Smokavore: On Growing Your Own Pot

Illustration by Jason Novak

In my nightmare, thick, green vines creep out from my closet while I sleep fitfully in bed. They grow until my room disappears, and me with it.

The nightmare ends when I jolt awake, covered in sweat. There’s a crack of light coming from my closet. No, there aren’t any hungry vines curling out, but there really is something growing in there.

I live in the Bay Area, where caring about where your food comes from is as commonplace as putting the recycling out once a week. I’ve learned to carefully source what I consume. Even in the heart of the city it’s possible to retain a thoughtful connection to the earth — whether that’s raising chickens, joining a CSA, or composting old take out. I know the right questions to ask my grocer or waiter.

But there was a notable exception to my mindful consumer habits: marijuana.

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Like most people who occasionally smoke weed in college, I was totally oblivious to its supply chain. It came from a friend who got it from someone else, and so on. More than that I didn’t care to know.

But eating organic while buying pot from a friend of a friend or on the streets of San Francisco is hypocritical. There’s no way to know the provenance of your purchase, who’s added what to it, or even what strain it might be. By comparison, dispensaries are your Whole Foods, with clearly labeled products. You can ask a dispensary worker where they got their goods from. The market for organic, local pot its gaining ground, but for the most part dispensary cannabis is still produced industrially, rarely with organics and far from view.

I’m not a farmer or a revolutionary, but I started to wonder: could I learn to better appreciate nature by growing one of its forbidden fruits? I wanted to grow pot to consume it more thoughtfully, receiving it as a reward for my efforts rather than at my leisure. I wanted to live off the land: to get high on my own supply.


Breaking the law scares me, so I try to avoid it. Fortunately, growing pot in San Francisco isn’t illegal. Medical marijuana patients like me are allowed to tend up to 24 plants for personal use. It’s part of the Medical Marijuana Guidelines issued by the city’s Board of Supervisors, Section 3202 of Ordinance No. 27505. But even with the precautions I took and state and local laws on my side, I came to find that growing pot held a bit of the drug’s power to make me paranoid and secretive. (To the friendly folks at NSA reading this right now, I maintain this is all an elaborate fiction.)

Like many who occasionally smoke weed, I was totally oblivious to its supply chain. It came from a friend who got it from someone else, and so on. More than that I didn’t care to know.

I received my medical marijuana recommendation nervously, thanks to a skin condition I really have. Psoriasis might be soothed by cannabis seed oil, and it’s definitely the result (and cause) of anxiety that’s frequently treated with marijuana. I couldn’t tell how superficial the doctor’s evaluation was: “Rub the oil in really well, and use a water bong or a vaporizer,” she told me, handing me a golden ticket to the city’s dispensaries. I bought my first seeds at a dispensary not too far from San Francisco’s city hall called SPARC, whose sleek aesthetics are similar to, say, a hip nightclub.

The Internet was my grow guide, but paranoia made me search for online instructions in Google’s “Incognito” mode. was an invaluable resource, even if I didn’t love the shady tone of the site. There I learned everything I needed to know, from the size of the light to the distance it needed to be to my plants.

I wanted to live off the land, but in my case the land was a three-by-four foot closet in the bedroom of my apartment. I bought everything I needed at a hardware store for less than I might have spent on the amount of pot I grew. Behind a Mexican blanket covering my closet doorway, I set up two small tables under a halide grow light. “You don’t have to tell me this stuff is for tomatoes,” said a savvy attendant.

My most complicated piece of equipment was a ventilation system to regulate temperature from the hot lamp. I attached a filter to a fan that pulled air from the closet through a temporary silver duct and out a window, covering the exposed duct with precisely disheveled books and clothes. It was a full ventilation system with its own instructions, and it worked well to keep my plants a little above room temperature.

I liked to think my setup was undetectable, but my cat Buttons was the first to notice. The beam of light from under the blanket and the hum of the fan attracted sniffing and pawing. I shooed her away, attaching a black plastic tarp to the doorway behind the blanket. I used Velcro tape to seal it for easy access. Inside my closet — where I impatiently poked my head several times a day — it was so blindingly bright that, as my eyes readjusted back in my room, everything took on that faint green glow you get from staring at the sun.

When I tended to my plants, I wore latex gloves to protect them and sunglasses to protect my eyes. I switched on and off the 1000-watt lamp that was the sun, and provided water and nutrients in exact amounts. I even played music for my plants: the Grateful Dead and Bob Marley, mostly.

The vegetative phase of growth requires 24 hours of light. It started with the germination of my ten seeds. I nestled them in a wet paper towel until they grew miniature tail-roots, then transferred them to a synthetic soil. I’d heard a synthetic medium would be easier, and I thought the one I chose (Coco Coir) was pretty cool because it’s made from coconuts.

After a few weeks and several inches of growth, I noticed one of my plants starting to move. Little dots were hovering around my them like static. Whiteflies! Whiteflies are a scourge of agricultural operations, damaging tomatoes, beans and tomatoes. And apparently they like marijuana, too. I vengefully sprayed the saplings with anti-pest neem seed oil, and I’m happy to report that was the last time I saw them.

In a few more weeks it was time to trick my plants into bloom by making them anticipate fall. This meant a cycle of 12 hours of darkness followed by 12 hours of light. Here my plants doubled in size, stretching upward in the darkness toward the lamp. I changed their nutrients from FloraNova Grow to FloraNova Bloom, with more available phosphate and waited for them to reveal their sex.

I wanted to live off the land, but in my case the land was a three-by-four foot closet in the bedroom of my apartment.

Plants grown from seeds can be males, females or hermaphrodites: small pollen sacks indicate males, while wispy white hairs and tiny flowers identify the smoke-able females. Males are often taller, and have to be removed to protect female plants from seed-causing pollination. I was disappointed to see my most-soaring plants display the telltale masculine signs that doomed them to slaughter. Two hermaphrodites nearly tricked me — they too had to go. I chopped them down with kitchen scissors, leaving me with five females.

Grown industrially, female flowers can be massive and sagging. For me, these didn’t fully arrive for another five weeks, their white hairs curling in and browning. When the plants started to stink, I filled my closet with odor eating products that smelled like Febreze and mostly masked the recognizable scent of pot.

At harvest time, I shut down my operation for good. I trimmed the buds and dried them for a few days, hanging them from a hanger for two weeks before curing them in jars. I buried the stalks in my yard and returned my clothes to the closet.


Among other important things, my project taught me a healthy dose of patience. Just like it’s easy to lose appreciation for food at the supermarket, ignoring its history and impact amongst artificial abundance, I’d lost respect for pot in the way I purchased and consumed it. I’m glad I took matters into my own hands, which are now a little dirtier (and my thumbs a little greener).

Growing isn’t easy, but nothing satisfying ever is. I’m putting a stop to my experiment for now, until the climate for growers is really right. Further legalization (like we’re seeing in Colorado and Washington) could bring me back around. I like to think by the time I retire, things will be different, and I’ll be able to spend my twilight years “gardening” publicly.

If full enjoyment is about full narrative — knowing a wine’s vintage or a loved one’s life history — then farm-to-table food is rewarding because of the completeness of that story. The same, I’m pleased to say, is true of closet-to-bong pot.

Smokavore: On Growing Your Own Pot