Cannabis may have thousands of unique properties, but like any other plant, it requires the same essential nutrients to properly grow and produce the desired yield of buds. Plants need relatively large amounts of macronutrients, lesser amounts of secondary nutrients, and small to trace amounts of micronutrients to germinate, grow, flower, and produce seed. All told, there are about 20 essential nutrients needed for optimal cannabis growth and development.
A nutrient is considered essential when it meets certain criteria. It must be directly involved in plant nutrition, be a vital component to the plant’s life cycle such that without it the plant would die or not be able to perform one or more of its necessary functions, and it must be unique enough that no other nutrient can replace it or perform the same function. Let’s examine which nutrients found in nature are essential for the cultivation of top-shelf cannabis.
The group of nutrients needed in large quantities by plants are collectively known as macronutrients. Some of these are provided by the environment and some are provided by or need to be added to the soil. Oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), and carbon (C) are provided by air and rain and are sometimes not included in discussions of essential nutrients because they are not elements that are often lacking, despite being needed in large amounts, and are not ones that are components of any fertilizer or commercially available nutrient package. The other macronutrients that are needed and can be added to soils or other media are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). Most commercial formulations of dry or liquid fertilizers will have three numbers on their packaging. These three numbers refer to the percentage by volume ofN, P and K.
Each of these individual essential nutrients performs a different but vital function to cannabis plants. What follows is an oversimplification of the exact roles of each nutrient (in some cases, we still don’t know what all essential nutrients do and how exactly they interact with one another). Nitrogen is needed for the development of foliage and the production of proteins. Phosphorus is critical for root, flower, and seed development. Potassium is a requirement of overall plant health and aids in water absorption.
Cannabis will need different amounts of the essential macros depending on the stage of development. Nitrogen is needed in higher quantities during the vegetative and bud-forming stages more than during the flowering stage. Phosphorus, however, is needed more during the flowering stage and is only required at about half the ratio of N levels during the vegetative phase of development. During this phase, K is needed at between half and two-thirds the level of N.
Essential Secondary Nutrients
Some sources do not segregate the secondary nutrients and instead lump them in with the macronutrients since they are not needed in the same high quantities as the macronutrients. They do, however, need to be in a significantly higher quantity than the micronutrients, so they are separated here. The essential secondary nutrients are magnesium (Mg), calcium (Ca), and sulfur (S). These nutrients are often unavailable to cannabis if proper pH levels are not maintained (more on that later).
These secondary essential nutrients perform a wide range of critical functions to proper cannabis development. They are often necessary components or complimentary parts to other nutrients and functions. They are all needed for plant and root growth, but they do have specific roles. Calcium assists in transporting other nutrients and aids in their absorption. Magnesium is a critical component of chlorophyll. Sulfur aids in the transport of chlorophyll, but also assists with plant metabolism and transpiration. The lesser amount required to aid in the proper growth and development of healthy cannabis should not be mistaken as being less important than the micronutrients. The same can be said for the diminutive amounts of micronutrients needed.
The number of micronutrients listed as essential can vary based on the source. Like secondary nutrients, it is somewhat a matter of classification and some list the secondary nutrients as micronutrients. Either way, they represent minerals and elements that are not as abundantly available on Earth and as such are not needed in very high amounts by cannabis plants, but are still necessary.
No matter what source, boron (B), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), and molybdenum (Mo) will be listed as essential micronutrients. Like the other essential nutrients, all micronutrients have a unique function or serve to assist in the functions and processes of the other nutrients. What follows is not an exhaustive list, but a sampling of some of the roles of micronutrients and how they aid in the development of cannabis plants.
Boron — helps with the development and growth of root tips. It also helps plants to absorb Ca and transports sugars within the plant.
Manganese — is a vital component of chlorophyll production and the photosynthesis process. It also aids with enzyme interactions.
Zinc — aids in the development of stems, leaves, and branches. The more mature a plant is, typically the more Zn is present and required.
Copper — aids in the development of plant proteins and helps with the strengthening of stems and branches.
Iron — is important for chlorophyll production. Iron deficiencies often present themselves as a yellowing of the leaves between the leaf’s veins (interveinal chlorosis).
Molybdenum — helps to process nitrogen.
Other trace minerals thought to be essential include cobalt (Co), silicon (Si), chlorine (Cl), and selenium (Se). Not all sources agree on their inclusion in the essential group, though they are important to support all plant life.
pH and Nutrient Availability
As important as nutrients, if not more so, is the pH of the soil or media the cannabis is growing in. The pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of soil or growing medium. Soils or other media with a pH of less than 7.0 are acidic; soils or other media with a pH greater than 7.0 are alkaline. The pH scale is exponential, with each number representing a factor of 10 times greater or less than the number next to it. For example, a pH of 6.0 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.0, and 100 times more acidic than a pH of 8.0. What does this have to do with the essential nutrients needed for growing cannabis? Nutrients may well be present in sufficient amounts to support robust growth and plant function, but they can be locked out or otherwise made unavailable to the plant. The ideal pH range to try to maintain for cannabis is generally accepted to be in the 6.0 to 6.5 range, with some variation depending on media selected. To determine pH, make sure to perform a soil analysis.
Soil testing can be a simple do-it-yourself procedure or can be done by a reputable lab. It’s a routine procedure and is relatively inexpensive either way. A DIY kit may cost only a few dollars and give you instant results, but most kits will not offer the kind of precise results a lab analysis can yield. In most scenarios, a small amount of soil or growing media can be sent into a private or university-owned lab and within a few days to a week or so, a detailed report will reveal many important aspects of your media. Some labs offer a number of services where they can give you current nutrient levels, the percentage of organic matter, and other relevant information so that you can make the necessary adjustments to ensure your cannabis has what it needs to thrive.