The nutrient challenge
The information I provided about Advanced Nutrients was in the context of an article that discussed Marijuana Growth Deficiency Syndrome (MGDS), which is characterized by plants that grow poorly and produce low yields.
I wrote that Advanced Nutrients products might well cure MGDS, because the company's product research, formulations, and quality control seemed to be setting a higher standard than that already seen in the marijuana nutrients industry.
The company makes its nutrients in a huge industrial facility near Vancouver. When I toured the facility with Cannabis Culture editor Dana Larsen, we saw how Advanced Nutrients' scientists and production managers chemically manipulate essential nutrients to make them more bioavailable to cannabis plants.
We were also impressed by the company's Sensi Pro flowering formula, which features separate pouches of targeted week-specific nutrients that are combined by the grower every week during the grow cycle.
Company founder Mike Straumietis explained that the flowering formula ingredients are kept separate until use, because some of the products are biologically active and/or symbiotic, and could be degraded if shipped pre-mixed.
When I started telling people I thought Advanced Nutrients had superior nutrient products, I got various reactions. One of my colleagues in the marijuana industry accused me of having "sold out" because the company was advertising in my magazine. He also alleged that "synthetic chemical" nutrients produced "chemmy," inferior weed.
Representatives of rival nutrients companies told me that their products were superior to Advanced Nutrients products, but they could not offer any proof of that, and indeed, those company reps were unwilling to even let me state that their products were designed for marijuana cultivation!
Straumietis reacted to these criticisms by asking a Health Canada-licensed medical marijuana grower to set up a test grow room that compared nutrients produced by six companies: Advanced Nutrients, GrowTek, Canna, Supernatural, General Hydroponics, and Dutch Master.
I visited the grow room four times, interviewed the licensed grower and an on-site grow expert named "Remo," and also examined records and videotapes that documented the comparison grow from start to finish.
The results were fascinating, so let's examine how the different nutrients fared.
The test grow room used a marijuana variety known as "Berlin." This is a bushy, high-yielding, mostly Afghani-Indica plant that produces large buds and a powerful high. It's very popular in British Columbia because it grows well in a variety of conditions and is easy to maintain.
Some marijuana is difficult to grow because it requires an extremely careful balance of nutrients administered with precise timing; Berlin is a resilient and forgiving variety that grows well when it has access to adequate levels of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and micronutrients.
"If a Berlin plant has problems with vigor due to nutrient deficiency," Straumietis explains, "then the nutrients have to be very poor indeed. We wanted to be fair to everyone in this contest, so we chose a variety that does not have unusual nutrient needs."
To begin the comparison grow experiment, the grow room managers made 48 clones from one Berlin mother plant. It is possible to introduce some unintended variation into an experimental grow room at the cloning level, because clones from different parts of a plant can have different growth characteristics, even if they are taken at the same time.
The grow managers minimized that variation by randomizing the clones so that all 48 Grodan-rooted clones were randomly placed in a single grow room that had six areas with eight plants each ? each area was designated for one of the six nutrients companies that were being compared.
The grow room was a professional, white, sealed enclosure with eight 1,000-watt Hortilux bulbs, a CO2 generator, and dehumidifiers. The interior temperature was at a constant 78 degrees F (25 degrees C), with humidity between 50-60%. The room was monitored 24 hours a day to guard against any environmental variations.
After the clones were thoroughly rooted, they were placed into one-gallon pots containing Sunshine Mix #4, which is a popular BC growing medium that contains peat moss, sphagnum moss, perlite and other components.
The newly-repotted, rooted clones were immediately placed on a fertilizer regimen that followed the written instructions for vegetative growth fertilizers as provided by each company.
After the plants had been in 18-hour light per day vegetative growth for seven weeks, they were placed on a flowering schedule and the growers followed the bloom formula protocols specified by each company. At the start of the flowering period, the plants were transferred from one-gallon pots to seven-gallon pots filled with Sunshine Mix #4.
The grow room supervisors claim that they did not modify any of the company's nutrient protocols, and they made sure that pH and PPM were uniformly maintained so that water supplies, nutrient density, and pH were identical during the test.
Not all the same
Remo said that he was surprised to see that there were big differences in how the plants were growing.
"I've seen a lot of problems in grow rooms, but I had never seen a situation in which identical clones began to look not identical. By the time we got to the flowering cycle, it looked like we had three or four varieties of plants in that room, even though all clones had come from the same plant," Remo explained. "It wasn't as bad as having Indica-fat leaves start looking like Sativa leaves or anything that drastic, but the leaf shapes on some of the plants were totally different than the leaves on the mother plant, as were the branching and growth patterns. It just shows you how nutrients affect the look of a plant."
There were other differences as well, Remo says. During vegetative phase, some of the plants under different nutrient regimes exhibited symptoms of deficiencies in elements such as calcium, zinc, potassium, and manganese.
The same problems manifested under flowering, with symptoms related to deficiencies in elements such as phosphorus, potassium, nitrogen, manganese and potassium.
In both phases, the Advanced Nutrients plants exhibited the most robust and uniform growth. The only problem visible was a small amount of leaf tip burning.
Some nutrient formulas had even worse problems.
"We were shocked by what happened with the Dutch Master plants. They got really dark green and the leaves curled over all weird. They didn't even look like Berlin clones anymore. And they dwarfed out and just stopped growing. They looked like mutants!"
When I visited the comparison grow room during the fifth week of the flowering cycle, it was obvious that one set of plants ? the Advanced Nutrients set ? were the healthiest and biggest in the room.
I realized that cynical people would accuse the grow room managers of manipulating the grow environment so Advanced Nutrients would win, but Straumietis says he used the comparison grow for product research and development purposes, not as a scam situation designed to make his company look best.
"We are totally open to the possibility that some other company might make better products than we do," he said. "If somebody else had products that grew better cannabis than ours did, I would be interested in that because I am all about growing the best cannabis. I would also try to figure out how their products were better than ours, and make our products the best. Some people say that's greedy or competitive, but that's how products improve ? different people try to make better stuff than the other guy, right?"
As it turned out, Straumietis didn't have much to fear from the other big nutrient companies.
In vegetative and bloom cycles, Advanced Nutrients plants outperformed the other plants. They were the tallest and healthiest. Their leaves were green without being too dark or light, and their buds were both longer and thicker than the buds from any other plants. However, their plants had a small amount of tip burning, which Straumietis said was because his formulation is at the upper end of the PPM scale.
"I found the that the Advanced Nutrients products were easiest to use," said Remo. "They have it all in one package and it self-adjusts for pH. What happened when we measured the harvest didn't really surprise me."
Weigh way more
Harvest day came 14 weeks after the clones were rooted.
"Our plants outdistanced the second place finisher by 65%," Straumietis said, after explaining how all the buds were cut and cured the same way. "Our six plants with one light produced 2.16 pounds of bud. We did two other comparisons. In one we took a 454-gram sample from each group and made water hash out of it. Our bud produced 12 grams of extracted glands, while Grow-Tek's came in second with 11.3 grams; even though they were the smallest plants overall."
Straumietis says he ran another comparison test that measured percentages of three cannabinoids. Again, Advanced Nutrients came out on top, producing 21.2% THC, and very low percentages of two other cannabinoids (cannabinol and cannabidiol, known as CBN and CBD), that limit marijuana's psychoactive effects.
The second place finisher in the cannabinoid percentage category was GrowTek, which produced 18.7% THC while also producing a whopping 9.09% CBD and 5.84% CBD. While CBD and CBN have some medical applications which THC does not, in practical terms important to those who want potent recreational marijuana, these cannabinoids can also reduce the psychoactive effects of THC.
The nutrient challenge
It's now obvious that not all nutrients are the same. A grower can do everything right in regards to lighting, climate control and genetics, and still have crop failure.
There will still be those who believe Advanced Nutrients rigged the grow test, or that the results were tainted because the grow was not run by a neutral, third-party agricultural testing service, or that the results were from a one-time grow situation that might not be generalizable for other grow situations.
Straumietis says he tried to find a third-party testing service to run the grow op for him, but that all of the ones he contacted refused to test nutrients when they were being used to grow marijuana plants.
"There are always going to be doubters," Straumietis says, "and we expect that. We have issued a worldwide challenge to all nutrients companies, asking them to share the cost and the work involved in doing more nutrient competitions. None have taken us up on our offer, even though many have criticized our intentions and products.
"If we're not making the best nutrients available, we want to know about it," concluded Straumietis. "We think we are, and we think the grow room contest proved it. If somebody wants to prove us wrong, let's set up a grow room and compete head to head. We're sure Advanced Nutrients will produce higher yields of more potent buds. If somebody doesn't believe that, let's grow plants side by side. We're ready for the competition. Bring it on!"