The Budding Botanist: what is living soil in cannabis?

cannabis plants living soil

With more states legalizing cannabis, interest in cultivating the plant continues to rise. And while cannabis may grow like a weed, it takes time, care, and consideration to craft top-shelf buds.

GreenState knows that people have lots of questions about growing cannabis. To help take the guesswork out, professional cultivator Kurt Kinneman, owner of Kinnektion Farms, is here to answer your budding queries. From seed to smoke, GreenState has you covered.

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Question: What does it mean to grow in living soil? How is it different than hydroponics?

In living soil, microorganisms create nutrients for plants, and water is a food source for the organisms. In hydroponics, water carries the nutrients for the plants and is the main nutrition source for plants. Hydroponics can also incorporate microorganisms, but because so many charged molecules are introduced as nutrients in the water, microorganisms struggle to survive. 

Living soil creates a perfect biome for microbes and fungi to survive. Once living soil is created, it can be sustained and easily managed by adding water once per day. Hydroponics requires multiple waterings per day to ensure plants get enough nutrients to sustain growth. The water must also be carefully monitored to ensure water conditions, like nutrient levels, are just the right proportions for plants. 

Living soil – not just dirt

Dirt and soil are not the same. Soil is teaming with microbes and fungi, while dirt is an inert substance that contains no microbial or organic matter. Dirt has no nourishing qualities for plant life and is an unusable medium for growing healthy, thriving plants. Living soil is a microbiome of minerals, organic matter, liquids, and gasses that provide plants and microorganisms with the nutrients they need to thrive.

Microbes and fungi consume organic matter and excrete nutrients in a form that plants can easily consume. Compost and animal by-products feed the microorganisms, feeding the plants. Living soil is a community of microorganisms secreting nutrients that nourish and sustain vibrant plant life. 

cannabis plant in living soil
A cannabis plant sprouts in soil. Photo: Canva

Soil composition

Soil components can vary greatly depending on input materials and your growing area—cannabis plants like a porous, well-draining soil capable of holding lots of air. The minerals in the soil are sand, silt, and clay. The combination of these components defines the texture of the soil. This will define how well the soil can absorb nutrients and slowly release them for plants to uptake. Clay can hold onto nutrients extremely well, but it is poor draining, while sand drains well but nutrients are easily flushed away with water. 

Besides minerals, soil also contains large amounts of organic matter. Organic matter is composted or processed animal and plant material. This can be manure, earthworm castings, blood meal, bone meal, kelp meal, alfalfa meal, or any other plant or animal material. These inputs can be manufactured and created with many techniques. Typically, composting and heat are used, but aerated compost teas and long ferments can also be added to soil to increase organic matter. Compost teas and compost ferment also introduce a diverse population of microbes and fungi. 

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Air and water are the final components of soil. Air is composed of many molecules, including oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Soil that is porous and capable of large amounts of air exchange can be utilized by plants’ roots and microorganisms to pull essential nutrients from the air. Water can also help introduce fresh oxygen into the soil. When water is stagnant, conditions become void of oxygen. Cannabis requires soil that is well draining to allow for maximum water and oxygen exchange.

Microbes and fungi

The microbes and fungi in the soil feed the plants. These microorganisms consume organic material and excrete nutrients that are viable for plants’ roots to easily uptake. The organisms constantly consume air, water, and organic material.

Ensuring there is enough air and water for the microbes means having porous soil. This allows air and water to be exchanged freely and prevents the soil from becoming anaerobic—aka oxygenless. Anaerobic soil creates a condition where rot can occur, and disease and viruses can take over. When soil becomes anaerobic, beneficial microorganisms will die.

Fungi in the soil break up large particles of organic matter, especially woody material. They are also great at releasing minerals from sand and clay to make them usable for plants. A special class of fungi called mycorrhizal fungi forms symbiotic relationships with plant roots and helps extend the reach of a root system to access more nutrients and water from the soil. 

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Containers and beds

Living soil requires large volumes of organic matter and porous material for plants and microorganisms to thrive. The organisms and fungi eat voraciously, and ensuring enough material for them to consume during a grow cycle is critical. Living soil is best suited for large fields or planting beds. Living soil can be used indoors either in pots seven gallons or larger or raised beds at least two feet by two feet. It’s all about providing enough food for the microbiome while providing aeration for air exchange.

Creating a utopia

Living soil is a community of microorganisms living in a utopia composed of minerals, organic matter, water, and air. The microorganisms live their best lives, and the plant’s roots are the community’s waste treatment facility. The roots consume all the microorganisms’ by-products and waste, and they continue to thrive. Living soil is all about feeding the microorganisms and giving them everything they need to be successful.

*This article was submitted by a guest contributor. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Kurt Kinneman is a cannabis cultivator and owner of Kinnektion Farms. He is also a horticultural engineer at AI Grow, a provider of automation solutions for controlled environment agriculture. In addition to cannabis, Kurt also grows pumpkins on his family farm.