This is the first year Tom has not felt the need to booby-trap his backyard.
An inveterate pot grower, the North York man says new laws allowing Canadians to raise up to four of the plants per household set his mind at ease for the first time in more than half a century of cannabis cultivation.
“For all the years gone by I used to MacGyver the place,” says Tom, who did not want his last name used. “I would put fishing lines along the ground with tin cans so it would make noise if anybody went back there at nighttime. This year I didn’t worry about any of that, I just let it grow.”
As growers large and small finished up with the first outdoor harvests of legal cannabis plants in Canada this week, several looked back on the experience for the Star — though a lingering stigma made some reluctant even now to put their names to their sanctioned husbandry.
Tom, who’s approaching 68, says he started smoking pot at 14 and began planting it around his childhood home soon after.
“Probably started a couple of times when I was still living at home and tried to grow a couple of plants in my mom and dad’s backyard,” he says.
“Turned out to be like Christmas trees and male plants,” he laughs, explaining that only female versions produce the potent flowers that deliver active cannabis ingredients.
Through his own experimentation and furtive knowledge-sharing with others, Tom became a something of a marijuana master during pot’s forbidden years.
“I got it down to a pretty fine art,” he says, adding that he’s not “a certified pothead.”
And this year’s legal crop — which he harvested between mid-September and late October — was fecund beyond all reckoning, with his four plants producing more flower than he’ll be able to use in a year.
“I had so much from this strain that jokingly I was saying I was going to open up, like, a little lemonade stand in my front yard and put up a sign that said ‘free pot.’ ”
Tom — who estimates he might have pulled two pounds’ worth of flower off his seven-foot-plus plants — says growing a proper pot crop is no picnic, even at the four-plant limit the federal laws allow.
“You have no idea how much work it is to cut, trim, clip, dry — it takes hours and hours and weekends,” he says.
But his reasons for going to that trouble over the years were simple.
“It was expensive buying marijuana from the black market,” he says, “plus it’s pretty skeezy-like.”
Alison Gordon’s reasons for growing outside — rather than in an indoor, hydroponic setting — were primarily cost-driven.
Gordon is CEO of Toronto-based 48North Cannabis Corp., and the company finished harvesting the country’s first federally licensed and largest organic crop of outdoor pot this week.
“The main reason to go outside, I’m not going to deny it, is cost,” she says. “We’re in this highly regulatory system, the government and companies like ours are looking to eradicate the black market, bring consumers into a legal market, and cost is of course a huge part of that.”
Gordon says the company’s freshman outdoor season went “very well,” producing some 170,000 mature plants from the 250,000 seedlings planted on the farm’s 88-acre growing area.
“We had started later than we wanted to because of when we were licensed by Health Canada and the wet spring,” she says. “But we were really lucky with the weather I think, all of our plants (that did survive) were able to grow to maturity and had the time to flower and now we’re almost done harvesting,” she said in an interview earlier this week.
Many thought the company was taking a huge risk bringing a large part of their production outdoors in a Canadian climate.
Indoor growing, which represents the vast majority of commercial cannabis cultivation in Canada, allows for the precise manipulation of light, temperatures and nutrients for the plants. But Gordon says there are advantages to outdoor growing that go beyond its lower costs.
First, she says, outdoor growing leaves a far more gentle environmental footprint than energy-intensive indoor operations.
“And the other thing that people don’t like to talk about is that outdoor is a really great product,” Gordon says. “Because it’s being grown in its natural environment the plant can fully express itself,” she says, adding the active ingredients of the plant tend to appear in higher concentrations with outside growing.
Gordon also says the cheaper costs of open-air cultivation will allow the company to bring less expensive products to the legal market.
The company isn’t yet revealing the precise volumes of usable cannabis it will take off the farm this year. But she says almost all of it will be used for the extraction oils that will go into the upcoming edible products that will be available across Canada over the next months.
“We’re a public company so you have to treat these things delicately,” she says of the farm’s yield numbers. But, she says, the company is confident it can more than meet supply agreements with Ontario and other provinces.
The entire 100-acre farm near Brantford is surrounded by high fencing, motion sensors, cameras and guarded gates, and faced no theft problems this year, Gordon says.
She also says that the operation has been welcomed in the community and has welcomed many local farmers onto the property to work or consult.
“A lot of the local community and the local farmers were super-excited by this massive, first-of-its-kind task that we were taking on,” Gordon says. “You never know how people are going to respond in a community, especially to cannabis, so it’s been amazing.”
Youbin Zheng, a horticulturalist and cannabis expert at the University of Guelph, says sunlight conditions control the timing of most outdoor harvests in southern Ontario, which have been scattered between mid-October through the first part of November.
In particular, it’s the amount of darkness the plants require to produce their flowers — the main source of THC, CBD and other active “cannabinoid” components — that dictates their harvest schedules.
Some plants, the so-called autoflowering varieties, will blossom about a month after germination regardless of light conditions, Zheng says.
“If people had the autoflowering type they (probably) managed to get their crop harvested before the end of September,” he says.
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But the large majority of the cannabis varieties grown here require 10 to 12 hours of uninterrupted darkness to spur and maintain flower growth. Thus, Zheng says, flowering does not begin for most outdoor plants before midsummer or early fall — as the nights grow sufficiently long.
He says, however, it would be hard for growers to know during spring sowing just how many hours of darkness any given plant might need.
“If they were lucky, if they got (plants) that need about 10 hours of darkness, then these plants would flower at the beginning of August,” Zheng says. “Then it takes about six to seven weeks and at the end of September or beginning of October people could harvest their crop and have a good crop.”
If the plants required 12 hours of darkness to flower, on the other hand, they would not do so until the September equinox, which splits the days exactly in two and which occurred on the 23rd of that month this year.
“Then from flowering to harvest you need another six to eight weeks … and that means the plants are only going to be ready to be harvested close to the end of October or early November,” Zheng says.
These late harvests pose several serious risks for the plants, frost being the foremost, he says. And while this fall did not bring any “killing frosts” to southern Ontario — something that would destroy the plants — it did bring plenty of single-digit Celsius days, which basically suspend their growth, he says.
Finally, Zheng says, the moist days typical of autumn promote the risk of mould growing on the flowers during the crucial, post-harvest drying periods. And the later in the year a plant is harvested, the tougher it is to successfully dry outside — something the overpowering odour of curing cannabis makes a practical must, even with the legal four-plant limit.
“It’s really smelly,” says Zheng. “You may like to consume it, but you night not want to (stink up) your whole house.”
Zheng says he’s heard of mixed results for backyard growers in this inaugural legal year, with many who might have grown on the sly before having better yields in general.
“Some people had success, some people maybe not as much,” he says. “Some people are a little bit more experienced so they know their plants a little bit better.”
Although federal laws allow for a four-plant home grow, Manitoba allows it only with a medical marijuana license, and while Quebec had originally banned the practice, a recent Superior Court decision ruled the ban was unconstitutional.
Seeds are available in this province from the online Ontario Cannabis Store, though it does not currently sell cloned seedlings.
Jason, a 45-year-old Toronto man who also did not want his last name used, just finished harvesting the second of two potted plants he grew.
Unlike Tom, this was his first attempt at growing pot — something its illegality made him reluctant to do in the past.
“Absolutely, 100 per cent,” he says when asked if he felt freed up by the new laws.
And though it was his first shot at cultivation, he was largely happy with the results, which he figured will yield about four ounces of usable weed. At current Ontario Cannabis Store prices, an ounce of pot would retail for about $210.
He says much of his growing strategy was gleaned from internet information and talks with fellow pot-farming friends.
“I guess something that was so taboo before, now there’s plenty of information-sharing going around,” he says. “Everyone is kind of sharing the wealth of knowledge they are getting from other people they are talking to.”
Jason’s main problem came in the form of powdered mildew on the second plant, which he successfully treated with online tips that included peroxide baths of the affected areas.
“It’s work, but enjoyable work.”
Both Tom and Jason say they were reluctant to use their names because of a continued stigma that they feel exists more than a year into legalization — a stigma that might threaten jobs or social standing.
And though there is little evidence yet that cannabis theft is a major problem, Jason also requested anonymity for fear his pot might be stolen.
“I was sleeping with one eye open come harvest time,” says Jason, who is still drying some of his crop in his garage.
“You put a lot of love and care into these things … you’d hate to lose it at the end of the season.”