BY TAYLOR ENGLE | Original illustration for Ember by Tim Lahan
Thanks to prohibition, cannabis cultivation has existed mainly under wraps for the past several decades, and has never had much of a platform. However, that’s all beginning to change as cultivators are becoming more comfortable with coming out about their role in the cannabis community.
In 2021, there are quite a few different methods for growing cannabis, from hydroponics to living soil and everything in-between. But with so many options on the market, you may be wondering, which one reaps the best results?
Cannabis is a notoriously difficult crop to grow, requiring very specific and strict standards in order to do what you want it to do. Depending on your needs, there are pros and cons to every form of cultivation, and different effects reaped from each school of practice.
Another thing to keep in mind is Sun + Earth certification, a new model that only certifies cannabis that is “grown under the sun, in the soil of mother earth, without chemicals by fairly-paid farmers.”
As a whole, the cultivation side of the industry is moving towards more sustainable, eco-friendly methods of growing the plant, and it’s become an increasingly important aspect to consider when figuring out your growing plans.
However, if you’re trying to weigh those options, you’ve come to the right place. We sat down with some of the best cultivators in the market to discuss indoor growing versus outdoor growing, and when to choose one over the other.
Growing cannabis indoors certainly comes with a fair amount of perks. From having control over your environment to discretion, there are several reasons a cultivator may go with this method when considering how they want to grow their plants.
“The environment can be really stable when you’re growing indoors, but most people don’t get the temperature right,” said Cassandra Maffey, Director of Cultivation at Hava Gardens.
“But, if you’re indoors and you can completely control your temperature and humidity levels, you can do it anywhere. Given we’re not allowed to transport cannabis over state lines, there are a number of states whose weather conditions don’t allow them to grow outdoors at all. For those situations, indoor growing is a huge bonus.”
Although a lot of care and attention-to-detail must go into indoor growing—arguably even more than is required for outdoor operations—these benefits are great for cultivators who reside in states where weather, regulations, or some combination of the two make it nearly impossible for them to grow.
Today, there are more emerging innovations in indoor grow technology than ever before, allowing for a super streamlined, high-quality process. Things like reverse osmosis water filters, which help finetune the plant’s pH, or quality LED fixtures to help control the lighting to perfection, really contribute to a product to be proud of.
“Security is also a lot easier in an indoor facility than it is outdoors,” Maffey said. “That’s another really big component. Cannabis is a very fragrant crop. In an indoor facility, you can scrub the air and control the smell, even outside the facility.”
Again, for growers who are forced to keep their operation on the down low, indoor growing just makes a lot more sense.
However, there are a few reasons cultivators might be opposed to growing indoors—especially if privacy and discretion isn’t that big of a concern.
Two of the biggest red flags that go along with indoor growing are cost of operation and environmental impact.
“You’re going to pay so much money and have such a negative impact on the environment. It’s not the most responsible way to grow cannabis, and so many of us in the industry are passionate about organic plants and sustainability,” Massey said.
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t always translate to cultivation facilities because in many cases, cultivators are forced to grow indoors—they’re not doing so by choice.”
In an industry so concerned with health and wellness, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to willingly damage the environment during the production process. And as the industry moves more towards sustainability and away from waste, indoor growing doesn’t always make the most sense.
Furthermore, as finely tuned as you can set your indoor operation in regards to light, humidity, and temperature, Massey believes that nothing beats nature, and that plants grown under the sun tend to be "healthier and more robust."
“You can’t beat the efficacy and light spectrum of the sun. All lighting vendors will tell you they’ve got the best lights, but as we learn more and more about photosynthesis, we see that the full spectrum of the sun and sunlight is important to the plant,” Massey said.
Speaking of plants that grow under the sun: outdoor growing is the most traditional form of cannabis cultivation, with practices dating back tens of thousands of years.
Just like indoor operations, there are a few pros and cons to growing your cannabis outdoors—especially if you reside in a region where cannabis is illegal, restricted, or weather simply doesn’t allow for a fruitful harvest.
However, if you play your cards right and are in an area where cannabis can truly flourish under the sun, outdoor growing might just be the perfect choice for you.
One of the main benefits of growing cannabis outdoors is, of course, the sun. While indoor growing forces you to get creative when mimicking the elements (wind, humidity, temperature, etc.), outdoor is straightforward in the sense that nothing mimics nature quite like nature itself.
It’s also important for plants to be exposed to insects and predators, which doesn’t always happen easily in an indoor operation.
“Outdoors, there are all kinds of predatory insects that will help control your pest population,” Massey said. “It’s also much more sustainable. You can do all of your composting onsite, and you’re going through a lot less trash and using way less carbon.”
Despite these perks, they won’t always be beneficial depending on location and circumstance.
“Outdoor growing leaves you vulnerable to the environment. What you’re risking in terms of a hailstorm destroying all of your plants—it’s heartbreaking. Or you can have a forest fire, or a really rainy season,” Massey said.
“All of these things can affect your crop. If you’re growing indoors, you can basically harvest as often as you want, in the same room.”
However, when everything goes right, Massey feels that there is something undeniably special about growing cannabis outside.
“There’s something about outdoors that is almost intangibly grounding about the cannabis you get from it. It feels so much earthier, and I know a lot of people who’ve experienced anxiety smoking indoor cannabis don’t seem to experience the same effect with outdoor,” Massey expressed. “I can’t tell you why, other than Mother Nature was there with her own hands making sure everything went smoothly.”
Massey isn’t alone in this sentiment. Many connoisseurs consider outdoor-grown flower to be the most elite form of cannabis on the market, though it's highly debated.
In fact, Flow Kana recently did a blindfolded test with cannabis journalists, influencers, and critics to determine their preference between indoor and sungrown flower, with sungrown cannabis winning by 68%.
This shouldn’t come as any massive surprise. The cannabis community’s roots are in flower that was grown under the sun; it’s the method the industry was first built upon throughout years of prohibition.
“Humboldt County in the early 2000s was a cannabis grower’s mecca. I learned from people who were old school growers from the ’70s, all outdoors,” Massey said.
“The newer generation of growers were cultivating indoors, so I started with some synthetic nutrients, but as I spent more time with my friends out in the hills, I began to prefer cultivating outdoors."
When it comes to cultivation process, cost, and sustainability, each grower has their own preference for how they like to do things. But what about the actual quality of the flower being grown?
From cannabinoid ratios to terpene makeup and everything in between, cannabis products can look incredibly different from one another, and reap wildly different effects on consumers. Here are some of the main differences between the effects and quality of indoor- and outdoor-grown weed:
Appearance and Smell
The first thing everyone notices about cannabis flower? Its color. This will typically scale from deep purple to bright green with hints of orange/yellow, depending on the strain and terpene content, but it’s definitely one of the most important aspects of the plant.
In general, indoor-grown cannabis is considered to be “prettier” than outdoor-grown flower. This is because indoor-grown cannabis isn’t as vulnerable to the elements as outdoor-grown, so things like wind, hail, rain, or fire won’t affect its appearance.
Indoor growing also allows cultivators a lot more control over the process, so if growing pretty plants is as big of a priority for you as the cannabinoid and terpene profiles, this might make more sense for you.
While appearance is the first thing you notice in a cannabis plant, there’s no denying how important its effects are—especially if you’re using cannabis for a severe illness or issue.
This is one of the aspects of cannabis that won’t really change whether you grow indoors or outdoors. Instead, this boils down to the individual makeup of the strains you’re using, and their individual cannabinoid and terpene concentration levels.
Some experts argue that outdoor-grown flower is more likely to be degraded because of the potentially-hazardous elements it’s exposed to, but others will say no method beats growing your plant under the sun. If there is a difference, it’s too low to be widely reported on.
Smell and Taste
In regards to smell, there are differences between indoor- and outdoor-grown flower that will depend on your preference. While indoor-grown cannabis tends to have a more concentrated terpene profile, giving it a more potent aroma, outdoor-grown cannabis takes on a natural, earthy flavor that is absolutely inimitable.
Again, this depends on your consumers: do they turn to your brand for sungrown cannabis that tastes like it came straight from the ground, or is terpene fragrance and makeup your emphasis?
Cannabinoid and Terpene Makeup
Much like the effects, there isn’t a huge difference between indoor- and outdoor-grown flower when it comes to cannabinoid and terpene content.
Indoor-grown cannabis is often praised for its incredibly loud terpene profiles (due to the high concentration we mentioned earlier), but some outdoor growers claim that the sun and other positive environmental influences help bring out some unique terpene profiles and flavors that just aren’t found in indoor weed.
These are some of the main distinctions between indoor- and outdoor-grown weed, but some cultivators have taken things to an entirely new level by combining best practices from each method.
Today, Massey and Hava Gardens utilize a hybrid system she conceptualized from her years of experience, which takes the best of indoor and outdoor growing for optimum product.
“What I took from outdoors that I think is so mind-blowing for indoor growers is, if you steward the soil well, you can reuse it year after year and not have to throw anything away,” Massey said. “With indoor growing, you do one cycle and then throw all of your stuff away to start fresh.”
From indoor growing techniques, Massey utilizes supplemented light when necessary (like during cold winter months with limited daylight) and climate control by way of greenhouse.
Cannabis company Oregrown takes a similar approach to hybrid growing, using organic growing methods that focus on regenerative cultivation (a.k.a., Korean Natural Farming techniques).
“This approach allows our facility to self-sustain by culturing and nurturing its own indigenous microorganisms in the soil in place of toxic pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. We also source water from the natural mountain runoff and reuse it to minimize any waste,” said Hunter Neubauer, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board at Oregrown.
Neubauer recommends regenerative soil methods for growers, as he believes it produces the best quality cannabis without a whole lot of risk or outlandish costs.
“It really depends on the grower’s resources and environment. Cannabis is a beautiful, expressive plant. To grow top-quality cannabis requires a labor of love and consistency,” Neubauer said.
“This can be hard with any methodology under the sun. I would suggest that growers use the cultivation philosophy they are most passionate about, and go from there.”
Taylor Engle is a freelance writer, editor, and public relations/marketing specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her free time, she loves to cook, do yoga, and hang out with her cat.