A month after California declared a state of emergency, more than 6.7 million acres have been burned in the west by unprecedented wildfires. In San Francisco, however, we’ve been fortunate to have our problems limited to poor air quality and the occasional ash falling from the sky. While that’s considerably more bearable than the experience many Californians have had in the past month, one question still looms in the minds of many Bay Area cannassers: “How the hell am I going to take care of my marijuana plants?!”
Growing outdoors takes longer than indoors, and this season the pot grown in the sun is starting to flower later than usual. For many, this means that ash became a problem once their plants started sprouting their sticky, resinous buds. Depending on your luck, you may have already encountered a disaster.
“It’s like spending all day making a Thanksgiving turkey and then someone drops it on the floor,” says Luna Stower, a wellness brand advisor and opinion leader in the cannabis industry who often works with home cannabis growers. “Yes, you can eat it, but will it be just as tasty?”
While the fires haven’t completely soiled this year’s outdoor crops, smoking buds with ash on them is pretty gross to say the least. The weather can also ruin the aesthetics and smell of your cannabis flower, if you are a home grower who is advanced enough to care for it. Advice can be difficult to find online due to the unprecedented circumstances of the season, and for many, finding the perfect solution involves a lot of trial and error.
To help you avoid some of the legwork (and sacrifice a few plants if you find out), we talked to local industry experts about how to save your home grow operation.
How badly your plants are affected will depend on your proximity to the fires. However, if you live in the Bay Area, your plants are probably salvageable, despite the final weeks of soot and smoke.
“If you want to be safe, you can send it to a lab,” recommends Erich Pearson, CEO and founder of the local cannabis pharmacy chain. SPARC. He agrees that Bay Area growers shouldn’t worry too much about the health effects of ash, unless you live near buildings burned, in which case the ash could contain heavy metals. Labs that cater to non-professionals are hard to find and often require you to send in an ounce or more of your crop for testing, so this isn’t an option for many home growers.
One rumor about its potential health effects can certainly be debunked: the fear that lye could build up on your plant’s foliage and buds. Lye is essentially ash and water, so it’s reasonable to assume that ash combined with morning dew or water from watering your plants can cause this abrasive chemical. However, there probably isn’t nearly enough ash on your plants to make a difference, especially if you manage to get some of that ash off.
“In all likelihood, you would be producing such a minute amount of lye that I don’t think it would have any effect on your crop,” says Dan Grace of Dark Heart Nursery, a high-quality cannabis clone producer that supplies much of the Bay Area.
The greater risk is that your cannabis will taste bad due to ‘smoke smell’, a term also used in the wine industry to describe how smoke can penetrate the skins of grapes. That only affects plants that are “fairly well matured,” Pearson said, so it’s probably only a concern if your plants are close to harvest.
The most common way people try to get ashes off their plants is by blowing it off manually. Elise McRoberts, Chief Marketing Officer of Berkeley Rosin Company Doc Green’s, recommends using a blower on a low setting. It’s a tip she heard about Epicurean, a Mendocino-based cannabis farm she follows on Instagram. This even reminded the Instagram-conscious pro about another tip: “Follow people who really know what they’re doing.” Many growers and flower brands have Instagram pages and offer advice as they learn.
If a leaf blower is too strong and you risk breaking branches, McRoberts also says to try using a blow dryer on a cool setting. Grace, from Dark Heart, also mentions trying compressed air. Either way, it’s a good idea to make blowing the ashes off your plants a regular part of your routine when the weather is particularly sooty. “It’s something you can do every few days, or as often as you need to,” says McRoberts.
Wash your tops
When your plants start to bloom, blowing the ashes off your plants may not be enough. If that’s you (or if you find yourself in that situation for the next few weeks), rinsing your plants well is an option.
“I have a 3-stage bucket system,” Stower says, with “three five-gallon buckets filled with, ideally, filtered water.” In the first two buckets, she says add a cup of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide and then dip your harvested buds in each bucket for a minute. She swirls the buds in the center of the bucket with her hands rather than hitting the sides, so that the plant’s resinous trichomes can be kept intact. After that, she says hang them to dry in a well-ventilated area between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit and 63-65 percent humidity, ideally. Adding a few fans in the room (though not aimed directly at the hanging knobs) will also help keep the air moving. “You’re trying to strike a balance between curing it so that the trichomes and the density and composition of the buds remain intact, but you’re also trying to reduce the ash,” Stower says.
What you want to avoid is mold growing on your drying buds, or any other type of fungus, which is a risk when soaking plant material in water. Most importantly, good ventilation is essential – and if there is a possibility that your buds are moldy, consider them dirty. In addition, it is worth noting that bud washing should only be done on harvested buds, not those still growing on the plant. “I’m always very concerned about any type of water on cannabis foliage, especially when it’s growing,” warns Dark Heart’s Dan Grace. “Powdery mildew is a much bigger problem than ash from my perspective.”
Set up a tent
Putting your plants in a tent is the first instinct for many people when the weather turns sour, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Pitching a tent can complicate your setup by increasing humidity, increasing the temperature around your plants and decreasing light—all things to consider against possible ash damage.
However, if there are going to be some really bad days, Erich Pearson says to keep going. “If you know you’re going to have some really smoky, sooty weather and ash raining down from the sky for a few days, and you have the means and resources to pitch a tent over your cannabis, that’s definitely a good thing to do,” he says.
When tenting, use a clear material, such as painter’s plastic, or something that still lets in a lot of light, such as 6 mil polyethylene, if possible. A structure that resembles an old-school hoop house, which can be made with a PVC pipe skeleton, is probably the best choice. However, simplicity is key, because before you know it you could be adding artificial light, dehumidifiers and expensive portable air conditioning units to keep conditions consistent. “You can build some pretty crazy device in your backyard,” Grace says.
Anyway, if you can help it, now is not the time to stop growing at home. Farms across the state have been affected by smoke odor, excessive ash and even the burning cannabis fields, making your home-grown cannabis increasingly valuable if you don’t want to break the bank this season. Outdoor flower prices could be hit by a price hike, and the craft brands that source outdoor flowers for their concentrates and pre-rolls could also increase their prices and reduce their variety selection.
“It’s such a shame because it’s already the drought time of the year,” says McRoberts. “We were waiting for ‘Croptober.’”
If ever there was a crucial and more difficult season to grow cannabis outdoors, this might be it. Between ash sticking to your buds, smoke smell and attacking issues like powdery mildew as you adapt can be a challenge for many home growers. However, that also means there’s never been a better time to learn – and despite rising prices, if you have to kill a plant, the recreational market will always be there.
“I grow a few plants in my backyard every year and I just try to have the most fun and the least stress with them,” Grace says. “My opinion would be not to stress about it.”