Trichomes, magnified here through a jeweler's loupe, are a good indicator of when to harvest.

Column: Home gardening tips for aspiring ‘green’ thumbs

by | Apr 20, 2024 | ALLFFP, Columns, Home & Garden, Joey LoMonaco

What if I told you that it’s no longer necessary to suffer from “anxiety” or “migraines.”  

That you can dispense with finding innocuous emojis to help launder those quarterly $60 Venmo payments to your “friend” from college.

That the days of relying on the charity of an elderly in-law undergoing cancer treatment have passed.

While the City of Fredericksburg will hold Earth Day festivities on Saturday, for many of us April 20 has always signified a different — if not wholly unrelated — holiday.  

As of July 2021, the Virginia General Assembly passed into law 4.1-1101, making it legal for a person over the age of 21 to cultivate up to four marijuana plants “for personal use.”  

A year later, I decided to take our fine legislators at their word.  

* * * 

It started with a white envelope, no larger than a business card, with the words “Banana OG” scrawled on the front in red pen. Inside were approximately 20 seeds, generously gifted by a fellow teacher at my wife’s former school.  

My dad always likes to proclaim that the internet is “the seat of all knowledge,” and when it came to growing weed, he was absolutely correct. The first stop on my informational journey was r/microgrowery, a subreddit dedicated to the small-scale cultivation of cannabis. Inside the community’s sidebar, you’ll find a “beginner’s guide.” 

At this point, I find it necessary to make a few disclosures. I’m not exactly a novice when it comes to growing things.  

Each summer, the small strip between my driveway and fence line teems with tomatoes, peppers, and — when the pollination gods gaze favorably upon me — zucchini and other assorted squashes (including an accidental pumpkin patch whose harvest coincided nicely with this past Halloween!). My herb garden stands as a testament to the potency of Fredericksburg’s feral cat colonies as fertilizer (wish I were joking). 

I largely understand sunlight, water, airflow and soil as a growing medium.  

So, in March 2022, I asked myself: “How different could weed be?” The next six months would hold the answer to my folly.  

* * * 

Back to the white envelope.  

I plunked a few seeds into a mason jar filled with tap water, having first allowed the water to sit undisturbed for a day to allow any chlorine to dissipate. The idea here is to soften the seed’s outer shell to expedite the germination process.  

After approximately 48 hours, I saw one of the seeds start to… do something. A taproot had emerged. From there, I followed the advice on r/microgrowery of putting the primed seed in a disposable cup with a small amount of potting soil and placing it under a cheap plant light.  

These nascent stages of life took root in my wood-paneled “three-season porch,” a room so thickly layered with tobacco as to resemble the age rings of a tree trunk. It felt like the right place for the seedy task at hand.

Baby’s first fan leaf. They grow up so fast. (Photos by Joey LoMonaco)

If you glean nothing else from this column, remember this: marijuana plants have two stages.  

Vegetative stage begins when seeds sprout. Fan leaves develop and the plant, well, grows. It needs at least 18 hours per day of continuous light (up to as many as 24 hours) during this stage. Each time the plant outgrows its container, you simply transplant it to a larger one.  

The second stage is flowering. This can be triggered in one of two ways. If you’re growing indoors (usually in a reflective tent with a dedicated lighting setup), you switch to a 12/12 cycle, with 12 hours of light and 12 hours of total darkness.  

By contrast, I didn’t have the space to grow indoors. Actually, I’m lying. As I’m wont to do when acquiring a new hobby, I “invested,” purchasing a cheap grow tent and lighting rig off Amazon.

As I write this, the box has sat unopened for three years. 

* * * 

Virginia’s law states that a home grower must “ensure that no marijuana plant is visible from a public way without the use of aircraft, binoculars, or other optical aids.” 

In June I parked my plant, which had grown to occupy a five-gallon planter by this point, on the concrete slab next to the shed in my backyard. The denizens of Stuart Street were none the wiser as to my operation. To be clear, it’s one plant we’re talking about here.

Like Fight Club, the first rule of growing weed is you do not talk about growing weed. Silence is theft prevention at its finest. (Side note: it also aids your cause when every adjacent neighbor is 4/20 friendly, and, in one case, doing their own parallel grow). 

Jack himself couldn’t get high enough to scale this untrained greenstalk.

Your weed plant needs training to be a good girl. And she must be a girl; at the first detection of male pollen sacs — which are a bit too on the nose as a gender identifier — the plant becomes instant trash. Training can consist of tying branches down or topping, a process that involves cutting off the top of a stalk to split it into two new ones.

I knew none of this during my maiden voyage.

Instead of a sturdy, bushy, plant tailored to maximize yield, I grew a marijuana tree. Seriously, by the time the changing of the seasons triggered flowering, it stood more than three feet tall and required a creative scaffolding of string and tomato cages to prevent it from collapsing under its own weight.  

* * * 

Fast forward a few months. An early November frost has turned my plant’s fan leaves from army green to a pleasing shade of purple. It’s time to chop.  

I know this because, for weeks, I’d been using a jeweler’s loupe (basically a pocket magnifying glass) to check the trichomes on my plant’s buds. Trichomes look like dew drops; they’re very pretty. During the flowering stage, they change color from clear to cloudy to amber.

Depending on the desired effect, you chop between cloudy and amber. My harvest was closer to the cloudy end of the spectrum, as I was worried about powdery mildew due to fluctuating humidity levels and figured better-safe-than-shortness-of-breath. 

I’d arrayed newspaper broadsheets (and we had no shortage of it due to my employer at the time) on our picnic table and had at the ready a standard-issue pair of Fiskars scissors. A third accessory that came in handy was a pair of gardening gloves — sticky icky is a rather crude but apt description for the not-yet-finished product. 

The process as I elected to go about it is referred to as a “wet trim,” since it’s done before the buds are dried. I started with the large fan leaves, placing them in a bowl as I went. If you’re into hemp products, this is the material used to make goods.  

The columnist opted for a wet trim, cutting the buds from their stems before drying.

The racks of a food dehydrator work nicely for drying the buds, a process that takes anywhere from one to two weeks with a fan running constantly for ventilation. This stage and the subsequent cure took place in my home’s second novelty space, a poorly retrofitted darkroom my wife and I refer to as the “murder room.” 

And let me tell you, I killed it on my first try. After curing the dried buds in Mason jars for an additional two weeks (good things come to those who wait), my first harvest came in at a whopping *redacted for legal reasons* grams.  

It’s been nearly two years, and the conception and subsequent writing of this column has served to reawaken my holiday spirit.  

Who knows, maybe in a damp paper towel somewhere, seeds of future inspiration lie in wait. 

Happy 420. 

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