As a senior in college, I took a job working at a local hydroponics store. It was part time, flexible and I got to be around plants all day. I also got to be around a lot of folks who were high, a lot of the time. After graduation, I was made full-time manager and ran that shop like there was no tomorrow. And while I got to talk to a lot of interesting customers involved in a lot of different projects (including growing commercial guarana, making floating gardens, those dabbling in aquaponics), it’s no secret the vast majority of my customers were in the business of growing weed. Although I have since moved on in order to pursue a career more in line with my specific interests, the amount of knowledge I gained from the experience has been invaluable.
‘Traditional’ gardeners tend to discount pot growers as one-trick ponies, while those same growers claim it takes specific knowledge and experience to grow good ganja that even the most seasoned horticulturalists lack. In the end, you’d be surprised to find that those growing marijuana are some of the most talented, skilled and devoted gardeners around, and that the smart ones both borrowed a lot of my knowledge and offered a lot in return. That being said, I’ve gone ahead and chosen six things every gardener can (and should) learn from dope growers.
1. Mother Nature is patient: those who grow crops for profit are not. While most traditional gardeners don’t mind waiting for the sun to rise and set, or sowing seeds in the ground given to them, cultivators of marijuana have had to learn to take things into their own hands. And while a lot of the satisfaction of gardening is about patience and the zen of seeing things mature over time, modern technology has enabled us to fully automate every aspect of the growing process. So why don’t we? Advances in indoor lighting mean that we no longer have to work within the constraints of available sunlight. In addition, we can supplement CO2, time our watering schedules and mix nutrients down to the microscopic level. Commercial tulip growers in Holland have embraced hydroponic growing techniques for their fast production, heightened level of control and minimal long-term costs. Although not ideal in every situation, a good gardener should keep in mind that there are more tools at his or her disposal than just a rake and a hoe.
2. Don’t be afraid to embrace your inner mad scientist. Walking into a hydroponics store is like walking into the closet of your high school chemistry lab: there are so many shelves of nutrients and supplements that I once had a customer mistake us for a Vitamin Shoppe. It’s not uncommon for a full fertilizer regimen to contain well over ten different products, and growers will even mix and match different lines. In addition, growers mix soils, substrates and brew compost teas according to their own personal recipes. So don’t settle for whatever’s on the shelf at your garden center. Instead, treat your shed like a pantry. Stock up on ingredients like bone, blood and fish meal, dolomite lime, chicken manure and make your plants a gourmet dinner they’ll thank you for.
3. Be inventive! Growers of medicinal marijuana are some of the most creative and outrageous gardeners I’ve ever met. Whether it’s their desire to remain discreet, to save money, to sample too much of their own product or a combination of all three, I will never cease to be amazed at what my customers came up with. I have seen plants grown in paint buckets and bath tubs, fed vodka, Coke, molasses and everything in between. I have seen grow rooms lined with tin foil and elaborate ventilation systems made from spare parts. And while not all of these are good ideas, they are ideas just the same, and weed growers seem to come up with them in droves. Traditional horticulture has a long and storied history, but it’s important to keep in mind the potential for innovation.
4. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. At the nursery I manage at present, one of the most frustrating things I hear is “I can’t grow plants.” Never, ever did I have someone walk into my hydroponics store and make this same statement. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to take a customer by his shoulders, shake him and tell him to give up before he loses another $5k. Dope growers are relentless. I have seen customers lose entire crops, one after the other, without becoming discouraged. Everyone, gardener or otherwise, can learn from this example. Just because the basil or orchid you picked up at Trader Joe’s died doesn’t mean you have a black thumb. Don’t give up. Anyone can garden, and the great thing about it is that it won’t cost you an arm and a leg.
5. Challenge yourself. Because of the competitive nature of growing marijuana, those who do so must constantly come up with new ways to grow faster, produce bigger yields or provide a superior product. Often times, growers start out in soil because it is more forgiving and, over time, progresses to a simple hydroponics system such as flood and drain and eventually to something much more complex, like aeroponics. In addition, growers who have been in the industry a long time will begin to perfect their own nutrient mixes, pioneer new pruning and cropping techniques as well as move into larger, more automated spaces. Just as I stress the importance to remember to innovate, gardeners should work to not become complacent. Everyone has their favorite plant or area of expertise, but even though you love roses, you’ve always grown tomatoes or you can’t live without your natives, it’s good to expand your experience every now and again. Start an alpine garden, grow some unusual edibles or collect rare geophytes: just something to flex those gardening muscles now and again.
6. And last, but not least, remember to love your plants. One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the hydroponics industry was getting to see the unfettered love my customers had for their plants. My customers – the majority of whom are male – treat their plants with all the tender care and enthusiasm of an orchid or a rose enthusiast. They give their plants names and refer to them as “my girls,” “my babies” or “my mothers.” They spoil their plants, and when they get sick, they want them to have the best care. I’ve met men who can’t be bothered to shower in the morning but who will spend hours meticulously removing aphids from their plants with a cotton swab, and men who swear that reading to their plants or playing Bach makes all the difference in the world. Whatever you grow and however you grow it, be sure to do so with love.