It’s a decades-old debate with equally stubborn proponents on both sides: What yields better results—indoor- or outdoor-grown cannabis? All growers have their own preferences, practices, and requirements. And there’s a good chance that they’ll have strong opinions about what’s best for their crop.
So what's the answer? It all depends on your goals and capabilities. There are three categories to consider when comparing indoor and outdoor growing: environment, cost, and quality. Carefully taking into account these aspects will help clarify what approach makes more sense for you and your business.
A brief history lesson
Cannabis is among the oldest agricultural crops. It has played an important role in ancient cultures, where it was used as a clothing fiber, food source, medicine, and for its psychoactive properties. Obviously, it’s been around for much longer than indoor agriculture has – and has thrived in its natural, outdoor habitat for eons.
However, with the onset of Prohibition, many growers were forced out-of-sight and behind closed doors. So the first truly indoor grow operations were founded out of necessity. Indoor growing helped avoid law enforcement, opening new possibilities for innovation and technological advancement. At the same time, indoor cultivators realized they could grow cannabis with increased control, vigor, and specificity.
In some of today’s legal states, growers are given a choice between cultivating cannabis indoors or outdoors. If you’re one of those lucky cultivators, what should you take into consideration when making your decision?
The most obvious difference between growing indoors and outdoors is the overall grow environment. Here are some pros and cons of each type of environment:
You don’t need to look further than the Emerald Triangle in Northern California to know that you can successfully grow cannabis outdoors under the right conditions. The coastal, temperate climate found across Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties has attracted some of the most skilled cultivators and enviable flowers. Natural predators like ladybugs stave off pests like mites, and the endless supply of glorious sunlight supports vibrant crops.
But the benefits of growing in a natural environment also come with a few downsides, such as inclement weather, heatwaves, drought, and pest infestations. In an outdoor environment, these issues may be impossible to control and one bad storm could cause irreversible damage. Water is easily wasted with runoff and the water needed for cannabis cultivation could impact the surrounding environment and ecosystems. Outdoor growers may be tempted to use pesticides or chemical fertilizers that, if not controlled properly, can negatively affect surrounding ecosystems and taint groundwater.
At an indoor grow, the weather doesn’t matter. You can adjust your indoor environment to reflect exactly what your cannabis needs throughout the entire grow cycle—regardless of the season. With spectrally tunable LEDs, indoor growers can not only closely mimic the sun, but also recreate the specifics of the sun’s light according to the origin or landrace of the particular strain they are growing. Additionally, it’s easier to control what comes into your grow space, reducing the risk for infestation. Indoor grows are also a closed-loop (meaning that it recycles all nutrients and organic matter back into the soil in which it grew), offering an opportunity for water savings and protecting the surrounding ecosystem.
When you start growing cannabis indoors, you become responsible for everything the plants need to survive. This includes lighting, temperature, water, and fertilizer. It can take some time to perfect the indoor environment, establish efficient workflow, and find out what works for you and your team.
Running a business is expensive, and many cultivators see cost as a deciding factor in how they approach growing cannabis. What method is easier on the pocketbook?
What’s the best thing about the sun? Our nearest star delivers entirely renewable energy, that’s 100 percent free —giving outdoor growers an immediate cost-benefit. In addition, there’s only one growing season per year, meaning outdoor businesses may be able to reduce labor costs. For money-conscious growers in municipalities that allow outdoor crops, outdoor might be the best way to start out.
With one growing season per year and unpredictable weather, it might take longer to make a profit at an outdoor grow site. While the sun may be 100 percent free, it can’t be optimized according to a specific grower or crop needs. With so many variables, your quality might be lower. Outdoor-grown flower typically has a lower market value.
Choosing to move indoors means you can have numerous grow cycles going simultaneously. That constant output can lead to bigger yields and higher profits. While an outdoor cannabis farm might seem like the cost-effective option, you’re not likely to see the same impressive return as you’ll see with an indoor grow.
Setting up a fully functional indoor grow facility can be pricey. Growers will want to investigate high-quality equipment, including lights, HVAC, temperature controls and more, and should ensure all aspects are properly maintained and monitored. These tools also require a financial commitment. However, finding options that will perform and last will pay off in the long run.
The cannabis plant's quality can be measured by the plant structure and its terpene and cannabinoid content. For those growing cannabis for medicinal purposes, they want to deliver only the cleanest and most effective flower to dispensary shelves.
Cannabis has long evolved in the full-spectrum light of the sun, so many growers believe this is simply the best environment for cannabis to flourish. In the perfect environment, cannabis has the room to express its full genetic potential.
The perfect environment rarely exists. Weather is a serious consideration at an outdoor grow: a particularly hot season could leave plants wilted and scorched. A sudden rainstorm might elicit a multiplying mold issue. Because of the crop’s exposure to the natural elements, potency, and overall quality are at much higher risk.
When it comes to quality, indoor growing truly reigns supreme. In a flawlessly controlled environment, cannabis plants exhibit their full potential with record-breaking cannabinoid contents, dense flower coated in glistening trichomes, and rich terpene profiles. In addition, utilizing the latest technology, such as advanced, spectrally tunable LEDs, can take the quality up even another notch. When cultivators keep best practices as a priority, indoor grows can be as sterile as possible, resulting in clean flower that’s especially appealing to medical cannabis consumers.
Again, it can take some time to perfect the indoor setting. It also requires labor and some expertise to set up the ideal indoor grow that will support a functional commercial grow for years to come.
If you’re in a state that allows indoor and outdoor growing, deciding between the two requires careful consideration. Your budget, desired outcome, and capabilities may play an important role in how you approach growing cannabis.