The Art of Growing Organic Cannabis


Organic” marijuana is a bit elusive as a commodity. From a certification standpoint, there is no such thing. This does not mean organic principles cannot be observed in its cultivation and management. It just means no one can yet sell marijuana labeled as “organic.” There are many other epithets that can be used to describe organically grown marijuana. It could be labeled “chemical-free,” “all-natural,” “sustainably grown” or many other nominal derivatives that all imply a lack of synthetic chemicals used in the horticultural practices used to produce the crop.

While there is still no recognized organic certification agency that will grant marijuana “organic” status, that doesn’t stop thousands of producers from observing sustainable and environmentally friendly cultivation practices. Legal cannabis cultivation has come a long way over the past several years to the point where hemp can be certified organic as can some CBD products. It may only be a matter of a few years before marijuana crops can be certified organic, but until then there are many recognized certifying agencies that will certify marijuana as “Clean,” “Clean Green” or other certifications that mean “organic” without inviting a lawsuit from the USDA or equivalent governing organization. A “Clean” certification means it is (usually, depending on agency) grown to the same strict standards as other conventional organic crops.

The standard for this varies by agency or region, but generally starts with “clean” or verified seed or certified clones. If any type of certified seed cannot be obtained, the grower must document and prove that he or she reached out to several seed suppliers and there were none available. The same goes for vegetative propagates or cannabis seedlings. From start to finish, nothing genetically modified or synthetic can come into contact with an organically grown marijuana crop.

The substrate the cannabis is grown or sown in must also be organic.

The substrate the cannabis is grown or sown in must also be organic in the case of greenhouse or growroom produced cannabis. For field-grown cannabis, the soil must have been managed organically for the past several years. This means there could not have been any synthetic inputs such as chemical or petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides. Unfortunately, there is not yet a way to certify or grow marijuana organically and hydroponically at the same time. Hydroponics requires water-soluble nutrients, and it is extremely difficult to find any of the organic kind.

At all points during production, stringent and deliberate practices must be observed to avoid contamination with any non-organic substances. There can be no products applied to a marijuana crop that themselves are not certified as organic or approved for organic production. This means reliance on natural, biological, or mineral-based inputs as fertilizer and/or pesticides. In the U.S. and Canada, the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is the certifying authority for products sold as “organic” or approved for organic agriculture. If there is a product that an “organic” marijuana growers wants to use that is not OMRI-Listed, it must be cleared for use by the certifying agency the grower uses for his or her “clean” certification.

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During the various growth cycles of marijuana, no synthetic fertilizers or amendments can be added to irrigation water other than approved amendments for organic growing such as kelp or fish extracts. This is where it is important to understand the differences between water-soluble fertilizers and non-water-soluble fertilizers. Though there are exceptions, synthetic fertilizers are water-soluble and not allowed for use in organic cultivation. These fertilizers are “activated” upon getting wet and release their nutrient payload. Often, the plant or soil is not able to absorb it all and the excess runs off or leaches down through the soil. Much of the nutrient value goes to waste with water-soluble fertilizers which is one reason they tend to have such high percentages by volume.

Organic fertilizers are not generally water-soluble. They are “activated” and release their nutrients by virtue of organic and biological processes in the soil. Obviously, this takes longer to release, but very little of it, if any, goes to waste. Organic fertilizers often have much lower fertilizer values posted on their packaging than their synthetic counterparts.

Many organic growers use manure as a natural fertilizer. While this is allowed under most organic protocols, there are caveats. No “hot” manure can be placed on an organic crop. Only aged manure should be used, or else certification is not the only thing at risk; the crop could get burned with too high of a nutrient level. Generally, any animal manure can’t be put onto or around a crop until it has composted for at least six months. This may be in a pile or it could be spread out onto a field, so long as it will be six or more months before the crop is to be sown. The source of the manure must be considered. If it is from an animal or animals that have genetically modified feed in their diet, their manure may not be used at all, regardless of how long it composts, or else the crop’s organic or “clean” status will likely be revoked. Observation of organic practices does not end with harvesting; it goes on right through the rest of the steps as well.

Organically grown marijuana must be dried and stored without the addition of any artificial or synthetic inputs. | Photo by Sharon McCutcheon from Pexels

Best Organic Practices When Harvesting Cannabis

During harvest of marijuana, it is still important to keep in mind organic practices. While no products are typically added to cannabis during this phase, there is the possibility of contamination via tools. Any harvesting tools, trimmers, pruners, or the like that are used to harvest non-organic marijuana cannot be used to harvest organic marijuana. Lubricants used to keep trimming tools in good working order must not be petroleum-based. Mineral oils or vegetable oils can be used to lubricate cutting tools, but nothing that would not otherwise be allowed in organic growing should be used on any tools used for harvesting organic marijuana. Also, no additives intended to prevent mold or to act as a preservative should be applied to the harvested product before storage. Organically grown marijuana must be dried and stored without the addition of any artificial or synthetic inputs.

Before cannabis gets onto the shelves (or behind glass counters) of your local dispensary, it is often remediated. This is done to kill off or remove any potential contaminants, molds, mildews, etc. to make it safe for consumption. Remediation techniques are not all compatible with organic marijuana. It is important to note that any post-harvest treatment must still be compatible with organic practices in order to retain its organic qualities and still be eligible to be sold as “clean” or otherwise indicating no synthetic substances were used at any point from seed to sale. Other than heat or light sterilization, it is only since early 2020 that there have been approved remediation processes for organic hemp. These will be the same for marijuana.

There is one other requirement for growing organic marijuana, at least for those growers that have some type of certification. Record-keeping is imperative.

To reiterate, because it is so important to the entire process and the integrity of the organic industry, record-keeping is imperative. No reputable certifying agency will grant “organic,” “clean” or any other status on any crop — marijuana or otherwise — if there is not a “paper trail” from start to finish of how the crop was managed. This is good practice in general anyway to evaluate what worked well and what did not but is a non-negotiable aspect of the cultivation of any organic crop.

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