Growing Weed From a Wheelchair

Pruned plants are kept upright with tomato cages.

Our Canadian cultivation correspondent visits a med-pot farmer who lost the use of his legs as a teen. Discover his innovative techniques for achieving a successful harvest despite any physical challenge.

Hard Work

People who grow medical cannabis know that it’s hard work. Even the non-growers among us can get a sense of the hardships and complexities through friends or associates who do (or by reading magazines like this one). Nobody said that farming was easy, although so many of the people who have taken up the challenge call it “rewarding”—and not always in ways that you might expect.

Take, for example, this federally authorized crop of glorious medical buds being grown in Canada. A dialed-in grow op comprising multiple sealed rooms with optimal temperature, humidity and carbon-dioxide levels—and filled with towering buds of exceptional quality under high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights —is something of a dream for just about every marijuana aficionado with aspirations to grow their own.

Anyone who makes that dream come true can appreciate the level of dedication and persistence involved in achieving this kind of success. Plenty of ambitious newbies have tried it, only to run into serious problems and give up the attempt. So if you’re a successful grower and think that you work too hard, think again—if you still have two legs to do it with, you’re both lucky and privileged.

Overcoming Obstacles

This cannabis journalist was absolutely humbled at what he saw in this particular garden: foot-long colas, spotless foliage and for-real “two per light” yields. And to know that this is almost entirely the work of one man who does it all from a wheelchair really puts that achievement into perspective.

Let’s call our grower “Bobby”—he’s pretty humble and doesn’t like attention, by the way. Bobby has been through hell and back, and he attributes his current outlook on life to the simple fact that he’s able to grow cannabis under Canada’s medical marijuana program.

Bobby lost the use of his legs when he was just 17 years old. An aspiring athlete from a hard-working middle-class family in Canada, he awoke one day in a hospital connected to life support, not remembering how he got there—or why his legs weren’t working anymore. It was a horrifying situation for anyone to imagine himself in, to say the least—except there was no waking up from this nightmare.

Eventually, Bobby learned that he had driven his SUV off the road and flipped it seven times after an all-day drinking party he’d attended. Not only was his spinal cord shattered beyond repair; so was his dream of playing in the National Hockey League. He had broken many major bones and suffered extensive internal injuries; the excruciation he would face in the coming months stemmed not only from the irrevocable loss of his NHL dream, but also from the repeated infections, medical procedures, major surgeries and life adjustments that were to follow. Bobby says that one of the things that kept him alive in those dark days was the love and support of his family; without them, he says, he would have seen no reason to go on.

Preparing for Success

After his protracted recovery, one of the greatest challenges that Bobby faced was getting his life back into his own hands. His family had always had a very strong work ethic—which means taking pride in being able to do things for yourself, earning your keep through the sweat of your own brow, so to speak. Relying on others to do things for him just wasn’t an option. To move forward again, Bobby faced one of his first new major challenges: to wean himself off the hefty cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs that he’d been prescribed since the accident.

The combination of Valium, morphine, blood thinners and other drugs that he’d been put on by his doctors made it difficult to read a stop sign, let alone take charge of his own affairs and begin to lead an independent life again.

Healing Cannabis

Bobby used to enjoy smoking hash and hash oil as a youth; however, he now equated that with the “partying” that had cost him the use of his legs. But then came the day when he accepted a toke outside the hospital from a fellow patient whom he was keeping company while having a cigarette. After that toke, Bobby felt the best he had since the accident.

After toking on a few more occasions, Bobby decided that marijuana was helping him. (Keep in mind that this was long before we had the kind of information on marijuana’s extensive medical effects that we do today.) Because he’d had so many interactions with medical professionals throughout his various treatments and surgeries, he decided to ask a psychiatrist that he was friendly with about his recent experiences. Loosely quoted, the psychiatrist replied that cannabis “is the safest thing you’re taking right now.”

So it wasn’t just his imagination: Cannabis really was helping! But that’s only the beginning of this story.

Getting Growing

Bobby started getting quality indoor hydroponic buds from someone involved with the growing medical cannabis movement in Canada, and he noticed the difference from the marijuana he’d smoked in earlier years—mainly in terms of potency and effects.

He also noticed that the availability and quality could be hit-and-miss, coupled with the fact that when he did get the good stuff, it was very expensive. He ultimately decided that it made more sense to grow his own.

Bobby’s first indoor medical crop was modest, but it proved to be a success. It was a simple deep-water-culture (DWC) hydroponic system, the kind that’s still recognized today as a great way to start growing indoors without lugging lots of dirt around, while also being able to source materials locally and inexpensively. To this day, Bobby credits the helpful folks on the early cannabis-growing Internet forums who risked helping a total stranger with their advice and knowledge.

The buds that Bobby harvested smoked clean. Best of all, he found himself with a nice little stash and no longer felt dependent on others to come through with the medicine he needed. Remember, this all happened while cannabis prohibition was still the rule in North America. But Bobby decided that the benefits outweighed the risks.

Grow West

Feeling a new sense of accomplishment, and having gained a level of independence since the accident that forever changed his life, Bobby ventured west in search of a more relaxed climate. He also felt, at the time, that he’d been depending on his family long enough. They had dedicated themselves to helping him, and he wanted to show that he could now do it on his own and lighten the load he felt he’d placed on them.

After finding a suitable location and securing a federal license to cultivate personal-use amounts via Health Canada’s medical marijuana program, Bobby started to grow again—and found the experience positive and life-changing in more ways than he expected.

He started off with six lights and a soilless mix, standard fare in that day and age. He now had the potential for higher yields to keep him supplied with a variety of legal medical cannabis. Naturally, this posed new challenges along the way.

Any growers out there can relate, recalling the challenges and difficulties of their own first setup: all of that trial-and-error, all those mistakes and hard work. Now imagine trying to do all that confined to a wheelchair. This guy did it—and he continues to do it very well.

Facility Specs

Today, touring Bobby’s grow op, I have to say that the success he reaps is impressive by any standard. Bobby practices controlled-environment agriculture (CEA): Each of the sealed rooms he maintains for propagation, vegetative growth and flowering have an environment that is strictly monitored and independently controlled. Like most successful growers, Bobby developed his own personal recipe for success after much trial and error—and he now designs cookie-cutter growrooms with ease that have the potential to deliver great results for anybody, despite their physical limitations.

A split air conditioner keeps the growroom temperature in check and removes humidity from the environment. The air is distributed through rigid steel ductwork running down the length of each of the sealed rooms, with openings that direct the air into the crop canopy. The AC units are sized to provide 5,000 BTUs of cooling power per every 1,000-watt HPS grow light; this also helps to reduce the heat from the gas-fired CO2 generators used to bulk up the buds throughout the cropping cycle. Carbon-dioxide levels can be optimized for each phase of growth because of the tight level of control that a CEA setup affords.

Light is directed from the lamps downward by XXL air-cooled reflectors. They do a good job of keeping the distribution even while allowing the plants to receive high levels of light. The fact that the heat is removed before it can enter the growing environment offers significant power savings relative to the cooling needs via air conditioning.

Bobby notes that it took a few tries to find the right reflector. Some of the air-cooled models didn’t seal as well as the ones he uses now; the leaks kept sucking carbon dioxide out of the garden, which in turn kept the CO2 generators firing more often, amping up his gas and cooling bills. Looking at the reflectors he has now, it’s clear that they were designed to be tight, with gaskets and fewer seams. Bobby also uses remote high-intensity discharge (HID) digital ballasts, which allows him to keep the ballasts out of the room and further reduces the heat in his growing environment.

Pruned plants are kept upright with tomato cages.

Big Plants

Canada’s medical marijuana program generally doesn’t allow high plant counts, so licensed growers cultivate larger plants instead. With this particular strain, Bobby has four big plants under every 1,000-watt light. The plants are cultivated in a peat-based soilless mix that has perlite added for better drainage. The final potting size is 10 gallons per plant.

Watching Bobby plow through this indoor field of trees is impressive. You can tell that he’s had lots of practice, since he makes moving each of the heavy 10-gallon pots look easy—even from his wheelchair.

Given the number and size of the plants that Bobby moves around daily in order to maneuver through all of his growrooms, it’s safe to say that he takes an athletic approach to gardening. In keeping with his earlier ambitions, this guy has the build of a hockey player. It turns out that he does this for nearly eight hours almost every day. Bobby talks and dreams about growing benches of plants in a “sea of green” (SOG) setup at a more accessible height, which would make his life a lot easier. (SOG growing uses higher plant counts in the same-sized area. The plants are harvested more quickly and, because of their smaller size, require less work, since automation, rolling benches, etc., become much easier to employ.) But that’s just not in the cards at present: Bobby takes his plant counts seriously, because abiding by them ensures that he can continue to grow the plant that means so much to him and his health.

Going Hydro

While most people would be content to rest on their laurels after finally dialing in their custom grow op, Bobby has decided it’s time to level up while maintaining or even reducing his existing plant counts by switching over to hydroponics. (Remember his first crop that started it all? Hydro DWC!)

In taking the next step to automated hydroponics versus soilless mix, a.k.a. “dirt,” he’s looking to achieve a higher degree of sustainability while creating a better working level of automation. The hope is to maintain or improve the quality of the buds he harvests while giving Bobby more freedom to grow—this time away from the garden.

Learning to do all this on his own over the last several years has galvanized Bobby’s sense of independence and his desire to live life to the fullest. He’d like some time to travel and see more of the world. At the same time, the garden he’s created and the people who depend on it—he’s a designated grower for himself and one other patient—isn’t something he wants to shed, but rather to improve.

Plants are always within reach.

Keep On Reaching Goals

Besides having some well-earned fun and the freedom to enjoy life, Bobby wants to use some of the time he hopes to free up helping other people who now find themselves without the use of their legs. He remembers vividly his own early period of hopeless despair, as well as the many heart-wrenching challenges and changes he endured to move forward and begin living his life again—largely with the help of being able to cultivate crops, in this case federally authorized medical cannabis.

The working model he’s built successfully over time is useful for any grower, but it has the potential to be especially valuable to others who have restricted mobility or reach. It’s truly exciting to think what his new water-culture-based working model will look like—the next generation of DIY wheelchair-accessible medicinal gardening.

In closing this chapter of his story, Bobby recalls being a teenager smoking a joint and browsing through High Times in the early ’90s, never imagining that one day his story might be featured in the very magazine he grew up reading in his youth. For him, it’s a sign that his life has come full circle—a story almost too hard to believe, much like his whole life, he says with a smile.

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