Plants can talk, according to Cassandra Maffey; if they’re growing in the right kind of soil. By excreting specific carbohydrate sugars from their roots, she explains, they feed microbacteria, fungi, and nematodes in the soil that then produce things like nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur, feeding the plant as they digest its sugars.
It’s a natural, productive, symbiotic relationship, one she’s perfecting with her Scalable Living Soil Cultivation techniques.
“Plants can actually ask [microbes] for nutrients. They have their own innate intelligence and they’re able to identify what they need and when they need it,” Maffey says. “It’s a trade: The microorganisms are feeding off of those sugars on the root and it creates this full ecosystem just beneath the soil.”
The healthier that soil ecosystem is, the better the plant will grow, and the better fruit or flowers it will produce, according to Maffey—which has huge implications for cannabis cultivation.
Maffey is the VP of cultivation at Hava Gardens. She’s been growing cannabis since she was 18 years old, and got her start in California’s cannabis growing capital, Humboldt County. She’s been a master grower at multiple different commercial cultivation operations, and founded her own living soil cannabis consulting company called Force of Nature LTD.
Maffey knows cannabis plants. But she isn’t all that into hydroponic grow systems, or salt-based fertilizers—methods most commercial grow operations utilize. Instead, Maffey likes to do things old-school, the way nature intended, by growing cannabis plants in real, healthy, living soil—soil that she’s developed specifically to feed cannabis plants the optimal nutrients they need to thrive.
“Through all this organic content [like kelp, nettle, and horsetooth] that we’re putting in our soil, we’re creating our own micro-biological diversity,” she says. “We’re basically harnessing what the plants already do naturally, and we’re optimizing it at an indoor facility.”
Most conventional commercial grow operations use either hydroponic systems or salt-based nutrient additives (or both), she explains. These systems have their benefits: They’re streamlined and can use more automation. But Maffey likens these methods to sports drinks and energy bars: You can survive off of them, she says, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be healthy.
“Just as in humans, it’s really helpful to have a well-rounded, whole foods diet instead of just eating energy bars and sports drinks,” she says. “The style of farming that we’ve chosen is one where we’re basically feeding our plants a whole food diet instead of salt-based, sports drinks, or nutrients. Then we’re just allowing them to feed at their own rate, feed naturally, slowly uptake nutrients that come from diverse natural sources.”
Not only is this system healthier for the plants, but it’s also more cost-effective and results in higher quality cannabis, Maffey says. The terpene content of their bud is higher than most and more diverse, and it has different cannabinoids present, enhancing the entourage effect of their bud and the products they make with it—like their concentrate cartridges and edible gummies.
Hava Gardens’ fully integrated vertical company has also allowed them to take sustainability by the horns at their grow operation in De Beque, Colorado. They currently compost their plant matter waste through an industrial company, but plan on starting on-site vermicomposting that will use worms to break down that excess plant material into castings that can be used to make fertilizer.
“Adding a little bit of water and some very fine [worm] castings can produce amazing liquid fertilizer,” Maffey says.
Hava Gardens also plans on locally sourcing its soil additives—from right on the greenhouse property. Maffey explains they’re starting to recycle their wastewater, purifying it, and using it to create a small retention pond and riparian system beside their grow operation. There they’ll grow willow, nettle, horsetooth, and many other inputs they use in their soil mixtures onsite.
“That will allow us to create a closed-loop system on our property so we’ll never have to source those nutrients from across the country like we do now,” she says. This will not only localize the production of the soil ingredients they use (and their worm casting fertilizer), but will also reduce emission costs associated with delivery and production of those resources.
Maffey is excited to take soil sciences to the next level with her team at Hava Gardens. They’re optimizing natural biological systems, they’re refining sustainability, reducing the company’s carbon footprint, and producing high-quality cannabis and products. They’re taking cannabis cultivation in a completely new direction: the old direction—the natural way.
“We’re just creating super-healthy plants by feeding them in the way that they evolved to consume nutrients, instead of force feeding them exactly what we think they’ll need.”