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Gardening, California style…

At the risk of adding unwanted notoriety to the Farm In My Pocket site, but in the interests of getting a blog written that is at least entertaining, I thought I’d put down a few lines about how I got interested in gardening in the first place.

California hill living, image

California. Looks nice? It WAS nice. Very nice indeed.

I’m always keen to hear how other people became gardeners, as it’s not something we’re born equipped to do. However, it can definitely be nurtured: my mother insisted that all of us – I have an elder brother and younger sister – had a small plot of border in which we could grow whatever we wanted. I wanted to grow a pond, and a plastic washing-up bowl was dug in and filled with water. As I had no pond weed, I went round collecting bits of grass and a few leaves. In my mind it was perfect, but it was probably awful.

Many years later I was living way up in the hills in north California at the end of a 10 mile dirt road (with three locked gates across it along the way) roughly 2000 feet above sea level. Our nearest neighbours, perhaps a quarter of a mile away, were the road manager for the Grateful Dead and his wife. And yes, there are lots more stories there – perhaps for a future blog if I can figure out a gardening angle.

As there was no work to be had so far from civilisation it was impossible for me to get a green card. Instead, I became an ‘illegal alien’, a status I held for the four years I spent up there with my wife, Linda. Partly because of that, we rarely came down from our mountain home – which suited me just fine. After years in the UK the weather was amazing. For company, aside from the kids, we had black widow spiders, wild boar, racoons, bears, coyotes, rattlesnakes, scorpions, tarantulas and more. And our vegetable garden. Oh, and marijuana. That’s what everybody did back then, as it was basically the only way to stay afloat up in the hills.

marijuana pic 1, image

Fresh, organic and ever so tasty...

And that’s how I became a gardener.

On Christmas day I would put some marijuana seeds between a few damp sheets of tissue paper, and after they sprouted a few days later they were popped into 1/2 gallon cardboard milk containers filled with lovely organic compost. Then they went into the cold frame for a few weeks. As male plants weren’t really wanted – well, we usually kept a single good one to pollinate next year’s seeds – it was important to know that we were only planting females into the – laboriously created – final growing positions in the woods. To achieve this, the plants were deprived of daylight for 24 hrs. A few days later, careful examination with a magnifying glass would find a single male or female flower or two adjacent to the stem, near the top of the plant. And that was that. As a result, and unlike many of our contemporaries, we didn’t lose half our growing spaces to (almost useless) males.

marijuana pic 2, image

Here's a little 'extra' plant that we grew just for fun: half a pound, worth roughly $1250

They might be weeds, but they’re very hungry and very thirsty. If they are given enough nutrients and water, the incredible Californian summer turned them into enormous, graceful, lush plants. Sometime in August they would begin to flower, and as no male pollen landed on them they would just keep going. This led to ‘buds’, the bit everyone was interested in. As the weeks passed, the buds just got bigger and bigger…and bigger. In September and October it was harvest time. The buds were cut from the plants, carefully trimmed, and hung upside down from coat hangers to dry. This was done slowly and naturally, in carefully constructed ‘drying sheds’ out in the woods – usually deep in the growth surrounding a big redwood tree.

marijuana pic 3, image

Inside a drying shed. Note the roll of duck tape, for scale...

And of course, extensive quality control – hard though it was – had to be done. At that time of year, almost everywhere you went, you’d be asked to give your opinion on this year’s finest. Yup, it was a hard life.

Fortunately, we weren’t alone. Far from it. Everybody grew pot back then, so many that the CA secretary of agriculture had to resign after saying in public that marijuana brought more money into the state than all the other legal crops put together.

We didn’t get rich, we just made enough to live on. While it might sound idyllic, homesteading with no electricity and no running water (at first) certainly wouldn’t suit everyone. Living was very basic indeed and very hard work, but it was organic and healthy – so long as you don’t count an extremely high intake of cannabis. There was no organised crime involved back then, no shady deals in alleyways – it was great. Everybody smoked: once I found out, shortly afterwards, that I’d just shared a joint with a county circuit judge in a break from playing rock and roll in a local cafe.

A marijuana seed is quite small, and it’s a heady experience indeed to nurture it into an 18 ft giant worth upwards of $5,000. And that’s how I came to love gardening.

marijuana pic 4, image

Four pounds of buds, worth roughly $10,000. Cassette tape added for scale.

And no, I don’t smoke now. I haven’t for years. And I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone else, either. I think it does damage the memory…well, I forget how exactly. And all that smoke can’t be any good for your lungs. Aside from that, I’m told that the pot kids smoke now is far, far stronger than the stuff we were used to back then. Maybe that’s true, but hey, if we smoked enough of it…

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