At the start of the classic comedy Annie Hall, Woody Allen speaks directly to the camera: “There’s an old joke—um … two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know. And such small portions!’”
Woody’s talking about life—that it’s full of pain and suffering, and yet it’s over way too soon. But the analogy could easily illustrate the oft-heard complaint among pot smokers:
“This pot sucks!” says one.
“Yeah, I know,” agrees the other. “And I got shorted!”
Sound familiar? The sad fact is that Americans who don’t live in states where legal cannabis is available must rely on black-market sources to fulfill their needs. It’s not unusual for consumers to know next to nothing about the quality of their purchase—who grew it or how it was grown—much less the strain, potency or potential medical benefits. And, needless to say, the price is rarely negotiable.
So if you’re rarely satisfied with the black-market weed in your area, why not entertain the notion of a home grow? Don’t feel intimidated: It’s not that hard. A little time and some minimal start-up expenses will get you on your way!
Meet the Firestick Clique
The Buffalo area of Western New York isn’t widely known as a cultivation hub. It’s better known as part of America’s Rust Belt, a region where manufacturing industries once flourished but, over the past 50 years, have suffered a nearly 60 percent loss in jobs. Shuttered factories are a common sight.
In these parts, people are always on the lookout for alternative ways of making money—like the members of the Firestick Clique. For well over a decade, members of this secret society of home growers have exchanged knowledge and shared their genetics. They’ve even hosted their own cannabis competitions.
Some of these growers have used the surrounding urban decay to their advantage in the summer months, planting guerrilla gardens where no one treads, near deserted railroad tracks or forgotten buildings. But most do their deeds indoors and have mastered the art of the solo grow. We asked the Firestick Clique to lay out the fundamentals for getting started. High Times cultivation editor-at-large Nico Escondido weighs in as well to offer some additional tips.
Where to Grow
The bigger your grow, the bigger the risk. The Firestick Clique recommends grow tents. They’re inexpensive and quick to assemble—or de-assemble. If there’s ever a security breach, you can get your plants out of your house quick. Small grow tents are designed with vents for exhaust and have wide zipper doors that allow the grower easy access to the plants and ease the task of lighting adjustments.
If you don’t choose a tent, a spare closet will work, but keep your operation small when you begin. Keep things simple at first. A closet can easily be made “light-tight” so the plants have no interruption in their dark cycle.
How Many Plants?
The size of the planting container or grow pot you choose will influence the size of the plants you grow. Containers come in a variety of sizes. Those that provide breathability, like fabric pots, are great. Some feature drainage holes and saucers to catch the run-off. Obviously, your grow space will determine how big you’re able to grow your plants. Try starting with four plants and see where your journey takes you.
Start With Soil
Soil is much more forgiving if you make a mistake. We like a perlite mix: two parts perlite mixed with one part Happy Frog potting soil and one part worm castings. Some of us use different nutrients or a couple of additives that the others don’t. But we all pretty much use Advanced Nutrients products.
One of our growers relies on organic, veganic nutrients when his plants are in veg. But once they’re in bloom, he switches to Connoisseur A & B from the Advanced Nutrients line. Too much fertilizer’s no good: Get a chart from your local grow store—wherever you buy your nutrients, for whatever line—and follow that regimen. Don’t overdo it. Sometimes, use even a little bit less than what’s recommended.
Nico Escondido weighs in here: “A small bag of organic potting soil will usually do the trick just fine. Peat-, coco- or sphagnum-based mediums are also excellent choices. Choose an airy medium that will allow air to penetrate the root zone. Roots breathe in oxygen, while the plant aboveground breathes in CO2. Some mediums—especially organic soils—may come with mild organic nutrients like guano or sea kelp already mixed in. This will lessen the amount of nutrients you’ll need to give your plants, and they may not require any feedings at all until you begin flowering.”
Nico recommends using organic nutrients whenever possible and steering clear of salt-heavy synthetics like Miracle Gro and other artificial nutes. “They’ll cause more problems than they’re worth,” he warns.
Don’t overwater your plants! With soil, every other day should be sufficient, unless it’s real hot. Bigger plants need more water; in that case, you’ll probably be watering every day. A good rule of thumb is to water the plants when the top of the soil or growing medium begins to feel dry. Make sure the water can drain freely from the bottom of the pot. Your grow pots should feature drainage holes on the bottom or provide some kind of escape route for the water. The perlite in your soil mix will loosen the soil and allow water to drain through more easily.
If your garden is in a closet, use a staple-gun to cover the floor with thick plastic or Mylar to prevent leakage or puddling. Placing trays under your pots is a good idea, too. Rubber floor mats beneath the plastic are extra insurance. They can be easily removed, cleaned and replaced between harvests.
The length of the dark cycle is very important for cannabis plants. A timer switch will ensure a regular cycle. Depending on the size of your grow space and plant count, various wattages are available for your lights: 400, 600 or 1,000 watts. (High-pressure sodium lights are ideal.) Remember that the less intense the light, the less the plant will develop. If the light provided during the day is too weak, a plant will stretch wildly and not develop well enough for a harvest. Your lights should be as close as possible to the plants without burning them. As for the distance, many growers rely on this method: Put your hand under the grow light. If it’s too hot for your hand, it’s probably too hot for the plants. Raise the lights until your hand feels more comfortable.
Inducing the Flowering Stage
A question often asked by new growers is: “Why not just let the plant flower immediately and harvest some nice buds and get to the smoking part?”
Nico responds: “You could do that—but if a plant flowers too early, there won’t be much harvest to be had. Ideally, a pot plant needs to grow, or ‘vegetate,’ for a few weeks before flowering. Otherwise, the harvest will be extremely disappointing.”
When the plants are in veg, you can use weaker lighting than you use in the flowering area, and watching for light leaks isn’t as important since a dark period isn’t required. However, once your plants have developed to the point where they can produce enough flowers for a decent harvest, it’s time to regulate the light cycle—12 hours on and 12 hours off each day—because the 12-hour dark period induces flowering. Also, during the 12-hour photoperiod, the plant needs the strongest light possible to produce the energy needed to create buds.
Also, it’s extremely important during the dark period that no light enters the grow space. Light leaks can disrupt flowering and stress or confuse the plant, causing it to become a hermaphrodite (creating seeded flowers) or severely weakening its quality and yield.
Indoor growers need to remember that plants evolved outdoors in nature for millions of years, and bringing them indoors these past 40 years to cultivate is still relatively unnatural for them. Bringing fresh air into the garden space helps prevent molds and bacteria from forming in stagnant air and water. It also helps larger growrooms stabilize humidity and temperature by preventing heat pockets from forming under intense lighting.
However, the downside is that if the intake air isn’t properly filtered, growers may also be introducing new bacteria strains or mold spores into their gardens. It can be quite the paradox. This is why it’s always best to use filters on both the intake and exhaust ports within your garden. Activated-charcoal filters will scrub the air well, and if you can add the UV-light option to your system, this will help ensure that no pathogens make it into your grow space. Also, remember to bring cool, fresh air in at the floor and to exhaust hotter air near the ceiling.
The next thing you’ll need is an extraction system with an activated-carbon filter. Cannabis plants need carbon dioxide to grow, and they get this CO2 from the air. If you fail to provide your growing area with fresh air, the plants will deplete all of the available CO2. As a result, growth will slow down and the plants will become less healthy. An extraction system sucks the CO2-depleted air outside, which automatically brings CO2-rich air in. The system also removes the odors that are typically released during the flowering stage.
An activated-carbon filter is a large tube filled with carbon. The carbon absorbs the chemicals responsible for the well-known odors associated with cannabis growing and neutralizes them. Nico recommends replacing the filters every year.
For a small garden, Nico recommends considering CO2 Boost Buckets: They’re very inexpensive and can bump the CO2 in small gardens up a few hundred ppm (parts per million). The buckets are organic as well and an excellent option for home growers. Barring that, a small CO2 tank and timed regulator will work, but this option is more expensive to set up and isn’t always worth it for a small home garden.
Remember, using CO2 in gardens that are well ventilated requires added attention to your atmospheric controls. Growers need to make sure that when their exhaust fans go on, their CO2-injection systems shut down temporarily so as not to exhaust the valuable CO2. Commercial controllers and timers are available to make this type of programming very simple.
Your yield will depend on the genetics you choose and whether you’re starting your garden from seed or clone. We always seems to get a better yield with seeds. Shoot for an ounce a plant: That’s realistic, unless you’re growing a heavily sativa-dominant strain. Still, a low yield doesn’t matter to a lot of people—they’re looking for a good head stash, and so they’re more concerned with quality rather than quantity. In a small space, you obviously can’t grow something that grows real tall and stretchy. Probably a short, stocky indica or a 60/40 hybrid is your best bet.
After every harvest, scrub your pots out real well. Scrub everything down—walls and surface areas included. You want to keep your chances of disease and pest infestation low. A mild bleach solution should do it. Also, always keep your pets out of the garden.
Even if your space is ridiculously small, you can still harvest a good supply for yourself, as long as you vigilantly oversee the air quality and temperature of the room.
And keep your grow op your special secret: If you grow great weed and start sharing the news (or the weed), you’re opening the closet door for unwelcome visitors to take an unwanted interest in your deeds. Until that day when legalization for everyone finally arrives, be careful!