Top Dress Your Weed Plants To Feed Your Soil
Synthetic fertilisers are convenient, but they leave the soil depleted in the long-run. Top dressing is a regenerative method of feeding plants that restores soil health and promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms.
There’s more than one way to feed a cannabis plant. Synthetic nutrients provide an instant solution to nutritional deficiencies, however, they don’t do much for the health of the soil. In contrast, organic nutrients provide the complete package, feeding plants and the soil in kind. Top dressing is a technique that involves applying organic nutrients to the surface of the soil. Many cultivators have improved the health of their crops using this simple yet effective method.
IMPORTANCE OF THE RHIZOSPHERE
Pioneering steps in the field of soil science have greatly enhanced our understanding of what is going on beneath the surface. We now know that the root zone (or rhizosphere) is a microcosm of life. It’s home to beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa. These microorganisms make up what soil scientist Dr Elaine Ingham calls the “soil food web”. They play fundamental roles in the health of soil and the plants that grow in it, from breaking down organic matter to deterring pests.
Researchers have compared the rhizosphere with a thriving alien landscape, with a single cubic centimetre of soil containing as much biodiversity as a hectare of above-ground forest.
Unfortunately, modern agricultural practices neglect this delicate system of life. Synthetic fertilisers and tilling are two culprits that have battered and bruised the soil, leading to erosion and the removal of the vital critters mentioned above. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic method of growing plants that tends to the soil food web. Simple feeding techniques—such as top dressing—restore soil health and produce superior quality cannabis plants.
This article will explain what top dressing is, why it’s beneficial, and how to apply it in your garden.
TOP DRESSING WILL BRING NEW LIFE TO YOUR SOIL (LITERALLY)
Top dressing is an ultra-easy way to add sustenance to the soil. It involves spreading a layer of compost or other amendments on the surface of beds or containers. Throughout the growing season, microbes will break down this matter and release a steady and constant flow of nutrients into the soil. By doing this, you’re essentially feeding the soil, which then feeds your plants.
Top dressing is a regenerative alternative to synthetic nutrients and tilling. Conventional growing involves pouring nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus into the soil. This addition is shortly followed by tilling—the act of distributing the soil using a plough or rototiller. Although this method aerates the soil and makes it easier for seedlings to gain a foothold, it decimates the soil food web.
Tilling lays waste to microbial life, shreds beneficial fungal networks, and releases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. As a regenerative no-till technique, top dressing achieves the opposite. It allows gardeners to build their soil over the seasons and foster strong microbial communities. Synthetic nutrients will slowly deplete your soil of life, whereas top dressing will result in long-term sustenance. Healthy soil gives rise to more robust plants, larger yields, and higher-quality flowers.
Applying synthetic fertilisers without considering the soil food web is akin to feeding ourselves without considering our own microbiome—a vital element of human health.
In the words of Dr Ingham: “Put your workforce back into place. They don’t need holidays. Just make sure they’re in your soil and feed them. Our job is to make sure there is a diversity of microorganisms, so plants can choose which organisms they need”.
WHEN TO TOP DRESS YOUR SOIL
Growers need to top dress their soil in early spring, before the start of the growing season, because it takes the microbes a while to break down organic matter and release nutrients. By top dressing early, your soil will be swimming in nutrients as your plants enter the vegetative phase.
If you’re working with a simple soil, you’ll need to redress it several times throughout the season. Top dress your beds and containers every three weeks to keep your microbes and plants fed. If you’re working with a complex and healthy soil, you’ll only need to redress it at the start of the flowering phase.
Although top dressing can provide a full spectrum of nutrients, it’s still possible for deficiencies to occur. Because organic matter takes some time to break down, you’ll need to use a fast-acting technique to address them. Compost tea is a speedy and natural way to remedy any apparent deficiencies.
THE BEST AMENDMENTS FOR TOP DRESSING
Growers can choose from a plethora of amendments to top dress their soil. Although these options seem different on the surface, there’s a common thread between them—they’re loaded with nutrients! Let’s take a look at the best options.
Composting is a cheap and easy way to make a nutrient-rich amendment at home. Making compost is easy; all you need is a compost bin and some kitchen and garden waste. Try to maintain a 3:1 ratio of brown:green material. Brown material is high in carbon and includes dead leaves, sawdust, and straw. Green material is nitrogen-rich and encompasses fruit, vegetables, and fresh plant waste.
Once it’s ready, your compost will have a dark brown appearance and be soft to the touch. This material is full of organic matter and nutrients that’ll feed your plants and microbes.
BLOOD AND BONE MEAL
Blood and bone meal are organic fertilisers obtained from cattle. It might seem gruesome, but this is one of many ways nature keeps the soil thriving. Blood and bone meal are rich in the essential minerals phosphorus and nitrogen. The amendment is also effective at repelling mammals such as deer and squirrels.
Kelp meal is an amendment made from a nutrient-rich seaweed. The species contains a massive spectrum of minerals, including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, manganese, and zinc. Kelp also contains beneficial hormones and promotes the growth of soil microorganisms.
Worm castings is another term for, well, worm shit. These wriggly creatures are helpful garden allies. They convert kitchen and garden waste into nutrient-dense droppings. Gardeners can raise worms in a “worm bin” for a limitless supply of their excrement. Worm castings are a valuable amendment that contains potassium, nitrogen, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus.
Mycorrhizal fungi form a synergistic relationship with plants. They attach themselves to the roots and become an extension of the root system. These life forms are expert decomposers and excrete enzymes to break down organic matter. Plants fuel this process by feeding them sugars, and receive nutrients in return. Some species of mycorrhizal fungi may already exist in the soil. However, growers can inoculate their soil using Easy Roots Mycorrhiza Mix to make sure they’re present.
Top dressing is a simple and effective way to feed your cannabis plants and enhance soil health. Find out which amendments work best.
Growing for Maximum Flavor
A Growing Dilemma
So you’ve finally decided to grow your own marijuana, but 10 steps into your local grow store, you’re already overwhelmed by what seem like hundreds of choices. The worst part is, you have no idea what’s in these bottles. Sure, the labels have numbers for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but there’s no way to tell what makes one brand of nutes better than another, aside from the brand name and price.
If this story seems familiar, it’s high time to save yourself a lot of money and frustration and start producing more fragrant, potent, better-tasting buds by collaborating with Mother Nature instead of the nutrient companies. It’s time to try recycled organic living soil!
What Is ROLS?
Recycled organic living soil (ROLS for short) is an indoor growing method that draws on a fact-based understanding of horticulture, botany and plant physiology coupled with the principles of soil science, organic farming, traditional agriculture and permaculture. In a ROLS garden, you’re nurturing a setup that creates a fertile living soil, full of microscopic organ- isms that “digest” food for your plants. You accomplish this by mixing a soil that has everything your microbial life needs to flourish: plant and mineral sources to break down into things your plants’ roots can take up; humic substances that act as a storage and delivery system for your nutrients; and aeration amendments to make sure your roots (and their micro- scopic friends) have plenty of fresh air. Once the soil is mixed, you fortify it with compost tea to kick off the microbial life and then give it some time for the soil to become fully populated. After a few weeks, you’re ready to grow some world-class organic plants!
A lot of marijuana growers get interested in organics because they want cleaner smoke, better flavors and more beautiful buds — but the advantages to growing organically don’t stop there. When you go ROLS, you’ll find that you spend less time and money on your garden, because once it gets started, your soil just keeps get- ting better with time. As an added bonus, some of the most time-consuming tasks involved in growing — like pH-balancing your nutrient solution and flushing your medium before harvest — become completely unnecessary when you work alongside Mother Nature.
Life Under a Microscope
A lot of different terms get thrown around to describe the microscopic organisms that inhabit your soil. You’ll hear or see words like microherd, microbeasties, soil life and plenty of others. For the purposes of this article, we’ll use the term microlife to describe the whole universe of creatures living, eating, reproducing and dying in your soil. You don’t have to understand or identify the exact types of microlife to be an amazing organic grower, but it can be an awe-inspiring research project to observe
a drop of compost tea or a soil sample under a 300x microscope. At that magnification, everything looks pretty much like a 1980s video game: You’ve got weird creatures swirling around in different patterns — some of them floating aimlessly, others using little jets or tentacles to scoot from one big gooey mass to another. With a little patience, you’ll see a bigger critter make a snack of a smaller one, or watch an organism divide itself into a pair of identical copies. It’s everything your high-school biology teacher promised it would be, though he probably never informed you that these tiny life forms are one of the secrets to growing dank herb.
Soil: It’s More Than Dirt
When we think of soil, we tend to imagine a pile of dirt — a brownish-black mass of broken-down rocks and plants. But soil is more than just dirt: It’s the combination of that organic matter plus billions upon billions of microscopic organisms. When the planet was still new, these bacteria, fungi and other forms of microlife evolved, living on the atoms and molecules in their physical environment.
The next life forms to show up were plants. Evolving into a world rich with microlife, plants flourished by working in harmony with their environment. When the microlife “eat” and “digest” chemical compounds to create energy for them- selves and “poop out” the waste from this process, they create the compounds that plants need to grow. The plants then use those compounds, along with water and light, to make food. It’s an elegant system in which the waste from one organism becomes food for the next, creating a cycle that can sustain itself without any outside help.
Feeding and caring for this cycle of life is what organic growers are focused on. We feed the soil, and the soil feeds our plants.
Battling the Bottles
Plants have grown the same way naturally for over 450 million years. Then, sometime in the past 100 or so years, chemists working in corporate laboratories discovered how to mix and match the constituents of various chemical compounds in order to make others. They realized it would be big business if they could just synthesize the finished product that soil feeds the plants, then concentrate it, bottle it and sell it at a profit.
Of course, they were right, as anyone who’s ever harvested a crop fed from plastic bottles can tell you. But think about it for a minute: Have you ever had a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and compared it to OJ made from concentrate? They may taste somewhat similar, but they’re definitely not the same.
When your soil is alive, it acts as your plant’s digestive system: It breaks things down and makes them available for the roots to uptake. It’s just like taking a bite of food: When you chew it, your teeth are making it smaller, enzymes are breaking it down, and once the food hits your stomach, bacteria split it up chemically, and the nutrients and vitamins get directed through your bloodstream to where they need to go. In living soil, worms and other small creatures make chunks of things in the soil smaller, enzymes break them down, bacteria split up the nutrients, and the roots take what they need and put the good stuff through the plant’s circulatory system.
Bottled nutrients take a different approach by skipping the breakdown process altogether. Instead, these nutrients are already chelated (pronounced key-lated), meaning the digestion your soil would be doing is already done. Feeding your plant chelated nutes is like hooking yourself up to an IV bag with a solution of protein, carbs and fats: You skip the whole digestion process, and as a result, the soil’s microlife doesn’t get fed. While that IV might have enough nutrition to keep you alive, it’s nothing like the healthy, balanced diet that your body needs to thrive.
With organic growing gaining popularity over the past few years, a lot of nutrient companies have come out with their own “organic” or even “veganic” lines.
In a sense, these bottled nutes are better than the old synthetic kind, since they were extracted from real plants. But remember that orange juice from concentrate was extracted from real plants once upon a time, too — but to make it practical to store, transport and sell, it’s been heated to remove the water and then mixed with preservatives to keep it from being a good environment for bacteria to develop. Bottled “organic” nutrients are a lot like OJ from concentrate: To make them practical to warehouse, ship and retail, they need to be concentrated and preserved through chelation. Since the object of organic living soil is to cultivate as many types of life as possible, bottled “organic” nutes are a more expensive and less productive alternative to our methods.
Also, while the idea of growing with good karma by keeping it vegan may be initially appealing, it’s worth taking some time to consider the bigger picture before you ditch the animal products. The major differences between an organic and a veganic approach are the inclusion of earthworms (or their castings), animal manures and amendments made from sea life (fish hydrolysate, crab meal, ground oyster shells, etc.). To state the obvious, worms and soil go together like fish and water — worms evolved to specialize in the soil environment, playing a major role in beginning the digestion process and adding structure, aeration and, of course, their very fertile castings.
Animal manures can be almost completely replaced with plant-based “green” manures — but since the heart of the organic method is a sustainable approach to growing plants, any time we can take what would be a pile of useless waste and turn it into high-grade fertilizer, it’s a win-win situation. Amendments created from sea life are also typically made from the waste products of other indus- trial processes and offer some very unique compounds (such as forms of calcium, silica and other minerals) that are rare and exotic treats for your soil.
Home Kitchen Bug Killers
For pest prevention, we use neem seed oil (usually found in the health and beauty aisle), as well as a spray made from fresh organic cilantro, mint, lemon rinds and hot peppers, combined in a food processor with a little water, organic rosemary and lavender essential oils, plus a drop or two of Dr. Bronner’s soap. The oil and soap work as a spreading agent to cover your plants evenly with the water-based mixture (which would otherwise bead up), and they also help the active ingredients in the herbs penetrate the exoskeletons of pests. A lot of the high-priced pesticides you find in grow stores use the exact same compounds found in these and other common herbs, seeds, barks and so on.
A “Protein Drink” for Your Plants
Raw, organic aloe vera juice is an amazing addition to your regular waterings or foliar feedings at 1⁄4 cup per gallon of water. Think of aloe vera doing for your plants what a protein shake does for an elite athlete: providing the body what it needs to grow bigger and stronger by giving it more raw material. Just like a human body will use amino acids to make proteins and proteins to make muscles, plants will use simple sugars to make starches, and starches to make their structures. Aloe vera juice is chock-full of simple sugars and starches, giving your plants the nutrition they need for serious performance.
For Plants That Grow Like Coconut Palms
Raw, organic coconut water can replace an armload of top-secret grow formulas. Added to feedings at 15 milliliters per liter of H2O, coconut water will cause your plants to grow faster, more vigorously, and with more buds sites and shorter internodal distances. Keep in mind that a coconut is the biggest seed on Earth — and like any other seed, it contains enough nutrition for the plant to grow until it develops sufficient leaves to make its own food. Coconut trees get taller by growing huge palm leaves that die off, leaving a trunk — which means that unlike cannabis, which grows stem space between each set of branches, coconut water has cytokinins (sigh-toe-kine-ens), hormones that signal the plant to divide cells in the roots and growing shoots, equaling explosive growth. Coconut water is also a great source of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals and elements your plants need.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Recycling your soil after harvest is one of the main principles of ROLS. As the soil lives, it breaks down the minerals mixed into it over long periods of time; certain elements will become available over a few weeks or months, but others won’t go through enough digestion for years. By recycling, we let nature work through some of these longer processes, resulting in complex compounds that nourish and protect your plants and microlife.
Recycling also makes the most efficient use of your microlife: Instead of tossing used soil into the trash or backyard garden and losing all the microlife we’ve cultivated over the growing cycle, we help it to replenish the soil by adding more food and giving the little guys time to re-establish themselves.
Many ROLS growers empty their containers into a pile, bin, tub or trashcan, mix it with soil amendments, add water or compost tea, and give it six weeks or longer for the microlife to find its rhythm. Some ROLS growers (including MicrobeMan, BlueJayWay and SilverSurfer_OG) are pioneering a no-till method, in which they transplant a new plant directly into the same container they just harvested from. This allows them to take full advantage of the thriving microlife without any delays or hiccups in a busy production schedule. In a no-till system, rather than mixing amendments into the soil, the amendments are sprinkled on top and watered in with teas, allowing the soil to digest them and replenish itself. The no-till method takes advantage of the relationship between the plant’s root system and the microlife that develops in the rhizosphere (rye-zoe-sphere) or root zone.
Humus Be Kidding
One of the key ingredients in ROLS is humus (hue-muss), a black, spongy, rich- smelling material that is produced by thriving microlife. Humus is made up of the parts of plants that are hard for the soil to digest (like waxes and woody lignins), along with the gums and starches that the microlife excretes as waste products. Humus is loaded with organic humic and fulvic acids, which do their part to feed the microlife that, in turn, feeds your plants.
But that’s just the beginning when it comes to humus: Humus holds moisture and provides room for the air that your roots and microlife need.
Humus holds and releases nutrients in ways that make them available to plants but also prevents them from washing away, acting like a nutrient “savings account” for the roots.
Humus creates food for your microlife, along with the vitamins, hormones, anti- biotics and other substances that protect and support your plants’ health.
Humus balances the pH in your soil so you don’t have to.
If you do a little research, you’ll find that there are almost as many ways of making compost as there are of growing pot. From composting in heaps or sheets, to composting in bins or tumblers, to using worms or black soldier flies, each method has its advantages in certain situations — for example, a compost heap isn’t very practical if you live in an apartment, but an earthworm farm might be perfect.
No matter how you compost, the goal is always the same: to create an environment in which organic substances can be efficiently turned into humus. The key to creating this environment is providing the right balance of green organic material like stems and grass clippings (which are packed with nitrogen) and brown or yellow organic material like dead leaves (which only have carbon left), along with enough moisture and air for the micro- life in the compost to thrive.
Look online for simple plans to make your own compost tumbler or stackable vermi-compost (worm-compost) bin, and start by feeding it your kitchen scraps and shredded paper. Before you know it, you’ll have more compost than you really need — and as you feed it your fan leaves, stems, trunks, root-balls, cardboard boxes and electricity bills, you may find great satisfaction in turning potential security risks into top-notch fertilizer.
By Plants, for Plants
Another key element of ROLS is the use of dynamic accumulators (DAs). DAs are cer- tain plants—usually fast-growing weeds — that take up nutrients and micronutrients from the soil and store them in their leaves. Some commonly used DAs are:
Tips From a Master, Plus a Winning Recipe
Nestor Garrido is a ROLS grower who took home a first-place Best Sativa for his Snowdawg at the 2011 High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Denver, and a second-place Best Sativa for his Durban Poison at the first US Cannabis Cup in 2013. Coming from a background in organic-food production, Nestor combined his family tradition of Earth-friendly sustainable gardening and his love of cannabis to grow some of the tastiest, most gorgeous buds on the planet.
For starters, it should be noted that with this mix (and all true organics), the objective is to “feed the soil,” getting away from the notion that we need to (force-)feed our plants a “fast-food diet,” as is the case with synthetic nutrients. This is done by adding organic amendments and allowing the microbial activity that ensues to balance out over time. The resulting byproduct creates a perfect environment for root growth, which translates into robust overall plant growth and stronger immunity (i.e., disease resistance).
Additional benefits from using this method include increased potency in the final product, coupled with the full spectrum of flavor expression and aromatic qualities in a particular strain. Buds grown in living soil have higher trichome density and terpene content, which will be noticeable to the smoker not only in the aromatic qualities and flavor, but also in the non-irritating smooth smoke that results when inhaled.
A few other advantages that one might take into account: less labor and cost; no pH meter; no guesswork trying to decide which fertilizers to use; no more changing and scrubbing nutrient reservoirs; and no contaminating wastewater going down our drains and into our rivers. Plus, as mentioned, the soil can be amended and reused over and over, leading to less waste disposal (and therefore less security risk).
Below are some recommended amend- ments that will benefit your soil mix — however, it’s always good to experiment with different mixes to discover what works best for you. An important thing to remember is that there is not some top-secret “proprietary formula” out there: Any mix focused on feeding the soil will result in a healthy biodynamic medium full of microbial activity that will ultimately grow the best nugs you’ve ever smoked.
So you’ve finally decided to grow your own marijuana, but 10 steps into your local grow store, you’re already overwhelmed by what seem like hundreds of