Green Thumb: Sunset mag’s former Garden Editor Johanna Silver tries cannabis horticulture

From clockwise: A bag of potting soil, nutrient jugs, gardening gloves, trowel, watering can and clones in pots, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif. | Photo by Santiago Mejia
From clockwise: A bag of potting soil, nutrient jugs, gardening gloves, trowel, watering can and clones in pots, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, in San Francisco, Calif. | Photo by Santiago Mejia

Read along as noted garden writer Johanna Silver tries her hand at cannabis gardening for the first time. This week: an introduction, some research, some shopping, and first lessons …

Week 1: An Intro

As the former Garden Editor of Sunset Magazine, I’ve had my share of documenting horticultural adventures. I’ve fattened up slugs for homemade escargot and induced an asthma attack from winnowing homegrown quinoa (FYI, winnowing should always, always be done outdoors).

Cannabis is new to me. And unless you’ve been growing on a farm surrounded by forest, or closeted—literally—it’s new to you, too. As Californians, we’re adventurers and makers. We’re going to grow our own. But for your own plot-to-pipe (Bed-to-bong? Hothouse-to-hotbox?), there’s a serious lacking of simple how-to info.

Simply put: There’s no two-buck seed packet with 100 words of instruction on the back.

I’m going to grow cannabis in my East Bay backyard. I’m not a stoner. I’m a gardener (although let’s just say that high-school-Johanna has died and gone to heaven), and I want to know how growing cannabis is or isn’t like growing anything else I’ve grown before.

Former Sunset mag Garden Editor Johanna Silver breaks new ground.
Former Sunset mag Garden Editor Johanna Silver breaks new ground.

How hard can this be? It’s called weed, for god’s sake. But I’m finding that even getting started — finding reliable outdoor grow information and narrowing in on appropriate strains — is tricky. Having evolved in a vacuum of illegality, everything related to cannabis is just a little bit strange.

Before even putting a seed in the ground, here’s some of what sets pot apart from anything else I’ve grown:

The books are different

Weed books are bizarre. They read more like electrician handbooks than gardening books. The outdoor chapter—which is always one small chapter—includes details on security, like how to cover the soles of your shoes with duct takpe so to hide your tracks.

And as such, they don’t have the information I want—what varieties are the prettiest? What strains are most suited to specific outdoor climates? What are the best companion plants? There’s zero aesthetic component to a pot growing handbook, and forget about chemical-free growing.

Procurement is different

GreenState file photo
GreenState file photo

Not for sale at your local plant nursery (yet), the only legal option is to buy clones or seeds from a local dispensary. (Here’s a map of them.) Thus far, my dispensary visits have been anything but inspiring. It’s a much different experience than wandering a plant nursery, touching and smelling and reading, and generally enjoying myself. Instead, I’m indoors, standing at a counter, choosing from a laminated menu of plants. When I ask what strain I should grow, a dude just asks me what type of high I want to get. When I prod for grow information, he says, “just trust mother nature,” which is not an answer. When I prod further, I’m told that it’s too complicated to explain to me. So which is it? Easy or hard?

The plant is actually different, too.

Cannabis is the only summer annual where you have to worry about the sex of the plant. Buds form from unpollinated female flowers, so no dudes allowed. Imagine starting your tomato seeds and needing to trash half of them once you’ve trained yourself on how to spot the males from the females. That’s what you have to do with weed. Except if you buy feminized seeds, which is a whole other story that we’ll get into next week.

Silver's first cannabis starters. | Photo courtesy Johanna Silver
Silver’s first cannabis starters. | Photo courtesy Johanna Silver

Without opening an entire can of worms, suffice to say that cannabis is photosensitive. A drop in light triggers flowering, which you don’t want to happen too early. But regardless of that fact, people seem to really overcomplicate the light needs. I imagine this has to do with creating a garden indoors instead of trusting the sun. I have folks swearing to me that I cannot do a grow — even outdoors — without lights in the beginning. Seeing as cannabis is a plant that came from nature, I just don’t buy it. I’m following Nat Pennington’s advice. The owner of Humboldt Seed Company promises me that seed-grown weed will be just fine outdoors. Clones (what non-cannabis gardeners would call cuttings) are trickier. I’ll be growing a few clones too, sans lights, so we’ll see what happens.

Takeaway lesson: Getting educated

For a first time, garden-focused, backyard grow, reliable info is few and far between. Here’s the best:

•       Get two books: Ed Rosenthal’s Marijuana Grower’s Handbook: Your Complete Guide for Medical and Personal Marijuana Cultivation and Jorge Cervante’s Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible. Both are still indoor-heavy, but they give fantastic introductions to the plant. I like Rosenthal’s breakdown of indica, sativa, and ruderalis (wild) cannabis, highlighting how their differences matter in a garden (including height, growth habit, and foliage color). And Cervantes excels at step-by-step instructions.

•       So far, Grow Weed Easy is my favorite online resource for quick questions. It’s written in layman’s terms. It’s accessible.

•       The most garden-friendly instructions on seed starting comes straight from Humboldt Seed Company. [Editor’s Note: We have a pretty decent seed starting guide, too.]

Ready for more gardening stories? Check out GreenState’s Ultimate Cannabis Gardening Guide 2018!