Why I’m growing cannabis in my yard

By Johanna Silver


Want to jump-start your cannabis garden? For the next three weeks, follow Johanna Silver’s column in Food + Home. Next week, she’ll learn how to choose seeds. You can also read additional installments of her Green Thumb series on


Michael Short / Special to The Chronicle

As the former garden editor of Sunset magazine, I’ve documented my share of horticultural adventures. I’ve fattened up slugs for homemade escargot and induced an asthma attack from winnowing homegrown quinoa (FYI, winnowing should always, always be done outdoors). But cannabis? New to me. And unless you’ve been growing it on a farm surrounded by forest, or in a closet — literally — it’s new to you, too. So in the new world of legalized recreational use, we are going to try. I’m setting out to grow cannabis outdoors in my East Bay backyard. I’m a gardener, not a stoner (although let’s just say that high-school-Johanna has died and gone to heaven), and I’m going to take you along for the ride. As Californians, we’re adventurers and makers. We’re going to grow our own.

But if you’re ready for your own plot-to-pipe (bed-to-bong? hothouse-to-hotbox?), I’ve found that there’s a serious lack of simple how-to info. There’s no 2-buck seed packet with 100 words of instruction on the back. I’m going to have to learn how growing cannabis is or isn’t like growing anything else I’ve grown before.

How hard can it be? It’s called weed, for god’s sake. But as I’ve begun, I’ve found that even getting started — finding reliable outdoor grow information and narrowing in on appropriate strains — is tricky. Having evolved in a vacuum of illegality, everything related to cannabis is just a little bit strange.

Before even putting a seed in the ground, here’s some of what sets pot apart from anything else I’ve grown.

The books are different. Weed books are bizarre. They read more like electrician handbooks than gardening books. The outdoor chapter — which is always one small chapter — includes details on security, like how to cover the soles of your shoes with duct tape to hide your tracks.

And as such, they don’t have the information I want: What varieties are the prettiest? What strains are most suited to specific outdoor climates? What are the best companion plants? There’s zero aesthetic component to a pot growing handbook — and forget about chemical-free growing.

Procurement is different. Cannabis seeds and plants are not for sale at your local plant nursery (yet); the only legal option is to buy clones or seeds from a local dispensary. Thus far, my dispensary visits have been anything but inspiring. Shopping at one is a much different experience than wandering a plant nursery, where I can touch and smell and read, and generally enjoy myself. Instead, I’m indoors, standing at a counter, choosing from a laminated menu of plants.

When I ask what strain I should grow, a dude just asks me what type of high I want. When I prod for grow information, he says, “just trust mother nature,” which is not an answer. When I prod further, I’m told that it’s too complicated to explain to me. So which is it? Easy or hard?

The plant is actually different, too. Cannabis is the only summer annual where you have to worry about the sex of the plant. Buds form from unpollinated female flowers, so no guys allowed. Imagine starting your tomato seeds and needing to trash half of them once you’ve trained yourself on how to spot the males from the females. That’s what you have to do with weed. (Except if you buy feminized seeds, which is a whole other story that we’ll get to next week.)

Without opening an entire can of worms, suffice it to say that cannabis is photosensitive. A drop in light triggers flowering, which you don’t want to happen too early.

But regardless of that fact, people seem to really overcomplicate the light needs. I imagine this has to do with creating a garden indoors instead of outdoors, trusting the sun. I have folks swearing to me that I cannot do a grow — even outdoors — without lights to begin.

Seeing as cannabis is a plant that came from nature, I just don’t buy it. So I’m following Nat Pennington’s advice. The owner of Humboldt Seed Co. promises me that seed-grown weed will be just fine outdoors. Clones (what noncannabis gardeners would call cuttings) are trickier. I’ll be growing a few clones too, sans lights, so we’ll see what happens.

Takeaway lesson: Get educated. For a first-timer like me, who is garden-focused and wants to grow in her backyard, reliable info is few and far between. Here’s the best:

Get two books: Ed Rosenthal’s “Marijuana Grower's Handbook: Your Complete Guide for Medical and Personal Marijuana Cultivation” and Jorge Cervantes’ “Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible.” Both are still indoor-focused, but they give fantastic introductions to the plant. I like Rosenthal’s breakdown of indica, sativa and ruderalis (wild) cannabis, highlighting how their differences matter in a garden (including height, growth habit and foliage color). And Cervantes excels at step-by-step instructions.

So far, Grow Weed Easy ( is my favorite online resource for quick questions. It’s written in layman’s terms. It’s accessible.

The most garden-friendly instructions on seed starting come straight from Humboldt Seed Co. (;click on “tips and media”). Now those sound like gardening instructions.