellow leaves on harvest day.

Photo of AK47 plants in Jeff Hickey's garden

The AK-47 just before harvest.

We faced one serious pathogenic issue this year: Sustained humidity. Two different periods of almost three weeks during the 8-9 weeks of flowering saw humidity remain between 80% and 99% the entire time. So over half the time plants were flowering, humidity was spiking and remaining at a level no cultivar can safely endure.

The good news, at least for AK 47, was that I was able to harvest her the first week of October, and not the last week of October, as I had been warned. Getting her to harvest a few weeks earlier was my goal and we managed to bring her in at a full harvest time. She was the only plant to remain up until the perfect harvest day. I planted her in a bed that had historically always been harvested by the end of September. This is where keeping a history of what you’ve grown and where is helpful.

Everything else had to be harvested early, in order to save the medicine on each plant. CBD Therapy had to be harvested two weeks early. Mold became a serious issue in the final days. Over 20 small pieces of mold were found per plant during the last days before bringing them down. There was a real concern that one of the plants, WW20, had become systemically moldy, but she did not. It was simply a couple of branches that went bad. 

Of course, it was the humidity that made the mold become an issue, and mold benefits from human error in order to make that mold thrive. This year, we discovered our own errors contributed to the mold. For example, one of the trains we made for WW20 was too rigid and it caused stress that led to a break in a branch that opened the door for pathogens.

Another problem came from the stripping of fan leaves. Most were cut off, but some were snapped off by fingers, and a few of those peeled down the side of bark and revealed soft, vulnerable flesh on the plants. When a strip like that is not sealed with honey, and humidity ensues, that strip can easily mold, and if it is not caught quickly, that mold works its way inside the stalk and up into the flower. We figure we lost about 30% of WW20 to mold. But she still produced close to a pound and a half of very healthy cannabis.

Photo of yellow crab spider among cannabis leaves

Crab spider says, “Hi.”

So in 2021, I grew with less water than I’ve ever grown, and I literally cut all my cannabis plants down early, with one exception. I expected slightly lower potency scores as a result. I was wrong.

AK-47 — 27.14%
West Marin Mystery — 24.82%
Rainbow Kush — 24.46%
White Widow in Bed 20 — 22.72%
White Widow in Bed 22 — 22.63%
CBD Therapy — 17.36% / 0.104% Cannabinoids

The three top scores are the highest potency percentages I’ve achieved in my grows to date. I include CBD Therapy, but note that I had to harvest her two weeks early, with an unusually high THC level, and tremendously low cannabinoid count. I have serious doubts about the veracity of her genetics, but she’ll be a pleasant enough 50/50, just without the benefits of a full cannabinoid profile.

It is not surprising that the AK47 was the top score because she was harvested on her perfect harvest date. It is surprising, however, to get a score that high. The breeder told me to expect to grow this plant up to 19% potency outdoors with a 14-ounce potential harvest. Due to the subtle and superb training provided by our child, Bee, we harvested 21 ounces. Another interesting thing about this plant is the insight the terpene profile provides.

Remember, AK47 has won the Cannabis Cup two times, one time as a sativa hybrid and one time as a (so-called) indica hybrid. How can this be?

Well, the answer is in the terpenes. The cultivar is considered a sativa hybrid, but the top terpene in the plant I grew is myrcene, at just under 0.59%. This perfectly explains why I feel so relaxed after ingesting her. Myrcene in larger doses works like a sedative. In lower doses, it is a relaxing analgesic and anti-inflammatory terpene. 

In addition to strong potency scores, the terpene profiles are larger than I’ve ever grown. Every plant listed above ended up with a terpene content of over 2% and the West Marin Mystery had a terpene content of over 3%, which is the highest percentage I’ve grown to date. I feel this is a direct result of increased sun on the flowering plants, and the lack of wasteful water. We had consistently high trichome production for every plant. They were also the most odorous plants I’ve grown. The terpene profiles attest to that.

The last two plants, a White Widow and the Rainbow Kush, were harvested just prior to a major rainstorm that miraculously dumped over 13 inches of rain over three days on parched land. I am grateful to have saved the plants, and thrilled that bringing them down early did not sacrifice their potential potency too much. During these storms, we also lost power, and for the first time, my generator kicked into action during harvest and kept the power on in my drying room.

As a side note, I must mention that I got to witness an interesting occurrence during the first day of rain. I know where the puddles form on my property when it rains. After a couple inches had fallen, I walked outside and noticed there were no puddles. The earth was so thirsty, she was absorbing every drop. The puddles did not return until the next afternoon, while it rained about nine inches in 24 hours. We are deeply grateful for the merciful relief from this rain. It’s not a drought buster, though it’s a very good start. But whether we get enough rain or not, I will continue growing my plants with less water, because it’s good for the environment, and also the potential potency for my plants.

Next year, based on an inspiring idea from Jeff Jones at Oaksterdam, I’m going to slightly change the way I grow. I’ll still grow a few large plants that will get the full summer to grow, but I will also do my first autoflowers outside. The reason for this is to grow and harvest cultivars earlier in the year, and somewhat avoid the moldy season I described above. If I grow all my difficult strains early and save my pathogen-resistant monsters for later, I can more efficiently fill our dispensary with what we need, and deal with less mold in the process, a win/win.

Happy growing, everyone. I’ll see all of you in 2022 for the launch of the new Home Grower Program, which I helped co-write with Natalie Darves and Tara Bonhorst this year, while this grow was going on. I am so excited to share this program with the world, and start teaching methods of growing that involve a more sustainable level of water.

Photo of cannabis beds wrapped until next season

I leave you with beds in full solarization. I’ll remove the covers on or around December 21, and begin planting nitrogen replacing fava beans in preparation for the 2022 grow. 

Peace unto you and all yours. Keep growing.

Photo of crown of cannabis flower in the sun

The White Widow in bed 22 bids you adieu.