Wine snobs (who love to be called that, by the way) can tell you that a considerable portion of their connoisseurship revolves around their understanding of terroir: the soil, climate conditions, and geographic location that the grapes were grown in. Similarly, cannabis connoisseurship entails at least a baseline understanding of different cultivation techniques in order to fully appreciate the nuances and overall quality of a crop. Beyond indoor, outdoor, hydroponic, aeroponic, and greenhouse grows, there’s another cultivation trend that has been picking up in popularity among both customers and growers: living soil.
Living soil— also known as recycled organic living soil (ROLS), super soil, or no-till— entails the creation of a living microcosm for cannabis plants to sustain themselves in. To rephrase that in a slightly less pretentious way, this grow technique replicates the organic environment that cannabis would thrive in, down to microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, nutrient-rich bioactive compounds, and companion plants.
I’ll be straight with you: I chose to write about this topic because I love [to smoke] living soil weed and believe it will become increasingly more popular for cultivating marijuana over the next few years… but doing the research for this article was a lot like doing biology homework. There’s a good reason why I’m a marketer and not a horticulturalist. That being said, the goal of this blog is to help provide a high level understanding of the premise of living soil without regurgitating too much biology terminology.
How Living Soil Works
As mentioned in one of our early articles entitled Is Indoor Weed Objectively Better Than Outdoor?, the prohibition of marijuana was the catalyst for widespread indoor cultivation; pesticides, bottled nutrients, and grow lights have been viewed as standard for nearly 50 years now. With state-level legalization bringing cannabis out in the open, more commercial growers are experimenting with ways to produce flavorful, smooth, sustainable cannabis on a large scale.
"I’m trying to create a business that has long-term sustainability,” says Matthew Frigone, owner of Lazy Bee Gardens. “[Growing in living soil is] so much better for the planet long term."
Unlike conventional farming where growers focus on feeding the plant, living soil cultivators concentrate on feeding the soil microbiology itself and, in turn, allowing the microbiology to feed the plant. In case you’re wondering, soil is not the same thing as dirt: the physical structure of soil is a mix of mineral, air, water, and a small amount of organic material (like decaying plant matter and animal waste). Living soil cultivators aim to mimic the soil food web by introducing “amendments”—organic compounds like worm castings, bone meal, and kelp meal—that microorganisms “digest" and break down into nutrients for the plant to absorb.
I’m not trying to play Dr. Greenthumb today; there are lots of great books and well-written articles that detail the complex process of creating living soil and using it to grow bomb weed, but we’re just going to give you a quick rundown on how it’s done.
After mixing together the ingredients to make super soil— worm castings, organic soil, blood meal, and all that other good stuff that probably smells like hell— the soil is mixed and watered regularly in a closed environment (like a tarp or garbage can) over the course of a week. Subsequent to this process, the soil needs to “cook” in a sunny place for 30 to 60 days, and it needs to be kept moist to allow the ingredients to break down. Following a bath of compost tea to help foster microbial life, the grower might give it a final mix and introduce some earthworms to help aerate the soil before planting clones or seeds.
For a backyard cultivator, the weed will basically grow itself with a little bit of water and occasional amendments (no need for pest control, nutrients, or a final flush), though it’s much more challenging for a commercial grower to maintain living soil. “It’s more work, more expensive, and harder to achieve good yields,” says Ben Short, a grower at Puffin Farm. “It's also harder to reduce to simple formulas, making management more complicated. It's more of an art that involves a lot of observation to make the correct adjustments."
Benefits of Living Soil Bud
One of the most noticeable differences about living soil weed is that it typically has a better flavor and aroma than conventionally grown bud, and this is due to greater trichome density and higher concentrations of terpenes. "Living soil enhances terpene content and gives cannabis the best flavor possible,” says Ben from Puffin Farm. "It also increases the vigor of the plants and increases the biodiversity around the plants, which both help defend the plant against insects, diseases, and stress."
Plants grown in living soil are very healthy because they have all the nutrients they need to self-sustain and thrive. Pests and plant diseases are opportunistic; healthy plants don’t give pests and diseases the opportunity to attack, making pesticides unnecessary for living soil herb.
“I’ve had a lot of growers ask, ‘How do your plants not get sick and deficient because you’re not feeding them?’” remarks Matt from Lazy Bee, “Well, have you ever been to a forest? How much of the planet is covered in forest, and how does it survive? It’s a process: the leaves fall on the ground, they decompose, and they feed the micro-colonies which then flourish and feed the plants. It’s a cycle that’s made to sustain life. We’re basically just trying to copy that.”
Another benefit worth mentioning is that living soil bud produces remarkably smooth smoke. Obviously there are myriad ways to consume cannabis now aside from smoking, but for those who still prefer a good bong rip or a fat joint, nothing is easier on your lungs than living soil herb.
Don’t Panic, It’s Organi— Uh, I Mean Clean Green Certified
If you’ve been in our shop and asked about “organic” weed, you’ve heard our spiel about how we can’t legally use that word in our industry. For those who aren’t aware, the word “organic” is regulated by the federal government, so though some of our products are produced using organic growing methods, that term may not be applied to our beloved Schedule I drug. We have to wait until marijuana is legalized or rescheduled on a federal level before the USDA will allow us to use their groovy “o” word; Until then, some producers are opting to get their products certified through a third-party program called Clean Green Certified (the closest thing we have to “organic” in the weed industry).
All that was to say that not all Clean Green cannabis is grown in living soil, but all living soil weed should qualify for a Clean Green label (if they haven’t completed the certification process yet).
Drawbacks to Growing In Living Soil
If living soil means no synthetic nutrients, no pesticides, less water, lower ecological impact, better flavor, better aroma, better effect, and smoother smoke, then why the hell doesn’t everyone grow weed this way? "The drawbacks to growing in living soil are that there are more upfront costs and labor,” says Ben from Puffin. "For example, shoveling worm castings versus pumping in cheap synthetic nutrients. It is also more complex since it depends on living ecosystems which are always changing.”
"Honestly, I would love to see every grower [cultivate in living soil],” says Matt with a laugh. "They would all have better weed, too."
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Now that you know what living soil is all about, we encourage you to try some living soil weed for yourself; experiment with different brands and taste the difference! Currently we sell buds and joints from four living soil growers (all of which are Clean Green Certified): Gold Leaf Gardens, Puffin Farm, Ra Cannabis, and Lazy Bee Gardens.
Article by Ramsey Doudar; an in-house marketing and social media strategist at Herbn Elements. Ramsey's perspective is influenced by 1.5 years of budtending, 5 years as a cannabis industry marketing professional, and 10+ years of being a super picky medical patient.