Digital Horticulture: 15 Ways New Tech is Benefitting Cannabis Cultivation

by | Sep 20, 2022

Written by Amanda Stern

Amanda Stern got her start in the Colorado cannabis industry and transitioned to New Mexico in 2021. She has a passion for natural, plant-based alternatives, herbs, and psychedelics.

Despite misconceptions, farmers and agribusiness have always quickly adopted advancements in technology. Issues with legality on a federal level continue to hold cannabis back. But, since most states and many places around the world have either legalized cannabis or decriminalized it, businesses and individuals alike can now grow cannabis – creating a booming industry ripe for tech solutions – paving the way for digital horticulture solutions.

Making leaps and bounds with communication and connectivity, digital horticulture is seeing very green pastures in cannabis and hemp.

What is Digital Horticulture?

Like every other technological advancement in history, it started with entrepreneurs retrofitting existing technologies and equipment to suit their needs for growing cannabis. Many SaaS providers offer integrated solutions for remote grow room management and monitoring, a cornerstone of digital horticulture.

digital horitculture

Advancements in technology, primarily communication between monitors and sensors placed throughout the grow, provide data for analysis using software installed on-site or by accessing “the cloud” on a phone or laptop. IoT has become central to professional cannabis grow, particularly those focusing on genetics and crop steering. Cannabis cultivators can now receive real-time alerts and alarms via email or notification, enabling them to adjust and keep issues from becoming critical.

Cannabis is an incredibly sensitive and temperamental crop. Precision microclimate control, rigid scheduling, and task management are critical to a successful harvest. IoTs allow cannabis growers to manipulate specific treatments and address issues found in targeted microclimates within their grow, saving time, money, and many headaches.

Goodbye Pen and Paper, Hello Digital Horticulture

Gone are the days of needing a so-called “green thumb” to grow cannabis or any other crop. While there will always be individuals with an inherent knack for flora, cannabis grow systems, and IoT can track hot zones, ventilation issues, PH imbalances, and more. The job now belongs to crop monitoring systems and digital horticulture sensors- a hallmark of digital horticulture.

In fact, any data written into a spreadsheet, notebook, or dusty ledger can now be accessed and adjusted by the touch of a finger, on-site or remotely.

Streamlining operations and maximizing efficiency are certainly keys to success. IoT starts with physical sensors in place and works with automation controls. Data is collected and converted into analytics and then used to determine how to optimize the operation.

AI assists with identifying problems or anomalies that can be missed due to the sheer number of data points collected. Timely adjustments at the first light of a problem will save money and possibly the entire crop.

digital horticulture

Digital Horticulture Includes Crop Monitoring & Sensor Technology

Many of the available systems feature some or all of the following:

  • LUX monitoring measures the intensity of the light around the plants relative to the heat source. It’s the brightness of the light as seen by the human eye.
  • PAR monitors photosynthetically active radiation, which is measured in photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD). PPFD affects the entire plant down to its roots, not just the leaves that receive it.
  • DLI sensors – The sum of all the PPFD plants receive in 24 hours is the daily light integral (DLI). This is perhaps the most important of light measurements.
  • Strain or harvest batch recipes – plant recipes are a complete list of the recommended, and successful settings in the grow room for each strain at every growth stage. These may differ for the same strain at a different location with a different growth environment.
  • Canopy management – tracks relative humidity and temperature, monitors microclimates, integrating what could be individual monitors into one.
  • Cultivation data tracking by room, harvest, and strain – Historical records can be accessed to see what lights or fertigation schedules worked for each strain, when and where, and the impact on yield, terpene, and cannabinoid levels.
  • Digital grow journals and calendars – a place to document issues or improved results, log photographs, note observations, and schedule maintenance or daily tasks for workers.
  • Environmental sensors for temperature, relative humidity (RH), and VPD – temperature may vary, even in the same room, making multiple observation points necessary. Temperature also directly relates to RH and thus vapor pressure deficit or VPD. These environmental factors must be under constant observation to avoid damage to plants, mold from growing, and further issues.
  • Integrated pest management systems – SOPs and sharp eyes are just the start. IPMs are necessary to prevent damage from biological threats. Close monitoring of air quality, filtration, humidity, even positive pressurization of production areas, and other environmental readouts are essential, as each is a potential source for contamination or herbivore infestation.
  • Pipe and Tank sensors for EC, pH & temperature – EC or electrical conductivity measurements, pH balances, and water temperatures minimize the risk of nutrient toxicity, proper temperature for roots, and a healthy balance of minerals.
  • Substrate sensors for water content (WC), EC, and temperature – just as important as water readings, substrate sensors ensure optimal conditions, and results can create triggers based on the preferred settings.
  • Plant tag importing and tracking – keeping a cannabis grow compliant and the public safe, these track and trace systems simplify the tracking of every cannabis plant, from seed to sale. Individual cannabis plants have multiple points of identification, including facility name, license number, strain, location, and more.
  • CO and CO2 – Carbon monoxide sensors prevent CO poisoning when an inefficient or overly dirty furnace is used in cold locations. Depending on the systems installed, these could also be propane or natural gas sensors. CO2, however, is used in most enrichment programs and growth recipes; it is critical for photosynthesis. In too high of an amount, it can still be dangerous to growers, making CO2 sensors important not only in the substrate or tanks but also at breathing levels in the grow room.
  • 3D microclimate mapping – takes system measurements and uses AI to build a weather map of the microclimates within the grow.
  • Crop logistics systems – data sets are essential, both at the grow and at the moment of sale to the consumer. These systems allow growers to collaborate with suppliers, keep a watchful eye on transportation, and manage ordering and billing. Data transparency can help the grower and their partners to be seen on the market and plan strategically.

This information is compiled and delivered via reports and analytics straight to a smartphone.  When seed-to-sale regulation is considered, these systems can also log who performed what task and when. There is much to be considered beyond lighting timing and feeding schedules.

digital horticulture

Furthermore, knowing what is relevant to the size of the grow, combined with your knowledge and ability, is essential. For newer companies just starting, electrical conductivity and vapor pressure deficit may be intimidating factors and might not play into their daily analytics. On the other hand, large, well-established cannabis grows with multiple sites needs the ability to monitor and manipulate as many conditions as possible remotely. Crop steering requires access to every potential data point to ensure the most insight possible to make faster and more accurate decisions. As much effort as it requires, micromanaging various microclimates is far less time-consuming and labor-intensive than it once was, a benefit brought about by digital horticulture.

Of course, some systems are fully loaded, and those that just cover the basics. Some systems grow with the grow. The longer they’re in place, the more data they collect and the more precise they become. Perfecting conditions for a specific cannabis cultivar increases yield and potency and improves quality and consistency; all of this, combined with labor reduction, results in greater profitability.