The Elevated Agriculturalist: Harvesting Cannabis How-To

harvesting cannabis
An outdoor bud nearing harvest time. Source: Shutterstock
Joe Veldon 5 Oct 2018

You’re almost there! The flowers on your plants are starting to change color, and they’ve been swelling with cannabinoids for a few weeks now. The surface of the flowers and leaves are coated with a thick layer of trichomes. But, you’ve got to get this last part right or it will all be for naught. I can’t tell you how many heartbreaking stories I’ve heard about folks ruining all their hard work because they didn’t harvest their plants correctly. Learn more about the stages of harvesting cannabis:

There are three basic stages for harvesting: The Take Down, The Shuck, and The Burp. Depending on where your buds are headed, you might also do a Manicure Trim of the leaves.

About The Leaves

There’s debate on how much leaf to take off – dispensaries and customers alike want their cannabis flower trimmed of all excess leaf material. The problem is, many strains – like Lemon Garlic and Mountain Berry – have sugar leaves so loaded with oil that we can’t bring ourselves to trim them. With most of the others, though, we grin, bear it and take them off.

It’s important to recognize that there are two types of leaves on a cannabis plant: Fan Leaves, which are larger and appear during the vegetative stage of growth and Sugar Leaves which appear during the flowering period, and are named for the trichomes which cover the leaves and make them look like they’ve been dipped in sugar.

Fan Leaves can be discarded (or juiced) but the Sugar Leaves are great for extractions. We also like to keep sugar leaves intact because as they dry they tend to curl around the flower and act as a protector of the volatile trichomes and terpenes found on the surface of the plant.

Homegrown Cannabis Co.
Homegrown Cannabis Co. Marijuana Seeds

The Take Down

All harvests begin with the Take Down, which, simply, means cutting the plant down. The key to this part of the harvest is timing. You don’t want to harvest too early, or you’ll be depriving yourself of oil – the whole reason you’re growing this plant. You don’t want to take them down too late for the same reasons, as you’re trying to maximize the amount of oil in and on the plant.

There are several ways to determine when your cannabis plants are finished. The first indicator I always use is the breeder’s recommendations on flowering times. If you’re sourcing your genetics from a reputable breeder they’ll tell you the optimal time, in days, for harvesting the strain. Because climates, growing practices, and weather all contribute to the completion time, breeders recommendations are just that – recommendations. Nevertheless, I pay attention to a strain’s recommended finishing time.

The second marker is changing pistils and trichomes. As the plant matures, the pistils – the hair-like structures sticking out of the calyx – begin to change from white to amber. There’s a healthy debate among growers as to the correct time to harvest based on the color of the pistils. I usually find that when 70% of the pistils have changed, you’re in peak Take Down time.

I know several fantastic growers who cut their plants down when 50% of the pistils have changed. If you do your Take Down between 50-70%, you should be realizing the majority of the plant’s oil production. I also know some growers who like to wait until the 90% range, but I’ve found that in all but a few strains, the plants starts to revert back into vegetative growth, and the majority of the weight will be in biomass and not oil.

harvesting cannabis
Photo by Sesteban Lopez on UnSplash

The final consideration when determining your Take Down date is the trichomes themselves. This will require a magnifying lens that allows you to see the makeup of individual trichomes on the surface of the plant. As the plant matures, the trichomes begin to swell, and the bubble on top will expand. As this is happening, the oils within that bubble begin to mature and take on an amber appearance. When the trichomes amber, it’s time for Take Down.

In short, as the date your breeder has recommended approaches, you should start to see the pistils go from white to amber. Once 50% of these have changed, get your lens out and begin to inspect individual trichomes. You’re looking for swelling at the top and a change in color from an opaque white to amber. Once all of this happens, you can be confident you’re taking cannabis plants down at the optimal time.

During this stage it’s critical to have the curing space set at the proper temperature and humidity range. Optimal conditions are temperatures in the 60s, humidity levels under 50%, and lots of air movement.

After you take your plants down, remove the branches. The height and bushiness of the plant will determine how many branches you’ll end up with. No matter the amount, you’ll want to trim those to about 12’ – 18”. From there, remove the fan leaves and the tips of the sugar leaves. Then hang the branches upside down on a string in your curing room. They will remain hanging for the next several days.

Because different strains produce different size and density of flowers, use the Dry Stick Test to make sure they’re ready for the next stage of harvest. To perform the Dry Stick Test, take a branch and try and snap it in two. If the stalk breaks with a snap, it’s ready for shucking. If it merely bends and forms a crease, it needs to hang a little longer.

During this stage it’s critical to have the curing space set at the proper temperature and humidity range. Optimal conditions are temperatures in the 60s, humidity levels under 50%, and lots of air movement. Because light aids in the decay of those precious trichomes, you should also keep the room as dark as possible.

The Shuck

Now that the stalks are snapping when you bend them, it’s time to shuck them – which means remove the flowers. Armed with trimmers, cut the flowers (also known as buds) from the stalk and collect them in a container. I always make sure that I’m cutting the larger flowers from the stalks but I remove the smaller popcorn buds using the Pinch Method.

If you have a stalk with lots of little buds on them it’s much easier and more time efficient to pinch your fingers around the stalk of the plant with one hand, and using the other hand to pull the stalk through the hole made by your fingers. As long as you’re pinching hard enough, the flowers will come off the stalk and end up as a collection of small buds in your hand.

The Burp

You’re almost there and this is the part of the process growers most often miss. Burping your flowers is helps remove any remaining moisture. Depending on how dry you flower is to start, this process should take between 2-5 days.

To burp, you place your flower in an airtight container and let it sit for twelve hours. Moisture will build up in the container, so every twelve hours, open the lid for twenty minutes to release the moisture. Repeat this process for several days and you’ll have perfectly cured cannabis flower, with its terpene profile intact.

harvesting cannabis
Photo by Ndispensable on UnSplash

The Manicure Trim

With the exception of a few cultivars, our cannabis flower is destined for sale in dispensaries, so we remove the majority of leaves. Your trimming regime will depend on how much leaf you want to keep on your buds. You’ll already have removed the fan leaves and the tips of the larger sugar leaves when you first harvested your plants. But if you want your flower to look like it came from a dispensary, then you need to do a manicure trim.

The manicure trim is time intensive and takes practice, as you are trying to remove leaf material without disturbing the trichomes on the surface. You’ll want precision trimmers and lots of patience for this process. But the end result can be worth it.

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