Cannabis Science

29 July 2022

Growing Cannabis – Organic vs Synthetic Nutrients

The road to high-grade cannabis flowers is paved by nutrients that plants need to flourish throughout their life cycle. Plants need nutrients just like animals do, and use them to power germination, development, pest and disease resistance, and reproduction. It is up to the grower to decide how to best approach nutrient selection and application for their crop.

The question of organic vs synthetic nutrients isn’t limited merely to cannabis growers and has been a recurring dilemma in agricultural practice and philosophy for many, many years. Read on to learn more about organic and synthetic nutrients and how they can affect your cannabis plants.

One of 17 a Day: Macro- and Micronutrients

There are at least 17 nutrients demonstrated to be integral to plant growth. Plants uptake most if not all of these nutrients from the soil. The quantities of cannabis nutrients will fluctuate depending on the plant’s particular stage of life, and growers will want to replenish or supplement their soil with organic or synthetic fertilizers.

Growers beginning their cultivation journey may find nutrients referred to as “inputs” or “nutes.”

The 17 essential nutrients (and their corresponding symbol on the periodic table of elements) are:

1 . Carbon (C) 11. Manganese (Mn)
2 . Hydrogen (H) 12. Zinc (Zn)
3 . Oxygen (O) 13. Copper (Cu)
4 . Nitrogen (N) 14. Boron (B)
5 . Phosphorous (P) 15. Molybdenum (Mo)
6 . Potassium (K) 16. Chlorine (Cl)
7 . Calcium (Ca) 17. Nickel (Ni)
8 . Magnesium (Mg)
9 . Sulfur (S)
10 . Iron (Fe)

That’s a lot of names, but how will I use them?

It may seem like a lot to compute and internalize at this point, but growers will undoubtedly come across each of these nutrients during cannabis cultivation. Real-life applications for knowing these nutrients include supplementing plants with the correct ratio of nitrogen to give them a boost during the vegetative stage or trying to diagnose nutrient deficiencies by observing and comparing symptoms their crops may display.

Learning their names and symbols is useful just for even looking at the informational labels on the backs of some nutrient products. Many will display nutrients using symbols only. For example, one 100lb bag of fertilizer that shows an NPK ratio of 9-3-1 will contain 9lbs of nitrogen, 3lbs of phosphorous, and 1lb of potassium.

Nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium (K) are known as macronutrients and are absorbed by plants in the most significant quantities. Sulfur (S), Calcium (Ca), and Magnesium (Mg) are also considered macronutrients, although they aren’t absorbed in as large quantities as NPK.

The remaining nutrients are known as micronutrients as they are taken up in much smaller quantities but remain just as vital for plant health and development. When doing research and reading up on feeding your crop, it’s essential to know what your text is referring to when describing different kinds of nutrients. You don’t want to confuse nitrogen (N) with nickel (Ni) or Magnesium (Mg) with Manganese (Mn) and apply the wrong nutrient to your plants!

What “Organic” Means

“Organic farming” is an approach that takes the big picture of a crop into account. Organic growers start with the relationship between the plants and the soil and the quality of the grower’s nutrients in relation to the plant’s needs. It even extends into the organisms that live in the plants and soil and their relationships with their habitat and each other.

Organic growing practices seek to improve the growing environment by extending the longevity of soil, availability of nutrients, and beneficial organisms while delivering a high-quality product.

Now that’s a lot of words, but what does it mean for nutrients?

Organics Improve Soil Health, with a Plan

Simply put, growers using organic fertilizers will use nutrients derived from the natural world and living things. For example, there are types of fertilizer products derived from animal waste, such as seabird and bat guano, that growers can use to feed their crops. The idea is that the quality of these products is such that they will not diminish the growing environment.

In most cases of cultivating organic cannabis, the growing environment will be the soil that the crop is planted in. However, experienced growers will tell you that while the promise of rewards is concentrated above the soil level, most of the real magic happens below at the plant’s roots. This is why to maximize organic products, you need a plan.

Plants May Absorb Organic Nutrients Slower, Here’s How to Help Them

Organic nutrient products will often contain a lower concentration of a larger number of nutrients. These nutrients will need to be broken down into absorbable components by beneficial microorganisms in the soil before being taken up by the plant. To help this process along, the grower should consider applying compost teas and/or watering in mycorrhizae. Here’s how you can make your own compost tea

It may take a few extra steps to gain maximum benefits from organic nutrients, but your plants and soil will reward your planning with healthy plants, juicy, resinous buds, and a “living soil” environment that can be used again after the plants have been harvested.

Synthetic Nutrients for a Cautious Approach

Synthetic nutrients are primarily derived from organically occurring ingredients but undergo a manufacturing process to concentrate their potency and make them more readily available for plants to absorb.

These fertilizers are also known as commercial, inorganic, or chemical nutrients. They contain highly concentrated amounts of a small number of nutrients, essentially the opposite approach taken by organic nutrient products. This is a critical difference between the two, and the grower using synthetics should exercise caution as they may very easily fall into the trap of overfeeding their crop and causing unwanted growth-stunting stress.

For growers starting their cultivation journey, it is absolutely vital to show restraint when applying chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, the state of branding and marketing of cannabis grow nutrients is often dominated by the notion of “more nutes equals bigger buds” (and who doesn’t want big buds?). The reality is that it is very easy for plants, particularly young ones, to get overfed with nutrients and react poorly with nutrient burn.

If the Plants Need a Pick-Me-Up…

The high concentration of synthetic nutrients makes them an ideal solution for growers looking to give sick plants some immediate treatment. This can be useful for plants in a crop that have fallen behind their peers or if a nutrient deficiency is diagnosed. One thing to keep in mind before feeding is that different strains will have different nutrient requirements and growth habits, so be extra careful when applying synthetic nutrients.

Nutrient Runoff

The application of synthetic nutrients runs the risk of over-concentrating the amount of nutes faster than the plants can uptake them. This causes nutrient runoff and can be very dangerous for the soil and the environment. Essentially, runoff is the build-up of excess nutrients in the water that leeches into the soil and then into waterways. This can be very hazardous for the environment, and there are plenty of poignant examples – such as algal bloom in bodies of water – of the danger of nutrient runoff.

So Which is Better?

The cultivator considering the pros and cons of organic vs synthetic nutrients, has a few more considerations to contend with. Namely, their budget, time, and overall plan for the growing season. Organic nutrients are likely to cost more and take a longer time to fully implement. Synthetic nutrient products are readily available in most run-of-the-mill garden stores, tend to be cheaper and, take almost immediate effect.

Growers who are inclined to keep growing in the same area using the same soil may find organic nutrients and the practices they will need to maintain their soil year after year as an attractive option. There is certainly great value in the sustainability of a grow site, but it may not be apparent from the outset.

Cultivators who are thinking more about profit and quickly producing a crop will appreciate the benefits and savings of synthetic nutrients. More experienced growers may find using synthetic nutrients in a very tactical and targeted fashion during the growing season as a useful strategy to have in their playbooks.

There are also environmental and ethical questions to ask when considering the production of organic and synthetic nutrients. For example, organic nutrients tend to be produced in an environmentally friendlier way compared to the manufacturing footprint of synthetics. Similarly, consumers may feel strongly about consuming cannabis flowers that have been grown using inorganic nutrients or about paying a little extra for organically cultivated buds.

There is one thing that is certain in all this, and that’s for the grower to rely on the strength of their plants’ genetics before deciding on the benefits of organic vs synthetic nutrients. Marijuana Grow Shop is an excellent place for growers to source high-quality seeds.

MGS is the shop to go for robust feminised seeds, on-schedule autoflowers and, exotic regular seeds. Not only does MGS house stock sourced from some of the world’s most passionate growers and seed banks, but they also have an extensive collection of articles and how-to’s every grower thinking of beginning their journey should consider.

Post author
Martin
Martin is a production horticulturist with experience in commercial cannabis cultivation and sustainable farming from his time with Emerald Cup Award-winning farmers Esensia Gardens in northern California's Emerald Triangle.
See more from Martin

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