Permaculture: How does it work with cannabis?

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Waterdog Herb Farm is growing soil—it just so happens to have cannabis in it
By: Scott Pearse | Photographs: Cyril Guthridge

First off, a lot of you may be wondering, what is permaculture? Cyril Guthridge of Waterdog Herb Farm defines permaculture as “designing a natural system that is going to take care of and feed itself over the long haul.” It’s a term that has recently gained a wide following among those looking to maximize what their land can produce, while simultaneously sustaining the land’s natural health. Permaculture has also found fans in cities, with many urban farms utilizing permaculture’s efficient methods to grow in small spaces.

Permaculture promotes experimentation and observation. For example, if you have a poorly performing cherry tree, you might consider planting horseradish at the tree’s base; horseradish will choke out weeds and grasses that compete with the tree for nutrients. This simple system means you no longer need to weed or mulch the base of the tree, and as a bonus, now you have fresh horseradish! By leveraging the innate needs of plants and trees, permaculture aims to create a permanent system that needs no input.

How does it work with cannabis?

“We’re aiming to eliminate imports, and only focus on exports,” says Cyril. “We will bring in more compost, more worm casting, but the long-term goal is to have no imports and just grow soil.” Using permaculture design principles means that, in amongst the cannabis crops, you will also find cover crops to retain water and deter weeds, as well as beneficial companion plants such as calendula, chamomile, marigolds or stinging nettle. Most farmers will grow one cannabis plant per pot, but in a permaculture system, cannabis is paired with five to ten other plants that become part of the ecosystem.

Get the soil right

Permaculturalists possess a wide knowledge of plants that grow in their climate, looking to the species’ inputs and outputs to find complementary plantings that will keep their soil fertile. Cyril explains: “If you’re starting off a brand new garden, you’re going to have to buy great soil. If you buy soil one time, you’re really pretty much set. Even if you’re turning the plants over every two months, you can continue to use the same soil over and over. It’s kind of like a marriage; you don’t want to sustain a mediocre marriage, you want to build a great marriage and then sustain that.”

Why is it important?

As agriculture industrializes, the risk of destroying once-fertile land through chemical use and over-farming increases. For Cyril, the answer is permaculture: “We’re taking organic farming to its furthest extreme. My vision is that through permaculture and regenerative agriculture, we’re going to be able to convert piss-poor land into profitable agricultural plots where no one currently thinks it’s possible. This could be in an inner-city parking lot, or just as easily in the hills of Mendocino. It’s a very duplicatable process, it just needs little tweaks for it to work.”

Observations lead to results

Trying to find natural solutions to the myriad of issues faced by cultivators is no easy task, but through observation, research and experimentation, simple solutions emerge. At Waterdog Herb Farm, simply under-watering their last crop produced fantastic results: “Most people water their plants so much at the end, because they don’t want the plants to die. The plant’s terpenes are an above-ground communication system, and you want them communicating loudly. The way you get your plants to yield the loudest is through stress. You can stress it with chemicals, like big bloom products, or you can do it naturally. I do this by letting the plant get really dry. And this method, I don’t think it’s going to make a ten-pound plant, but it’s going to make the best plant you can grow. I’d rather sacrifice yield for quality any day of the week.”

Cannabis Companion plants

Beans
Delicious to eat, and good for you. Examples include bell beans and fava beans. Beans pull nitrogen out of the air to be used by nitrogen-hungry cannabis plants.

Calendula
Bright colors and a fragrant scent makes Calendula especially appealing to tiny pests who might otherwise be chomping on your cannabis.

Chamomile
One of the best all-around companion plants for cannabis. Chamomile can capture accumulated calcium, sulphur and potassium, which is delivered back to the soil as the plant breaks down.

Stinging Nettle
Though most farmers would avoid this companion plant, stinging nettle adds iron, magnesium, calcium and potassium to soil. It also makes a fantastic compost tea to add as fertilizer, once cut down.

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