Deep down in a mineshaft in Flin Flon, Manitoba, something seemingly magical happens. Marijuana grows at exaggerated rates, pushing out kilos of primo bud in record time for the Canadian government’s medical cannabis grower, Prairie Plant Systems.
The unusual phenomenon that boosts plant growth in the underground shafts was first noticed by miners, who sometimes dropped seeds from tomatoes and other vegetables when they ate their lunch. In complete darkness, hundreds of meters below the earth, the seeds sprouted, grew several inches and then died.
Last winter, Cannabis Culture decided to investigate the phenomenon, so that we could give growers the latest news in the world of high-yield gardening. We spoke to some of the good people at Prairie Plant, including president and founder Brent Zettl, before Health Canada intervened and told Zettl to cut off contact with the media ? a role now handled by Health Canada’s own media-relations department.
Prairie Plant conducted controlled experiments to investigate the difference in growth rate, under the same conditions, in above and below ground operations, using a wide variety of plant species.
“To make a comparison we generally will grow comparison plants in the chamber and in the surface greenhouse,” said Lois, a Prairie Plant representative who didn’t give us her last name or title before the media blackout, “With this crop [marijuana]we are unable to grow the plants in the surface greenhouse so cannot make the same comparison, however with most plants we generally see a 30% increase in growth rate in the chamber.”
Prairie Plant Systems also runs a grow operation in White Pine, Michigan, where the company grows medicinal herbs other than cannabis in another abandoned mine. In White Pine, Prairie Plant experimented with Georgia Pine, growing some below ground in a chamber and others above ground in a greenhouse. At the end of the season, the ones in the greenhouse were an average of one foot tall, while the ones below ground had shot up to over six feet. Brent Zettl explained that the growth-enhancing power of the mine varied from species to species, but that every plant species tested so far had shown significantly elevated growth trends below ground.
Copping big buds
Technicians at Prairie Plant Systems believe that the reason for accelerated below-ground growth rates may be electromagnetics, which they say could vary at different depths in the earth, depending on the location. It is a little known fact that some growers use magnetic coils around water pipes to increase growth rate, and I have personally witnessed experiments that seem to prove the effectiveness of such magnetic systems.
Technicians also speculated that the mineral content of the soil may be important; both of Prairie Plant’s grow chambers were previously mined for copper. Copper is reputed for its conductivity, and could conceivably have an effect on the electromagnetic fields surrounding the grows. It could be copper’s powerful effect on electromagnetic fields that leads some arthritis suffers to swear by its power to relieve their symptoms when wrapped as a band around their ankle or wrist. Electromagnetic therapy for humans has been around for years, but widely disregarded by members of the mainstream medical establishment. Electromagnetic therapy for plants is an even more obscure field.
There is some indication that copper’s ability to pick up and channel naturally-occurring electricity could make it an ideal substance for deterring certain pests like slugs. Dr Raymond A Cloyd at the University of Illinois Research and Extension Program suggests a copper barrier around plants.
“Copper barriers can be placed around the base of shrubs and trees that are being fed on,” he observed. “Slugs receive a slight electric shock when their moist bodies contact the copper; this then repels them.”
Gardening companies supply copper mixtures to reduce root-circling in container gardens and to control fungal diseases, but the toxicity of many of these products limits them to use on ornamentals. If you feel compelled to give copper a try, experimenting with simpler approaches would produce safer results. A Dutch folk remedy for preserving cut tulips, for example, advises adding copper pennies to the water of your flower vase, and you can even buy copper sprinklers for outdoor applications.
Was copper the answer to the mystery of the magical mine? Electromagnetics might account for some increase in plant size, but it seemed prudent to explore other possibilities.
I asked Brent Zettl if he knew the secret to why their plants grow better so far underground. He gave me the low-down on some of their techniques.
Prairie Plant Systems grows plants in 1,200 square-foot hydroponic chambers hundreds of feet below the earth, under 1000 watt lights, using specially designed reflectors developed by NASA. Fresh, filtered air from above ground is pumped into the mine at a rate of 400,000 cubic feet a minute, half of which bypasses the chamber. Water is piped down from the surface of a nearby lake, the same source used for drinking water by the local town of Flin Flon, and is tested on a weekly basis. The soil is the same soil that Prairie Plant also uses to grow fruit trees: local outdoor soil enriched with a mix of peat moss, coconut primer blend and fertilizer.
“The environment is inviting for plants to grow in,” Zettl told Cannabis Culture. “The air pressure is a bit higher, and there could be something about that making the plants grow faster. The only other thing we can attribute to the faster growth is that we have taken out the stress in the environment from the plants by growing them in highly controlled systems.”
So highly controlled, in fact, that Prairie Plant workers must wash and change their clothes before going into the gardens, ensuring that nothing from the outside is carried in, and nothing from the inside is carried out.
Rick Upfold, a professor and agronomist at the Ontario Agricultural College in Canada agrees with Zettl’s hypothesis that a controlled environment is key.
“The environment is very steady,” he said. “You don’t go through hot-cold conditions that stress a plant. The temperature is always 70? Fahrenheit [21?C]. Essentially, everything grows better because there is no stress on the plants.”
Although cannabis growers have been experimenting with the benefits of controlled indoor environments for years, they could still take a tip from Zettl on this one. Using a commonly available air filter on your intake will mean less pests to deal with, as will washing yourself and changing your clothes before traipsing into your basement garden, especially if you’ve just come home from a walk in the park or nearby woods! Finding creative solutions to keeping air temperature and humidity steady and optimal will also reduce stress on plants, meaning that they can put more energy into growing you the biggest, ripest buds possible.
Air pressure is another possible answer to the mystery of the magical mine. Doctor Anthony Brach at Harvard University suggests that air pressure can sometimes help to increase the rate of photosynthesis, which would mean more energy for the plant to put into growing and budding, Whether it is practical for growers to replicate the air pressure in Flin Flon mines, considering the powerful fans Prairie Plant uses to force air into their grow chambers, is a question that can only be answered with creative experimentation.
Perhaps one day Health Canada will take the muzzle off Prairie Plant Systems and we at Cannabis Culture will be able to provide our readers with more details on the wonderful world of underground growing.