Spread across a field larger than a football pitch is a finished spread of beautiful sungrown flowers that began just a few months before as baby clones – spending their whole lives in the natural dirt from planting to harvest.
Growing from barely rooted clones only a few inches tall takes faith and determination, which is something that the team behind Alta Gardens has in spades. Their technique is unique, taking cuttings from mother plants, turning them into clones and planting without the plant or roots ever touching a plastic pot. The idea is to give the roots as natural of an experience as possible, never letting them run into the wall of a pot. While it’s a risk to put such a small plant into the elements of a Pacific Northwest June (where rain or hail isn’t out of the question), the return is a healthy root system that expands deep through living soil mounds into the native soil in search of water and nutrients.
By providing a natural growth cycle for the clones, the plants thrive – producing better terpene expressions as they encounter bugs and the elements – which is why sungrown living soil weed has such amazing taste and flavor. Alta Gardens uses natural amendments that are in line with organic practices, brewing their own compost tea onsite and feeding the plants as naturally as possible. For this year’s main field, all the strains were returning winners from last season, getting the benefit of a second year to dial in the genetics. Up above the first field, behind a row of greenhouses waiting on funding to start operating, is the R&D field – where phenotypes of different strains are competing for consideration for next year’s harvest. It takes two whole years from popping a seed to a growing season, before Master Gardener Danny Mendoza will commit to a full row in the main field.
It’s a long process to be an outdoor farmer, and it’s something that the dedicated team at Alta is all in for. We walked through a field of terpy flowers with Mendoza and Mark Joseph LaPaglia, and they shared the passion that drives the Alta team to hunt for genetics and grow from clones for the last five seasons.
What’s unique about how you grow at Alta?
Mendoza: We start from clones, clones from the get go! We start with our selected mothers around February and the new season’s cuts go into the ground in June – over 4,500 of them – barely rooted and only three to four inches tall. Some people think we are crazy, because it’s not normal, but it’s our methodology.
What is the advantage to growing from clones?
M: Because of the roots, we don’t want any root binding – which limits plant growth when you put them in pots, even just when vegging. We’ve done side-by-side tests where we vegged in pots and let the roots ball up, and when we plant them in the four-inch raised beds above native soil, the plant roots stay in a ball – even up to harvest. But when we grow from clone, the roots spread out much further, and we’ve actually had to widen our rows and our watering zone because the roots push out so far looking for water and nutrition. It’s more natural and liberating for the plant, which produces better Cannabis in the end. We think of the field as a living organism – including the Cannabis plants, the cover crops, the rhizosphere in the soil – which we want all living in harmony.
What is your favorite part of pheno hunting strains?
LaPaglia: The variability of seeing the potential strains – the strains that we choose are from really recommended sources, and this year we got a lot from Oregon Anarchist. He works at Rogue Soil and he’s the purveyor of some really dank strains … we tried the Permanent Marker, Black Scotti, Larry Burger – all really showed out as amazing cuts. We also loved the Pure Michigan and Grape Cake from Tyler at Kumba Hills. The Pure Michigan turned into this ambrosia red-purple color because it went so cold in the Valley this year – it’s definitely going in the field next year. At the end of the season we share pictures and cuts and compare notes, because it takes a whole village to find a good pheno anyways. It’s not gonna be one guy behind a pheno – there’s a whole team and a community full of amazing genetics floating around. We’ll also take a few branches and pollen them up, and share the seeds with our friends to keep the cycle going.
What strains are you most excited to share from this year’s harvest?
L: Purple Martian Kush came out so perfect that I am so ready to share it with everyone. It evaporated last year because we only had 50 pounds, but we have 120 pounds this year. It’s Starfighter crossed with Purple Kush … really brings out the candy notes from the Purple Kush and is a grape-in-your-face strain.
What drives the team to do this year round, and how does it feel to finish?
L: The last month of work was worth a year round. It’ll make anyone cry, harvesting that much weed. We had a 43% larger harvest than last year, and our rate increased by eight days with two less people. So we found a better crew to keep on full term, because we have so much more weed to process. We are looking forward to the future – the plant leads itself into a beautiful cycle of yearly flowering and being taken down and smoked all winter. It’s really just a cycle, and you get to grow on it next year, and keep going. That’s really the dream – to keep growing each year.
How does it feel to finally be done with this harvest?
L: Sore! Everyone is ready for a few days off, but we feel so accomplished. This is the biggest harvest for Alta ever – 25,800 wet pounds this year on 30,000 square feet of canopy – so we still have room to grow more next year!
What’s your message to folks who haven’t tried sungrown Cannabis before?
L: I mean, do you want the best experience in Cannabis whatsoever? I mean, sungrown Southern Oregon Cannabis is some of the best weed on Earth! It scientifically has more cannabinoids because the sun produces a better UV spectrum than any light bulb or any indoor program that you can create. Even the weathering on the plant is like a natural process that helps the plant express more cannabinoids and terpenes – so the rain and cold just makes more dank weed. So at the end of the day, if you like smoking the dankest weed – you’ll love sungrown Cannabis!