If you’re interested in growing your own cannabis, or just curious about the cannabis life cycle, check out our detailed guide and pick up some great tips!

Charting the Cannabis Life Cycle

At SunMed — one of Maryland’s only natural light growing facilities — we have a deep appreciation for the intricate journey of the cannabis plant. From a tiny seedling to a flourishing adult, each stage of the life cycle is crucial to producing the most high-quality cannabis possible. 

Throughout our greenhouses, our growers carefully monitor every stage to bring the most natural, best-smoking buds possible to the people of Maryland and beyond. Today, we want to give you a little more insight into the process.

Stages of Cannabis Growth

  1. Germination

  2. Propagation

  3. Vegetative Stage

  4. Flowering Stage

  5. Harvesting

  6. Drying

Cannabis Life Cycle FAQs

The journey of the cannabis plant begins with germination. From a dormant seed to a sprouting seedling, this critical first step is where the life of every cannabis plant starts.

1. The Seed: A cannabis seed might appear unassuming, a small brown kernel with flecks of white, but inside is all the genetic information needed to produce a fascinating plant. The outer shell, called the seed coat, protects the delicate embryo inside. When conditions are right, the seed awakens from its dormancy, so make sure you store them in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to begin growing. 

2. The Awakening: For germination to commence, a cannabis seed requires three essential things: moisture, warmth, and darkness. Soaking the seed in water for up to 12 hours allows the seed coat to absorb moisture. This signals the embryo inside to begin its growth process.

3. The Radicle Emergence: Once you’ve soaked your seed, you can place it in a dark, humid place, such as in a damp paper towel within a plastic bag and covered with a bowl. After a few days, a white tendril, called a radicle, emerges from the seed. This is the beginning of the plant's root system. 

4. Seedling Growth: In the days that follow the emergence of the radicle, the seed’s root system will continue to grow and eventually sprout. Once the plant produces cotyledons, its first set of leaves, it’s considered a seedling and can be placed into the soil to begin propagation.

While new methods have been developed to increase germination speed to produces radicles within a day and seedlings in just a few more, cultivators using traditional methods should expect the process to take three to ten days, with plantable seedlings taking up to about two weeks.

Following the breakthrough of germination, the cannabis plant enters its adolescence: the seedling stage. This phase is marked by rapid growth, laying down the framework for a healthy and productive adult plant.

At the seedling stage the plant has a single stem with a few sets of small, serrated leaves. The first of these leaves, the cotyledons, give way to the true cannabis leaves which start as a single pair and gradually increase in numbers with each new set.

  • Soil: Maintain a pH level of 5.5-6.5. Place your seedling in a small pot, and provide it with a small dose of nutrients on the first day.

  • Environment: Between 71-78 degrees, and humidity between 65-80%. 

  • Lighting: 18 hours on / 6 hours off. Low intensity / blue spectrum. 

  • Watering: Water with a sprayer to keep the soil slightly moist but not drenched.

Beneath the surface, the seedling is hard at work expanding its root system. A robust root network is crucial as it provides the plant with stability, water, and essential nutrients. The healthier the root system, the stronger and more resilient the plant will be in its later stages.

Seedlings are delicate. They're susceptible to over-watering, under-watering, and drastic temperature changes. As such, maintaining consistent conditions is key. Protecting them from pests, molds, and diseases during this stage is vital, as they are at their most vulnerable.

As the plant grows and the spacing between the nodes — the sections of the stem between the leaves — decreases, it's a sign that the plant is preparing to transition to the vegetative stage. Typically, after 2-3 weeks, or once the plant has at least 3-4 sets of true leaves, it's ready to make this crucial shift.

Rows of propagating cannabis plants in a greenhouse

Stepping out of its delicate infancy, the cannabis plant enters a period of rigorous growth and energy called the vegetative stage. This phase is all about building structure, strength, and a solid foundation for the flowering phase that follows.

In the vegetative phase, under optimal conditions, a cannabis plant can grow as much as several inches in a day. This rapid growth results in a bushy plant with a robust stem and a flourishing canopy of leaves. These leaves act as the plant's solar panels, capturing light to fuel even more growth.

  • Soil: Maintain a pH of 5.5-6.5. Switch to a larger pot size or in-ground planting and provide frequent nutrients. Make sure your pot has good drainage to avoid overwatering. 

  • Environment: Between 71-78 degrees, and humidity between 60-80%. 

  • Lighting: 18 hours on / 6 hours off. Increased light intensity / blue spectrum. 

  • Watering: Water regularly, keeping the soil moist to the touch but not soaking.

  • Pruning: To maximize yields and ensure a healthy canopy, many growers use training and pruning techniques. This might include tactics like topping, where the main stem's top is removed to promote branching, or low-stress training, where branches are gently bent to encourage a more horizontal growth pattern. Proper training can result in more bud sites and improved air circulation.

During this stage, cannabis thrives on long hours of light, typically around 18 hours of light per day. This extended exposure to light triggers the plant to maximize its growth potential before it shifts to the flowering phase.

As the plant matures, its nutrient requirements change, and in the vegetative state, nitrogen is vital. A high-nitrogen diet supports the rapid production of leaves and stems. However, it's also essential to maintain a balanced intake of other nutrients, like phosphorus and potassium.

The cannabis plant will remain in the vegetative state until it's exposed to shorter light periods, typically around 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. This change signals the plant to enter the flowering phase. 

This means that the transition timing to go from the vegetative to flowering stage is largely up to the grower. However, it's important to note that the transition timing can vary based on the strain and specific growing conditions.

 SunMed Growers with vegetative cannabis in the greenhouse

The crowning glory of the cannabis life cycle, the flowering stage, is where the magic truly unfolds. As the plant transitions from its pre-flowering phase, it dedicates its energy to producing the fragrant, resinous buds coveted by consumers and cultivators alike.

  • Soil: Maintain a pH of 5.5-6.5. Transition to a larger pot size or in-ground planting and continue to provide frequent nutrients. Make sure your pot has good drainage to avoid overwatering. 

  • Environment: Between 64-78 degrees, and humidity around 50%. 

  • Lighting: 12 hours on / 12 hours off. Increased light intensity / red spectrum. In order for the plant to transition into the flowering stage, this reduction in lighting from 18 to 12 hours must be introduced. 

  • Watering: Water regularly, keeping the soil moist to the touch but not soaking. Use a pot with good drainage. 

  • Pruning: Avoid late-flowering pruning. 

Early in the flowering stage, the small calyxes developed during pre-flowering begin to expand and cluster together, forming the beginnings of buds. As the weeks progress, these clusters grow denser and larger in female plants.

As the buds mature, trichomes—tiny, crystal-like structures—start forming on their surfaces. These trichomes are responsible for producing the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that give cannabis its unique effects and flavors.

While the need for nitrogen decreases during flowering, the demand for phosphorus and potassium spikes. Both are critical for bud development, with phosphorus promoting flower and root growth and potassium supporting overall plant health.

As the flowering stage progresses, the trichomes on the buds change in color, typically transitioning from clear to milky white and then to amber. By observing these trichome colors and the general appearance and health of the buds, you can figure out the best time to harvest your buds. To ensure a consistent harvest or to hone in the effects of the harvested buds, growers may develop strain-specific preferences for trichome color.

Cannabis in the flower stage with a gloved hand turning it to show the camera

After months of careful cultivation, dedication, and anticipation, the moment every grower eagerly awaits finally arrives: harvesting. It's not just about reaping the fruits of your labor; it's an art in itself, determining the quality, aroma, flavor, and potency of the final product.

Choosing the right moment to harvest is crucial. As mentioned earlier, trichome color is one key indicator. Milky trichomes often indicate peak THC levels, while amber trichomes suggest a higher presence of CBN, offering a more sedative effect.

Quality shears that are both sharp and comfortable in hand are a must. Cleanliness is vital; all tools should be sanitized to prevent contamination and ensure the purity of the harvested buds.

Depending on the grower's preference and the size of the plants, cannabis can be harvested branch by branch or by cutting the entire plant at its base. The larger fan leaves are typically removed first, as they don't contain significant amounts of cannabinoids.

While harvesting might mark the end of the cannabis plant's growth cycle, the journey to producing premium-quality cannabis is far from over. The post-harvest processes of drying and curing are vital in shaping the overall quality, flavor, and effect of the final product. Let's delve deeper into these essential stages.

 SunMed Grower with hanging cannabis

1. Drying

  • Environment Control: For optimal drying, cannabis buds need a controlled environment. Ideally, this means a dark space with a temperature between 60-70°F (15-21°C) and a humidity level of around 50%.

  • Air Circulation: Good airflow is crucial to prevent mold growth. However, direct airflow onto the buds should be avoided, as it can dry them too quickly and unevenly.

  • Duration: The drying process can take anywhere from 5 to 15 days, depending on environmental conditions. Buds are considered dry when small stems snap, rather than bend.

2. Curing

  • Trimming: Before curing, any remaining leaves shielding the buds should be trimmed off. These leaves, while not rich in cannabinoids, can be saved for making edibles or extracts.

  • Storage: Place buds loosely into airtight containers, filling them ¾ of the way to allow some air.

  • Burping: For the first week or two, containers should be opened several times a day for about 10 minutes. This process, often referred to as "burping," allows moisture to escape and replenishes the oxygen supply.

  • Duration: While a minimum curing time might be two weeks, many connoisseurs recommend curing for at least four weeks, if not longer. The longer the cure, the better the flavor and smoke quality.

3. Importance of Proper Drying and Curing

  • Flavor and Smoothness: Curing helps break down chlorophyll and other undesirable compounds, resulting in a smoother smoke and purer flavor profile.

  • Potency: Cannabinoids continue to evolve during curing. THC, in particular, becomes more concentrated, enhancing the bud's potency.

  • Mold Prevention: Proper drying and curing ensure that any residual moisture is eliminated, reducing the risk of mold and bacterial growth.

  SunMed cannabis packed and stored

Cannabis Life Cycle FAQs

There is a lot more that goes into cannabis cultivation – much more than a single blog post could ever cover! But here are some of the most common questions: 

How Long Is the Cannabis Life Cycle? 

The cannabis life cycle's duration can vary based on several factors, including the strain, growing conditions, and specific cultivation practices, but the life cycle will commonly take up to 30 weeks from seeding to curing. 

Does Cannabis Need a Night Cycle? 

Just like most plants, cannabis benefits from a night cycle or a period of darkness. During the vegetative stage, cannabis plants often thrive on an 18/6 light cycle (18 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness). Once the flowering stage is initiated, a 12/12 light cycle is common. 

This darkness is essential for the plant's metabolic processes, allowing it to rest, respire, and manage energy. Skipping or reducing the night cycle can stress the plant and potentially disrupt its growth and flowering patterns.

How Far Should LED Lights Be Positioned from the Plants?

The ideal distance between LED lights and cannabis plants varies based on the wattage and design of the lights. Generally:

  • LEDs (1000+W): Position 36-46 inches away from plants.

  • LEDs (400W-800W): Position 24-36 inches away from plants.

  • LEDs (200W-400W): Position 12-24 inches away from plants.

  • LEDs (100W-200W): Position 8-16 inches away.

  • LEDs (below 100W): Position 6-12 inches away.

How Do I Know If My Plants Are Getting Too Much Light?

It's essential to monitor plants for signs of light stress. If leaves turn yellow or curl upwards, the lights might be too close. Conversely, if the plant stretches excessively towards the light, it might be too far. Regular adjustments based on plant health ensure optimal growth and development.

How Do I Know If My Plants Are Overwatered?

Overwatering is a common concern among cannabis growers. Signs your plants might be overwatered include:

  • Drooping Leaves: Unlike the perkiness of dehydration, overwatered plants will have droopy, heavy-looking leaves that can feel cold and wet to the touch.

  • Yellowing: Leaves, especially older ones, may turn yellow or develop a slight yellow hue. This is due to the roots struggling to uptake oxygen and nutrients.

  • Stunted Growth: Plants may not grow as vigorously as they should.

  • Root Rot: If allowed to persist, overwatering can lead to fungal diseases like root rot, characterized by brown, mushy roots.

How Do I Know When to Prune My Plants?

Pruning is a vital practice to guide your cannabis plants' growth and improve light penetration. Here's when and how to consider pruning:

  • Vegetative Stage: This is the prime time for major pruning. Look for bushy areas where lower branches and leaves are being shaded. By removing these, you direct energy to the top colas and improve airflow.

  • Early Flowering: Minor pruning can be done in the first week or two of flowering to shape the plant and eliminate any lingering shaded areas.

  • Avoid Late Flowering Pruning: It's best to avoid significant pruning once deep into the flowering stage, as plants have less recovery time, and stress can impact bud development.

 Hand inspecting a cannabis plant with a pruning device

Let Us Grow For You! 

Understanding the cannabis life cycle is fun, useful, and helps you appreciate the quality of what you’re smoking. But the long, labor intensive process of growing your own weed isn’t something everyone can undertake.

That’s why we’re here! To bring you the best, most carefully cultivated natural light cannabis. Next time you visit one of our many dispensaries in Maryland, ask for SunMed to experience flavors and quality that’ll forever elevate your idea of what cannabis can be.