Vermont is New England’s largest hemp-derived CBD producer with an estimated 6,000 acres registered for 2019, and for most of the region’s hemp growers, it’s been a busy couple of months. Horticultural methods dominate craft-CBD hemp farming as it’s currently practiced in the Northeast. Here, seedling propagation begins in greenhouses or hoop houses, giving a jumpstart to our shorter growing season.
Although “typical weather” isn’t a term you hear much in the Northeast, this spring has been unusually cold. By the first week of June, though, sunnier days have brought warm soil temperatures and tractors into the fields and planting season swings into high gear. 100s of 1000s of emerald green seedlings will soon be seen punctuating the black rows of plasticulture stretched from farm to farm.
A wide variety of methods and equipment are used to grow a successful CBD crop. Hemp seedlings are best planted in the field with a waterwheel or mechanized type transplanter using a trained crew. Planting by hand works well in small plots, either digging or drilling holes. Every farmer has their preference, developing practices that align with their budget, size of the operation, and growing philosophy; for instance, Clean Green certified, certified Organic, or conventionally grown.
Our goal in this article is to highlight the key points that pertain to most horticultural or artisanal producers of high-CBD floral biomass. By following these planting guidelines, which we have been using and sharing with other growers in the region, you can increase your chances of success.
Timing is everything. When it’s time to plant your crop outside, the age and condition of your seedlings are critical. Too soon, and you risk planting before a healthy root system is developed, and if you wait too long, the seedlings become rootbound. Either condition leads to plant stress and lower yields.
Seedlings ought to be at least 3 to 4 weeks old, and at least 6 inches tall before transplanting to the field (or larger containers if necessary). If you’re ready to plant out, inspect the root system of a couple of seedlings to be sure it is well developed and holding the soil together. The plants can be older and larger as long as there’s enough room in the container to prevent the plant from getting root bound.
Seasonal Conditions & Weather
You want to be safely past the last frost date for your location and confirm soil temps are in the mid-50s or higher. For most folks in the Northeast, the first week of June is the beginning of the window to move plants to the field, and that continues into mid-July.
Farmers rarely see ideal planting conditions, so be ready to go when the weather, soil and ambient moisture and temperature are “favorable”. Try to avoid hot or windy days; plants dry out quickly. Also, check the forecast; a few days of light rain are perfect, but heavy storms can damage seedlings.
Prepare to Plant
Now that you see your window of opportunity, be sure the seedlings have gotten a good soak to hold soil to the roots. Also, harden off the plants a few days before transplanting by placing the trays in filtered sunlight to expose the plants to UV, light winds, weather, and cool nights.
Your field layout largely depends on your transplant, watering, harvest, and maintenance plans. If you have the room, increase your plant or row spacing, and avoid crowding. Airflow and circulation between plants are crucial in this climate to reduce the risk of mold.
When you plot your spacing and the distance between your rows, be sure you’ve anticipated the diameter of your plants at maturity (based on their genetics). Plan for this when considering the vehicles and implements you’ll use throughout the growing season; from mowing, managing weeds and scouting for males, to the equipment you’ll need during harvest.
When your seedlings go into the ground, make sure to backfill the hole, so the plant’s roots have good soil contact all the way around. Notify your crew to apply a little firm, even down-pressure around the base of the stem. Try to maintain the approximate soil line (in the new ground) that the seedling had when it was in the container.
Water Right Away
To reduce transplant shock, the waterwheel transplanter ensures each plant gets a good drink. Whatever method you use, make sure to water the transplants well right away (with the right pH, about 6.5 on average).
Use Beneficial Amendments and Insects
Research shows that introducing microbial inoculants, mycorrhizal fungi, and other biostimulants at planting time increases plant vigor. These beneficials feed the roots and soil microbes, which help the seedling absorb the nutrients it needs to recover and grow. You might also consider introducing beneficial insects like ladybugs to your fields to control pest populations as the season progresses.
There are so many aspects of farming we can’t control. But by applying many of the same best practices that vegetable, flower and herb farmers use, Vermont organic hemp CBD growers who plan and prepare well can position themselves and their crop for success.