Medical cannabis activist, farmer, hash maker, syndicated journalist, and consultant with over 25 years experience in the medical, legacy, and recreational markets.
Croptober has arrived! This is the most magical time of the year for outdoor cannabis farmers. Where all the hard work and effort, attention to detail and learning have all come together to produce some beautiful flowers. When you put a lot of hard work into your crop all season long you want to be able to make sure that the final stages of the process are on point. You can grow top shelf, AAA flowers but all of that can be ruined if the post harvest techniques are not dialed in. In this article we are going to go over the harvesting steps from taking down plants to curing them in jars to ensure that all that hard work isn’t wasted and becomes some midtown commons.
In this 4-part series, we'll look at the harvest, drying, curing, and long-term storage. We'll start with a detailed look at the right way to harvest cannabis flowers.
How To Harvest Cannabis
When harvesting your plants at the end of the season it’s important to make sure that your tools are cleaned and functioning properly prior to harvest. Spending a few minutes or a couple hours cleaning your tools, sharpening the edges of your scissors and choppers will make life substantially easier when you’re in the field. It’s extremely frustrating to try to cut down a 10 foot tall plant when you have dull tools.
Like most things in life there are several ways to harvest cannabis plants and there isn’t one particularly correct way to do it. But the following approach will help to minimize damage to the flowers, specifically the trichome heads. First thing to think about is how much actual drying space you have available relative to how much plant material you have to hang. This is something you will have to learn over time as it’s one of those judgment calls which varies on the type of flowers that are produced. If you have a large drying space then you can dry plants as a whole plant.
Essentially you would cut the plant at the base of the main stalk, flip it upside down and hang it to dry. Now if you’re working with a large plant that is 5’ to 15’ tall then this can become challenging not beating the plant up as you flip it and hang it. If your plants are smaller then this becomes a more feasible approach. Now depending on your cultivation style, specifically how you manage your canopy this will also influence how you harvest. Folks who do not clean up the lower branches and bottom flowers will find that those flowers often finish later than the flowers at the top of the plant. This approach allows for staggered harvests where some people will harvest the tops and then let the rest of the plant continue growing for another week or two and then harvest the rest when they feel that it has reached the stage at which they like their plants to be at.
When To Harvest
When should you harvest the plants? Well this is a topic that is sure to start some discussion among growers as everyone has their own approach to when they feel like the plant should be harvested. There are some standards, let's take a quick look at the baseline concepts. If you are growing for hash production and you want a bright colored end product then you're going to want to harvest the plants slightly earlier.
If the color of the hash doesn’t matter to you and you’re more interested in a heavier experience when you consume the finished product you're going to want to push the plants longer and harvest later. The most important aspect of all of this to remember is that you really need to learn your cultivars and get a better understanding of how they grow, when they finish and what they look like at different stages. This is substantially easier to do when you grow from clone and run the same clones each season. If you are growing from seed this becomes more challenging. But, as you increase your skill set and you continue to work with the same line of plants each year, you will get a better idea of the parameters that are involved with harvesting that line of genetics.
There are a few people who have given us some wonderful insights into when to harvest. Swami Select has discussed how he decides when the plant is ready to harvest. He actually speaks to the plant and asks it when it’s ready. Some may brush this off as being silly, but others will recognize that Swami has built a relationship with the plant through the season and this is one of the ways he is able to assess when the plant is ready. Frenchy Cannoli put out a diagram a few years ago that shows the stages of growth of cannabis bracts (also known informally as calyx’s, though this is technically the wrong biological terminology).
This infographic shows the farmer when to harvest the plant for use when making hash. Both Swami and Frenchy have noted that there is a distinct change in the plant's smell when it's ready for harvesting. Many people don’t understand this technique but the basis of it lies in the fact that the trichome heads reach maturity and essentially are ready to fall off. When you walk past the plant and the plant moves because of wind or it is shaken by the farmer, some of the heads will fall off and burst open releasing monoterpenes and other volatile secondary metabolites into the air. But all in all harvesting the plant will be dependent on your experience and personal tastes.
Some people will harvest in stages when they are growing a plant for the first time. Make sure to label the harvest date when you hang the plants so you can keep good records to reference for next season. This technique will help you build your knowledge base substantially faster than just guessing.
Tools Needed To Harvest Cannabis
Tools that are needed for harvesting vary depending on the size of the plants and the amount of plants being grown. The industry standard for tools includes a pair of sharp garden pruners, tree branch loppers, sometimes tree saws are used and I have in some cases where plants reach very tall heights have seen a small chainsaw used to cut the main stalk off the ground. Some sort of bin that is large enough to fit in the top buds is also ideal. If a bin isn't available its good to have a clean tarp laid out on the ground to pile the buds up on until they are able to be moved to the dry area. The important part to remember when harvesting is to be gentle. Trichome heads are sensitive and can rupture easily if you thrash the plant around during harvest. Be gentle, but also be efficient or it’ll take you forever to get through the harvest.
Some folks like to defoliate the plant prior to harvest and others choose not too. Defoliation is when you remove the large fan/sun leaves that don’t have any visible trichomes growing out of them. Many people will just take them off the plant and leave them on the ground to compost for next season. Others will collect them and add them to their compost piles or make ferments out of them. The other option is to leave the fan leaves on the plant and harvest it as is. Some people like this approach because they believe that the fan leaves help protect the trichome heads from being damaged in transport to the drying area. They also believe that the plant will dry more evenly and slower which may or may not create a smoother smoking flower at the end. While these concepts sound logical, there really isn't any data supporting that either one is better or worse. I urge you to try both and see which option works best for you in your growing and drying conditions.
If you want to have some fun at harvest, prior to planting your clones for the season, take a large quartz crystal and place it underneath the plant when you transplant it into the ground or your raised bed. You also need to allow the plant to grow a main stalk, which means you shouldn’t top the plant to manage the canopy. Allowing it to grow in its natural form. At the end of the season you can harvest the plant in such a way that you can create what's known as a “wizard's staff” which is essentially the entire main stalk of the plant still kept intact after harvest. When you are all finished with harvest you can dig up the plant, cut off a majority of the roots and wash out the dirt, and you will have a staff with a crystal attached to it.
In the next part of our Croptober series, we'll discuss how to dry cannabis after harvesting.
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