Ashy Buds

Save Your Outdoor Grow From Ash and Smoke

A month after California declared a state of emergency, over 6.7 million acres have been burned by unprecedented wildfires across the west. In San Francisco, however, we have been fortunate at least in that our problems are limited to poor air quality and intermittent bouts of ash falling from the sky. While that is significantly more tolerable than the experience many Californians have had over the last month, one question still looms in the minds of many Bay Area cannasseurs: “How the hell am I going to take care of my weed plants?!”

Growing outdoors takes longer than growing indoors, and this season has seen sun-grown pot start flowering later than usual. For many, that means ash became a problem just as their plants began to sprout their sticky, resinous buds. Depending on your luck, you might have already run into a disaster. 

“It’s like you slave away all day making a Thanksgiving turkey and then someone drops it on the floor,” says Luna Stower, a wellness brand advisor and cannabis industry thought leader who often works with cannabis home growers. “Yeah, you can eat it, but is it going to be as appetizing?” 

Though the fires haven’t entirely soiled this year’s outdoor crop, smoking buds with ash on them is pretty gross, to say the least. The weather can also ruin the aesthetics and smell of your cannabis flower, if you’re an advanced enough home grower to care. Advice can be hard to find online due to unprecedented conditions of the season, and, for many, finding the perfect solution includes a lot of trial-and-error. 

To help you avoid some of the legwork (and sacrificing a few plants as you figure it out), we talked to local industry experts about how you can salvage your grow operation at home. 

Lye? Unlikely!

How badly your plants are affected depends on your proximity to the fires. If you live in the Bay Area, though, your plants are probably salvageable despite the last few weeks of soot and smoke.

“If you want to be safe, you can send it to a lab,” recommends Erich Pearson, CEO and Founder of the local cannabis dispensary chain, SPARC. He agrees that Bay Area growers don’t need to be too concerned about the health effects of ash, unless you live near where structures were burned, in which case, the ash can carry heavy metals. Labs who cater to non-professionals are hard to find and often require you to send in an ounce or more of your crop to test, though, so this isn’t an option for many home growers. 

One rumor about the possible health effects can definitely be debunked: the fear that lye could form on the foliage and buds of your plant. Lye is, essentially, ash and water, so it’s reasonable to assume that ash combined with morning dew or water from watering your plants could create this abrasive chemical. However, there probably isn’t nearly enough ash on your plants to make a difference, especially if you manage to get some of that ash off. 

“In all likelihood, you would produce such a minute amount of lye that I don’t think it would have an effect on your crop,” says Dan Grace of Dark Heart Nursery, a high-quality cannabis clone producer supplying much of the Bay Area. 

The bigger risk is that your cannabis will come out tasting bad from “smoke taint,” a term also used in the wine industry to describe how smoke can permeate the skins of grapes. That will only affect plants that are “fairly well matured,” according to Pearson, so it’s probably only a concern if your plants are close to harvest. 

Crop Dusting

The most common way people have been trying to get ash off their plants by blowing it off manually. Elise McRoberts, Chief Marketing Officer of Berkeley Rosin Company Doc Green’s, recommends using a leaf blower on a low setting. It’s a tip she heard about from Bon Vivant, a Mendocino-based cannabis farm who she follows on Instagram. In fact, this reminded the Instagram-savvy professional of another tip: “follow people who really know what they’re doing.” Many cultivators and flower brands have Instagram pages, and have been distributing advice as they learn.

If a leaf blower is too strong and you run the risk of breaking branches, McRoberts also says to try using a hair blow dryer on a cool setting. Grace, from Dark Heart, also mentions trying compressed air. Either way, it’s a good idea to make blowing the ash off your plants a regular part of your routine when the weather is especially sooty. “It’s something you can do every couple of days, or as much as you need it,” says McRoberts. 

Washing Your Buds

If your plants have started to flower, simply blowing the ash off your plants might not be enough. If that’s you (or if you find yourself in that situation in the next few weeks), giving your plants a good rinse is an option worth trying. 

“I have a 3-stage bucket system,” says Stower, with “three, five-gallon buckets filled up with, ideally, filtered water.” In the first two buckets she says to add one cup of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, and then dunk your harvested buds for one minute in each bucket. She swirls the buds in the middle of the bucket with her hands rather than letting it hit the sides, so the plant’s resinous trichomes can be kept intact. Afterwards, she says to hang them up to dry in a well-ventilated space kept between 60 and 67 degrees fahrenheit and 63 – 65 percent humidity, ideally. Adding a few fans around the room (although not pointed directly at the hanging buds) will also help keep the air moving. “You’re trying to strike a balance between curing it so that the trichomes and the density and the composition of the bud stays intact, but also trying to mitigate the ash,” Stower says. 

What you want to avoid is creating mold on your drying buds, or some other type of fungus, which is a risk any time you’re soaking plant matter in water. Most importantly, proper ventilation is essential — and if there is any possibility your buds have gotten moldy, consider them soiled. Additionally, it’s worth noting that bud washing should only be done on harvested buds, not those still growing on the plant. “I’m always really concerned about any type of water on the foliage of cannabis, especially when it’s growing,” warns Dark Heart’s Dan Grace. “Powdery mildew, from my perspective, is a way bigger problem than ash.”

Pitching A Tent

Tenting your plants is a lot of people’s first instinct when the weather turns sour, but that does not necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Tenting can complicate your setup by increasing humidity, increasing the temperature around your plants, and decreasing light — all of which need to be considered against the potential damage from ash. 

However, if there’s going to be a couple of really bad days, Erich Pearson says to go right ahead. “If you know you’re going to have a couple days of really smokey, sooty weather and ash is going to be raining from the sky, and you have the resources and means to put a tent over your cannabis that’s definitely a good thing to do,” he says. 

When tenting, use a clear material if possible, like painter’s plastic, or something which still lets large amounts of light through like 6 mil polyethylene. A structure resembling an old-school hoop house, which can be made with a PVC pipe skeleton, is probably your best bet. However, simplicity is key, because, before you know it, you can find yourself adding artificial light, dehumidifiers, and expensive portable air conditioning units to keep conditions consistent. “You can build a pretty crazy contraption in your backyard,” Grace says. 

Regardless, if you can help it, now is not the time to stop home growing. Farms across the state have been hit by smoke taint, excessive ash, and even the burning of cannabis fields, making your home grown cannabis increasingly valuable if you don’t want to break the bank this season. Outdoor flower prices may be hit by a price surge, and the craft brands sourcing outdoor flowers for their concentrates and pre-rolls might also raise their prices and decrease their strain selection. 

“It’s such a bummer because this is the drought time of the year already,” says McRoberts. “We were waiting for ‘Croptober.’” 

If there were ever a more crucial and difficult season to grow cannabis outdoors, this might be it. Between ash sticking to your buds, smoke taint, and attacking problems like powdery mildew as you adjust, can be a challenge for many home growers. However, that also means there’s never been a better time to learn — and despite surging prices, if you have to kill a plant, the recreational market will always be there.

I grow a couple plants in my backyard every year, and I just try to have the most fun and the least stress I can with it,” says Grace. “My take would be to not stress out about it.”