Peace Frog Botanicals

Jeffrey Phelps designed the irrigation system at Peace Frogs Botanicals in Kenai. Dollynda Phelps photo

As we all know, water is essential for life on Earth. Animals, plants and other organisms can’t live without and it, and the quality of the water ingested or absorbed has an effect on the health of the user.

Alaska Cannabist has talked to many commercial cannabis cultivators about what kind of growing medium and nutrients they use, how much they water their plants and how they go about doing that, but we’ve never asked about the water itself.

For instance, is well water better than “city” water? Is rain water the ultimate when it comes to freshness? Is it always necessary to filter your water, no matter the source? Can water be too pure and thus detrimental to a healthy grow?

To get the answers to these questions and, hopefully, provide some guidance to homegrowers who may be worried that they’re not doing it right, Alaska Cannabist talked to cultivators both small and large across the state to find out what they do.

The first thing we learned is that there is no such thing as the perfect water source. Each has its pros and cons, and, ultimately, the one that works best is usually the one that’s most handy for the grower.

Water on tap

In larger, urban areas like Fairbanks and Anchorage, most cultivators are tied into the municipal water system. The water supplied by these systems has been treated to remove contaminants and excess minerals, and chlorine is added as a disinfectant. Though the chlorine in tap water is safe to drink, cannabis cultivators prefer to remove it before watering their plants. Since clean water naturally contains minerals and other particulates, growers also check the parts per million of these total dissolved solids to make sure they are in the acceptable range.

Nathan Davis, the owner of Green Life Supply in Fairbanks, is on the city water system. While he would consider getting a reverse osmosis system in the future, he said he does just fine without one.

“On a national scale, Fairbanks has pretty good water. The only thing we do is remove chlorine, by evaporation. We do test for pH and adjust accordingly. We do ppm readings, adjust nutrients and pH, check ppm one last time and then water the plants,” he said.

Across town in the railroad industrial area, Pakalolo Supply Co. is also on city water. Owner Keenan Hollister believes strongly in organic farming methods and supplying his plants with just the right amount of nutrients and minerals they need to become strong and healthy. As such, the composition of the water is an important part of the process.

“We actually use a combination of completely filtered reverse osmosis and dechlorinated water, as well as only dechlorinated, without the reverse osmosis filters, so some of the natural minerals remain in a portion of the watering. We don’t want to completely strip everything out of all of it,” he said.

A deep subject

The purity of well water can vary greatly depending on where you live. Some lucky souls have wells that produce sweet, clean water, while others have wells contaminated with arsenic, lead, sulfur and excess iron, among other things. While many of these contaminants can be filtered out or purified with systems such as reverse osmosis, many people with bad well water choose to install a holding tank and fill it with water from a municipal utility system. Since they wouldn’t bathe in, drink or cook with contaminated water, they also don’t water their plants with it. Luckily for the cultivators we talked to, that wasn’t a problem.

“We have fantastic well water,” said Dollynda Phelps, owner of Peace Frog Botanicals in Kenai. “When we started to grow, we sent it to an out-of-state lab. It was actually very low in terms of ppm. I think it was at 76 ppm, which is very nice and clean. 200 ppm is considered good water.”

Phelps said she’s happy to not have to use a water treatment system.

“Some people didn’t get lucky like we did here and aren’t starting out with good quality water. So, in that case, what are their options? There’s reverse osmosis or filtration, but with filtration there’s still going to be something left in there. I’m not a fan of reverse osmosis because of the amount of water it uses. What you get back is not the same amount you put in,” she said.

Phelps said her husband monitors their well water and makes adjustments when necessary.

“He created his own formula, and he has a target pH and ppm and he knows what to add to get the levels exactly where he needs them. When it rains a lot, our pH might change. Those are things he really does a good job of keeping track of. It’s kind of interesting to see how the pH and ppm work together.”

Tasha Grassl, owner of Lady Gray Growing and Lady Gray Medibles in Soldotna, said her well water is good but contains some iron and naturally occurring minerals. For that reason, she uses a reverse osmosis system.

“It gives us, I don’t know how you would describe it, naked water? It makes it completely pure, and we add minerals or nutrients back into it, depending on the strain. There are so many different ways to do it, depending on if you’re doing soil or hydroponics. Right now we’re just keeping everything as simple as can be. That seems to be how the strains we’re working with now react best.”

Rosie Creek

Owner Mike Emers inspects rows of "midnight sun-grown" marijuana plants at Rosie Creek Farm, July 24, 2018. Eric Engman photo

Here comes the rain again

Many people consider rain water to be the ultimate in purity, but it’s not without it’s drawbacks. Yes, it’s free, but if you have an indoor grow you have to install and maintain a catchment system. Rain water is normally slightly acidic, which is ideal for cannabis plants. However, environmental conditions here in Alaska and in other areas of the world can affect pH and particulate levels.

Mike Emers is the owner of Rosie Creek Enterprises, an outdoor cultivation west of Fairbanks. Emers uses well water on his plants, but, since they’re outside, they also get watered every time it rains. Emers said he has some experience in the relative purity of rain water.

“Back in another lifetime, one of my first jobs in Alaska was working on a project which was a grant through a nonprofit, looking at acid rain. And we used Alaska sites as sort of like a control, compared to the rest of the country, because it was supposed to be ‘pure,’ but we were looking at storm events coming across the Pacific that were heavily laden with acid. So we’re not immune from global effects here in the Far North.”

As mentioned earlier, cannabis plants grow best in a slightly acidic environment, between 6.0 and 7.0. Since rain water in Interior Alaska generally falls into that category and his well water is good, Emers doesn’t fret too much about his water source and instead concentrates on keeping his soil rich with the use of compost teas, organic fertilizers and on-farm compost.

“If you feed the soil, the soil will feed the plants,” Emers said, noting that it’s still important to get your water tested.

“It’s always wise to know. You are what you eat, and the plants are what they eat,” Emers said. “Make sure it doesn’t have contaminants or anything else you wouldn’t want to pass on to the plants, and then go on from there.”

Contact Alaska Cannabist staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582 or dchomicz@AlaskaCannabist.com

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