Last Updated on June 3, 2023
Ahhh, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. You have proudly, legally grown your own beautiful, sticky-sweet cannabis plant, nurturing it from seed or seedling, and it is finally mature and ready for harvest! Or wait… Is it? If you aren’t sure, then this article is for you! While the harvest, trimming, and curing practices may vary slightly from grower to grower, there are definitely some tips and best practices we’ve learned over the years that I want to share with you.
Read along to learn how to determine when your cannabis plant is ready for harvest. Then, we’ll go over the process for properly drying and curing your finished cannabis – to ensure it’s at that perfect “just right” stage: not too dry, but not so wet that it may mold during storage! I’ll also share tips about trimming, talk about long-term storage, and let you in on how we use our cannabis. Basically, everything you need to know.
If you’re new to growing, or simply want to learn more about how we grow and tend to our cannabis plants, be sure to check out these articles too:
- How to Grow Cannabis, Organically: Soil, Seeds, Containers & Care
- How to Feed Cannabis, Organically: Top-Dressings, Teas & More
- Organic Cannabis Pest Control: How to Keep the Bugs Off Your Nugs
- Sativa, Indica, & Autoflowers: The Difference Explained
- Introductory Words on Cannabis: Legality, Stigma, Uses & Quality Control
Now on with the show, shall we?
How to Determine When To Harvest Cannabis Your Plants
Numerous indicators will signal when your cannabis is nearly ready to harvest. Each plant and strain is unique, so these signs can vary, but here are some general things to look for:
- The leaves will begin to yellow, curl, and some will probably fall off
- Buds will be plump and developed, and no longer appear to be growing larger
- As the buds swell, the branches will become heavy and hang more
Time is not the best indicator, because this will vary depending on the strain, your location, growing conditions, and the type of plant. For example, sativa cannabis plants typically have a longer flowering period and later finish than indica strains do. We typically grow sativa-dominant plants, starting seed in late April to May and typically harvest the cannabis in October. Autoflowering cannabis plants live and grow in a timing universe of their own… We’ll talk more about them in a moment.
Personally, the most reliable indicator that we pay attention to is the cannabis trichomes.
What are Trichomes?
You know all those shiny, sticky, wonderful-smelling crystals you can find all over your cannabis flowers? Those are trichomes. They play an important role in the plants natural defense mechanisms, and also contain the thing we’re all after here – cannabinoids.
The actual definition of trichome is “fine outgrowths or appendages on plants, algae, lichens, and certain protists.” Originating from the Greek word “Tríchōma,” meaning “growth of hair,” these tiny microscopic mushroom-looking protuberances look like something out of a science fiction novel. But they are actually the very factories that produce the hundreds of known cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids that make our favorite cannabis strains potent, unique, and effective.Leafly
Monitoring Your Trichomes to Signal When to Harvest Cannabis
While it requires a little closer look, the appearance of the trichomes is the best way to determine the stage and condition of your cannabis plant. More specifically, pay attention to trichome color and opacity. Because they’re so tiny, you’ll want to use a jewelers loupe as a magnifying glass to examine them. Aaron starts keeping an eye on them even before the aforementioned signs begin. Throughout the growing cycle, the trichomes will change from clear to milky and cloudy, and eventually to amber.
As a general rule of thumb, when the trichomes are very clear, the cannabis plant is still immature and the THC is less developed. Harvesting cannabis at this stage may result in a more speedy, racy, less smooth and comfortable user experience. When the trichomes change from clear to fully cloudy, that is when we like to harvest cannabis. Or even a tad later, as described in the “when in doubt” bit below. This is when the buds are now at a very well-balanced stage of development.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you let the cannabis continue to grow too long and the trichomes turn all the way amber, the result is often a more lethargic, heavy body high. I don’t know about you, but I am not a fan of “couch lock”! Some people prefer a more sedate and sleepy vibe. If that is the case, I suggest you grow strains that are known for those attributes in the first place, rather than trying to push your cannabis plant to an overly mature state by prolonging the harvest.
When in doubt, harvest cannabis when the plants trichomes are primarily cloudy and a little amber, rather than a mixture of clear and cloudy. More growers have the regret of harvesting their plants too early as opposed to too late.
Determining When to Harvest an Autoflower Cannabis Plant
Figuring out when an autoflower plant is ready for harvest is a bit more tricky. They don’t always lose their leaves. Their trichomes change from clear to cloudy and amber, but not always as obvious or evenly. Yet some oddball strains never turn amber at all! It isn’t as easy to confidently say “Yep, you’re ready to go!” as you would with a regular plant, so you have to simply do your best to judge.
Autoflower breeders will usually provide a timeframe, such as 12 weeks from seed to harvest. This can help provide you a general idea of when the plant will be ready, but it isn’t set in stone. We have found that our autoflower cannabis plants almost always take a couple weeks longer than predicted. But if the breeder says “this plant takes 11 weeks”, if you hit the 14th week, it is likely time. Chances are, if the buds are nice and swollen, and some of the trichomes are looking cloudy for at least a week, you can pull it then.
How to Harvest Cannabis
It is best to harvest cannabis plants in the early morning hours or before your lights turn on. When the time is right, many cannabis growers simply chop the entire plant down at once. That is certainly one option, and something we do with autoflower plants for sure! When it comes to our big girls, sometimes we harvest cannabis plants in sections instead. Why? Well, for a couple of reasons…
In our experience, the buds on the upper branches become ripe and ready for harvest faster. Therefore, we may choose to cut the main stalk about halfway up – in order to remove the top portion of the plant only – or cut off individual upper branches first. This will provide more time and sun to reach the lower flowers, and allow them to fatten up for another week or so.
Taking the plant in sections also spaces out the timing, effort, and room required for drying and trimming too. This helps make the next steps a bit more manageable, especially if we are harvesting several large plants.
When we finally harvest the lower portion, we cut the stalk with a small hand saw down at the soil level or just below. Following a “no till” and recycled organic living soil practice, we leave the roots in place inside the grow bag! The root ball will decompose, feeding the worms and soil over the next several months until the following growing season.
What About Flushing?
If you read other websites instructions on how to harvest cannabis, you will often see a section about flushing the plants prior to harvest. We don’t flush our plants because the way we organically grow cannabis does not require it. In contrast, flushing living organic soil essentially strips it of the complex ecosystem you worked so hard to build in your soil! It defeats the purpose.
However, many home growers and most commercial growers use chemical fertilizers and pesticides that get absorbed into into the plants vascular system, and in to the buds. Those plants will require a “flushing” period. This is where the plants root ball and soil is repeatedly flushed with water for about two weeks prior to harvesting, to help rid the plant of built up chemicals and salts. If not flushed, the bud will burns really harsh and tastes unpleasant. Hmm… I wonder why? If you need instructions on flushing, see this article.
Many outdoor growers opt to wash their cannabis flower after harvest. It’s not mandatory, but can definitely be a good idea. (I mean, you wash your produce before consuming it, right?) Different than flushing (which cleanses the plants vascular system), washing involves physically cleaning the flower to remove outdoor air pollutants such as dirt, dust, pollen, toxic wildfire ash, insects, caterpillar poop, bird debris and other particulate matter – all the stuff you don’t want to ingest or inhale!
See this guide to learn how to organically wash cannabis using lemon juice and baking soda, or with hydrogen peroxide – and then carry on with your normal drying and curing process thereafter. Washing doesn’t reduce the quality or potency of the flower, and isn’t necessary for indoors grows. We didn’t use to wash our plants, but have started to in recent years after several smoky/ashy summers and moving to a more dirty, dusty property.
When to Trim Cannabis
I could have put this trimming section either here, or after the “How to Dry” section to follow, because you can do either! Some ganja farmers insist on trimming their finished plants before they dry – also called a “wet trim” or ‘trimming wet”. On the other hand, many cannabis growers prefer to wait until they’re dry. Others periodically trim in the middle of the drying process, or do a little of both. It really all depends on your schedule and personal preference, which you’ll develop with time.
Trimming can be really tedious and time-consuming, so we go after it whenever we have a chance! And by “we”… I mean Aaron. He has more free time in the afternoon than I do (which is still limited) so he’ll usually grab a semi-dry hanging branch to work on here and there whenever he can, hoping to get it all taken care of before it is time to cure.
How to Trim Cannabis
We find it easiest to trim off at least some of the larger, prominent fan leaves while they’re still fairly wet. Removing bulky leaves helps promote drying. Additionally, as the leaves dry they will curl around themselves and the buds, which makes it more difficult to slip the trimming snips in there. On the other hand, after the cannabis has dried, the leftover leaves can become so brittle and loose that they are easy to flick off with the end of your snips or even a toothpick.
When it comes to trimming, perfection is not the goal. Not in our opinion at least! We grow for personal use, family, and friends. We don’t need perfectly manicured buds, nor do we have the patience for it. Plus, there are trichomes and THC on some of the leaves! Therefore, we hardly bother with trying to remove the “sugar leaves” – the smallest ones coming out from the center of the buds. Yet we do trim away the larger, non-sugary leaves that are attached to the main stem around the buds.
Cannabis Trimming Tools
In regards to tools, I highly recommend these precision trimming snips. They make the job much easier! We have several pairs, and use them extensively both for cannabis and in the garden – like for thinning seedlings. They even come in a non-stick option.
I also suggest investing in a “trim bin” to trim your cannabis over. It is ergonomic, with dips for your arms. The bin has two parts: a screened upper section to catch all the leaf debris that you’ll likely discard, and a lower compartment that collects trichomes/keef that falls through the screen. Keep that! Sprinkle it on top of your bowls, or use it to infuse homemade canna oil! (Post coming on that soon)
We compost our excess leaf debris, both in a passive compost pile and in our worm bin. Yep, the worms love it! Smart little buggers.
How to Dry Your Cannabis
After they are cut down, cannabis plants are traditionally hung upside down to dry. As the cannabis dries, the THC converts from a non-psychoactive state to one that is psychoactive. However, you don’t want to rush the drying process! THC also slightly degrades with drying, and buds that are dried too quickly will experience a more significant decomposition of THC than those that are allowed to dry more slowly.
An ideal time to dry cannabis is around 5-7 days. However, the time it takes to reach the ideal dryness (explained below) will vary depending on your climate and drying location. Also, the condition of your plant will play a role, such as how fat the buds are, how many fan leaves are still attached, and so on.
Ideal Cannabis Drying Conditions
It is best to dry cannabis in a temperate, relatively dark location. Light also degrades THC, so keep those drying plants out of direct sunlight! Good air flow is also very important. You’ll want to provide a fan to increase air circulation in the room and create a constant light breeze, but avoid pointing the fan directly at your plants – unless you’re in a very hot and humid climate. Even then, keep the breeze on the light side.
The ideal humidity level for drying cannabis is about 45-55%. If your humidity is lower than that, keep the fan extra low or omit it altogether to avoid overdrying your buds. We’ll talk more about how to measure humidity in just a moment. Serious growers, or those in particularly challenging climates, may use the assistance of humidifiers, dehumidifiers, heaters, or air conditioners to achieve that sweet spot.
Excessive heat can also dry out cannabis more quickly. If possible, hang your cannabis to dry in a climate-controlled location – not in an outdoor shed, garage, or other spot that is prone to extreme temperature swings. A temperature right around 70°F is ideal, though anything from 60-80°F is adequate.
We dry our cannabis in a spare room in our house along a clothes line, or in the spare shower. It is easiest to break the plant down into branches and spread them out a bit, as opposed to hanging the whole damn thing like a dying Christmas tree. We use this combo thermometer/hygrometer in our drying room to assess the conditions.
How to Tell When Your Cannabis is Dry Enough
If you are able to dry your cannabis in an environment with the ideal conditions described above, it will likely be done in the suggested time frame of 5-7 days. To assess if your cannabis is dry enough to move on to the curing process, test the humidity level of the buds themselves! You’ll need a humidity meter, also known as a hygrometer, to do this. The hygrometer will be used during curing as well. For inside jars, we use these cigar hygrometers.
The goal is to get the humidity of the flowers down to about 60-65% by the time they’re ready for long term storage. Therefore, I recommend to start the curing process when your cannabis is in the range of 62-68% humidity. With humidity over 70%, the chances of mold developing in storage is far greater! Additionally, the buds will only get more dry with time.
When you think the cannabis is fairly dry, clip off a few sample buds. I suggest taking a nug from a couple locations on the plant to get a nice average. Place the buds inside a sealed jar with the hygrometer inside as well. Close up the jar and get a reading. If the humidity shoots to 70% or greater quickly, they’re definitely not ready to cure! On the other hand, if it is hovering right around the sweet spot, allow them to stay sealed in the jar for 24 hours to get a true reading. If after 24 hours, it is within the target range, proceed to curing. If you find the humidity has creeped up, allow the plants to continue to dry. Check back again in a day or two.
If you haven’t trimmed yet, do so before moving on to curing – keeping in mind that may take a few days too, and the weed won’t just stop drying for you in the meantime. Therefore, I suggest trimming in small batches and adding it to sealed jars as you go.
What is Curing Cannabis
Do not overlook the importance of curing! Have you ever noticed that some cannabis smokes really smooth and tastes absolutely amazing, while others are more harsh and flavorless? Sure, a little bit of that has to do with the strain or growing conditions… but the main factor that makes weed wonderful or woeful is: if it was cured properly! No, the crummier stuff isn’t just “old”. Old weed can still taste good and smooth too! In addition to the final flavor and experience, curing also ensures the cannabis will store well long-term and retain quality.
Curing is essentially a continuation of the drying process, but in a more slow, controlled environment – such as in sealed mason jars – and occurs for up to two months. Meaning, once the cannabis is dry, it isn’t necessarily ready to enjoy at its prime yet. Ideally, you should allow the cannabis to cure fully before enjoying it. Sure, you can sample some early here and there of course, but super fresh bud is not going to be the same as the stuff that has been allowed to cure.
Proper curing stops the degradation process before volatile compounds like terpenes and cannabinoids evaporate or transform into less favorable compounds. Additionally, cannabinoid synthesis (the process of creating those valuable chemicals) continues to take place even after harvest!Colorado Pot Guide
I also recently learned that during the curing process, bacteria works to break down the chlorophyll in the plant material. Chlorophyll is what makes the plants nice and green in color, but also contributes to a harsh smoking experience. Therefore, less green finished nugs isn’t necessarily a bad thing!
How to Cure Cannabis
Once you are able to obtain a humidity level of about 62-68%, put the trimmed buds in airtight containers, such as in a sealed mason jar. We use these half gallon jars. Store the containers in a dark, temperate place. Now, over the following weeks, periodically burp the jars. By “burping the jars”, I don’t mean a quick open-and-close of the lid. Leave the lid off for 10 to 15 minutes, and then re-seal the jar. The purpose is to allow some air exchange – to introduce oxygen and release moisture or other off-gassing substances.
How often should I burp the jars while curing, you ask? Some growers burp their jars one to two times per day during the first week or two. It is especially important to burp frequently if your cannabis is on the higher end of that humidity range, and leave the lids open even longer – up to an hour. On the other hand, we usually get our nugs down to around 63%, so we burp a little less frequently. We aim for once per day, but sometimes miss a few days. It isn’t the end of the world.
After the first couple of weeks, a burp just once per week is great – for the following month. After a full 6 to 8 weeks of curing, you can reduce the burping frequency to once per month. At that time, you also don’t need to worry as much about the length of time the lids are off. A shorter burp is fine.
There are a few things you’ll want to pay attention to during the curing process:
Keep a hygrometer inside at least one of your containers. You can rotate it amongst jars if needed, or use a few of them. Try to position it in a way that is visible through the sides of the container. If the humidity inside the jars begins to climb to 70% or over, take the buds back out of the jar for a day or two. Spread them out somewhere with good airflow, such as on an herb drying rack, screen, or even on cardboard.
When you open the jars to burp them, take a sniff! A slight ammonia aroma is a sign that the cannabis is too wet and is starting to spoil. A strong ammonia odor or visible mold are indications that the cannabis was much too wet, and is probably now ruined. Yet if you are using a hygrometer, you shouldn’t run into this issue.
On the flip side, if your cannabis has become too dry (less than 60%), you may be able to help it – with the assistance of these Boveda packets! Originally designed for the cigar industry, Boveda packets can be used to re-introduce moisture to overly dry cannabis. You can also keep them with your buds during long-term storage to regulate humidity, which may be particularly helpful in hot, arid climates. They come in various target humidity levels that they help to achieve or maintain, for example a 65% packet, 63% packet, and so on.
How to Store Cannabis Long Term
Once your cannabis has finished curing, you can shift to long term storage. For us, this looks no different than the curing stage – except that we aren’t opening the jars as often. We store our cannabis in the same half-gallon jars they were cured in. Choose any air-tight container, and store it in a temperate, dark location. It is recommended to quickly burp the jars about once a month, but we don’t stress that part too much. If you’re getting into your stash to use it, the jars are being burped plenty then.
You have probably seen that some people do vacuum/seal and even freeze their weed. We don’t find this necessary, or even preferable, Just how frozen and defrosted food doesn’t taste as good as fresh food, we’d rather keep the buds out – more fresh, and easy to monitor. We also aren’t huge fans of the idea of plastic touching the buds the whole time. On the other hand, if you are giving weed away, that is a different story. We do sometimes use plastic then. Either way, I don’t suggest fully vacuum sealing. Sucking all the air out of the package totally crushes the buds! If anything, use the seal feature only.
In summary, when cannabis is properly harvested, dried, cured, and stored, it can stay fresh, tasty, and potent for up to a year – just in time for the next growing season! Check out the photo above! That is our cannabis harvest from last fall, and it is still measuring 65% humidity. The color and chlorophyll will naturally fade, and THC may degrade slightly, but it still smokes and feels quite wonderful.
Speaking of smoking…
Using Your Homegrown Cannabis Harvest
To clarify, we don’t actually “smoke” our cannabis. At least not in the traditional sense. We use a high-quality vaporizer. It heats and delivers the desired cannabinoids and terpenes without actual combustion of the flower. Combustion (burning) the cannabis is more harsh on your throat and lungs, and it simply doesn’t do your bud justice. It totally destroys the flavor, and overheats the cannabinoids and terps to a far less efficient and effective temperature. We also make canna oil and capsules, but that is a whole different post for another day!
Here is an article all about vaporizing, which goes over the science and safety behind vaporizing cannabis. It also explores the differences between smoking and vaping, between using whole flower and concentrates, and how to make the most efficient, effective, safe use of your herb.
In short, the Firefly 2+ vaporizer is pretty much the best thing on the market. We used the Firefly 2 for many years, and just upgraded to the 2+ when it came out a couple of months ago. It is the safest for your lungs and body (no heavy metals, like other vapes!), can be used for flowers or concentrates, and exudes a controlled and wide-range convection heat on every draw – to get the most out of our your bud. No other vape uses that technology. It is efficient, effective, sexy, and the flavor is insanely good – because you are actually tasting your cannabis at its full potential!
How you choose to consume your cannabis harvest is ultimately a personal decision. Our thought is: after all that hard work to grow beautiful organic homegrown cannabis, why turn around and burn the hell out of it?
That wraps up our Ultimate Guide on processing your homegrown cannabis.
I hope you found this article interesting, informative and useful! If so, please pass it on to your friends – to the left of course. You may also like this article about how to activate (decarboxylate) raw cannabis to prepare for to make homemade cannabis-infused oil, edibles, homemade cannabis tinctures, or soothing topical salve. Feel free to ask questions or leave feedback in the comments!