Growing Your Own When the Time Comes

Photograph By
District Growers

District Growers manager Kathryn V. Rust in a cannabis flowering stage room

In November, DC residents overwhelmingly approved the Initiative 71 referendum which, for our purposes, allows “the personal cultivation of no more than six cannabis plants with three or fewer being mature, flowering plants, within the person’s personal residence.” 

How nice that our legislators think so highly of our gardening abilities! They are confident that we can produce six thriving cannabis plants at one time. They trust we can tell male plants apart from female plants. They assert that we can control how many of our plants will be in their flowering stage at one time, and that we’ll even know when they are flowering. And they fervently believe this can be done within the confines of our four walls, as “within” means “not outdoors.”

Just substitute the word, “eggplant” in the referendum quoted above, and you’ll see you’ve got some learning to do – when and if Congress and the DC government come to terms on Initiative 71 and you decide to be among the first generation of legal cannabis home growers in the District.

Ground Rules

This article does not advocate cannabis cultivation, consumption, or breaking the law.

This article is only going to discuss growing cannabis and will not cover the status of existing legislation or the high-jacked November referendum, information easily obtained elsewhere.

This article relies heavily on the advice of others, but as a dirt gardener for 35 years, I understand all the information presented here and take full responsibility for any errors.

Relevant information and resources may be found in my October column, “Growing Indoor Edibles,” and will not be repeated here. (http://www.capitalcommunitynews.com/content/growing-indoor-edibles).

Cannabis Basics

What is Cannabis? Cannabis, aka marijuana or pot, is an annual flowering herb, probably from the mountains northwest of the Himalayas. After it flowers it dies, so don’t get too attached to your (up to six) plants. Cannabis is predominantly dioecious, which means male and female plants are separate. This trait is common in woody plants like the Ginkgo tree, but rare in annuals. Only the female produces the pistillate flowers called buds. This is the part of the plant that contains the most THC (tetrahydrocannabinal). According to the free online “Marijuana Grow Bible” by Robert Bergman, ”THC is essentially the stuff that provides the soothing, medicinal qualities that many people associate with cannabis” (http://www.ilovegrowingmarijuana.com/about-us/). Grown indoors under lights, from seed to finished product will take from four to six months. Indoors, according to Mr. Bergman’s book, one can expect approximately 18 ounces of harvest for a 100 square foot area. 

Plant Taxonomy – Know What You Grow

“Cannabis” is the genus. Next is “species,” which for our purposes includes two main players: Cannabis, or c. sativa, and c. indica. These are the two species used in the medical marijuana production distributed in legal DC dispensaries. It is rare to see a true c. sativa nowadays. So the genus is Cannabis, the species is indica or sativa, or a blend, and then there are varieties, or, if you want to show off, phenotypes. Here’s where things get interesting, as most phenotypes are genetically mixed.

Some readers of a certain age, or fans of early Cheech & Chong movies, may have heard of the phenotypes Maui Wowie, or Purple Haze. Nowadays there are hundreds, if not more. This is important because the effects of phenotypes vary greatly. If you’re going to invest your time and resources into indoor cultivation, you want to grow the variety that best suits your needs. Do you want help with insomnia, relief from anxiety, nausea, depression, muscle spasms, glaucoma? Or, for purely recreational users, do you just want to have fun? Before you get started, figure out what you most want.

Generally, predominantly sativa varieties will bring about feelings of energy and happiness. Sativa, or predominantly sativa phenotypes sold in Capitol Hill’s licensed medical marijuana dispensary, Metropolitan Wellness Center (http://www.mwcdc.com/menu/) include Lemon Skunk, Tang, and Medi Haze. Sativa plants grown outdoors will be taller than indicas, with thinner, pointy leaves. 

Indica varieties, most originating from Afghanistan, are different in their effect, and grown outdoors, produce shorter, wider plants with greener and wider leaves. According to Jason King’s book, The Cannabible, “indicas are favored by some growers for their smaller, more manageable size and earlier harvests.” He writes, “…when I smoked an indica, my eyes would become red, I would feel heavy and lethargic…I prefer them late at night, when sleep is near.” Case in point, one indica sold at the Hill’s Metropolitan Wellness Center is named “Catatonic.” Visit their web site for a full listing and links to descriptions which will help explain the interplay of species and the intended effects of various phenotypes. For a more lyrical listing, see Jason King’s books, which will demonstrate that wine varietal descriptions don’t hold a candle to those of cannabis (http://www.thecannabible.com/). Within any species and phenotype, levels of THC vary from strong to mild.

Life Cycle and Sex (of your plants)

Cannabis plants have six or seven stages: germination, seedling, vegetative, flowering, and in the harvest process (flushing, if you use chemicals), drying and curing. The most important thing you will need to know is whether you have male or female plants. So you’ve set up a growing area in your basement, you are monitoring light intensity and duration daily, as well as soil moisture, humidity, fertility, pests, and temperature. You have done this from spring until close to fall, and only then will you be able to determine if you have boys or girls! It’s a crap shoot my friends, as there is no way to know unless you’re starting with clones, which will not be legal in DC. Were it legal, growing outdoors would be so much less resource intensive.

See Bergman’s The Marijuana Grow Bible (p.28) for how to determine sex. If you’re lucky, your plants will include more females than males. According to DC expert, Kathryn V. Rust, holistic Health Practitioner, manager of District Growers, and assistant manager of the Metropolitan Wellness Center, “Males make only pollen, not buds. Plants will flower when days get shorter, so once you sex the plants you’ll want to select for females.” You will want the males to pollinate the females so the females will produce seed for your next crop. If you do not allow the males to pollinate the females, you will get buds called sinsemella, Spanish for “without seed.” These, according to Bergman, “are considered more potent…because they focus more attention on THC production and bud growth rather than on producing seeds.” The males are of little use after they perform their pollination duties. Sorry, guys!

Once your (up to three) females start flowering, refer to any of the widely available print or online publications for how to manage light duration to encourage flowering and complete the growth cycle prior to harvest. This may mean that you are starting half your crop at a different time, although separately regulating two indoor growing environments might be a bridge too far. It would be for me.

I wish there was room here to share with you all that Kathryn Rust told me during our interview. She is a wealth of information, having been in the cannabis industry for over ten years, starting in California before moving to DC last year.  She is on duty at the Metropolitan Wellness Center most afternoons, after spending her mornings at District Growers tending her plants. The Wellness Center is located at 409 8th Street, SE. Remember, the Center assists medical marijuana patients only, and while they may eventually provide advice for the general public, at present their focus must remain on card carrying medical marijuana patients. For more on that, see: http://www.mwcdc.com/

A Shout Out to the District

I will let Kathryn Rust have the last word. While many cannabis phenotypes have less than uplifting names, like, “Mekong Haze,” one new phenotype has just been developed: “Magnificent Intentions.” This strain and its name is a unique genetic produced exclusively by District Growers.  The name comes from a quote from Charles Dickens when he visited Washington, DC in 1842 as he dubbed the 52-year-old capitol “The City of Magnificent Intentions.” Soon it will be available to medical marijuana users at the Metropolitan Wellness Center. 

While the new cannabis referendum is working its way through the legal system and winter days are short, now is a good time to learn about growing your own. Enjoy!

Twist ties are used to attach plants to a PVC trellis frame to spread out the canopy of the plants as they grow.
Flowering Cannabis plants
Cannabis plants in the vegetative stage before males and females are identified

Cheryl Corson, RLA, ASLA, is a licensed landscape architect practicing on the Hill and beyond. www.cherylcorson.com


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