The Life cycle of Cannabis: From seed to harvest
Cannabis passes through a series of stages in its life. The most important of these are the germination, seedling, growth and flowering stages. Each stage brings its own challenges. Novice growers need to be aware of these, to be sure of giving their plants the attention and care that they deserve.
Plants are living beings. They are at the base of the evolutionary tree, they heal our bodies and souls, they delight our senses. I think all our readers know by now which is our favourite plant: Cannabis sativa L. – a fantastic crop and medicinal plant, and one of the oldest plant genera in the world.
No matter why cannabis is being cultivated, to see with your own eyes how a small seed grows into a bulky plant, which then starts flowering, is a moving experience every time.
Cannabis is an annual plant, so its entire lifecycle takes place within a single year, with most varieties reaching the end of their life after between four and ten months. In general terms, the following four stages of life can be distinguished:
- Germination stage
- Seedling stage
- Growth or vegetation stage
- Flowering stage
A quick glance is usually enough to determine the current stage. Over time, it is not just the appearance of the plant that changes, its needs also change. Different stages require different quantities of light, water and nutrients. Furthermore, if you want to determine the sex of the plant or prune it, it is useful to know which stage the plant has currently reached.
1 – Germination stage (1 to 2 weeks)
All forms of life start from a seed of some kind. High-quality seed is the single most important factor for successful cultivation. Cannabis seeds should be hard, dry and brownish in colour. There are a number of different ways of getting the seeds to germinate. The easiest is the paper towel method.
In the germination process, the germ in the seed breaks through its shell and forms a root, which is known as the taproot. Germination takes anything from 24 hours to 7 days. Generally cannabis varieties with a high proportion of Indica germinate faster than pure Sativas.
The germinated seed can now be placed carefully into the growing medium. The plant will start to grow and force its way upwards.
While the first two cotyledons (seed leaves) are being formed, the plant shrugs off the protective seed husk. That signifies the end of the germination stage.
Top 5 Ways Cannabis Can Affect the Menstrual Cycle
2 – Seedling stage (2 to 4 weeks)
Particular care is necessary at this stage in the lifecycle. Seedlings are susceptible to illnesses and mould. Many novices get carried away with watering and give the seedlings too much fertiliser. Even if you plan to grow outdoors, it may be useful to give the plants a healthy start indoors, assuming that a location is available with adequate light (e.g. a windowsill). The plants need as much light as possible at this stage.
How long the seedling stage lasts depends on the variety and on the environmental conditions. The main focus of the plant is on developing a root system. This forms the foundation for its later growth.
Meanwhile the plant will grow its first “real” leaves with the characteristic marijuana shape.
The leaflets are long and jagged. Initially a leaf has just one leaflet, although a mature cannabis plant will have five to seven leaflets per leaf.
Once the plant produces the full count of leaflets for each new leaf, the seedling stage is over.
3 – Growth stage or vegetation stage (2 to 8 weeks)
Now the plant starts its main growing phase. Provided it receives enough light, it can grow up to two inches (5 cm) in a single day. It is obvious that the plant needs to be repotted if it is still growing in a small pot.
Leafy plants like a healthy soil that is rich in nutrients. The production of chlorophyll and proteins depends on a supply of nitrogen. It is worth investing in the right kinds of fertiliser or even producing them yourself.
As it grows, the plant also needs more water. Young plants are best watered close to their stem, but later on water should be distributed more widely so that the tips of the roots can absorb water more efficiently.
Have you ever heard of topping, super-cropping or lollipopping? Using these techniques you can train cannabis or manipulate the shape of the plant. Growers use them to develop stronger plants with more buds. Opinions vary, however, on whether these techniques actually deliver results. They are only necessary for special cultivation methods such as the Screen of Green (SCROG).
How long the growth phase lasts is not a simple question to answer. Autoflowering cannabis varieties move automatically on to the flowering stage within 2 or 3 weeks. Regular or feminised varieties only start flowering once the days become shorter (outdoor cultivation) or the grower reduces the lighting period to 12 hours (indoor cultivation).
During its life cycle, cannabis passes through four main stages. These stages are germination, seedling, growth and flowering. Anyone who wants to cultivate cannabis needs to recognise these stages. Each stage brings its own challenges and problems.
How Long Does It Take to Grow Weed Indoors?
This is one of the most common questions we receive from curious soon-to-be indoor cannabis growers: How long does it really take to grow weed? What’s the growing timeline?
It’s actually a really good question! Every new marijuana grower should know how much work they’re signing up for! The short answer is…
The Average Indoor Cannabis Grow Takes 3-5 Months
The long answer is: from Day 1 of your weed plant’s life to actually smoking your harvest, it can take… 8 weeks – 7+ Months! That’s a huge range, right?
That’s why most cannabis growers won’t give you a straight answer. The truth is, there are many factors will affect the total time until you have ‘ready’ buds, by days, weeks or even months. This includes your strain, your setup, and how big you plan to grow your plants (bigger plants need more time!). So instead of giving you a huge range, an easier-to-swallow answer might be to say that the average grow takes 3-5 months for indoor growers.
This includes the time needed to grow your cannabis plant from seedling to harvest plus an additional 2 weeks (or more) which is used to cure your cannabis buds after harvest (making them more potent and better smelling).
Additionally, for at least the first time you grow, you also need to consider the time needed to get your equipment and seeds/clones.
This article will give you the total time breakdown, so you can plan out the details of your grow in order to achieve the harvest times you desire:
Ultimately, How Long to Harvest Marijuana Depends on the Desired Yields, Strain and Grow Style
Today I will show you how to plan your grow so it takes the amount of time you want!
Note: When growing cannabis indoors, it takes 3-5 months on average to go through the life cycle of a plant. When growing outdoors, the total time depends on your local climate as most strains are ready to harvest in mid-to-late Autumn.
Jump to the Section of the Tutorial You’re Interested in:
- Before You Start Growing Weed– Get seeds and supplies so you’re set to start growing!
- Time Needed to Grow Weed, From Seedling to Harvest
- Germinate Your Seeds (1-7 days) – Learn about fail-proof methods to germinate perfectly in soil/coco or hydro.
- Vegetative Stage (average 4-8 weeks, length based on desired plant size) – In the vegetative stage, the cannabis plants are growing just stems and leaves. On average, most indoor growers vegetate their plants for 4-8 weeks. Seedlings are able to start flowering as early as 3 weeks from germination, but the resulting plants will be tiny. Most growers choose to let plants vegetate for longer because giving them more time to grow results in bigger plants, which tend to produce bigger yields as long as you have enough light to cover all the bud sites. That being said, you can still produce quite a bit of bud with a lot of small plants growing at once as long as you fill up your grow space.
- Flowering Stage (average 8-10 weeks, depends on strain) – This is when plants start making buds. The length of the flowering stage depends heavily on the strain/genetics, with an average of about 8-10 weeks for most strains. Some strains are bred to have very short flowering stages (for example, most auto-flowering strains will naturally start flowering at around 3 weeks old and some are ready to harvest just 5 weeks later, for a total of only 8 weeks from seed!). Other strains take months in the flowering stage before they’re ready to harvest. Typically, longer-flowering strains produce higher yields and short-flowering ones tend to produce lower yields. Buds that are exposed to more light-hours have more time to fatten up, though that’s not always the case.
- Post-Harvest (This is when the smell/taste/look you love shows up) (1-2+ weeks) – After buds are harvested, they are dried for about a week then placed in glass jars to “cure” for 2+ weeks in order to achieve the best quality. This post-harvest processing dramatically improves the taste, smell and the perceived potency of the buds. It also reduces the chance of buds causing headaches or unpleasant “speedy” effects. Don’t skip this step! It will account for nearly 50% of your final bud quality! Learn how to dry & cure your buds to perfection.
If you choose the right strain, you could be smoking your own buds as soon as 3 months from germination!
Before You Start Growing Weed
Total preparation time needed: Up to a few weeks
Here’s the breakdown…
Get equipment: 0 days – 2 weeks
This includes purchasing your equipment and/or waiting for it to show up in the mail. This goes much quicker if you buy everything locally, for example at a hydroponics shop. Once you have your marijuana growing supplies, you’ll need to setup your growing area and equipment. A standard setup should take an afternoon at most. Depending on how you purchase your equipment and how quickly you setup, you could be ready the same day or in two weeks (after factoring in shipping time).
Check out examples of new grower shopping lists to learn exactly which supplies you’ll need.
Get seeds or clones: 0-4 weeks:
If you’ve found seeds in your bud or have instant access to genetics (like knowing a grower or buying seeds/clones locally), you’re already good to go. If you order from a seed bank overseas (especially US residents), expect to wait 1-4+ weeks to get seeds. Shipping time depends on the shipper and how fast the mail gets delivered. Sometimes seeds get caught up in customs for weeks. Make sure to always order from a trustworthy vendor.
Time Needed to Grow Weed, From Seedling to Harvest
Total growing time needed: 3-5 months on average
Here’s the breakdown…
Germinate your seeds: 1 – 7 days
Seedlings can sprout in as little as a day, but by 3-5 days, they should be good to go. If you have access to clones, you get to skip this wait.
Learn my fail-proof method to germinate your seeds in soil/coco or hydro.
Vegetative Stage: 4-8 week average (but if you want big plants it may take longer)
The length of this stage is a matter of personal preference. Most cannabis plants won’t start flowering until they’re at least 3 or 4 weeks from germination, but after that you get to choose how long your plant spends in this stage (except auto-flowering strains, which automatically start flowering in 3-4 weeks from seed). Except for auto-flowering strains, you have total control over the vegetative stage because you’re the one to ‘flip the switch’ and get your plant to enter the next life stage: flowering.
When you start with a seed, even with an auto-flowering plant, you will always have at least 3-4 weeks of vegetative growth before any buds start forming no matter what you do. Growers generally allow their plants to stay in the vegetative stage from a few weeks to a few months.
The size your plant achieves in the vegetative stage has a very large effect on your final yields since bigger plants produce more bud sites than smaller plants. However, you need enough light to cover all the bud sites or they will never develop properly. Light is like food for bud growth!
These vegetating plants are about 4 weeks old from germination
To give you an idea as to what your FINAL marijuana plant may look like depending on how long it spends in the vegetative stage…
This plant didn’t spend any time in the Vegetative Stage. It was given 12-12 lighting almost immediately after sprouting. It’s so small that it spent its whole life in a solo cup, and its only light came from CFLs. I weighed down the bottom of the cup so it didn’t fall over. It ended up yielding about 0.75 oz.
These auto-flowering plants spent about 3 weeks in the vegetative stage before they automatically started flowering, and were ready to harvest just 5 weeks later. They were about a foot tall at harvest and yielded approximately 2 ounces each. Read the step-by-step tutorial to grow plants exactly like this.
This marijuana plant spent about 6 weeks in the vegetative stage before being changed over to flowering and yielded just over 6 ounces at harvest. View the complete grow journal with instructions on how to grow your plant so it looks just like this at harvest!
These cannabis plants were vegetated for about 8 weeks before being flipped to the flowering stage. Although they were grown in the exact same conditions from seed to harvest, their final heights are remarkably different because their strains had vastly different genetics. The smaller plant produced 6.6 ounces, while the big plant produced 9.3 ounces. Strain can make a big difference! Learn about growing different strains together.
These cannabis plants were vegetated for about 9 weeks before being flipped, in the exact same setup as above, and produced over 10 ounces each. Besides an extra week of veg, the biggest difference between this grow and the one above was simply the strains.
This human-sized plant (one of my very first plants) spent a little more than 3 months in the vegetative stage before I realized I needed to turn it over to the flowering stage. It then spent another 12 weeks in the flowering stage before it was ready to harvest because it was a long-flowering strain. It got way too tall for its space (taller than me!) and started falling over. However, despite the huge size and more than 5 months of growth, it only ended up yielding about 6 ounces. This is because it was under weak CFL grow lights. Though there were a lot of buds, the lack of strong light made them airy, without a lot of weight. Click the picture for a close-up. 🙂
Some people put their seedlings or clones right into the flowering stage if they want to harvest quickly though this makes for extremely small plants. For example, super-stealth growers who are growing in small hidden spaces – like out of a computer case – would want to put their seedlings into flowering nearly right away to keep their plants as small as possible. It’s also important to remember that container size and grow lights make a big difference. Small containers constrain the roots and keep plants from getting as big as they could, and small lights prevent buds from fattening up as much as they could.
I personally recommend at least 4 weeks in the vegetative stage with 18+ hours of light each day for the best results. Plants that are forced to start flowering sooner than 4 weeks don’t yield much compared to how much work you put in. That being said, keeping plants relatively small does have some benefits!
A good rule of thumb…
Your plant will likely double in size (maybe a bit less, maybe more) from when you first put it into the flowering stage; this is known as the Flowering Stretch. So make sure you end the vegetative stage before your plant reaches half the final height you want, or your cannabis plants may outgrow your grow space during the flowering stage!
Flowering Stage: (average 8-10 weeks, length depends on the strain/genetics)
Here’s the breakdown…
- Week 1-3 – Transition to Flowering
- Week 3-4 – “Budlets” Form
- Week 4-6 – Buds Start Fattening Up
- Week 6-8 – Buds Ripen, Pistils Darken – some strains spend longer in this stage
- Week 8-12+ – Flowering Ends, Harvest time!
The length of time needed to stay in the flowering stage depends heavily on the strain. Once you have switched your plant into the flowering stage they will stretch (the ‘flowering stretch’), form buds and then fatten.
Here’s a list of some of my favorite and best cannabis strains by the length of the flowering period:
Short (6-8 weeks)
- Northern Light – Known for being especially easy to grow
- Green Poison CBD – High-yielding, medical, high-CBD, medium-THC strain
- White Widow Fast – Based on the famous White Widow strain but with a much faster finish
- Blueberry Cheese – This version of Blue Cheese is fast flowering and easy to grow, yet buds are extra potent and produce great effects
- Frisian Dew – One of the best strains for outdoor growing (and buds may turn pink or bright purple!)
- Shiskaberry – A gem by Barney’s Farm, this strain “lifts you up” and causes a strong “head high” that can be a great way to relax after a tough day, or for when you want to get in a creative mood.
- Auto-flowering Ultimate – One of the most potent auto-flowering strains I’ve grown so far, ready in about 10 weeks from germination (7-week flowering stage) and just overall a healthy, easy, and high-yielding plant.
- In fact, if you’re interested in a very short flowering time, most auto-flowering strains are ready to harvest less than 3 months from seed.
Frisian Dew plant growing outdoors with deep purple buds
Medium (8-12 weeks)
- Critical Purple Kush – I just finished a grow with this strain and it impressed me. The buds did not turn purple but the smell, yields, and potency of buds were outstanding.
- Supreme CBD Durban – Medical strain, has a THC:CBD ratio of 1:1
- Pineapple Chunk – An award-winning strain that’s fruity, vigorous, and potent. The yields are not necessarily the highest, but it’s worth it for the quality of buds. I’ve grown this strain in many different setups and buds always come out great.
- Liberty Haze – An award-winning strain that’s curiously strong. It’s one of the few “haze” cannabis strains that doesn’t take forever to finish flowering.
- Gelat.OG – A cross between Gelato and OG Kush; two extremely popular strains in the US on the west coast. Finishes on the faster side, yet still produces great yields, potency, and smell.
- Wedding Gelato – Another beautiful Gelato cross, this time with the famous Gelato 33 clone (a very specific cut of Gelato), with Wedding Cake.
- Gorilla Zkittlez – Another west coast favorite, this produces beautiful buds that are covered in crystals/trichomes, also high yielding.
- Peyote Critical – Yields were so-so yet buds produce powerful effects. It turned a bit purple when I grew this strain (pictured below in the middle), which was a delightful surprise, but the potency is what I remember.
- Power Africa – Easy to grow. Wants higher levels of nutrients in the flowering stage but rewards you with big yields, a strong spicy smell, and great potency.
Long: (12-14+ weeks)
- Many Haze strains, as well as some Sativa strains, and generally any strains that originated near the equator.
- Arjan’s Ultra Haze #1 – A cross between some of the best Haze strains in Southeast Asia. If you want to try something different that is almost impossible to find in the US or Europe, this is it. It produces psychedelic effects that defy its cannabinoid content. May be too intense for some people.
In general, most strains (besides auto-flowering strains) are in the medium range as far as how long they take to flower.
It’s not exact – There’s a 2-3 week harvest window for most plants, and keeping your plants in the flowering stage for a bit longer tends to increase your yields. This is because the plants tend to really bulk up their flowers once they’ve become ‘ripe’.
So often times, even though you could harvest at the shortest recommended time, waiting an extra week or two will give you 10-30% more yield compared to harvesting as early as possible.
Utopia Haze is a mix of Brazilian landrace strains
Post-Harvest (before you smoke you should do this stuff too)
Total post-harvest time needed: 2.5 weeks – 1.5+ months
Drying: 4 – 10 days
Good marijuana buds can be dried in as little as 4 days, but ideally, drying should be a slow process taking up to a week or more. Making sure your plants have been thoroughly dried (but not over-dried) will lower chances of mold during the curing process.
Curing: 2 weeks – 1+ months
Curing really seems to make the effects of buds feel less ‘speedy’ and be better suited to medical applications like treating anxiety, reducing pain, and improving feelings of depression.
Additionally, curing gets rid of any ‘cut grass’ smell, harsh taste and other undesirable traits of some freshly dried buds. Over time with proper curing, those traits will be replaced by the ‘real’ smell and potency profile of your buds.
Two weeks is considered the minimum time to cure your buds, but I personally cure all my buds for a month or even a bit longer because the buds continue to improve for several more weeks.
So, after you’ve bought seeds and equipment, grown a plant from seed to harvest, trimmed, dried and cured your buds, that brings us back to the original answer…
Total Time to Grow (and Be Ready to Use) Your Own Weed:
8 weeks – 5+ Months
Average Time to Grow (and Be Ready to Use) Your Own Weed:
3 – 5 months
If you haven’t started growing your own weed yet, today is the day!
New Grower Shopping Lists – What You Need to Get Started
How to Grow a Pound of Cannabis – Step-by-Step Instructions from Seed to Harvest
7 Tips for Growing Top-Shelf Buds – How to Grow Better Cannabis than the Dispensary!
How Long Does It Take to Grow Weed Indoors? This is one of the most common questions we receive from curious soon-to-be indoor cannabis growers: How long does it really take to grow weed?