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The Steps to a Successful Cannabis Harvest

Posted May 6th, 2019 by Dustin Fraser in ,

For the past several months you’ve been diligently tending to your crop and paying close attention to every last detail.  The high-performance outdoor cannabis garden is now full of enormous plants with lush growth. The time to reap the fruits, or flowers, of your labor has finally arrived.  You may feel like you have reached the finish line. Not so fast. There is more work to be done. The buds need to be harvested, trimmed, dried, and cured. Though this last portion of the job seems small when compared to the rest of the season, if it is not done properly the quality of the buds can be drastically diminished.  Working hard all season only to end up with a mediocre product can be avoided if the same detail to attention that was given throughout the season is also given to the harvest.   Harvesting at the right time and drying/curing the buds to perfection will help your product stand above the competition and give you the respect a worthy grower deserves.

A valuable practice to follow is flushing the growing medium for up to two weeks before the desired harvest date. Flushing entails feeding with only water and stopping the application of nutrients until harvest. Doing so allows the plant to absorb any remaining nutrients in the soil and to metabolize them so there are limited traces left in the harvested bud.  This will ensure that the finished product is less harsh and has a natural flavor and aroma.  As the soil nutrient levels decline the plant will begin to consume its own sugars and starches as a source of energy, which also results in a markedly better product.

At the same time you start the flushing process you should also remove any remaining large fan leaves that will not be part of the final harvest.  Doing so will make sure any remaining nutrients and plant energy will be directed to the actively growing flower buds, leading to an increase in their size.  The question you may be asking yourself right now is this: If the growing medium should be flushed for up to two weeks before the projected harvest date, how do I know when the buds will be ready to be harvested?  To know when to begin flushing you must be able to determine when the buds are ripe. Pinpointing when the buds are ripe is best done by utilizing a two-pronged approach.

Determining Ripeness

Not all of the buds will become ripe at the same time. You should understand that the quality is best when they are harvested at peak ripeness.  The timing in which the buds are harvested will affect the appearance, aroma, flavor, and overall potency for the end user. Typically the window for harvesting is two to four weeks. Buds that are harvested too early will be relatively low in THC and have little effect on the end user. Buds picked at the beginning of the harvest window will contain more of the psychotropic cannabinoid THC (Delta9-Tetrahydrocannabinol) and will produce more of a clear-headed and uplifted feeling.  The later the buds are harvested the more of a sedative-like effect they will have which is good for treating problems like insomnia.  When the buds are allowed to ripen for longer periods of time the THC will begin to degrade and convert into another cannabinoid called CBN (Cannabinol), which is responsible for the lazier, more relaxed sensation.

There are two main methods for determining when a bud is of peak ripeness.  One way is by noticing the change of color and shape in the pistils of the flower.  The pistils are the hair-like structures that protrude out from the flower itself.  These are the part of the flower that catches pollen from a male flower to initiate fertilization and seed formation.  Since all of the plants should be females there will not be any cross pollination and those pistils can be used to determine the stage of ripening.

Early on in the flower’s development the pistils, or “hairs,” will be white in color and stick pretty much straight out.  This is the plant attempting to collect as much pollen as possible, which it will be unable to do. As the flowers begin to ripen the pistils will start changing from white to a brownish orange or golden color.  This signifies that the plant is beginning to ramp up the production of THC.  As the color of the pistils change they will also start to curl in closer to the flower itself.  For a product that is higher in THC, that offers the clear headed feeling, the buds should be harvested when 40 to 60 percent of the pistils, or “hairs,” have changed in color.  The remaining white pistils will continue changing color during the drying process.  Harvesting within this time period will almost always ensure a high quality yield.  After 70 to 90 percent of the pistils, or “hairs,” are allowed to change color they will become darker brown or red. At this time the levels of THC will be lower with higher levels of the CBN cannabinoid that causes the sedative affect.  The exact colors of the pistils may vary from strain to strain, but the overall concept for determining ripeness remains the same.

The other way of visually determining a bud’s state of ripeness is through close inspection of the trichomes that inhabit the leaves surrounding the flower.  Trichomes are tiny glandular structures that grow from the surface of the leaves and give the buds their crystal-like appearance.  They are comprised of a stem with a little bulb on top and kind of resemble tiny mushrooms. Cannabinoids, such as THC and other essential oils or terpenes, are created and stored within the tips of the trichomes.  Their main purpose from an evolutionary point of view is to protect the plant from the sun’s UV rays and external attacks by insects and other pests.  Trichomes can also help a grower determine when the bud is reaching a desired stage of ripeness.

As was the case with the pistils of the flower, trichomes can tell us quite a bit just by their appearance alone.  In the early stages of flower production the trichomes begin to develop.  They initially look clear and glasslike, but as the bud begins to ripen they also begin to change.  The first change they make is a transitioning from a clear state to one that is cloudier or opaque.  At this stage the trichomes are producing higher amounts of THC and offer more of a psychotropic effect.  When 80 to 90 percent of the trichomes become cloudy and opaque, the buds are at maximum quality and should be harvested.  After the trichomes reach the cloudy stage their color will shift yet again to more of an amber color.  At this, and subsequent stages, the THC will start breaking down and converting to CBN giving the product more of a sedative (“couch lock”) quality.  For best results, unless you want a higher CBN product, be sure to harvest before five to 10 percent of the trichomes turn amber in color.  As was the case with the flower pistils, the trichome color changes may differ for each individual strain but the initial transition to cloudy will be similar.  Since trichomes are quite small, a magnification instrument should be used to appropriately judge their appearance.

Multiple Cut Harvest

Buds grown in a high-performance outdoor cannabis garden are similar to tomatoes in the sense that they will not all ripen at the same time. When growing large cannabis plants, which have several flowering points, the top parts of the canopy that receive the most sunlight will ripen first, followed closely by the surrounding lower branches.  For this reason, the tops of the plant should be harvested first.  Harvesting the upper branches first also allows more sunlight to reach the lower branches.  This increased exposure to sunlight reduces the time it takes for them to ripen.  If you wait to harvest until the lower branches are ready, then the top buds will become overripe and the quality will decrease.

In the early part of the harvest window, when the buds on the top of the canopy are ready, harvest them using large pruning shears that can easily cut through the stems.  The stems can be thick, therefore long-handled pruning shears like the ones used to prune bushes and small tree branches work best.  Harvest by cutting the branches from the plant about four- to six-inches below the bottom-most flower bud on the stem.  If possible, make the cut just below the point of another lateral shoot that connects to the main stem. This should create a “V” that will also be a handy way to hang the buds to dry.  Immediately after cutting off the branch remove, by hand, any remaining larger fan or sugar leaves as these are no longer needed.  When they are ready and ripe, lower branches should be harvested in the same fashion.  Depending on the size of the plant, it may take up to four separate harvest cuts spread out over a week or so to gather the entire crop.  The best time to harvest is in the morning or early evening when the rate of photosynthesis is lower and the plants are not creating as many sugars and starches that can negatively affect the quality.  After the stems, full of buds, are harvested it is time to dry and trim them down.

Trimming and Work Force

The choice of whether to trim the harvested buds before or after drying them is up to you as a grower. Both methods come with their own sets of ups and downs.  Harvesting when the product is still wet, before drying, is often the easier choice but it can affect flavor in the end.  When wet leaves are cut back the chlorophyll that is still somewhat fresh can leach back into the stem and relocate into the flowers.  This may result in the buds having a slight grassy or hay-type taste to them. Allowing the buds to properly dry before trimming will give the remaining chlorophyll molecules time to breakdown or degrade to where they will no longer affect the taste.  Trimming the buds after drying is more difficult than doing so when they are fresh.  As the leaves dry they have a tendency to curl back and around the buds making them harder to trim.  If great care is not given when trimming dry buds the end product can become overly leafy.

When trimming wet or fresh cannabis you will want to cut back the leaves that are protruding past the flower.  Cut the leaves back so they are flush with the bud itself, giving the finished product a nice uniform appearance. If the leaves are coated by heavy trichome production you may want to trim a little less and keep more of the leaf.  The remaining leaf will curl around the flower as it dries, which can add to the bud’s aesthetic appeal.  Dry buds should be trimmed in the same fashion.  Though it may be a bit more difficult, having the leaves in place when the bud is dried will help the trimmer identify how much of each leaf to remove and how much to leave intact.  Regardless of whether the trimming is to be done wet or dry, it is best to use handheld precision trimmers. Do not use electronic trimming machines.  The shape, size, and design of electric trimmers may vary but, for the most part, they all come with the same major disadvantage of trimming too closely to the bud itself.  The goal when trimming is to remove the larger leafy matter so the flower buds have a more uniform look that is not “stringy” with dried leaves.  Electric trimmers tend to cut so close that they damage the actual bud, resulting in a noticeable drop in the weight of the overall yield, especially if you had a large harvest.  Trimming by hand may take longer but the accuracy of each deliberate cut is significantly increased.

Proper trimming takes a great deal of time.  Depending on the number of plants and their size, trimming all of them by hand can be a monumental undertaking.  For example, if you grow 25 plants and yield 10 pounds per plant there will be 250 pounds that need to be carefully manicured.  Doing so alone would take far too long since the key to trimming the crop is to get it done in the least amount of time as possible.  Hiring outside help is the best way to get the job done quickly and more efficiently.  In places like the Emerald Triangle in California there are seasonal workers that specialize in trimming. They start showing up in the area as harvest time grows near.  These workers have been aptly referred to as “trimmigrants” and many are very skilled at the job.

Trimming is a slow and tedious process and the best trimmers can only trim somewhere around a pound every four hours.  If you find someone that can average two pounds a day, keep them around because they are a golden asset.  When hiring outside help, try to find trustworthy people that are hardworking and reliable and not someone that hangs out and admires the crop all day.  You want someone that is there to get the job done.  With that said, it is important to provide any workers with a fair wage for their work.  If you are unsure of how much to compensate them, then ask other growers to see what the prevailing wage is for your area.  Also, before hiring any trimmers do the right thing and review any rules and regulations to make sure you do so legally.

Before trimming begins, be sure that you have enough trimming supplies like precision trimmers and heavy-duty latex gloves.  Make sure to keep the cutting blades of the precision trimmers cleaned and lubricated. The buds contain lots of resins that will collect on the tools and hands (hence the gloves).  Clean the trimming blades often with isopropyl alcohol, which sterilizes them as well.  To avoid unwanted chemicals, choose a lubricant that is labeled as food-grade safe to keep the tools operating.  Additionally, be sure to save all of the “trim” that is removed because it can be used to make one of the many popular cannabis by-products that are helping to fuel the market.  The array of by-products is vast and includes items such as extracts, hash, oils, salves, shatter, wax, edibles, topical creams, and even lip balm.

Drying

Drying is the first step in the preservation of the harvest. The goal is to remove most of the remaining moisture from the buds so they will taste and burn better.  The moisture needs to be drawn out at a nice slow pace so the buds dry evenly but do not become overly dry and begin to crumble.  This should take 5 to 10 days, depending on the relative humidity levels in the drying room.  Ideally, the drying area should be cool, dark, and dry with a relative humidity between 30 and 50 percent.  If the relative humidity rises above 50 percent, incorporating a dehumidifier into the drying room is a simple solution. For the best results, the temperature should remain between 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit.  Depending on the weather in the fall, the temperatures may reach closer to 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  This should not cause any issues as long as the room stays dry.  Try to avoid using an air conditioner because they can cause the buds to dry too quickly.  A fan should be used to keep air flowing around the buds and help keep the temperature and moisture levels even throughout the room.  Run the fan on low or medium and aim it towards a nearby wall to deflect and circulate the air.  Aiming the fan directly at the buds will certainly dry them too fast.

To start drying the harvest, run string horizontally at about eye level.  Use heavy-duty string so to ensure it won’t snap or break from the weight of the buds.  Hang the flower branches from the string so that the buds are pointing towards the ground.  The branches that were cut at a point where another lateral stem creates a “V” shape can be hung by resting the center of the “V” on to the string.  They should balance well enough so they won’t fall.  Straight branches that do not have the “V” can be hung with the help of clothes pins or similar style clips.  When hanging the buds to dry, make sure to leave a few inches of space between the separate branches so they do not touch each other and the air can easily flow around them.  Doing so will allow them to dry more evenly and at a uniform pace.  Another important thing to do is to space the drying strings far enough away from each other so there is enough space to walk between them and monitor the drying process.

The drying buds should be checked at least once a day to see how they are progressing and to make sure you catch them before they get too dry.  The best way to assess the progress of the drying buds is by hand.  When the buds are properly dried the outside will appear completely dry but the insides will still be sort of squishy or soft.  This means there is still a moderate amount of moisture on the internal portion of the bud.  During the curing process this moisture will become evenly distributed among the buds, leaving them not overly moist or overly dry.  When the buds are done drying the smallest stems should snap when bent and the large stems should bend but not easily break.  If the buds are dried for too long THC can begin to break down and degrade into CBN.  When the buds are dried too fast they may become brittle and crumble when touched.  This is why paying close attention to the temperature and humidity conditions in the room is so important. Improperly drying the buds can have a noticeable and negative effect on their overall quality.

Curing

Curing is a technique growers use to help preserve the cannabis harvests for longer periods of time by allowing the remaining moisture within the buds to become more evenly distributed.  At the same time, curing also allows for the continued break down, or degradation, of the chlorophyll molecules within the leaves and buds.  Buds that retain higher levels of chlorophyll tend to have a harsher taste when smoked.  Large scale commercial cannabis operations often skip the curing process and sell the crop after just drying alone.  They do this in an effort to achieve a quicker return on investment.  With no curing, however, cannabis is less flavorful, less aromatic, and will not maintain freshness and quality over time.  Cannabis that has been thoroughly cured and properly stored can last up to a year without a noticeable decline in quality.

The curing process should begin immediately following the drying stage. Taking the time to properly cure your harvest will create a high quality product that reflects your hard work. This could take two to three months so patience is indeed a virtue. The wait will surely be worth it.

To properly execute the curing process you will need some type of airtight container.  Harvests from a high-performance outdoor cannabis garden tend to be quite plentiful so large plastic tote containers are often the best choice.  Buds can be cured while still attached to the main stem but they will take up more space and require the use of several containers.  In an effort to limit the amount of curing containers needed the individual buds should be removed from the main stem beforehand.  This is referred to as “bucking it down” and will make the curing process a bit easier to handle.

Fill each large plastic container about 80 percent full of the buds and immediately close the lid securely. Not filling the containers all the way ensures that fresh air can be exchanged for the moisture-laden air from within. For the first four- to five-weeks of curing the lids should be removed once a day to release the moisture and allow more fresh air in. When the lid is open it is also good practice to stir the buds so they can cure evenly. This prevents the buds on the bottom from sitting in higher moisture levels than the top ones. Doing this also helps eliminate the possibility of mold growth on the buds. The ideal relative humidity within the containers is 50 to 60 percent. External hygrometers with wired or wireless sensors are a handy way to monitor this.  If the humidity level is too high then the buds were not dried long enough and should be removed from the container for a day or so.  After a month or so you should be able to stop removing the lid daily; check them every two to four days instead.  When the moisture levels are evenly distributed throughout the buds the curing process is complete. To check this, gently squeeze the buds between your fingers. If the buds feel evenly dry and do not crumble from the touch, then they are ready for blending and long term storage.  If the buds feel too dry they may have been cured too long. Most grow stores will have some type of humidity-supplying pack that can be placed in the container for a couple days to help replenish the moisture within the buds.

Blending Of Finished Product & Long Term Storage

Curing the buds is the best way to achieve an even consistency of moisture and dryness within the buds, but since they are several different sizes they will need to be mixed together properly.  Blending the finished product ensures the packaged product will equally represent all of the different individual buds. In each individual package, blend together equal amounts of the big, mid-sized, and small buds to create a nice even mix. If some of the smaller buds ended up a little dryer than the bigger ones they too will benefit from product blending as they will gather some moisture from the larger buds, improving their quality.

When deciding which container to use for storing the product, the first thing to do is determine how long the product will need to be stored.  If you plan on selling it into the medical market within one- to two-months the storage container can be different than if you plan on holding it for six to eight months, or even a year.  For shorter term storage standard turkey bags that don’t allow air in or out, and will maintain freshness, are price effective and work great.  For longer term storage, wide-mouthed glass mason jars are a good choice, but if the harvest is a big one it will take a lot of jars to contain it.  Vacuum-sealed bags will give you excellent long-term storage capabilities and can hold more product comparatively.

There are even devices on the market today that add nitrogen as a gas into the bag while it is being sealed. This helps maintain optimal freshness for longer periods of time while not affecting flavor, and is the same process used to bag potato chips. When stored in a completely airtight container the high-performance outdoor cannabis crop can last for up to a year without losing much of its flavor and potency. After the buds have been placed and sealed in their storage container they should be kept in a cool, dark place that can be easily monitored until they are sold.

Suggested Vendor

Hand trimming will always be the best way to manicure your plants. With Speedee Trim you’re still hand trimming with the quality of your end product depending entirely on the skill of the trimmer. No manufacturer has ever adequately addressed the need for a trimmer that can accurately remove water leaves and stems while at the same time having the ability to volume trim the bulk of the flower. Speedee Trim offers 5 custom blade options for wet/dry trimming and pruning. Angled blade tips allow you to get into the tight spots on your plants removing only what you want to take off while leaving the surrounding foliage intact providing you with a finished trim identical to that of scissors. Also, the main body of the blade can be used for volume trimming the sides of the flower in a fraction of the time. No other automated trimmer on the market at any price has the versatility and multiple manicuring functions as the Speedee Trim. Once the technique is learned, it’s quite possible to hand trim 2lbs+ an hour. For more information, call 415.866.0117, visit Speedeetrim.com or email al@speedeetrim.com. Mention this ad for discount.

This article is an excerpt from Outdoor Performance Cannabis written by Dustin Fraser and published by High County Publishing. For more information visit HighCountyPublishing.com.

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