How to Grow Cannabis: The Getting Started Guide | Almanac.com

How to Grow Cannabis: The Getting Started Guide

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Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Cannabis Plants

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The valuable properties of Cannabis have been known for centuries. From fiber to food to medicine, these benefits have led to the worldwide cultivation of this annual flowering herb. Are you interested in growing it yourself? To grow a successful cannabis crop, here are a few basics to get you started.

About Cannabis

With recent shifts in cultural attitudes and laws (with restrictions) now allowing for home cultivation throughout Canada and many parts of the United States, more people have become interested in how to grow this once-taboo plant.

Cannabis is similar to other annual herbs, with slight differences in nutrient and light requirements. The dense flowers need extra care as they mature, or all of your hard work may be ruined. Once fully mature, flowers must be dried and cured correctly to achieve a quality end product.

man inspecting cannabis plant

Female Vs. Male Cannabis Plants

Cannabis is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are present on different plants. Identifying plant sex is essential because males need to be removed before they can pollinate the females. If pollination occurs, seeds develop, diminishing the final product’s quality. Unless you’ve grown only female clones or feminized seeds (seeds bred to produce only female plants), you’ll need to prevent this by observing plants daily as they transition from the vegetative stage to budding and flowering. 

After the first male flower arrives, more roundish flowers will appear at the base, forming a cluster. In time, the male flowers will open and release pollen. Pollen can travel for miles in the wind. It’s very important to remove male plants from the garden when they are first identified!

How to Identify Male and Female Plants: Male and female flowers first appear as spheres in the node of the plant (where a leaf, bud, or branch attaches to a stem), behind the stipules (tiny, pointed, leaflike appendages at the base of the leafstalk). 

The female flower takes the shape of a claw, with a tip that comes to a narrow point. A male flower is more rounded, without a narrowed end. On females, a hairlike appendage emerges from the narrow point of the young flower. This is called a “style” and is often referred to by cannabis growers as the “pistil.”

The anatomy of a female cannabis plant
Photo Credits: background, cola, fan leaves, and stem, Jon Paciaroni/Cavan Images/Media Bakery; pistils, Yarygin/Getty Images; trichomes, Gleti/Getty Images; node, Michael Clinton/Getty Images; stipules, Reddit

Cannabis likes loamy and light soil with good drainage and water retention. Many growers swear by a 40/40/20 combination of silt, sand, and clay. Learn how to improve your soil with soil amendments.

In most zones, you will want to start seedlings indoors in the late winter. Water seedlings and provide at least 18 hours of light. During the vegetative state, plants grow substantially in size. By June 1, it’s time to move plants outside in most zones.

Planting Cannabis Outside
In most locations, Cannabis starters can be moved outside in early June.

Where to Grow Cannabis

Growing cannabis can be as simple or complex as you wish. When growing outdoors, you can succeed with loamy soil, sunshine, water, and fertilizer. Growing outdoors typically provides higher yields and a greater depth of flavor in the finished product. 

Whether in the ground or in large containers, plants have more space to grow, and many experts agree that environmental pressures encountered outdoors push a plant to produce a more complex balance of terpenes, which provide taste, aroma, and medicinal benefits. 

However, growing outdoors can make your cannabis vulnerable to pests, extreme weather, or even theft. Planting in containers allows you to bring cannabis indoors when needed for protection. When selecting where to grow your plants, consult local laws governing the number of plants allowed and rules on visibility and access.


The Importance of Light

Most cannabis strains are long-day plants, meaning that the plant will enter the flowering stage when the days begin to shorten following the summer solstice. Growers desiring large yields start seedlings inside in late winter and provide at least 18 hours of light—usually a combination of natural and artificial—until the last frost, after which the plants can be placed outside. 

However, plants that are started indoors under 18-plus hours of light may receive only 13 to 15 hours of daylight once moved outdoors, depending on location, which can cause stress and temporarily prompt the plant to enter the flowering stage. To prevent this, place plants permanently outside a little later in spring, 3 to 4 weeks before the summer solstice. 

You could also use supplemental lighting outside to extend light hours or break up the dark cycle by bringing the plants inside at sunset to be placed under lights. Learn more about the benefits of grow lights.

grow lights on cannabis
Many Cannabis plants benefit from supplemental lighting.

Fertilizing Cannabis

Nutrient requirements for the vegetation and flowering stages differ. To support the growth that occurs during the vegetative stage, high amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus are needed. During the flowering stage, growth slows as the plant concentrates on developing buds and building flowers. At this time, the grower should reduce nitrogen and increase potassium to aid the plant in flower development. Nutrient companies create perfect solutions for both the vegetative and bloom stages, usually labeled as such.

A grower should be on the lookout for toxicities and nutrient deficiencies. One of the most common issues is too much or too little nitrogen. If lower leaves are yellowing, nitrogen is most often needed. If the leaves turn a glossy dark green and curl under, then most likely, the plant has too much nitrogen. Watering with no nutrient supplement—a process known as “flushing”—would then be required.


The most crucial step in growing cannabis occurs at the end of the process when it’s time to harvest and dry the flowers. You can produce high-quality cannabis and then destroy it in the last steps by drying it too quickly or not providing enough ventilation. 

A grower needs to plan well in advance for harvesting, drying, and storing. You’ll need enough space to hang and dry your crop— essentially, an area that matches the size of your cultivation plot. Drying your harvested flowers slowly ensures a smooth and aromatic product.

Harvesting Cannabis

Once flowers form and the pistils darken, it’s time to check more closely for maturation. Using a phone camera, magnifying glass, or jeweler’s loupe at 30x magnification, you can see the trichomes, which look like tiny hairs on the flower. They will be transparent at first and then become clouded. When they are milky white, it’s time to harvest. 

Cut plants at the stem and hang them upside down in a dark, dry, well-ventilated location. Trim as much green leafy matter from the flowers as possible. It’s best to dry cannabis in an environment that provides 60 percent relative humidity and a temperature of at least 60°F (15°C). 

Drying the plant material takes from 5 to 7 days up to 2 weeks. Test for dryness by bending a stem; when it snaps, it’s ready.

It is essential to harvest your cannabis properly and at the right time.

Curing Cannabis

Curing is a preservation technique that removes moisture and renders a more shelf-stable herb. After drying your cannabis, remove any remaining fan leaves and move cannabis into closed containers. Periodically open containers to remove moisture and promote curing, which commonly takes 3 to 8 weeks—although some growers cure their crop for up to 6 months.

This initiates metabolic processes that change the chemical components of the cannabis plant to promote a smooth smoke. After a few weeks, the time between airings should be lengthened, while that of the airings themselves should be shortened.

Storing Cannabis

To store cannabis properly and reduce the degradation of cannabinoids and terpenes, place it in an airtight container out of direct sunlight. A hygrometer is used to measure relative humidity inside the container, maintaining it at around 55 to 65 percent.

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Wit and Wisdom
  • “Marijuana is extraordinarily safe, safer than most medicines prescribed every day. If marijuana were a new discovery rather than a well-known substance carrying cultural and political baggage, it would be hailed as a wonder drug.”  –Lester Grinspoon, M.D., Harvard University, in [Marijuana] Reconsidered (Harvard University Press, 2nd ed., 1977)
  • Cannabis is still illegal in many states. Make sure to read all local laws and regulations prior to beginning your cannabis-growing journey.
About The Author

Melissa Moore

Melissa Moore teaches courses in cannabis cultivation, regulatory compliance, and medical applications at SUNY Niagara in Sanborn, New York, where she is the coordinator of the horticulture department. Read More from Melissa Moore

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