THE LITTLE POT PLANT THAT COULD. (OR AT LEAST, IT MIGHT)
MY WIFE AND I ARE SUSPICIOUS when our sons, grown men with over-grown senses of humor, show a little too much excitement over their Christmas gifts for us. So when boxes arrived on our doorstep in mid-December we were wary. Then Jake announced he wanted to Skype in for the unveiling. Tyler would be up from Denver to take part in person.
The last time this anticipation was building, we were living in Pennsylvania. My wife Claire opened a rectangular box and found a pink BB gun inside, so–Jake proposed–she could shoot the bunnies who were devouring our garden. We laughed until our insides hurt, but no animals were ever targeted or harmed by that gun. We eventually sold the weapon just before our move west, to a man who wanted to help his granddaughter to go all Annie Oakley ASAP.
When our second Colorado Christmas, in 2018, rolled around, our sons were giddy. With Jake smirking on the computer screen from bohemian Brooklyn, we unwrapped a Norwegian-minimalist table lamp. Next: a grow light. Nothing suspicious here. We love to garden, indoors and out! But then Tyler dug around behind the tree, and ever-so-carefully handed over a small bag bearing the legend “BABY ON BOARD.” Claire peered inside and spotted a 6”-tall seedling of l. cannabis sativa, the state bud of Colorado. We were mom-mom and pop-pop to a pot plant! Our sons laughed as if they’d been inhaling the stuff. Claire and I had finally, truly arrived in the high country.
If we could keep the thing alive, that is.
The home-grown movement looms large in the history of Colorado cannabis. Rightly, the first gestures toward legalization were not to help stoners reach legal oblivion, but to assist veterans and others who were coping with chronic pain or psychological stress. And weed is good for both. That’s why the early medical MJ regulations allowed for ninety-nine home-grown plants, so that sufferers, or their caregivers, or medical marijuana providers, could maintain a steady supply. But with bud going for $3,500 a pound, organized crime caught a terpene-laden whiff of opportunity, and recruited growers to plant the legal limit, and then ship the excess off to Miami for high profits. Said one Colorado sheriff: “These are terrorist type cells that operate under the wire.”
You can see why our sons were eager to establish the family grow operation: Their favorite TV show, Breaking Bad, had run its course, so why not get mom ‘n’ pop in on the action? Their confidence was great: After all, their mom’s thumb is so green, the coloration has spread to her index and middle fingers. Plus, this plant has the richly deserved nickname “weed,” which might lead you to believe it grows like one.
You’d be wrong about that.
We set up the light, turned it on, and set our gift under it. We even named her MJ: Short for marijuana, of course, but also honoring Michael Jordan, hoping it would leap up like he used to. Instead, our plant shriveled to a pathetic 3”: the lower leaves died, and the upper ones turned yellow. MJ was in danger of DOA!
We didn’t want to tell our sons we’d killed their present to us, so we commenced information-gathering. First stop was IndoExpo, in Denver, the annual cannabis trade show held in late January. In the Hemp Pavilion, when we were rubbing our cares away with various cannabidiol balms from Botana, it occurred to us that these might be just the right people to ask for cultivation tips. The guy at the booth leveled us with his gaze and said, “You’re bound to lose a few before you figure it out. My advice is to plant six, so you have a license to kill.”
Back at home, MJ was quivering in her pot, a crop of one with no backups. Yes, MJ is a “she”: In the cannabis world, the males are useless, just like they are in the U.S. Congress. Female plants produce the buds that carry the active (or stupefying) ingredients in cannabis, so growers go to great lengths to maintain same-sex operations. Our little MJ was, in fact, a clone of her momma–presumably, a lady who lived long enough to bud out. Would ours?
At another Indo Expo booth, Claire met a handsome couple from Lite Wave Technologies, who were manufacturing LED grow lights in the industrial hotbed of Nantucket. (Limerick contest– finish this: “There once was a pair from Nantucket/Who grew their pot in a bucket…”) The Lite Wave peeps were sympathetic to our plight, on the edge of exterminating a new family member, so they walked Claire through the basics of marijuana husbandry. For one thing, our wee sprout was probably root bound, in the tiny shot-glass of soil we’d been keeping her in. So she needed room to stretch her legs. And she definitely needed regular hours under the grow light, but maybe 12” to 15” away, not the blazing 5” we’d been maintaining. So we gave her a spacious new plot of soil and put her at a respectful distance from the grow light.
MJ was soon back from the brink, pumping out small leaves. So planticide was off the table for the moment. But we were clearly still months away from having buds to dry and turn into canna-butter, or some other weedy delight. So now we looked for advice closer to home.
Our go-to dispensary in Old Town is Organic Alternatives, just a block and a half from our home. The bud-tenders there are patient and helpful, even when newly transplanted Boomers slink into the show-room. So I called to announce our plight and was immediately told that a) we needed to speak with their most experienced grower, Rob Tortora, and that b) we wouldn’t be able to bring MJ in for a checkup, because of strict rules about personal pot invading state-supervised spaces. We put MJ in a bag, drove over to OA, and abandoned her on the sidewalk while we fetched Rob.
He’d been growing for twelve years, which takes him well back into the wild-west era of pot plantations in Colorado. With well-practiced tenderness he took little MJ in hand, to see what was wrong. Instantly he diagnosed two symptoms of a plant being loved to death: Sodden soil, a sign of zealous over-watering, and yellowing leaves, which could mean starvation. He extolled the virtues of coconut-husk growth medium, which he says is a lot better than soil, because it holds moisture, but allows runoff. He also likes Canna Coco A&B fertilizer, a one-two punch for pot growth. He conjured a happy world where we expose MJ to 18 hours of grow-light sun per day, to encourage growth, and then transition her to twelve hours of light and twelve hours of darkness, to bring on the buds. If only.
Our next stop was Way to Grow, out toward I-25 on Mulberry. MJ had to cool her heels in the car again; nobody wants your pot plant in their store, for fear that the DEA will padlock the doors. It’s a legal plant, just not welcome basically anywhere. Cody Ross welcomed us to the store and shook his head over our grow-light setup. His contention: Not everything that says “grow” will actually have that effect on a plant. “Most lights more or less keep a plant steady,” he said, “they don’t promote vigorous growth.” He took us down the aisle to show us a T5 fluorescent grow-light strip, with 54 watts of plant-pleasing power to bust MJ out of her prolonged toddlerhood. He assured us that, with proper light and nutrition, we could cultivate our cannabis to whatever height we chose, then induce flowering by altering the light pattern, as Rob Tortora had suggested. Even after we cut back the lights, MJ would grow another 30%, while pushing out potent buds.
We’re keeping hope, and MJ, alive. But it may be that our neighbor across the street had a better idea. Not long after we moved to Colorado, she showed up at our door cradling what looked like a baby tumbleweed. “Look what I just found on the sidewalk!” she crowed, proffering a stalk of dried cannabis big enough to stun Cheech, Chong, and their immediate families. “I just had to tell somebody!”
We were a little jealous when she shared the windfall with our neighbors across the street, toking away on their screen porch many a summer’s evening. Maybe she thought the new people from Pennsylvania might be pot prudes?
Give MJ a few months of proper hydration, access to an effective grow light, and just the right amount of Canna Coco A&B, and we hope to prove her wrong. And it might be a really good way to inspire a joint visit from our sons. Claire bakes a mean brownie.
NOTE: Not a grow operation, but a font of friendly advice on all things weed-related. Plus, if you manage to kill your plants, they’ll sell you the finished pot product!