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Stages of the cannabis plant growth cycle

July 18, 2017
picture of marijuana plant growth stages(Amy Phung/Leafly)
Cannabis plants, like all living things, go through a series of stages as they grow and mature. If you’re interested in cultivating cannabis, it’s especially important to understand the changes a plant undergoes during its life cycle, as each stage of growth requires different care.
Different stages call for different amounts of light, nutrients, and water. They also help us decide when to prune and train the plants. Determining a plant’s sex and overall health rely on stages of growth as well.

The life cycle of cannabis can be broken down into four primary stages from seed to harvest:

  • Germination
  • Seedling
  • Vegetative
  • Flowering

How to grow marijuana indoors: A beginner’s guide

Seed germination (5-10 days)

Light cycle: 18 hours of light

(Elysse Feigenblatt/Leafly)

The first stage of life for a cannabis plant begins with the seed. At this point, your cannabis plant is dormant, patiently waiting for water to bring it to life.

You can observe the quality of the seed by its color and texture. The seed should feel hard and dry, and be light- to dark-brown in color. An undeveloped seed is generally squishy and green or white in color and likely won’t germinate.


Cannabis Seeds 101: All You Need to Know and More

To begin growing from a seed, learn more about germination here. This stage can take anywhere between 5-10 days.

Once your seed has popped, it’s ready to be placed in its growing medium. The tap root will drive down while the stem of the seedling will grow upward. Two rounded cotyledon leaves will grow out from the stem as the plant unfolds from the protective casing of the seed. These initial leaves are responsible for taking in sunlight needed for the plant to become healthy and stable.

As the roots develop, you will begin to see the first iconic fan leaves grow, at which point your cannabis plant can be considered a seedling.           

Seedling stage (2-3 weeks)

Light cycle: 18 hours of light

(Elysse Feigenblatt/Leafly)

When your plant becomes a seedling, you’ll notice it developing more of the traditional cannabis leaves. As a sprout, the seed will initially produce leaves with only one ridged blade. Once new growth develops, the leaves will develop more blades (1, 3, 5, 7, etc.). A mature cannabis plant will have between 5-7 blades per leaf, but some plants may have more.


Quiz: How Well Do You Know Cannabis Plant Anatomy?

Cannabis plants are considered seedlings until they begin to develop leaves with the full number of blades on new fan leaves. A healthy seedling should be a vibrant green color. Be very careful to not overwater the plant in its seedling stage—its roots are so small, it doesn’t need much water to thrive.

At this stage, the plant is vulnerable to disease and mold. Keep its environment clean and monitor excess moisture.

Vegetative stage (3-16 weeks)

Light cycle: 18 hours of light

(Elysse Feigenblatt/Leafly)

The vegetative stage of cannabis is where the plant’s growth truly takes off. At this point, you’ve transplanted your plant into a larger pot, and the roots and foliage are developing rapidly. This is also the time to begin topping or training your plants.

Spacing between the nodes should represent the type of cannabis you are growing. Indica plants tend to be short and dense, while sativas grow lanky and more open in foliage.

Be mindful to increase your watering as the plant develops. When it’s young, your plant will need water close to the stalk, but as it grows the roots will also grow outward, so start watering further away from the stalk so the roots can stretch out and absorb water more efficiently.


How to tell if a cannabis plant needs watering

Vegetative plants appreciate healthy soil with nutrients. Feed them with a higher level of nitrogen at this stage.

Flowering stage (8-11 weeks)

Light cycle: 12 hours of light

(Elysse Feigenblatt/Leafly)

The flowering stage is the final stage of growth for a cannabis plant. Flowering occurs naturally when the plant receives less than 12 hours of light a day as the summer days shorten, or as the indoor light cycle is shortened. It is in this stage that resinous buds develop and your hard work will be realized.

If you need to determine the sex of your plants (to discard the males), they will start showing their sex organs a couple weeks into the flowering stage. It’s imperative to separate the males so they don’t pollenate the flowering females.


Differences in Growing Sativa, Indica and Hybrid Cannabis

There are a number of changes to consider once your plant goes from its vegetative stage to flowering:

  • Your plants shouldn’t be pruned after three weeks into the flowering stage, as it can upset the hormones of the plant.
  • Plants should be trellised so that buds will be supported as they develop.
  • Consider feeding plants with blooming nutrients.

Once the buds have reached full maturation, it’s time to harvest.

Trevor Hennings's Bio Image

Trevor Hennings

Trevor is a freelance writer and photographer. He has spent years in California working in the cannabis industry.

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  • Anna Go

    What an awesome article!

  • Para Salin

    Seedling stage? I am so very tired of hearing about the wet paper towel method as the one and only way to make the magic of germination happen!
    There must be dozens of methods.
    Some old-school soil growers wish to protect the delicate embryonic tap root from light and the pressures of being handled. Their very successful method is to carefully place the seed – blunt side down / pointed side up – under 1/2″ of finely sifted potting soil. Give it light, warmth and moisture. And there she is. That way you only have to transplant once, to the full sized grow container.
    But, whatever works for you is good. Just so long as you grow your own. That’s the key, my brothers and sisters.

    • Trevor Hennings

      You are right, there are tons of ways to germinate! Never said this is the only way. Plants of all types have seedling stages before they find themselves growing their adult foliage. I believe many would germinate by placing in soil if seeds were not as costly. Due to the cost I think growers have become hyper aware of their seeds and the progress they are making. The Paper towel method allows you to control the exposure to moisture while then being able to remove the exposed tap root from excessive moisture.

      You are right that there are many methods and that it is important to grow your own.


    • Adama Murphy

      Back 2 the basics bro that’s what’s working 4 me..

  • metronome

    I have a 12 W tao tronics led grow lamp. I’m getting ready to start germinating my seeds. How close/far should the light be from the germination bed?

    • Sander Trump

      6″ is the standard distance for the seedling stage test the distance by holding out your hand to a distance below the light that doesn’t get uncomfortably hot

      • metronome

        thanks for the info

        • Mark Wojciechowski

          Careful them lamps mixed with a room full a hot chilli farts can be enough heat to put a horse down. lol

  • If they are growing outside, do they need to be put in 12 hours of complete darkness in the flowering stage, or is keeping them in the shade for part of the day good enough?

    • Chuck Jones

      Complete uninterrupted darkness.

    • Gerald Dixon John Cummings

      I cover them to trick the plants…either with a sack or bags or by putting them in a dark shed…in fact, it’s a rainy day, so they’re in the shed right now in full bud.

  • Okiha Avhengig

    What do you mean by 13-24 hours. Do you guys mean 13 hours with light and 24 hours dark? 😀

    • Michael David Hiltner

      Simple: More than 12 hours of light is required for the Growth stage. The plant will consider to enter into the Bloom stage once hours of light drop below 12 hours of light, increasing hours of darkness beyond 12 hours. The plant is thinking it is passing…

      Will give you a better understanding to this cycle.

  • Brian Swyers

    What are you guys doing for water when your tap is HORRIBLE