The failure of Dr. Green Thumb

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Robert Tooke/Senior Staff

Two racks, five shelves and a small sea of green.

A few LED lights shine down on the plants, reflecting a shade of green. I point my finger at the marijuana clone in the front, tucked behind the rack post. It has three leaves, a small stalk and leans to the right. I buy two and leave in an Uber.

The idea of cultivation is taboo — growing the marijuana buds or “forbidden fruits” for consumption put me on the same plane as Adam and Eve, meandering through their garden with a different moral compass.

But it was summertime in Berkeley, and I had time to kill and a hobby to create. After all, Alameda County allows medical marijuana patients up to 99 plants to grow; I just needed one to start.

This was my plan to be self-sustainable, creating — and later learning to manipulate — the instant source to a supreme pleasure: smoking cannabis. My growing plan seemed too convenient, since cultivation was supposed to be as easy as growing backyard weeds.

The set-up

I lived in the hills during the summer, next to Memorial Stadium. Eight hours of burning sunlight would grace my third-floor balcony. Standing outside my screen door, you could see the straightness of Elmwood’s streets that lead into a bushel of Oakland towers, freeways crossing in between with the rush-hour traffic backed up to Emeryville; Richmond would be as slow as the twinkling of its city lights. You could have also seen my two plants had you been on the balcony — marijuana plants are hard to miss.

I decided to raise two clones: a Bay Area native indica-hybrid “Gelato” strain and a popular West Coast sativa “Blue Dream” strain. Sixteen dollars each. They both smelled of pine and mint, a little bit of sweet berry and floral foliage. It’s very sweet, just like candy.

In my apartment, there was no grow room set-up. No lights, no probiotic soil, no hydroponic water tanks, just a bag of soil and two 3-gallon black pots.

Here’s how marijuana plants grow:

28551478602_a585eaf678_o-1There are two stages of growing. Vegetating, or “vegging,” when the plants need 12 hours of sunlight, sometimes 16 hours depending on the grower and the intensity of lighting. Flowering or “budding” is the second stage, when the plant only needs eight hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. This second stage has to be triggered, most often done by the changing outdoor seasons and the disappearing sun as fall approaches.

This was my plan to be self-sustainable, creating — and later learning to manipulate — the instant source to a supreme pleasure: smoking cannabis.

There are ways to fully maximize your yields: Low-stress training and “super cropping” on the tree can damage the branches around the nodes — but, if done just right, they can allow for more growth. By stunting the growth of young trees, the plant will engage its defensive mechanisms and, in return, the plant will be a short, bushy plant with many branches. The more, the better.

Well, I didn’t do any of that. I just put the damn beauties into two pots and filled them with soil, hardly ever measuring the pH of the water and almost always incorrectly choosing the right and wrong nutrients to treat occasional brown and yellow leaves, which were sometimes folded up, often overwatered.

My planning was all wrong. I started doing an outdoor grow late during the summer, which meant I would be in complete darkness later on during late fall and early winter. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t achieving any maximum potential or fully employing the plants’ utility. If anything, my outdoor balcony was totally inefficient, and it became unrealistic to have expected any return from the plants.

Dirty fingers

28761681432_c1c14e0f40_oEach morning, I brewed my coffee and microwaved my steel-cut oats, taking the Brita water pitcher to  feed my plants. From June to December, I was the controller of life, the master gardener, the ganja god, cannabis captain, whatever. Growing cannabis was a practical experiment defying any conservative standards. Could I do it? Hell, my neighbors across the street were growing six plants at their student co-op. It was good-hearted fun to compare our plants, to see their progress and mine. By all means, their plants were far superior because they had the appropriate amounts of sunlight. There was a little forest on their roof by the end of summer, and I would sit and wave and smoke and wave more. They would wave back.

My experience — in measuring the pH of water, in determining nutrient deficiencies visible on leaves, in dealing with root rot and spider mites, in feeling the fertility of the soil — is romantic. I had an affair with my two plants, taking my soiled fingers-turned-brown to touch their stems, checking the development of nodes tucked away into corners, caressing the brittleness of leaves between a green thumb or two.  

Alone at night, I would sit by a cup of coffee, scrolling down webpage after webpage, looking for homemade remedies, cheats and hacks. The internet had it all, but the knowledge to grow is attained more effectively by practice. I could learn what I read, but taking it to the soil was different; many variables can influence disaster or success, paralyzing my confidence each time another important leaf died.

As I marked leaves for nitrogen surplus or phosphorus deficiency, checked stems for mildew residue or the traces of UVB burns, I would kneel, sit, squat and stand — meditating in my garden of two.

30518368553_1f7a32edc1_o-1Living alone granted me a solidarity with the plants. Spacing off was a form of meditation, drifting away from anxieties and tension to examine the foliage or tying a branch to a corner plant stake to alter shape, I was feverish with goals and ideas. How to craft cannabis …

We would make lasagna together as Sade played over the speaker. I drank a glass of wine to my new friends and toasted to their progress, simultaneous with my own personal achievements and developments that summer. When I made the transition into fall housing and moved the plants into their own exclusive grow room, aka the closet at the foot of my bed, I would spend hours under the red and blue LEDs. I’d meticulously detail the progress of my two plants:

  • Was the stem turning purple yesterday? Is it too cold at night? Maybe the temperature should be raised … maybe it’s genetics
  • The roots smell like sulfur and have turned a light yellow. Stench is awful. The leaves droop and curl. Symptoms of root rot. I should change the soil or ensure clear dra
    inage from watering.
  • The top of the soil is too dry and the roots too wide. Should I water deeper and less volume but in longer periods?

And after each sickness, I would care and nurture each plant back to its fortitude.

Sentimental sweethearts & success

The Gelato buds were alive, dancing with fiery orange hairs, tinted by the gloss of crystal resin,  their sticky sap bouncing to and fro, the closet fan stirring back and forth. The coat is as fine as ivory, an achromatic madness that spread over the veins and ribs of the leaves. With budding, the Gelato was a short and fairly symmetric Christmas tree plant.

But something happened to the Blue Dream.

One morning after another, a cobweb gradually formed, masking a leaf and then an entire side. The cobwebs’ perpetrators eventually became visible, all few thousand of them — the spider mites, invisible and then ubiquitous. My little companions squared away in every nook and niche under and over the leaves, decorating stems with the elasticity of their designs.

We would make lasagna together as Sade played over the speaker. I drank a glass of wine to my new friends and toasted to their progress, simultaneous with my own personal achievements and developments that summer.

And so I watched my prettiest and healthiest botanical bud fall apart, the most ribbed and gentle leaves turn disgusting — horrific brown curls, monstrously saturated and then dried with eggs, absolutely no water left for them to drink. The stems would turn black. The foliage lost volume, one branch would lose strength and then the entire plant died. Just like that.

I held no ceremony, I said no prayers and I cried no tears, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grieved. When my second plant caught the same spider mites from the first, I took the plant in three garbage bags and threw it away. Six months of care, and it took four nights to destroy them.

What could I have done differently? Faster reactions with pesticide, a quick and vital extermination, a botanical sacrifice, ultimate quarantine? I did what I could. And so that was it.

31276064726_47bd76cc1c_oThe cost of caring comes with consequences. My experiment turned into an overzealous expectation, which made me question how I measure my success. I was successful in terms of growing, not yielding. In terms of being a first-time grower, I dabbled with my Green Thumb. Maybe there was an expectation for reaping the benefits of the plant’s fruit and bud, so I was unsuccessful with my patience and desire.

If anything, I impressed a few friends, sought to outgrow a mildly conservative upbringing and saw if I could grow marijuana — which I could. And, obviously, no one is going to do it right the first time. Simple rookie mistakes.

For all the minutes I spent magnifying trichomes, pistils and calyxes, and examining congruities of the stalk, I would like to thank the community of Green Thumbs for helping me understand the processes of the plant, each receptor, each facet, each node.

And for all the days I spent being nuts enough to raise and care for two cannabis plants, I would like to thank the state of California for finally legalizing marijuana and ending the prohibition of the plant so that I may raise another two and another two, until I’m happy enough with my success. And its ganja be a good time.

Contact Robert van Tooke at [email protected]

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