Using Living Soil For High-Quality Cannabis

Hands that are preparing the soil to grow cannabis seedlings that are growing Medical marijuana World Cannabis Day Concept
Photo: Miss NuchwaraTongrit / Shutterstock

More cultivators are returning to the living soil growing method: a tried-and-true classic that centers on the natural microbial benefits of soil for optimal, high-quality plant growth.

Despite technological developments in the cultivation space, few processes are as effective as the one that relies on Mother Nature. However, like any growing method, living soil cultivation comes with a fair balance of benefits and drawbacks, and depending on your needs as a cannabis cultivator, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with all of the details before making the switch.

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An organic living soil method of growing requires attention to detail and patience, but if you’re an experienced grower looking to take your crop to the next level, this might be a great option for you to learn more about.

What Makes Living Soil Alive?

If you’ve never utilized this growing method before, you might be wondering how living soil and regular soil differ — i.e., why is one considered alive, and why is it beneficial?

Living soil is teeming with organisms that eat and feed throughout the growing process. Any type of natural soil contains small and large actors, like fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes, predators, and other organic matter that can create a soil food web. All of these actors work symbiotically to nurture an ecosystem conducive to well-rounded, healthy plants.

When utilized properly, living soil can provide a happy medium between controlled cultivation and a completely natural process, allowing growers to reap the benefits of both ends of the spectrum at the same time. “The plants thrive in a living, diverse ecosystem,” said Moon Made Farms Owner Tina Gordon. “We feed the soil, not the plants; and through this, we sequester carbon by using oak as one of our main inputs. Cover cropping, mulch,  living mulch, and compost tea all contribute to living soil,” said Gordon.

Living Soil Benefits

There are quite a few benefits of utilizing living soil in cannabis cultivation, but it all depends on your desired outcome as a grower. Here are some of the major reasons cultivators in the industry turn to living soil for their products.

Living soil mimics nature. With a living soil mix, growers are able to optimize the aforementioned soil food web, which allows nutrients to break down in a diverse array that’s as close to nature as it gets — a sort of super soil that combines the best of meticulous preparation and natural processes.

Living soil is more cost-effective than other methods. Other cultivation methods require a great deal of expensive equipment, especially if you’re growing indoors and manipulating the elements with machinery. Living soil can be reused for upward of 30 grow cycles, providing great long-term value.

Living soil results in a more diverse terpene and cannabinoid expression. Because living soil cultivation allows for a diverse and true-to-nature ecosystem, your plants will respond accordingly, blossoming to their fullest potential in a variety of ways. For growers, operators, and consumers alike, the biggest benefit here is plant compound expression. The often-sought-after full-spectrum entourage effect that can only be achieved through robust terpene and cannabinoid profiles is naturally easier with living soil cultivation.

Living Soil Drawbacks

As with any growing method, living soil cultivation comes with some potential negatives you’ll want to consider.

Living soil requires a lot of attention to detail. If you aren’t well-versed in living soil cultivation methods and regularly ensuring your plants have what they need to thrive in your base mix, it may be difficult to benefit from this growing method. Indoor growing allows you to control the elements with more ease, and that level of control isn’t a luxury you’ll enjoy with living soil.

Living soil can be difficult to utilize if you aren’t in a conducive climate. If you live in a region that doesn’t allow for successful year-round outdoor cultivation, you’ll likely struggle with this growing method if the essential bacteria and fungus are fighting the elements.

How to make living soil

Living soil cultivation will require a bit more TLC on your end, but if full-spectrum cannabis is your priority, it’s definitely worth the effort. From compost teas and kelp meal to worm castings and coco coir, there are plenty of highly-utilized living soil recipes in the industry to help you achieve quality potting soil for your potting mix. However, your native soil and pH will play a key role so it’s important to start with a basic soil test and begin adding other ingredients to achieve a balanced final mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) for your environment.

“Making sure high-quality inputs are used in either your custom blends or purchased soil is critical,” said Kinnektion Products Owner Kurt Kinneman. Kinnektion’s craft hemp farm in River Falls, Wisconsin utilizes organic growing methods. “It is important to test for heavy metals along the way as well, cannabis plants are accumulator plants and will absorb anything in the soil, even the things we don’t want it to. It is also good to test the soil for microbial activity, pH, and other nutrient levels to see what ingredients should be added year after year,” said Kinneman.

Compost

The first and most vital aspect of DIY living soil is quality compost. Whether you order online or venture out to create your own, make sure to prioritize diversity. And if you’re ordering your soil, try to ensure it’s from a local distributor. Soil native to your geographic region is likely to be a better fit, resulting in higher quality cannabis products.

Grow Media

Your grow medium of choice is imperative to a quality soil structure with an ideal water-to-air ratio. A proper amount of water only covers one aspect of your growth process; in order for your plant’s microbes to thrive, you’ll have to consider wind as well. “Adding vermiculite and perlite to your soil mix is great for increased aeration and is something that won’t break down quickly in the soil providing lasting aeration and also helping prevent compaction over time,” said Kinneman.

Sphagnum Peat Moss

Sphagnum peat moss is the most common grow medium for living soil. With excellent water retention and draining capacity, peat moss allows for a slow release of organic compounds.

Coco Coir

Produced from the pith surrounding coconuts, coco coir allows for valuable soil input, ensuring your living soil tests well for high water-holding capacity. It’s also more sustainable than peat; it breaks down slowly and allows for more reuse.

Protein Meals

Protein meals extend beyond the cannabis industry as far as agricultural cultivation methods go, often used as supplementary livestock feed. With natural hormones and trace minerals to promote plant health, protein meals are a cost-effective and sustainable option for living soil growers.

These mixtures are mainly used to top dress your soil – a.k.a., replenishing the media with added nutrients to promote continued growth and plant health. You can utilize kelp meal, crustacean meal, alfalfa meal, fishbone meal, feather meal, or blood meal, depending on your specific growing needs.

Simple Living Soil Recipe

Kurt’s simple all-purpose tea (50 gallons):
  • 16 Cups of Terra Vesco Worm Castings or other high-quality compost
  • 2 Cups of Earth Juice Hi-brix or unsulphured molasses

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