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Your Friends Nitrogen, Calcium & Magnesium

by Nebula Haze

Cannabis plants grow best when they're getting the nutrients they need at the right time. Humans are the same way; if we're missing certain vitamins it limits our growth when we're young, and as we get older a lack of vitamins causes us to become sick in strange ways. 

Just like humans with vitamins, cannabis plants need nutrients

On the flip side, just like humans with vitamins, giving cannabis too high levels of nutrients can also cause problems. You have to find that balance.

Luckily, for the most part, cannabis plants are not too picky about nutrients (despite what nutrient companies might have you believe). 

Cannabis is generally not that picky about nutrients, except for a few...

Your cannabis plants can tolerate a wide range of environments, but there are are few nutrients which tend to cause problems more often than others. If these nutrients aren’t right, it will affect your growth rates, as well as the quality and quantity of your buds.

Now most of the time, nutrient deficiencies are caused by the wrong root pH, not from needing more of that nutrient.

Most nutrient deficiencies are caused by the wrong root pH, but sometimes you actually need to add more or less of a particular nutrient for plants to grow their best.

A few major nutrients often cause problems that are not related to pH. Although pH can be the culprit, these nutrients often need to be provided in higher or lower doses to prevent deficiencies.

Many growers need more or less of these nutrients for proper cannabis growth and bud formation:

  • Nitrogen

  • Calcium

  • Magnesium


Nitrogen (N)

First there’s nitrogen… Nitrogen makes up more of your plant (as a percentage of dry mass) than pretty much any other nutrient or mineral, and it plays a hand in many plant processes.

Without any source of nitrogen, your plant cannot grow past it's first or second set of leaves. Nitrogen is that important to growth and photosynthesis.

With nitrogen, you can get both deficiencies and toxicities.

Here's what to look out for...

Symptoms of Nitrogen Deficiency

Cannabis nitrogen deficiency - Yellow, wilting lower leaf

  • Lower growth on the plant turns yellow and sometimes the yellow leaves get brown splotches

  • Affected leaves become soft and start wilting 

  • Once the leaf has wilted, it sometimes dries up and turns crispy

  • Leaves fall off the plant on their own

  • If left unchecked, a nitrogen deficiency will climb up the plant.

  • There are other nutrient problems that cause the lower leaves of a cannabis plant to turn yellow, but only a nitrogen deficiency causes leaves to become soft enough to fall off on their own. 

It is normal to lose a few leaves to nitrogen deficiencies here and there, especially if you have a lot of lower leaves not getting much light. It's also normal to see nitrogen deficiencies in the second half of the flowering stage as the plants are focusing on buds instead of leaves. 

But if you see a nitrogen deficiency early in the plant's life, or if you're losing tons of leaves at once, a nitrogen deficiency needs to be addressed immediately.

Cannabis nitrogen deficiency - yellow leaves are falling off the bottom of the plant

But it's not just too little Nitrogen that causes problems. Often you'll see problems caused by too much Nitrogen; a Nitrogen toxicity.

Symptoms of Nitrogen Toxicity

  • Leaves can become dark green and sometimes shiny looking

  • Tips of leaves are bent sharply down in what's known as "the Claw."

  • Buds grow slowly and final taste/smell is not as good as normal.

Leaf tips pointing down from Nitrogen Toxicity

Cannabis nitrogen toxicity - "The Claw" - leaf tips are pointed down

Here's what a Nitrogen Toxicity looks like during flowering. This much nitrogen during the budding stage will cause buds to develop more slowly and reduce overall yields. Plus nitrogen-burnt buds tend to carry a "hay" or "fresh-cut grass" taste/smell even after being harvested and cured.

Cannabis nitrogen toxicity in flowering stage

Many new growers accidentally give their plants too much Nitrogen, especially in the flowering stage

As a grower, you're interested in how much nitrogen to give your plants at a specific time. The ratio of nitrogen to other nutrients has a huge effect on growth and bud formation.

Vegetative Stage - higher levels of Nitrogen (pretty much any plant food will do)

Most complete plant foods that you get at a gardening store contain high levels of nitrogen (N). These nutrient system tend to work well in the vegetative stage.

Some examples of cannabis-friendly one-part Vegetative nutrient systems...

Flowering Stage - lower levels of Nitrogen (use "Bloom" or Cactus nutrients)

It’s extra important to find a nutrient system with lower levels of nitrogen for the last part of your plant’s life. Many “Bloom” or "Flowering" style base nutrients are just the ticket.

Some examples of good one-part Flowering nutrient systems...

  • Dyna-Gro “Bloom”

  • General Hydroponics “FloraNova Bloom”

  • If you can’t order online and can't find a good one-part base Bloom formula locally, you do have other choices. Though not an ideal choice, most Cactus plant foods will contain good nutrient ratios for growing cannabis during the budding stage. So in a pinch, you can use the cactus nutrients that can be found at most gardening stores.

Ok now that you’ve got a handle on Nitrogen….


Cal-Mag: Calcium (Ca) & Magnesium (Mg)
and their cousin Iron (Fe)...

Calcium and Magnesium often come together in a "Cal-Mag" supplement. These nutrients work together with Iron in many plant processes, so iron is usually included in any Cal-Mag supplement.

Calcium, Magnesium and Iron are incredibly important to photosynthesis (making energy from light) and maintaining the structure of the plant. When things go wrong, you'll often see multiple deficiencies at the same time while plant growth slows to a halt.

Why do these three specific nutrients almost always come packaged together? Calcium, magnesium and iron are closely related when it comes to nutrient uptake. If there's a deficiency of one, it can trigger deficiencies of the others. So Iron is always provided in the right ratio of Calcium to Magnesium to Iron, to help prevent an imbalance.

Here's what to look out for...

Symptoms of Calcium Deficiency

  • Appears at the top of the plant - new growth on your plant is spotted and unhealthy

  • Growth slows and gets sluggish

  • New leaves develop small brown spots that never go away

  • Buds develop more slowly

With a Calcium deficiency, new leaves look like this, with tons of little spots

Picture of a calcium deficiency on a cannabis leaf - white background so you can clearly see the brown spots - calcium deficiencies appear on the upper leaves (new growth)

Symptoms of Magnesium Deficiency

  • Appears at the bottom of the plant on older growth (instead of on top like a calcium deficiency)

  • Leaves become light green between the veins and may develop small brown spots

  • Leaves eventually turn yellow and photosynthesis stops on the affected leaves

  • If left unchecked, a magnesium deficiency slowly kills bottom leaves, with problems climbing up the plant as magnesium is transferred from older leaves to newer parts of the plant

  • Leaves with a magnesium deficiency do not usually fall off the plant on their own (as they do with a nitrogen deficiency)

A closeup of a cannabis magnesium deficiency

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency

  • All new growth on your plant will be yellow, sometimes bright yellow in extreme cases like below

  • Growth is severely stunted on affected leaves 

  • Relatively rare to see compared to Calcium and Magnesium deficiencies, as they usually "take over" the plant

This Iron deficiency may have been caused by not enough Calcium in the coco coir growing medium.

Iron deficiency

Do you need a “Cal-Mag” supplement?

Just because you're seeing related deficiencies DOES NOT mean that you necessarily need a Cal-Mag supplement for your cannabis plants.

In addition to being at the heart of many plant problems, Calcium and Magnesium deficiencies are also some of the most commonly misdiagnosed problems by indoor cannabis growers. I’ve seen growers prescribe Cal-Mag for almost everything, from slow growth to nitrogen deficiencies.

Unfortunately, adding Cal-Mag when you don't need it can actually cause other deficiencies to appear, since it puts all the nutrient ratios out of balance. Don't just add Cal-Mag for any old reason! Save yourself the money and heartache.

Cal-Mag is only needed for certain situations, and there’s no reason to add extra Cal-Mag if you’re not actually trying to fix something. This isn’t a “supplement” that will make your plants grow faster. It’s only useful in preventing nutrient deficiencies.

These things can trigger what appear to be Cal-Mag deficiencies - fix the problem and many deficiencies will go away...

  • Overwatering & underwatering

  • High humidity

  • Uneven moisture levels in the soil or growing medium

  • Too-high levels of N-P-K nutrients

  • PH is too high or low

Anything that negatively affects the ability of nutrients to travel through the plant can trigger Cal-Mag related deficiencies, even when the minerals are actually there near the roots.

That’s why it’s important to maintain correct humidity levels, and avoid letting some parts of the growing medium get more wet than others (best results are achieved by making sure all parts of the growing medium are equally wet)..

When plants are being bombarded with too-high levels of nutrients it can cause several strange leaf problems, with calcium, magnesium and iron deficiencies commonly showing up.

But sometimes you'll see Cal-Mag deficiencies even when taking care of all the above problems. And there are several situations where a Cal-Mag supplement becomes necessary for healthy cannabis growth.

Add extra Cal-Mag when...

  • Botanicare Cal-Mag - get it on!Growing in coco coir (coco coir tends to lock out calcium for cannabis, so extra Cal-Mag should be provided for at least the first two weeks of cannabis growth, and possibly throughout the grow)

  • Using RO water (Reverse Osmosis water is completely pure, and doesn’t contain any extra calcium, magnesium or iron)

  • Using “soft” or heavily purified water 

  • Cal-Mag deficiencies are still appearing even after taking care of all the environmental triggers listed above

That’s it! You are now versed on some of the most important cannabis nutrients! Following the tips in this article will help you achieve the fastest growth and biggest yields possible!



Jump to...

Nitrogen Deficiency

Plant Problems by Picture

7-Step Guide to Fixing Plant Problems

Common Growing Questions: Answered!