It was a windy day. I wasn’t far from the ocean, although I couldn’t see it. The valley was cold for June and I could smell the salt in the air. I don’t often get to visit growers, especially ones who aren’t already clients. But there I was, on a “cold-call” to an ornamental grower. It was sunny, and the nursery was buzzing with side-by-sides taking plants and people to flatbed trucks.
I walked into the portable office and caught a women in the middle of filing some paperwork. She stopped, looked at me, gave a pause and a puzzled look and asked “are you a contractor?” Dressed in a dress shirt tucked into jeans with shoes not particularly appropriate for walking around a nursery, she must have guessed I was not. An awkward conversation later, I walked to meet the owner.
With wind at his back, the second thing I noticed was the smell of his dutch cigarette. It reminded me of a train station in Amsterdam. The first thing I had noticed was his grey hair and tanned, weathered face. I laughed to myself thinking I had at least an eighty percent chance of being right whenever I guess a nursery owner is an old Dutch guy.
Despite the surprise visit, he was not unfriendly, not even rushed to send me off. And even though I was essentially selling something, he gave me some time and we had a great conversation about plants and bugs.
He did not become a customer of mine.
He was a good grower. He was not selling to the public, but did mostly landscaping stock: trees, woody ornamentals and lots of those “parking-lot shrubs” you see decorating big-box-stores. We talked at length of the relationship between nutrients and pests and he insisted his success rode on “growing them hard.” What he meant was he grew them dry, with fair soil, but with no amendments or fertilizers. “Just like a boy, they have to work to grow,” he laughed. I didn’t disagree. And I still don’t. The sad truth of my industry is that plants are fairly well suited to survive pest problems. It’s only when we grow them unnaturally that we run into problems. “Aphids?” He repeated my question. “Never had a problem.”
There are many good commercial growers who recognize how they create their own pest problems. For example, a typical requirement for beneficial insects is when a flower grower has scheduled plants, such as those for Mother’s Day or Easter. If the weeks leading up to the sale date are poor and the growers have plants that are small and will not get top price they often do a “push.” The “push” is a heavy dosage of flower or foliage-producing fertilizers. And typically, ahead of this push they increase their number of beneficial insects in anticipation of the fall-out from such a “push.” Nitrogen, in particular, results in soft, lush new growth and this attracts sucking insects and promotes their rapid reproduction. The “push” is growing them soft. It is not ideal, but something we all need to live with.
There are poor growers out there too. And they usually have pest problems. I can sometimes not help them because the cultural practices are so wrong. Offering an insect to eat fungus gnats (for example), when they are essentially creating the perfect breeding-ground for fungus gnats would be dishonest, or self-serving. So, while I am typically there to promote our beneficial insects, I often end up as a grower-consultant.
Some situations are hopeless. Seeing cannabis greenhouses where the poor plants are in thin, saturated soil, being fed consistently with fertilizer is so disheartening. And it is futile reminding these growers that cannabis originated in high, arid parts of the Himalayas, with poor, well-draining soil, and growing them more to their needs may benefit in a plant better capable of fighting off pests.
Of course, (as an “aside”), the over-arching problem with cannabis is the plants are so valuable that if growing them poorly produces more flower material, and even if that means spending tens of thousands of dollars on bio-control it may still be worth it. I’d like to see a comparison of that vs cannabis grown hard with no or little bio-control expenditures. But, until you lose money, why try anything different?
There are other problems too.
“How do I take care of fungus gnats?”
“Easy. Put in our soil-mites, Stratiolealaps scimitus, at 25 mites per square foot and if the gnats are already present, use a yellow sticky card above the soil level to trap some adults.”
“Ok. How often do I reapply?”
“That’s the best part: never. They won’t leave your pots, so they stay with the pot. It’s most efficient to put the mites in when plants are small, and then just let them multiply.”
**A month later.**
“My fungus gnats are out of control!”
“What? Did you use any chemicals?”
“Ok, try dropping the moisture level and reducing the amount of organic material in the soil mix.”
“We can’t reduce the moisture.”
“These clones need lots of water.”
“Doesn’t cannabis like roots to dry between waterings.”
“No, they are tropical and “Californian Sour Diesel” really needs a lot of water. It likes to be wet.”
“Ok, well I’ll try drying it out a little if I can.”
“Yeah, and use more sticky cards to help trap more gnats. Any other issues you’re dealing with?”
“We had thrips, but we sprayed a pyrethrin.”
“You just said you didn’t spray!”
“I didn’t spray a chemical. This one is safe for organics.”
“It’s still a chemical, just naturally derived. This explains the fungus gnats.”
“You killed the soil-mites.”
“Not likely, this one says it is safe for soil-dwelling insects and washes off in 2-3 days.”
“Wait, wait. First of all, when a chemical company says it’s “safe” that means no more than 50% died on contact. It does not tell you how many died an hour later or if the survivors are in any way negatively effected. Second, the residuals may rinse off, but the plants reaction to the spreader/sticker and some active ingredients can cause all sorts of insects to be repelled. There is simply no spray, chemical or home remedy that is compatible with a bio control program, expect maybe Neem Oil.”
“So what do we do now.”
“Physically trap, wait a few weeks and reapply all the beneficials and hope they survive.”
I grew a couple cannabis plants in my yard. My wife hated it – she dislikes the smell. I was growing them for fun with the intention of giving the dried plant material to a friend. They were thoroughly neglected – planted in a warm area against a concrete wall and rooted in thin soil mixed with pea-gravel – an old dog-run. Many projects in the yard were on the go, and irrigating that garden was bottom of the list. After a long, dry spell that whole garden was looking sickly, other than a pinot noir and the cannabis.
The whole season I was impressed – no insect problems, drought-tolerant, and deep, green leaves that added the “spring” colour of fresh growth and a texture like a Japanese Maple. I never watered them specifically, and never fertilized. I grew it “hard” and it grew well.
“Never water the vines.” The old man said to me. I had visited a a local vineyard to talk bugs (and sample some wines.) “A vine that is happy produces table grapes.”
“The grape has flavour and sugars. The more water, the more diluted, the less flavourful the wine.”
I looked down the steep slope of vines. It was mid summer and the grasses were tan. The view of the distant ocean was a deep blue. The vines were still their normal shade of green.“Do you mulch them?”
“No. The roots are deep. When it’s dry they grow deeper.” He took off his straw hat and wiped his brow. “In a way, stress is the essence of good wine.”
“I’ll remember the ‘struggle of the vine’ next time I have a glass!”
“ha, you should. And remember the grower simply trains the vine. The work is the vine’s, alone.”
I’ve had so many experiences with professional growers. The simple factor between good growers and bad is a recognition that the plant will grow on its own and the role of the grower is simply to facilitate.
The concept of “growing hard,” is one I have discovered recently. I think of it as the next-level in successful gardening: simply give plants only what they need. No excess.