agriculture

Marijuana Not Monoculture!

companion planting with cannabis
By on May 02, 2016

Finding a Companion for Those Lonely Cannabis Plants

We have a pesky, non-organic thorn in our side. Our current agricultural system is not based on sustainable means of cultivation and, unfortunately, this also applies to much of cannabis farming today. While the “organic” marijuana movement is gaining momentum, the vast majority of cultivators grow cannabis as a monocultural crop, which often entails the use of toxic pesticides and plant growth boosters to maximize profit.

A monoculture, or “monocropping,” involves growing one type of crop to the exclusion of others. There are virtually zero examples of monocropping in nature. Unlike monocropping, sustainable growing practices mimic what is done in nature and seek to recreate it in a controlled setting. 

As interest in medical cannabis has increased, the terms “organic” and “sustainably grown” have become trendy buzzwords within the industry. There is obviously a need to propagate more cannabis to supply a large consumer demand, but the “more for your money” approach to growing has not been conducive to healthy stewardship of the land. Our corporate-dominated agricultural system is broken, and the cannabis industry should not emulate its worst features.

Some cannabis farmers have adopted sustainable, alternative practices, including a technique known as companion planting or “multicropping.” Companion planting is a method of cultivation where various plants are grown together in ways that promote a dynamic, flourishing ecosystem. Companion planting improves the land’s resilience and also increases the yield and health of the plants within the garden.  

Cannabis companion planting

A Centuries-old Practice

The science of intercropping cannabis is still in its infancy. Presently, there is little scientific study of companion planting in general, and research and development efforts in the area of cannabis cultivation face additional obstacles due to the plant’s historical stigma. But the absence of hard science doesn’t discredit the ancient cultivation methods that utilized permaculture techniques as the standard. Human beings were growing sustainably long before the advent of toxic, soil-depleting industrial agriculture.

A classic example of companion planting is the “Three Sisters Method” used by indigenous peoples in the Americas for food production. Various tribes planted beans, corn, and squash — the golden crop trio — in proximity. This practice reflects an understanding of plant mutualism, wherein each cultivar has one or more functions that benefit the botanicals growing around it. In the Three Sisters model, the beans act as a nitrogen-fixer, which is essential for plant growth; the corn feeds off the nitrogen; the beans use the corn to climb on; the squash provides a source of shade and natural mulch, which conserves moisture in the soil and aids the growth of beans and corn. The plants are engaged synergistically in positive ways, and this contributes to a dynamic, thriving agricultural environment.  

The ancient practice of companion planting has been resurrected by modern-day permaculture farmers and to a lesser extent by cannabis growers. According to permaculturist Kate Miller of Alpine Botanicals in Nederland, Colorado, companion planting is “even more important now that we see what's happening to the planet, to soil fertility or lack thereof, and to our pollinating insects. Pollinators such as honey bees, butterflies, bats, and other insects simply do not thrive in a monoculture.”  

Miller’s medicinal garden includes cannabis and various companion plants with therapeutic properties of their own. Sometimes, these botanical companions can be combined with cannabis to create artisanal herbal formulas for healing. 

Multiple Benefits

beneficial plants for marijuana

Miller says that comfrey offers significant benefits as a botanical companion, functioning simultaneously as a cover crop and dynamic accumulator. Comfrey is also a natural remedy for external wounds, rashes, repairing tissue, and other skin issues. “The only downside of growing comfrey,” Miller explains, “is that it can take over and its large leaves can also shade out other plants. This is not a bad thing if you're trying to prevent weeds. You can chop up the comfrey leaves and use it as living mulch throughout the season, or even as animal fodder.” 

Alfalfa is another example of a companion plant with therapeutic as well as other benefits. Alfalfa acts as a nitrogen-fixer and it also stabilizes terraces to prevent soil erosion. A cultivator can harvest alfalfa for making compost. Or it can be brewed and consumed as a mineral-rich medicinal tea.

Cameron, another Colorado-based cannabis cultivator, maintains that intercropping techniques enable his plants to reach their greatest potential. “As far as ganja farmers are concerned,” he asserts, “a high diversity of organic soil offers all the nutrients for the plant to bloom into its fullest expression. This enhances both the flavor profile and resin content.” 

A well-fed plant is more likely to be disease-resistant. Permaculture techniques can build a plant’s resilience, making it stronger and healthier. Some cannabis cultivators utilize mycorrhizal fungus as a soil topping at the base of a marijuana plant to increase nutrient availability. “When all ecological niches are intentionally filled with beneficial organisms, there is little space for pests to take hold,” says Cameron. 

Cannabis is a highly adaptable and durable plant, but diseases and pests pose ongoing risks in both indoor and outdoor cultivation. Monocultures are major targets for problematic insects and pathogens like powdery mildew. By diversifying their crop spectrum, farmers are less likely to lose plants to disease and insect infestation. Companion planting also helps to create a stable, diverse habitat for a myriad of birds, bees, and small animals, which interact in positive ways with their botanical counterparts.

Outdoors and indoors

organic marijuana growing

For outdoor grows, crop rotation can help an ecosystem flourish by diversifying the earthly terrain. It’s more difficult but not impossible to implement companion planting techniques when growing indoors. This can be accomplished by placing various companion plants -- like basil to deter pests -- around cannabis pots. Cover crops with shallow roots can also be placed at the base of a marijuana plant to promote nutrient availability in the soil. One can also get creative by planting aromatic herbs for cooking and for medicinal purposes when growing indoors.  

“Throughout modern U.S. history, we have seen farmers falling victim to the monoculture cash crop mentality,” says Casey O’Neill, owner of Happyday Farms in Northern California. He grows 47 different kinds of veggies amongst his outdoor cannabis varieties. This enables Happyday to maximize space and harvest as much as possible from the same garden. O’Neill says that companion planting lowers cultivation costs and mitigates risk by providing economic protection that is lacking in monoculture farming. In the event of a theft or a raid, his food crops are left untouched and he is still able to sell vegetables at the local farmer’s market.  

O’Neill says it’s important to be sensitive to the needs of one’s cannabis plants whether growing outdoors or indoors. “The plants want to be cared for and loved. I tend to think they like being around us,” he mused. “You can see a lot of sterile growing environments for cannabis. I don’t think that is appropriate for what the plant wants.” 

Nakona, a Bay Area cannabis cultivator and artist of permanent ink at Blue Dragon Tattoo in San Francisco, also feels it’s important to tune into one’s plants and listen carefully to their language. Plants communicate in a variety of ways via aromatic terpenes that attract allies or repel predators as needed. “If you are talking to your plants, ask them what’s up. They will tell you what they need,” says Nakona, who grows cannabis and other botanicals both indoors and outdoors. He uses lavender for pest management and wild mustard to encourage beneficial pollinators. “The more bees around, the better,” he says. Nakona also integrates scarlet runner beans (for color, nitrogen fixing, and food) and nasturtium (as a cover crop, favorable bug attractor, and botanical remedy).  

Tips for Beginners

fungi cannabis companion

What are some considerations for those who would like to start companion planting in their cannabis garden? “Companion planting can seem daunting if you don't know which plants to use,” says Ryan Flint, a Mendocino county soil scientist and permaculturalist at Portal Plants. “Each kind of plant has specific growing conditions and needs.” 

Understanding what a plant likes or dislikes and appreciating the unique qualities of each cultivar are crucial for intercropping. Flint uses various crops and permaculture techniques in his gardens, not always focusing on cannabis. A favorite cultivar is red amaranth, which he grows to fill in space in the garden. He also plants drought-tolerant vines such as morning glory, raspberry, and passion flower to create a natural screen from predators. Flint starts his cannabis seedlings using mycorrhizal fungi inoculation. He observed that mushroom beneficials dramatically enhance the health of cannabis and other plants. “Mycorrhizal fungi grow into the root cells of your plants and work symbiotically,” he explained. “They feed the plants water and micronutrients. In exchange, the plants then feed the fungi the extra sugars produced from photosynthesis.”  

Not all plants do well together. As a general rule, a grower needs to avoid propagating crops in proximity to cannabis that are vulnerable to the same environmental threats like powdery mildew and russet mites. “Don’t plant things that would create susceptibility issues for cannabis,” advises Casey O’Neill from Happyday Farms. He avoids plants like cucumbers, melons, and squash, which are prone to powdery mildew. Instead, he recommends leafy greens for those who are beginning to intercrop their cannabis garden. Farmers should avoid growing plants with deep roots next to cannabis. Cultivars with shallow root structure, such as red clover, do not compete with cannabis for underground real estate.  

Keep in mind that cannabis can also be a great comrade for other plants in your “regular” garden. Marijuana’s deep taproot is good for aerating soil and bringing nutrients closer to the surface. Including cannabis in a crop rotation may make nutrients more readily available for the crops that come afterwards.

Some Cannabis Companions 

cannabis and bees

This list is available as a handout: Cannabis Companion Planting.

Companion plants fall into various categories. The list that follows is by no means exhaustive. Many plants fit into more than one group. Do your own research to see what works best for your specific growing conditions, purposes, and goals. 

Pest deterrents: These plants are generally aromatic in nature. They can confuse bugs or deter them all together by overwhelming them with a particular scent. Intersperse these with plants that are more susceptible to pests and predators. Lavender, lemon balm, catnip, basil, rosemary, sage, onion, garlic, peppermint, coriander, chrysanthemum, Artemisia spp. (wormwood & mugwort), dahlias, geranium, borage, calendula.

Beneficial pollinator attractors: Crops that entice helpful insects and winged animal friends support a dynamic and flourishing ecosystem. Try to use native plants that are indigenous to your area as these critters will gravitate to varieties they are familiar with. An easy way to start a companion-oriented garden is to use a beneficial pollinator mix. Dill, yarrow, parsley, hyssop, lavender, cumin, calendula, lemon balm, anise, dill, catnip, goldenrod, alfalfa, parsnip, thyme, chrysanthemum, fennel, chamomile, stinging nettles, tansy, buckwheat, fennel, comfrey, sage. 

Camouflage: These plants entice your eyes. They look pretty and can take the pressure off of cannabis as the plant of focus. They can also prevent pests from getting to your cannabis, as insects also see these crops and gravitate towards them. Nasturtium, amaranth, wild mustard.

Cover crops: Also known as “living mulch,” this type of plant typically grows close to the ground. It can be planted during off-season to minimize nutrient loss in the soil. Cover crops retain moisture and nutrients, thereby lessening the need for water consumption and commercial fertilizers. Cover crops can also be cut to ground level and allowed to compost in place, which prepares the soil for the next rotation. In addition, some of these plants can also be made into nutrient-rich compost teas, which aids in building an early resistance to powdery mildew. Nasturtium, comfrey, grains (oats & rye), red clover, peas, small edible greens, alfalfa, sweet peas, fava beans, vetch, stinging nettle.

Nitrogen-fixers (dynamic accumulation): Following a heavy cannabis rotation, it’s good to grow restorative nitrogen-fixing plants (see below). These botanical friends have symbiotic bacteria in their roots, and they pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and transfer it into the soil in a way that benefits the surrounding plants. Nitrogen is essential for a plant’s growing cycle. It is a major component of chlorophyll, the compound that enables photosynthesis. Nitrogen is also an integral part of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Plants need proteins.  Without them, they wither and die. Yarrow, hyssop, dandelion, vetch, comfrey, beans, peas, clovers, buckwheat, lentils. 

Micronutrient providers: These plants reinforce the ecosystem of beneficial organisms in the topsoil. Topsoil is where the majority of nutrients and beneficial organisms reside. Maintaining healthy topsoil enables diverse species to proliferate and provides your plants with a power boost. Dandelion, milk thistle, fungi.

Medicinal plants: Many companion plants have unique healing properties. Plant lots of herbs. Grow your own medicine cabinet. Yarrow, hyssop, chamomile, calendula, comfrey, calendula, lemon balm, dandelion, milk thistle, anise, fennel, peppermint, coriander, borage, anise, goldenrod, alfalfa, thyme, chamomile, stinging nettle, tansy, sage, passionflower, parsnip, cumin, parsley, red clover, alfalfa, Wormwood, mugwort, borage, lavender, catnips, rosemary, chrysanthemum, geranium, dandelion, hyssop, dill, basil, raspberry...

Food crops: Delicious vegetables, grains and legumes. Beans, wheat, rye, garlic, onion, peas, lentils, kale, collard greens, lettuces, salad mixes, bok choy, and many more.

Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.


For more information:

Cover photo taken by Casey O'Neill and Sensi Seeds

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La Raza Cannabis Association

Organizing Latino Farmers in California
pancho villa la raza cannabis association
By on February 18, 2016

Miguel Molina recalls growing up in a rural Sonoma County home where his parents kept a jar of cannabis tincture on the kitchen shelf. Cannabis stems, leaves and roots steeped in alcohol were packed inside a big container next to other home-brewed herbal remedies. And when someone in the family needed it, the cannabis tincture was applied as a liniment on sore joints and muscles.

Miguel’s coming of age with cannabis was not unusual for a child in a poor Latino community in California. Cannabis concoctions had long been a staple of Latin American folk medicine, and every part of plant was utilized for therapeutic purposes in Molina’s household. The grownups kept the psychoactive flower tops for themselves. “My father let me grow cannabis in the garden, ” Molina explained, “because he didn’t want his son dealing with criminals out in the street.”

The familial connection to the herb has stayed with Molina, whose bold, baritone voice is heard regularly on KPFA’s “Flashpoints,” an award winning investigative radio show, which he cohosts and produces in Berkeley. Molina’s on-air broadcasts cover a range of social justice issues, including the underrepresentation of Latino voices and other minorities within the rapidly evolving cannabis industry

Emboldened by California’s recent decision to implement state regulations for medical marijuana commerce, Molina and several colleagues announced in November 2015 the formation of La Raza, a multifaceted, aboveground support network for Latino farmers, trimmers, and other cannabis laborers.

In Spanish, "la raza" means race. It signifies pride for Native American and Latino heritage. Coincidentally, the word raza can also refer to “strain,” as in cannabis strain, the plant of focus for Molina’s advocacy organization. Much of Latino culture, he tells Project CBD, is rooted in agriculture. Cultivating cannabis and other plants is woven into Latino society, along with a history of subsistence farming and sociopolitical upheaval. La Raza’s T-shirts prominently feature an image of Poncho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary leader, smoking down on his mota.

“People think marijuana smoking came out of the 1960s when hippies discovered it. We [Latinos] have been smoking marijuana since the 1920s,” said La Raza director Molina, who knows all too well the racist roots of Reefer Madness and the repressive years that followed. Cannabis prohibition in the United States began as an anti-Mexican smear campaign and punitive anti-marijuana laws have functioned as an instrument of social control that continues to disproportionately target ethnic minorities, especially youth.

La Raza attorney and cofounder Jonathan Melrod says that La Raza will provide legal services for cannabis farmers and agricultural laborers, many of whom are undocumented. These are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in the cannabis industry. They are in need of legal protection and expert counsel on complex immigration and employment matters.

But according to Molina, groups that advocate for rights of immigrants and migrant laborers are apt to overlook those who work with California’s largest cash crop. La Raza has reached out to the United Farm Workers and other Latino farmers in search of alliances that will boost union membership and empower Latino cannabis growers at a time when the cannabis industry as a whole is in transition.

Under new regulations adopted by the state government, California farmers can apply for a license to grow cannabis. La Raza offers assistance to Latino farmers who want to get a legitimate business license. But many Latino growers “are deterred from seeking a license because they don’t have papers,” says Melrod, “or they are fearful of being on watch list or they don’t have access to correct information about the law and what their rights are.”

As the green rush picks up speed, La Raza reminds us not to forget those who are doing the heavy lifting.

For more information, visit: www.larazacannabis.com

Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.