Whether stretching proudly toward the sun in a homestead garden or hidden away in a closet under grow lights, the cannabis plant has long been a popular crop for Alaska gardeners. Now, with more than 200 licensed cannabis cultivation operations in Alaska, ranging in size from several hundred square feet to more than 15,000 square feet, you don’t have to be a horticulturist to get a steady supply of high-quality weed.
So, just how do these commercial cultivators produce so many plants, and can the homegrow hobbyist get the same results?
Clone again, naturally
There are two schools of thought when it comes to growing: seeds versus clones. Though it’s entirely possible to grow a crop from seeds, the method has several disadvantages.
For one thing, though seeds can be easily purchased online from reputable producers, they can be expensive, especially if the strain is a popular one.
Secondly, not every seed germinates, and the ones that do take longer to mature than would a clone cut from a mother plant. Last but not least, since seeds are the result of the pollination of a female plant by a male plant, each plant grown from seed will be slightly different than its siblings of the same strain.
Cloning, on the other hand, produces an exact replica of a plant, with no deviation or genetic drift. Since the cloned plants mature faster, the method allows growers to produce high yields with a shorter turnaround time between harvests. For these reasons, the vast majority of commercial cultivators and home growers use cloning to produce their crops.
Though cloning may sound slightly sinister or science-fictionish, when it comes to plants, the method is relatively straightforward and has been used by horticulturists for centuries. For an in-depth lesson on the fine art of cloning, Alaska Cannabist turned to Pakalolo Supply Co., a large-scale cultivation and retail operation in Fairbanks that also sells a variety of clones for those who prefer to grow their own.
On a bitterly cold Fairbanks day, the warm, humid and fragrant growing area was a welcome place to spend the afternoon while learning the ins and outs from Pakalolo co-owner Keenan Hollister and lead cultivator Girard Gaul, whom Hollister refers to as the operation’s “mad scientist.”
Cloning involves cutting a small branch from an existing, mature plant — known as a mother plant — and placing that cutting in a planting medium until it develops roots. Once that happens, the new plant is nurtured in a warm, moist environment until it’s hardy enough to graduate to a bigger container.
The final stage of its life is spent in a “flower room,” where it’s exposed to alternating, 12-hour cycles of light and dark. If done right, the finished product is a robust plant topped with heavy, sticky, trichome-covered buds.
As with most projects, it’s essential to start with the right tools and materials. At Pakalolo, Gaul starts with a sharp, clean cutting instrument such as a razor blade, craft knife or scissors; a planting medium to hold the cutting; a clean, sterilized propagation tray with an inset rooting tray and a vented humidity dome; and a cloning gel to stimulate rooting.
After sterilizing his blade with isopropyl alcohol, Gaul sets up the rest of the supplies on a large table and readies his growing medium. He favors peat moss-based cloning plugs called “Rapid Rooter,” which feel like sponges and are sterile and ready to go out of the bag. These plugs are soaked for 30 to 60 minutes in a bucket of water mixed with a cloning nutrient solution, which contains a light mixture of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
With that set up, Gaul and Hollister lead the way into the “mother room,” where two lush rows of plants bask in light and emit a heady aroma. The back row holds the mother plants, which are tall and have thick, almost tree-like stalks. In front of each mother grows her shorter, robust daughter plant — genetically identical and soon to take over as the progenitor of the next generation of clones.
M is for the million things she gave me
Hollister talked about the importance of mother plants.
“They’re your genetic bank. We have two moms of every strain: one that’s up and coming and one that’s on the way out. That allows us to keep things fresh,” Hollister said, noting that he grows three mother plants for some of his more popular retail clone strains, such as Northern Lights, because one plant couldn’t survive the amount of cutting needed to provide clones.
Gaul turns to a mother plant and selects a likely branch for cutting.
“We’re looking for a nice, supple green base. That’s great, that will root,” he said, snipping the branch and holding it out for closer inspection. “It also has a couple of little nodes, which is where more leaves would grow out of. I clean those off, so I have at least one or two sites that will be inside my rooter. Those will be where a lot of roots come out.”
Gaul removes several leaves from the cutting to ensure the remaining leaves have space to photosynthesize. He places the cuttings together in a plastic cup of plain water, which prevents air bubbles from forming in the stems and killing them.
Every step of the process is carefully attended to. Cups of cuttings are immediately labelled to make sure they don’t get mixed up with other strains, and the rooting trays are also marked with important information such as the strain, the date and the initials of the person who did the cutting.
Back at the cloning table, Gaul pours a slightly acidic rooting gel into a small, portion control cup, trims the bottom of the cutting at a 45 degree angle and dips it in the gel for about 15 seconds. He then plucks a cloning plug out of the bucket, sticks the cutting into a pre-made hole in the middle of it and places the plug in the propagation tray.
Any leftover rooting gel is thrown out to maintain sterility for the next batch. Gaul is also experimenting with dipping the clones into the cut leaf of an aloe vera plant instead of a commercially made rooting gel. It’s organic and works well, and is a great option for the homegrower who doesn’t want to buy extra product.
Gaul makes sure each plug has plenty of space around it as he places it in the tray.
“We have 10 plants here. The reason I separate them is because if you bunch them together, they’re going to have overlapping leaves, and when they breathe you’ll get humidity building up there. You can get molds, microbes, all the things that we don’t want. If I had 30 of these, I’d have two trays. Why not? I’ll have a better success rate and they’re going to be healthier.”
Once all of the cuttings are in the rooting tray, Gaul places a plastic dome over it and takes the tray to the cloning room.
“We try to keep it really warm and really humid in here. That way our babies have a nice, comfortable environments,” he says of the room, which is kept at about 80 degrees and 54% humidity. The domes are kept on and water is placed in the bottom of each tray. The lights affixed to the underside of each shelf shine down on the plants below and also heat the water in the trays above.
The cutting develops roots which soak up the water and transpire it through their leaves. The vents on the dome are opened as the cutting develops.
“I dry out the air because I’m trying to stimulate the plant to use its root system instead of leaves to breathe,” Gaul said. “We’re trying to get a nice root structure so they have it when they need to support themselves.”
After seven to 10 days, the cuttings are placed in individual cups of soil. After another 10 days, the plants are ready to be sold as clones or go to the production grow room downstairs.
Pakalolo currently offers seven strains of clones and is working on developing more due to the high demand.
“There’s definitely a market. We knew prior to legalization that there was a large group of Alaska home growers, and I think that’s part of the reason legalization got passed. It’s always been like that. It’s the culture,” Hollister said. “A lot of times home growers are people who aren’t going to purchase products on the legal market in a cannabis shop, no matter what. For an experienced home grower who’s used to having their own product that they grow, having a legal source to get variety may be the only reason that they would come in to our store. If we get to say hi to them every once in a while while they’re picking up a clone, that’s cool.”
“It’s a lot like home brewing,” Gaul said.
Hollister smiled and nodded in agreement. “Home chefs also sometimes go out to eat, and there are brewers who go and have a beer. It’s the same thing.”
Contact Alaska Cannabist staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582 or dchomicz@AlaskaCannabist.com