2020 Isolation Grow: My Setup

Apr 21, 20202020 Isolation Grow Blog

Let me tell you about my setup. 

When we first moved here, we waited two years before starting to build a garden, which had always been a dream of ours. We waited, so we’d have enough time to observe which way the wind blows, and which way the water flows on our two acres. We live adjacent to a fairly pristine wilderness area, so it is helpful to understand nature a bit before inflicting your will upon the land.

Our first lucky break was being able to utilize the south facing wooden fence of a neighbor as a border for our garden. We constructed a link fence around the beds. The space between the links is about an inch, and this luckily prevents raccoons from climbing the fence. For years, our neighbor with the wooden fence had dogs, so the coons couldn’t get in that way, either. 

If you are building your own garden, a south facing wooden fence absorbs and reflects the heat back over the beds, increasing the ambient temperature. This is especially helpful in cooler, or coastal climates. Since the initial build, we’ve also added a privacy screen that extends the fence, because my plants get too big. Without the screen, they’d be visible from the far off road. 

I want to be clear that I am no handyman. A hammer in my hands usually results in pain. I have no natural instinct or gift for building. Fortunately, Karen does. Perhaps that’s why I bought her a chainsaw one Christmas. She was pretty nifty with that thing before she got sick.

Initially, we built four long beds. Karen was animating at Pixar, so the labor was mostly mine, as I followed her instructions. I got our twin sons to help during the summer, when they couldn’t find anything to do. I was also writing my first novel at the time. But over the course of one year, dirt was dug and cement got poured. We psyphoned every shovel of dirt through a screen, eliminating most, but not all the rocks.

As soon as we finished stretching the link fence around the beds to meet with the wooden fence, we planted lavender around the perimeter. We love lavender; especially for attracting bees. But the main reason we planted it outside the fence was to be a deer deterent. They don’t like lavender. It stops them like a force field. Our garden fence was only about five feet tall, but the lavender prevents any deer from jumping our fence and helping themselves to whatever we’re growing. Deer will eat most everything we grow. This is your first lesson in aromatics, with more to come in the blog about Compost Teas.

At the same time we started building our fence, we were reading a lot about gardening, and we decided to make a proactive move on fertilizer. We spoke to locals with gardens and got their recommendations. Various brands were promoted, and some sworn by. But the idea that struck us, was to have a local horse ranch deliver a truck full of their manure. The key was to cover that manure with a tarp for a year. After that amount of time, it would be composted enough to use. When we filled the beds, we alternated layers of native soil, followed by a layer of horse manure. I would recommend this combination to anyone starting a garden. We grew beautiful vegetables in those beds. The horse manure and delivery cost nothing.

Since attending Oaksterdam, I am wary of bagged fertilizer from either chicken or cow. There are too many stories about fertilizers being tested and found with excessive animal urine, which is essentially ammonium nitrate. I also don’t have the room to compost more horse manure. So I returned to a more ancient form of fertilizer: Fish and other ocean products. I have also used wood ash. I’ll detail that more once I’ve got plants in the beds.

Here is a valuable tip. As many of you know, it can be expensive to fertilize. Buying enough fertilizer for 22 beds is a significant cost. I don’t go the pre-packaged route. Instead, I have made good friends with butchers and especially, people who sell fish. Markets that sell fish also sell scraps to restaurants for soup stock. That includes bones, skin, eyes, all the bits. The fatter the fish, the better. The more the bits, the better. Bones are good for long term calcium health of soil. I am big on salmon in my beds, though I have used halibut and even trout. But mostly, big chunks of salmon that are either being disposed of, or being sent to a restaurant for stock, are the PERFECT fertilizer. You have to bury it deep and cover the beds to protect them from raccoons, but if you let fish dissolve in your beds, you will have a growing medium filled with food for your plants, and especially oil, to help break up any sticky soil. I have been fertilizing our beds with fish every winter for the last four years. I credit the fish oil and compost teas for completely changing my soil. I used to be able to reach in a bed, only up to my wrist. Now, I can put my entire arm into the soil, straight down. That comes from years of fish oil. The cost was minimal. Three years ago, I fertilized 22 beds for under $60, plus a bag of Hindu Kush for the guy who sold me the fish. The next year, I only had to give him a fat sack. Bartering comes in handy for growers. 

Those beds lasted ten years. Eventually, the vast gopher population began chewing through the hardware cloth we put at the bottom of every bed. Karen and I considered it a rite of passage to stand in American Gothic pose, and watch a gopher pull one of our beautiful carrots into the depths of the earth. I even attempted and failed at tug of war with a particularly toothy beast. The wood began rotting as well around the same time, so the beds needed replacing.

Karen designed a new approach. Rather than four long beds, she designed 22 smaller beds, raised several feet off the ground, so we won’t have to bend so far to work. Her design maximized the space. This time, we contracted the work. Digging holes for 22 beds was more than my back could take. We asked the gardening company doing the work to bring in extra organic soil to fill the beds. It looked like lovely dirt when they were pouring it, so I didn’t inspect, and that was a mistake. It was organic, but it was very sticky soil. 

It took me three years of growing root vegetables, four years of planting fish in the winter, and four years of compost teas every Sunday to turn that sticky soil into soft, fluffy dirt. Last year, I had to add some soil to the beds, because over many years of growing, you lose soil due to spillage. This time, I made certain the soil being added was as fluffy as mine.

While we were building our initial beds, we contracted work to help us collect and utilize the water bounty up our hill. There are natural levels to our hill. On the third level, below the spring, we dug in eight catch basins of hard plastic barrels. At the bottom of each barrel are little pieces of granite. The captured water is washed by the granite, and then flows through pvc pipes down to the second level, where we placed a 1,500 gallon tank. (A larger tank would have required a permit) More pvc pipes were run down the hill and around the property, so anywhere outside that needs water, gets water from our spring. We had some initial tests, and found the pH for this spring water, coming right out of the ground with no chemicals at all, is 6.5. If you grow, you know how fortunate we are. We have a filter outside the tank, to capture sediment before it enters. I clean that filter every couple of weeks. We also have an extra filter close to where we turn on the water in our beds. In addition, we use a pump to get the water pressure where it needs to be for effective drip irrigation. At this time, we only use our water for outside. We do not use this water for the house. Doing that would require a much larger storage capacity, expanded filtering, and costly county permits. We use the local, treated water for the house. To be clear, however, I drink water from our spring all the time. Sweetest water I’ve ever tasted. The total cost for the above work was close to $20,000. I know that’s a lot of money, but the investment was worth it for two reasons: The water is pristine and perfect for growing, and having water on your land probably increases the value of your property. It certainly does here. How much depends on where you live. Having your own water to grow anything is eventually a cost cutting godsend.

When we made the commitment to cannabis, I needed a place to dry and cure the plants at the end of harvest. Fortunately, the house where we live has two small cottages apart from the main structure. One is for a washer and dryer. The other was empty. Initially, we made that cottage into a remote office for Karen to animate. We lived far enough from Pixar, that they allowed her to do some of her animation at home. I have a really cool story from that era that has nothing to do with gardening. 

Karen was working on Toy Story 2 at the time. She was animating a scene where Bo Peep kisses Buzz on the cheek of his helmet, before he goes off to search for Woody. Karen wanted some reference material for her animation, so she set up our video camera and asked me to play Buzz Lightyear while she played Bo Peep. We did about 60 takes. There was one that caught her eye, and a couple of weeks later, she showed me what she’d done. It was Buzz getting kissed by Bo Peep, of course, but I could tell by the way Buzz moved, and rocked back on his heels, THAT WAS ME. When I saw that scene in the theater for the first time was one of the coolest things to ever happen in my life.

So, we had this cottage. It had not been Karen’s studio for a long time. It had become the proverbial storage shed. It was piled with stuff. We cleaned it out, and with guidance by one of my teachers at Oaksterdam, and a building contractor, we turned that little cottage into a multi-purpose growing/drying room. I start seeds there in spring and grow them six weeks under lights before moving them to the beds. I also use that cottage over winter for pollinating plants for seeds. Then in the fall, we get all the strings on the walls and it becomes a temperature and humidity controlled drying room. Ideally, there would be a separate cottage for starting and/or growing, and another for drying and curing. But I’ve learned to adapt this one cottage for both. One more point for the cottage is that I hired an electrician to ideally set up the power. When you turn on grow lights, an air conditioner, a heater, a dehumidifier and fans in a small space, you’re running a lot of power. We had an electrician build a separate circuit board for that cottage alone, so to not overly stress our main circuit, and to maximize efficiency in the cottage.

As you can see, we are entering into the very real costs involved in creating an infrastructure to effectively grow and dry cannabis. I will go into more details on costs in the next blog.

One last note regarding the photo above: If you notice, each bed has a number. The main reason is for identifying exactly where a particular plant was grown in a given year. When we identify the plant for our dispensary, it goes by a two letter abbreviation of the cultivar, the bed number and the year. Last year’s Harle-Tsu, for example, is listed as HT18-2019, the cultivar, the bed, and the year. So no one is confused when they are looking in the closet for something in particular.

Jeffery Hickey
Oaksterdam Alumni

Jeffrey Hickey is a 2014 IPPY award winning novelist, performing in over 900 Reader’s Theater shows that featured his authorship of adult novels, and books for children. His accomplishments include a program of self-empowerment and effective oral communication, “Find Your Voice,” that he taught in public and private schools throughout Northern California. Jeffrey is the father of twin sons, and is arguably the happiest married man on the planet.