No-till growing, or living soil, is a rising trend in cannabis cultivation that eschews synthetic fertilizers for the natural, nutritious byproduct of soil life. Bagged soils like potting soil are sterile, meaning they contain no life, and also require the addition of external nutrients to fuel plant growth and sustain health.
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But in nature, entire forests and fields of wildflowers thrive in soil which replenishes its own nutrients.
Living Soil Explained
Living soil hosts an ecosystem of microbes, beneficial fungi, predatory insects, and earthworms, all of which contribute in some way to plant health. For instance, mycorrhizal fungus acts as extensions of plant roots to further reach nutrients, and earthworms digest organic scraps into castings (poop) which are rich in all three macronutrients and micronutrients including calcium and iron.
Living soil is full of living organisms, microbes, fungi, and good bacteria. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
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When the soil is left undisturbed – not tilled – this ecosystem is allowed to establish around the plant and inevitably keeps it healthy, all without concentrated fertilizers that threaten to burn softer roots, and which need to be regularly flushed from the soil, particularly before harvesting.
To learn more about no-till growing, PotGuide spoke with the folks at Skunk WeRX, a cannabis processor based in Colorado, who specialize in top quality concentrate derived from cannabis grown in living soil
Interview with Skunk WeRX
[Trevor Ross]: For readers unfamiliar with the process, how would you define no-till growing and living soil?
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[Skunk WeRX]: No-till living soil growing is farming with minimal disturbance in a soil that supports life and plants, relying on nutrient cycling and the soil food web. Disturbing the soil breaks up beneficial fungal networks and can harm living organisms within the soil.
Nutrient cycling allows the plant to take what it wants when it wants, as long as it's there in the soil. Soil testing should be done every so often to make sure nutrients are in the proper ratios. The more life in your living soil the more nutrient cycling that will be going on.
[TR]: Growers tend to have strong opinions about what nutrients to add and when. How would you reassure growers who might balk at the suggestion of no nutrients at all?
[SW]: Well, I wouldn’t say no nutrients at all. It’s just not adding nutrients every feeding. It's kind of like someone on steroids bulking up vs. someone that exercises regularly and eats well – [that’s] living soil.
So you’re not force-feeding the plant, you’re allowing the plant to feed itself by creating optimal conditions within the soil it lives in. At first, it’s hard to fight the urge to want to throw a quick fix product at some problem. Over time it gets easier, and when it’s dialed in, it kind of takes care of itself.
Lady Bugs are great to have in the garden to eat aphids. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
[TR]: What lives in living soil?
[SW]: In our living soil we have bacteria, fungi, worms, nematodes, protozoa, rove beetles, pill bugs, lady bugs, and predatory mites. Occasionally, some unwanted things too like thrips, grubs, aphids, and slugs. However, those are few and far between and really a non-issue for us. All our good stuff tends to keep them in check.
[TR]: What are the benefits of living soil to the final product?
[SW]: When everything is firing, the yields we have seen rival anything we’ve seen from synthetics. And the potency is right up there too. Where you really notice the difference is in the taste. No harshness on the back end of the throat while exhaling. Just smooth smoke.
[TR]: What are the benefits of living soil to the growing process? Would you say it’s easier (than fertilizers and nutrient regimens)?
[SW]: I wouldn’t say it’s easier, it’s way more complex and things take time. You just have to stay ahead of the ball and check in on things to make sure everything’s happy. One major benefit is that overtime you have less inputs and labor. It’s more rewarding and enjoyable.
No-till soil beds that often full of cover crops that provide nutrients to the plants. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Growing with traditional nutrient regimes in coco was so sterile for me for the 8 years of my commercial experience. Now it’s like Jumanji up in the grow, a real jungle. It’s so fun to observe the life and see the process right before your eyes.
[TR]: What are some of the challenges that come with this growing method?
[SW]: You must anticipate more and think about the life in your soil and how what you’re adding in may affect that. Heavy metals are also more of a concern for living soil growers who re-use their soil time after time. Things can build up overtime causing concern.
We have to test everything we put into our soil to make sure it is below our threshold for allowable heavy metals so we can pass the rigorous testing here in Colorado. It can be done though, and we’re doing it.
[TR]: What’s the first thing growers at home can do to get started with living soil? And what advice do you have for beginners?
[SW]: Find yourself a good quality soil and start building and nurturing the life in it. Watch the Future Cannabis Project on YouTube. I would advise not to follow all the Instagram trends on growing out there. Do some real research and put it into practice for yourself. Enjoy the process and have fun!
The best soil to start building from may be a handful of compost. Similar to living soil, compost piles naturally foster an ecosystem of microbial life which feeds on the kitchen and garden scraps, and these microbes should spread quickly in a new environment when they are similarly fed.
When adding worms, look first to European night crawlers or composting red wigglers. If you opt to dig for worms outside, be sure to avoid the invasive jumping worms which will actually deplete soil nutrients.
Predatory insects and nematodes can be purchased online.