Cannabis cultivation laws vary widely state-by-state. Also, we can’t stress this enough: Growing cannabis is illegal in a lot of places, and the penalties — which include steep fines and prison time — can be much worse than possession, since growing can imply an intent to distribute. Black and brown folx need to be especially scrupulous about heeding these rules, since law enforcement targets us way more than white people for weed-related charges, even if we consume it at similar rates.
If you use organic soil, all you’ll really need to do is add water, Johnson says — but don’t overdo it. The number one mistake he sees new growers make is watering their plants too often. In general, “watering every day is too much. The rule is, if you pick up your plant, and the pot is heavy, then it has a enough water. If it’s light, it’s dry, then you need to water.” You could also stick your finger knuckle-deep into the soil; if it feels dry, add water.
There are different harvesting methods, but Johnson cuts the whole plant at the base and hangs it upside down with some twine in a dark room at a temperature of around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Add a fan for airflow — you definitely don’t want the room to be humid, which will cause mold to grow, rendering your crop unusable. It’ll probably take around a week to dry.
Before you get started.
Do your homework and read up on the laws in your state. Some states prohibit growing cannabis, while others, like my home state of California, permits anyone over age 21 to grow cannabis, but only up to a certain number of plants. NORML has a pretty in-depth guide to the laws in each state. Colorado, Oregon, Nevada, Vermont, and Maine also allow cultivation, but again, the specifics depend on the state. Definitely clarify what your rights are before you start the glorious path to at-home bud gardening.
Cannabis plants can be either male or female. Female plants yield the plump flowers, a.k.a., “buds,” that we know and love, brimming with psychoactive compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, which gets you high), Modern Farmer explains. Male plants yield much smaller flowers, which people typically don’t consume. In other words, if you want to actually indulge in your crop, you’ll want female plants.
If you buy seeds from a seed bank, look for those labeled “feminized” to ensure they give rise to female plants, Johnson says. But if you’re a total newbie, he suggests buying clones, which are cuttings from a “mother” female plant, available at some dispensaries, as well as at nurseries. Not only are they easier to obtain, “they’re easier to grow. You get a clone, and you transplant it to some soil.”
While you can absolutely grow cannabis indoors, outdoor cultivation is much simpler and cheaper, says Ron Johnson, author of How to Grow Organic Cannabis: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growing Marijuana Outdoors , who also runs the website The Cannabis Gardener. “The sun is free,” he tells Mic. “You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars a month in electrical bills.” An outdoor garden probably won’t allow you to turn over product fast enough, but it’ll suffice if you just want to grow weed for yourself. Plus, it’s gentler on the planet.
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Whatever you do, don’t plant your clones in the ground. They’ll run rampant, and “you’ll have pounds of weed in your house,” Johnson says, recalling the trays of weed atop his kitchen table when his crop grew wild. “You don’t need the stress of plants getting out of control, growing over your fence.” If your neighbors can see them, they might complain about them, and having too many plants could get you arrested.
Your cannabis will be ready to harvest at around October. You’ll know they’re ready when the buds “start to get really, really swollen and packed pretty tight,” Johnson says. But it can be hard to tell if you’re a beginner. Many growers say that if you think your plant is ready to harvest, wait two weeks, since many newbies tend to harvest too early. Or, you could share a photo of your crop on a forum and ask more experienced growers to weigh in.
To check if your cannabis is ready for trimming, perform a break test on each branch. If it bends so much it nearly breaks, then it’s ready, and if it breaks right away, it might be overly dry, but still totally usable. Trim off the buds and seal them inside a mason jar for curing, opening it periodically over the course of about four weeks to let moisture escape. Johnson outlines a detailed schedule on his website, including instructions on how to look for mold.
Don’t go overboard, though, he warns. Start with growing three plants in five-gallon pots. This way, if one dies, you’ll still have two plants, and the pots will limit their growth. A general rule of thumb is that they’ll grow one foot for every gallon of soil. He recommends mixing your own organic soil, which he explains how to do on his website and will save you the headache of adding nutrients or pH testing. “The soil is what we call alive,” he says. “It’s always breaking things down to replenish nutrients that are missing.” But if you can’t mix your own soil, or don’t feel like it, you could buy organic Pro-Mix soil, which Johnson says many outdoor growers use.
Since clones come from plants that have been grown indoors, let yours chill in a shaded area for a week before exposing them to full sun, Johnson says. “The clone hasn’t tasted sun like that, and the transplant itself will be stressful.”
That said, when your plants are fully flowering, you might find yourself watering them daily, based on these indicators. When you do water them, keep going until you see water running off the soil, to ensure the water reaches all of the soil in the pot.
Johnson notes that the outdoor grow season lasts from around April to October, meaning if you plant seeds now, they’d still yield flower, but not much. Since it’s late in the season, he suggests buying a large clone, which will have more branches and therefore yield more flower.
Once you’ve cured your cannabis, sprinkle some bud in a bowl, or whatever your preferred method of imbibing might be, and savor your hard-earned crop.
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Despite the hurdles, many first-time growers still choose to cultivate cannabis indoors (which is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Washington D.C. and Oregon), and there are steps to maximize a plant’s chances of succeeding. It all starts with a plant’s genetics. “For your typical closet setup, you’re going to want a plant that stays short,” Lipton said. “A lot of time that means an indica. Sativas are really tall and lanky.” (More on the difference between those two families here.)
Space: 3 x 3 x 5 feet, minimum. “The bigger the space, the better. With all the lights, closets get hot,” Lipton said. That said, closets help growers control light pollution when the plant is in its flowering cycle — one of the main reasons home growers favor them over larger spaces, such as living rooms. “If you have a spare bedroom, or a basement even, you can just use that and close the door,” Lipton said.
Before someone even begins to consider the genetics of their preferred strain, they should first ensure that their apartment is cannabis-friendly. There are five main factors to consider: space, temperature, humidity, the pH of water, and the amount of light.
“Growing cannabis in tight spaces is not my usual recommendation,” said Stephen Lipton, the cultivation manager at The Farm Recreational Marijuana Dispensary, an award-winning recreational facility in Boulder, Colorado, specializing in what it calls “craft cannabis.” At any given time, Lipton oversees close to 15,000 plants across seven different facilities in Boulder County. “If you have a really tight space and it gets too hot or too humid, you’re going to have big trouble.”
Harvest and cure.
Temperature: 68 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit. “A tool you should always have is a little temperature gauge,” Lipton said. “They call them hygrometers. They’re cheap and tell you both the temperature and the humidity.”
The last step involves curing the bud. “Curing is just as important as the growing process,” Lipton added. “We do a slow cure, which means that it takes anywhere from three to six weeks depending on variety.” Temperature and humidity play a large role during cure and must be maintained to ensure a great final product. “Our actual cure process is somewhat of a secret, so I cannot share the fine details,” Lipton said. “But it’s an art form and extremely crucial to our success.” The reason growers cure bud after harvesting is that it creates a smoother smoke and increases its potency. Detailed recommendations for proper curing can be found online, here and here.
Cannabis plants yield the highest-quality (and quantity) flowers after maturing. This usually takes about a month to happen. “I recommend planting in a five-gallon Home Depot bucket,” Lipton said. “It’s really important to have proper drainage, so you want to drill some holes in the bottom. The biggest mistake people make is that they overwater and suffocate the roots. Cannabis likes to be watered and dried out before it’s watered again.” During the vegetative cycle, the plant should be exposed to a minimum of 18 hours of light. Remember to open the closet door while the lights are on to prevent the space from heading north of 78 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even in our most progressive states, however, the law is far from simple. “In Colorado, it’s now county-specific,” Lipton said. “When the amendment first passed, they said you could grow six plants per person. But now, certain counties and municipalities have come out and said it’s just six per house — there’s no combining plant counts. That means you can have three vegetating and three flowering at any given time.”
For some people, cannabis cultivation is a hobby. Others a life-long passion. But it’s unique in its vast demographic appeal. “Everyone I know grows,” Lipton said. “There are people in their 20s doing it. I know people in their 60s. It’s a fun thing for people. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.” Here are Lipton’s tips on growing your first plant.
While most, if not all, medical and recreational farms cultivate cannabis from seeds, guaranteeing that their plants are free from viruses, most home growers, even those with experience, typically begin with clones — essentially trimmed pieces of female cannabis plants that have been rooted in separate pots. “When most people think of cannabis — you know, what you smoke — they’re thinking about the flowers of female plants,” Lipton said. “When you grow from seeds, half of them will be males. If you’re only going to do one or two plants, you don’t want to waste your time with that stuff.” A clone sourced from a dispensary or a knowledgeable friend guarantees that the plant is female and will eventually produce bud pending proper care. “You can get up to four ounces off the right plant — if you know what you’re doing.”
Another layer to consider is that cannabis cultivation must happen “out of plain sight.” “You can’t have any odor. If it’s offending people in the neighborhood, then it’s an issue.”
To harvest, many growers begin by removing the leaves of the cannabis plant with trim scissors, followed by the buds (using pruners). “We call this bucking,” Lipton said. “Gloves are also extremely important for sanitation reasons as well as to keep your hands from becoming sticky with the resin from the plant.”
Sticking to that schedule is key, he added. “Say you’re at day 30 of the flowering cycle and you come into that closet when it’s supposed to be dark and turn a bunch of lights on. You’re going to throw the whole cycle off and that’s the end of that. It only takes 10 seconds.”
pH of Water: 6.3 to 6.7. “You’ll need a meter that you can stick into your water and tell you the pH,” Lipton said. “You want something between 6.3 to 6.7 pH for watering your plants. That sounds like pretty sophisticated stuff but it’s really not. A lot of times your tap water will be 7.8. You can use what they call pH down. That’s a crucial step.”
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Light: 2,200k. “For a closet set up, I would recommend a 175-watt HPS light,” Lipton said. “Some people try to use fluorescent lighting, but I wouldn’t recommend that. You’re just not going to get a very good outcome. Nowadays, HPS lights can just go right into your home outlet, and you’d just need a timer [to set the intervals]. Position the light directly overhead. They can be pretty powerful, so you’re going to want it at least two feet from the top of the canopy [to prevent the plant from overheating].”
Relative humidity: 30 to 45 percent. “If you live somewhere humid, you’re probably going to want to buy a dehumidifier,” said Lipton. “In Boulder, we sometimes have to add humidity.” At home, that can be done with a reliable humidifier.
It’s important to remember that cultivating even one cannabis plant for personal consumption is felony on the federal level and punishable by up to five years in prison. Meanwhile, four US states — Alaska, Colorado, Washington D.C. and Oregon — have passed local amendments, allowing citizens who are 21 years old and over to grow a limited number of plants without fear of persecution.
Both medical and recreational dispensaries now sell female cannabis clones, which retail for about $15. Alternatively, it’s commonplace for home growers to gift clones to their friends. “When you get a clone, someone will likely give it to you in a four-inch pot. You’re skipping that whole step of having to germinate seeds. You’re already 10, 14 days ahead of the game and basically ready to plant.”
After 55 to 60 days, growers begin paying close attention to their plants’ trichomes — the small, bulbous fibers that develop around the flower of the female plant. “Those trichomes will turn from clear to amber,” Lipton said. “They kind of look like red hairs. You know it’s time to harvest when about 10 to 15 percent of the trichomes turn that color.” On average, cannabis plants have a five- to seven-day window of peak harvest time.
To understand the flowering cycle, it’s important to remember that cannabis is a plant. And, like most plants, it follows the seasons. To trigger flowering — which will take 55 to 60 days to complete — growers reduce the time plants spend exposed to the light source from 18 hours to 12. “You’re basically telling your plant it’s mid-September,” Lipton said.
Though the 12-hour interval is fairly universal, knowing exactly when to induce flowering is less clear. For the home grower, it usually comes down to space; the longer one waits to trigger the flowering cycle, the taller their plant will be. A good rule of thumb: cannabis will only continue to grow 30 to 50 percent once the light source is reduced. If the plant is growing in a closet, growers should trigger the flowering cycle, understanding that there must be more than two feet of space between the canopy of the plant throughout the entirety of its life.
Find a healthy clone.
Even with a healthy clone, however, cultivating cannabis can be a long and arduous process — especially in tight indoor spaces. “A lot of people think growing is easy, but it’s not,” Lipton said. “You have to be really on it. Not everyone has success, obviously.”
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And there’s one last tiny hitch in the homegrown giddyap — and one that’s of particular importance in a city like L.A. where most of us live cheek by jowl: any plants you’re growing must be in a locked space that is not visible to the public.
Then it hit me: In my haste to marry the nostalgic farm-to-table experiences of my Vermont childhood to my love of weed, I’d forgotten the part about not forming an emotional bond and had done exactly that. Even worse, I’d given her a name and imagined a personality for her. By naming her Diana Prince, I’d become less of an urban herb farmer about to get his buzz on and more like the Titan Kronos of Greek mythology about to swallow his offspring.
That wasn’t the only connection I was hoping for. I saw becoming an L.A. pot-plant parent as a way to gain entree to an invisible social network in this city in the way those who raise children here end up forming lifelong bonds with strangers who happen to have had kids at the same time. Instead of bonding over hastily arranged carpool schedules or sitting on the sidelines at a soccer game together, I imagined mingling with first-time marijuana moms and dope dads in the gardening supply aisle at Lowe’s, sharing baby pictures of our leafy green chlorophyll kids and trading curing tips and yield-boosting hacks.
So after a few weeks of mourning, I decided to give pot-plant parenting a second try. And this time around, I was determined to spare no expense — potential tax savings be damned. I invested in a bathroom scale so I could weigh the plant between waterings, and when Taylor offhandedly suggested an LED grow light so I could raise my little green girl indoors, I immediately ordered one and cleared a spot in my garage, not far from where my hard-partying friends used to routinely smoke plants like her in the pre-pandemic days.
That’s why, when faced with midpandemic boredom, in a state where it’s legal to grow (under California law, anyone 21 and older can grow up to six plants for recreational use) and with an unused everything-but-the-seeds kit from A Pot for Pot (purchased while researching The Times’ 2020 holiday cannabis gift guide) lurking in the corner of my home office, I decided to connect with my roots by trying to get a pot plant to put down the same. By following the process from start to finish, I reasoned, I’d be able to better appreciate how those dried little nuggets of instant staycation get from the soil to the dispensary shelf.
If you’re wondering why on God’s green earth anyone blessed with the SoCal sunlight would choose to grow a cannabis plant indoors — and shell out money for a light to do it to boot — it’s worth a slight detour here to give you the straight dope on growing your own dope in the state of California (and, by extension, Los Angeles, because the city doesn’t have its own regulations addressing personal cultivation).
For almost as long as I’ve known about the cannabis plant, I’ve wanted to grow my own weed. This is partly because I like everything about it; not just the psychoactive effect of combusting and inhaling it, but also the way it looks, from the slender serrated fan leaves to the densely packed flowers shimmering with a crystal-like dusting (called trichomes, these tiny, hair-like structures are home to the high-producing compound THC). I like the skunky smell of a live plant, and I appreciate the fact that it’s only the female of the genus that will get you high.
I knew these folks would be out there, somewhere, just as I was, hopping on the quarantine gardening train for some of the same reasons — and no doubt some different ones. Some would be planting their own pot to do an end run around corporate cannabis (which, with each passing day, looks more and more like Big Pharma and Big Tobacco). Others would pursue pot parenthood to save money (buying weed in L.A. — legally — includes taxes that increase the cost of THC-containing products by more than a third) or to stick a green thumb squarely in the eye of Johnny Law as a kind of cosmically satisfying payback for decades of cannabis prohibition. (Growing your own is legal in the Golden State, but it remains illegal under federal law.)
When I was a kid, my family had a small farm (so small that it hardly qualified as a farm by Vermont standards) that started with a cow and grew to include a pig, chickens and a flock of sheep that grazed the field beyond our vegetable garden. Only the milk cow, Star, who had come into our family as my brother’s 4-H project, was ever named. We’d been taught from an early age that the rest of the hoofed and clawed creatures around us were livestock (as opposed to pets) and cautioned against forming an emotional bond.
By late March, Diana Prince was stretching skyward and entering her flowering stage. Two months later, she was nearly as tall as me and appeared ready to harvest. Gun-shy from my earlier experience, I sought one last consult. (“Just going off your timeline, she is definitely ready,” replied Taylor — punctuating the sentence with a green emoji heart.)
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I planted my first seed on Oct. 19, 2020, opting for an easy-to-grow strain called Lowryder. Considered one of the first autoflowering strains of marijuana — meaning the plant flowers after a set period of time instead of taking its cue from seasonal light changes — Lowryder is a cross of Cannabis ruderalis , ‘Northern Lights No. 2′ and ‘William’s Wonder’ that yields a compact, indica-heavy plant. Based on the grow guide included in my kit, my plant would be ready to harvest just before Christmas. In a nod to the holiday season timetable, when the first green sprout popped out of the soil a few days later, I nicknamed her Mariah in honor of the chanteuse whose 1994 album “Merry Christmas” seems to flower like clockwork year after year.
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Unlike becoming the parent of a human, there’s a minimum age requirement — you have to be 21 — to legally become the parent of a recreational-use pot plant (different regulations apply to medical marijuana). And that six-plant limit? That’s per private residence — not resident — which means you can’t legally grow a dozen plants just because you split the rent with a roommate. Which brings me to another wrinkle that factors heavily into who does and doesn’t get to become a pot-plant parent in this fair city. Although not impossible, it’s far easier if you own the place in which you’re living and growing a pot plant. Even if your landlord doesn’t explicitly forbid the on-premises cultivation of cannabis (which he or she legally can), your lease agreement probably won’t cover the sort of modifications you might make to the property in your pursuit of off-the-grid ganja.
As the eighth week stretched into the ninth, I dutifully burped the curing jar every few days, gazing at the contents with awe before snapping the lid back in place and putting the container away, but I didn’t try it. Was I, on some subconscious level, afraid that I wouldn’t get high enough (or, even worse, not high at all) off my homegrown handiwork? Perhaps the thrill had really been about the process — the pursuit of happiness — the whole time and not about the ounce of weed curing in my pantry. Or maybe I wanted the best for my baby and was dragging my feet only until Diana Prince had cured a full six months?
But the desire to get my grow on also has a lot to do with how I grew up in rural Vermont.
Taken altogether that means your ability to become a legal pot-plant parent in L.A. — despite what your biological (or botanical) clock is telling you — hinges on who owns your house, how big your yard is and how much money you’re willing to spend on grow kits (like the 5-gallon, $99.95 one I was using), LED lights ($169.95) and feminized cannabis seeds ($89 for five Lowryder Autoflower seeds).
On May 8, I hacked the branches from the stalk and felt a sharp pang of sadness. After that came a flurry of activities that included drying the branches upside down (using coat hangers, binder clips and a rolling clothes rack), then trimming the buds and finally curing them in an airtight container. (Final yield at this point: 26 grams — just short of an ounce.) According to Taylor’s email, it’s this last part — the curing — that brings out flavor, eliminates the chlorophyll and makes for a smoother smoke. The recommendation was to cure the herb two to eight weeks. Taylor noted that some folks prefer the go-slow approach and will cure their bud for up to six months.
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In early July, the curing phase of Operation Ganja Green Thumb hit Week 8. From the beginning of this botanical adventure, this was the moment I’d been thinking about and waiting for, with visions of sticky bud dancing in my head. Now was the time to literally taste the fruits of my labor, to consume something I’d planted and watched grow to maturity. This was the culmination of my very first seed-to-sesh journey, a chance to bring the lessons of my growing-up years and my enthusiasm for cannabis full circle all at once. The time had finally arrived, and, even without fear of legal retribution, I found myself reticent to pack a pipe or roll a joint and take a taste of my own medicine.
In addition to having a hand in bringing eggs, bacon, chicken and milk to the table, my siblings and I saw how wool becomes yarn. We learned how to make rhubarb wine (the first kid down the stairs in the morning usually gave the crock full of fermenting fruit a good stir), how to bake bread on a wood stove (the Dutch oven came in clutch) and how to turn the sap from the trees around us into maple syrup. In short, we were doing farm-to-table before farm-to-table was even a thing, and it gave me a keen appreciation of the effort that goes into things that I otherwise would have taken for granted.
Fast-forward two months and, instead of the towering THC-laced tannenbaum I was hoping for, I was headed into Christmas week with a seedling — all of 5 inches tall — curving out of its pot at a 45-degree angle. Since A Pot for Pot purchases include growing consults via email, I sent off a few photos and a plea for help. A few days later, I heard back from an upbeat consultant named Taylor who wrote: “Thanks for reaching out! What a cute little plant!” Then came the bad news: Based on the photos I’d sent and the timetable I’d described, Mariah wasn’t going to get much bigger. Taylor’s theory was that I had probably waited too long to transplant Mariah from her seedling cup to her 5-gallon fabric pot, unintentionally creating bonsai bud in the process. But the silver lining, as Taylor pointed out, was that because of her stunted size, there would be more than enough nutrients in the soil mix to support a second attempt in that same pot.
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In mid-January, I planted my second seed. When she burst forth from the soil Jan. 19, the split seed casing clinging to the top of the green shoot reminded me of an armored helmet. Having just watched “Wonder Woman 1984,” I impulsively decided this powerful woman would bear the name of the Amazonian superhero’s secret identity: Diana Prince. Eager to avoid my earlier mistake, Diana Prince was transplanted to her forever home just five days later and then locked safely in my garage under the new grow light (20 hours on, 4 hours off). I visited my baby daily, watering her just enough to keep her healthy and thriving.
The fix was easy enough. Brandishing my P-Touch label maker, I printed out “Lowryder strain, seed two” and stuck the label on the container of curing buds, right over top of the one that read “Diana Prince.” I instantly felt better.
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