3 Signs Your Buds Are Ready to be Harvested
The most-often asked question for new cannabis growers is “when is the best time to harvest?” Chris Bond explains that paying attention to the trichomes, pistils, and leaves will give you your answer.
Until you have the experience of a few successful grows under your belt, it can be hard to know when the right moment to harvest your precious plants is. There are, of course, entire webpages, message boards, threads, etc. dedicated to helping new growers navigate this stage of the growing process. It can be tough at times though to sort out what is practical advice from experienced growers to what is conjecture, bad advice, or even a myth.
There is not a “perfect” time to harvest your buds, but rather a range of time within a narrow window, depending on what aspects and characteristics you want your flowers to have. Some growers may rely on the calendar, timing out the number of weeks from seeding to harvest, relying on information online, and on the seed package or supplier. This will get you in the ballpark of when an ideal time to harvest is. In general, you can expect indica strains to take eight weeks of flowering before harvest, sativa strains up to take 10 weeks, and autoflowering strains take about 10 weeks. This is however, far from an exact science.
There are three primary clues that are far more reliable to look for when determining it is time to start harvesting your buds. Paying attention to what the trichomes, pistils, and the leaves are telling you will get you right where you need to be. These are generally agreed upon across the board as the most reliable indicators.
Watch for Trichome Color and Shape
Trichomes are the single most common bio-indicator in determining when to harvest your buds. Both the color and the shape of the trichomes can tell you when your plants are ready to harvest. Trichomes are the small, resin glands on the flowers and sugar leaves of your plants. Trichomes contain cannabinoids and terpenes. They start off looking like little droplets but mature into mushroom-shaped projections on your plants. If you have difficulty seeing the trichomes, utilize a jeweler’s loupe or a magnifying lens to look closely at your flowers. A digital microscope is even better for looking at these little gems if you can afford one.
Clear trichomes tell you that resin production within your plant is not very high, so your plant is not really close to being ready for harvest. Once the trichomes begin to change color and darken, it is approaching harvest time. The best time to harvest is when the trichome colors are mixed. When about half of the trichomes are a milky-white, and half are amber-colored, it is time to start plucking those buds.
The cloudy appearance indicates high THC levels. Once they have turned from yellow to amber, they provide more of a narcotic and physical high. If most are amber colored before you have harvested, then the flowers are overripe, but should still be harvested. At this stage the trichomes can become brittle and fall off in your hands when handling the flower.
The shape of the trichome will also tell you that harvest time is nigh. The tops of the trichomes should actually appear slightly deformed when it is time to harvest. If they are perfectly round “mushroom caps” then it is still too early but check often. Waiting too long will cause them to degrade and lose some of their psychoactive properties.
Examine the Pistils
For those who slept through the chapter in botany class about plant reproduction, fear not. The pistils are a part of the female reproductive elements of the flower. On cannabis, these will change color as harvest time approaches. Pistils can be seen without magnification, but it is helpful to use a loupe or lens if there is any doubt about what you are looking at. They are the little hair-like structures that appear as the flower matures.
Pistils start out mostly white. As the flower matures, they will take on a yellow hue and then change to a red, orange, or brown color. When you harvest depends on what elements of the cannabis flower you want to emphasize. When the pistils are less brown, the cannabis will have more of a psychoactive effect. When they are more brown, they will have more of a narcotic effect, causing consumers to get more sleepy. Most growers would say the optimal time to harvest those buds is when about 50- 60 percent of the pistils have turned brown.
One thing to keep in mind while monitoring pistils is that maturity is not the only reason why your pistils may be brown. Stressors can cause the pistils to turn brown even when the buds are not ready to flower. Overwatering and watering at the wrong time of day (nighttime) can cause pistils to turn brown too. The changing color of the pistils is only a good indicator if the flowers and plant are otherwise healthy.
Check the Leaves
The leaves of your cannabis plant can be the third telltale sign your buds are ready to be plucked. This is true for both the color and curl of the leaves. Once your plants start devoting their resources to producing robust buds, the leaves don’t get as much nutrition as during the vegetative phase. The large fan leaves will start to turn yellow once your plant has loaded up flowers as the nutrients are being redirected.
Sometimes these yellow leaves will just drop off and other times they will curl. In addition to the lack of nutrients, the fan leaves are no longer getting the moisture they once were and if they stay on the plant, they may curl up in addition to changing their color. Once this starts to happen on a plant that is well into its flowering phase, you can be sure that it is time to start harvesting.
- When to Harvest Cannabis Plants: The Different Stages of Trichome Development
- The Importance of Curing Cannabis
- Turning Waste into Gold: Making Good Use of Trim
Other Signs for Harvesting
Trichomes, pistils, and leaves are the most reliable indicators of harvest time for your cannabis, but there are a couple of other slightly less reliable methods. The shape of the bud can help to guide the novice grower. Buds that are firm and tight can be a way to tell if it is time to harvest. This method may cause some buds to be harvested prematurely and others too late as not all buds will mature at the same time.
Another method is to rely on the information provided on the seed packaging. It will tell the strain and how many days on average it will take to reach maturity and harvest. This is the least reliable method as there are so many different factors that can and will affect the rate of maturity. The environment, amount of care received, and whether it was grown inside or outside will render the dates on the seed pack as just a guide.
Some growers will sample some of the flower to tell if it is time to harvest. To do this, take two or three buds from the top of the plant that appear to be ready and dry them in an oven at about 150°F for 15 minutes. Then, smoke or vape the sampled buds and decide for yourself if they are good to go.
Harvesting Buds Too Early/Too Late
What happens if the telltale signs of harvest time are missed? Harvesting too late versus too early is generally agreed upon as the lesser of two evils, but hopefully it never comes to this. If you are impatient and harvest your buds too early, you are missing out. Flowers that are harvested too early have less flavor and fewer terpenes. You will also be missing out on volume — once they are harvested, they (of course) cannot get any larger at that point.
On the other hand, if you harvest too late the consequences are fewer. You may even get buds with higher terpene levels, but some of the flavor and scent of your harvest will be lost. THC levels will drop as well. The THC converts to cannabinol (CBN), which gives less of a high and a more relaxing, but narcotic effect.
There are times when it may be advisable to do a split harvest. If your lower buds are not ready to harvest, but your upper ones are, then by all means harvest the ones that are good to go and leave the others to continue developing. The buds at the top of the plant receive more light and usually ripen first. The lower flowers may even get a burst of growth and potency after the upper buds have been plucked since the plant is not spreading its resources among so many flowers. This can lead to higher THC levels in the lower flowers.
Whatever sign or combination of signs you decide to rely on, don’t be afraid to experiment. Getting to know your unique growing environment and how your plants respond to it will help you figure out what method is the most reliable for you when it comes to harvesting buds at their peak.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.