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You can start your backyard marijuana garden with seeds or starts, but seeds need to be started indoors early in the year. By the time April comes around, you’ll be better off buying starts.

Grow your own

If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow pot.

It involves a few more steps, but we’ll walk you through them and keep cannabis cultivation as easy on your wallet as possible.

You can grow a fairly chunky cannabis plant in your backyard vegetable garden, but don’t expect it to give you those dense nuggets of THC that you find at your neighborhood store. After all, retail marijuana is grown by professionals who’ve had years, maybe even decades, of growing experience under their belts.

Before you think about growing in your backyard, make sure you’re on solid legal footing. Under Oregon law, you can grow four recreational marijuana plants, and medical marijuana cardholders can grow six plants.

In some cities such as Medford, you can’t grow in a backyard unless it’s in a greenhouse. Check with your local city before the thrill of turning tiny plants into small trees in a matter of months turns into a nightmare of running afoul of local regulations.

Once you’ve established that you can grow in your backyard, make sure the location you’ve chosen isn’t visible from the street. You can grow indoors under lights, but that’s outside the scope of this article and of keeping this project as inexpensive as possible.

First, you have to decide whether you want to grow from seed or buy a $20 clone at your local cannabis store.

Growing from seed means you’ll have to learn how to “sex” your plants, which means pulling out the males. You want to grow females because they produce flowers, and flowers are where you’ll find all the magic.

Seeds can be far cheaper than clones, but with a clone you know what kind of plant you’re getting, and you won’t have to worry about sexing it. Also, by this time of year, a clone would be your best bet, because seeds should be started earlier in the year.

“The first thing I would recommend is buying a clone,” says Jon Cunningham, who grows organic plants for sale at Breeze Botanicals, owned by his wife, Brie Malarkey.

He says a clone gives you a big head start on your backyard grow because the plant is already a foot tall or more when you put it in the ground, preferably around the time of the last frost.

Before buying your clones, carefully examine them to make sure they are healthy and pest-free.

Cunningham says a lot of people get hung up on whether they should grow sativa or indica, the two primary strains of cannabis. Sativa is generally associated with a more cerebral high but is thought to take longer to grow. Indica has a more body, or “couch potato,” high, with a shorter grow time.

Most plants available today are hybrids, so growing time generally won’t be a factor. Pick a plant based on the buzz you want, or pick strains for their medicinal value. Generally you’ll want to harvest your plants before fall rains begin in earnest or you’ll risk mold, which can destroy all your hard work practically overnight.

Pick a variety that you love and just make sure it can be harvested early enough for your needs.

Cunningham says he’s got White Grapefruit, a sativa-dominant hybrid that he harvests during the second week of September.

Cannabis plants thrive in well-drained, slightly acidic soil rich in organic matter. Sticking them directly in the sticky, clay soils in the valley will give you a stunted stick of green. If you’re lucky enough to have fairly loamy soil, then adding ample amendments might be all you need.

Raised bed gardens work well for vegetables, and they work for marijuana, too. The richer the soil, the bigger the plants. Beds that are about 18 inches deep and about 6 feet in diameter will yield a pretty healthy specimen, but you can also grow in a smaller container if you don’t mind a smaller plant.

Heading down to the local hardware store and picking up bags of potting soil, chicken manure and other nutrients will work to produce a decent plant, but be careful to use amendments in moderation because they can burn leaves.

Cunningham recommends going organic for the best quality, adding worm castings, red wigglers, garden compost, kitchen compost, mushroom compost and bat guano and creating an environment that encourages microorganisms. Other ingredients that are often added to the soil include blood meal, bone meal, fish meal and kelp meal, making a kind of Irish stew to promote a green plant and healthy flowers.

“By taking care of your soil, that will take care of your plant,” Cunningham says.

Many people swear by Miracle Gro for tomatoes, and it will work for cannabis, too, but local growers such as Cunningham don’t like dumping chemicals on their plants.

Remember the road to excellent bud is paved with a nice bed of soil. If you want A-grade flower, you’re going to need A-grade soil.

“Between your soil and the genetic choice of the plant, the choices you make could make or break your season,” says Collin McLauchlin, owner of Sensi Science Organics on Sage Road in Medford.

He says a grower needs to calculate the time the plant is in the ground to determine how much soil will be needed for the growing season.

“You don’t have to have a large plant to have a quality plant,” he says.

You could theoretically put a healthy clone into a 10-gallon pot with good soil in August and pull out a quarter-pound plant by the end of the season, assuming you’ve got excellent sunlight and take care of your plant. But most gardeners want to get their plants in the ground sooner than that.

McLauchlin recommends planting healthy clones from mid-May to mid-June.

His calculations are based on using high-grade, cannabis-specific soil that has all the nutrients necessary for a plant to thrive for five-plus months.

“One of the biggest mistakes new outdoor growers make is skimping on their soil,” he says. Buying cheap soil will require many trips to the store to purchase amendments as the season progresses to keep up with the appetite of your nitrogen-hungry plants.

At his store, McLauchlin sells soil from $100 to $300 per cubic yard, depending on the quality. A cubic yard is about 180 gallons. For a big healthy plant, expect to grow in 100 to 300 gallons of soil.

If you want a small backyard plant, you can buy 1.5 cubic-foot bags of dirt for $20, which contains all the nutrients needed for the full growth cycle of the plant if you plant it later in the season.

McLauchlin says you should calculate how much soil you’ll need for the full life cycle of the plant. The later in the season you start growing, the less soil and the smaller the plant. The earlier in the season you start, the more soil you’ll need for a consequently bigger plant. Turn to your local cannabis soil expert for help.

For novice gardeners, McLauchlin recommends “smart pots,” which are made out of a special fabric and vary in size depending on how big you want your plant to be.

Once the plant is in the dirt, there will be two to three months of vegetative growth before the flowering begins, sometime between Aug. 1 and Sept. 1, depending on the strain. Give the buds about two months to fatten up before you harvest.

If you already grow an abundance of vegetables in your backyard, you probably have enough sunlight to grow cannabis in the same location, but make sure you’ve got at least six hours of full sun a day. Cannabis is a sun worshiper, and it will get big and strong with the right amount of sun as long as its roots are in the right kind of soil and receive the right amount of water.

Once you’ve bought a clone and prepared your soil, it’s time to plant. Imagine 8-foot-tall plants that are 6 feet in diameter, and space them accordingly. The more space you have between each plant, the better. You can plant them closer in a small garden, but expect lower yields.

Don’t over water cannabis. Give it enough water to thoroughly wet the soil, and then let it dry before watering again. During our scorching hot summer months, check the soil frequently. And check the plants. If they’re wilting, they desperately need watering. Large cannabis plants can require up to 10 gallons a day when temperatures are nudging 100 degrees.

You can add fish emulsion and other amendments as the season progresses, but use small amounts so you don’t burn the plant. If you’ve picked the right kind of soil, you don’t need to add amendments.

Expect rapid growth when temperatures start hitting the 80s. When leaves are bright green, glistening in the sunlight, you know you’ve got a healthy plant that’s feeling its oats.

By the end of July, if all goes well, your plants should be standing at about 6 feet tall or more, getting ready to shift into the flowering stage. If a neighbor complains about the smell, tell him it will last only another month or so until you pull the plants out. Be respectful, not confrontational.

At this point, bugs, particularly spider mites, might rear their ugly heads and could spoil the little pot party in your backyard. If you’ve used good organic compost and mulch, it may already have predatory mites that will come to your plant’s defenses and eat those pesky spider mites.

Ladybugs also will devour spider mites, and they can be purchased at many garden centers in the valley.

Some growers recommend a strong water spray to knock the spider mites off the plant, hitting them hard three mornings in a row. Be careful not to be too aggressive and damage the plant.

Another option is to use a wet-dry vacuum to suck off the mites. Still another option is to use Neem oil, which is considered organic and kills the mites on contact.

When you’re deep into the growing season, be vigilant for mites and attack them as soon as possible; otherwise, there might be tears.

Deer also have been known to destroy a crop, so in some neighborhoods fences might be needed.

A big question most novice growers have is when to harvest. When the little hairs that glisten on the flowers start to turn amber, you’re ready to reap your final reward.

Many growers recommend pulling off many of the large shade leaves as the flowering cycle begins, particularly when the shade leaves turn yellow. This allows more air to circulate through the plant and saves you some time later when you’re trimming.

Once you’ve harvested, dry the plants by hanging them indoors in a warm, well ventilated space for five to seven days. At this point, you might as well start testing a few samples.

Store your stash in Mason-type jars to maintain freshness, and keep the jars in a cool, dry location that is secure. But make sure to open the jars and check for moisture every few days until the buds are fully cured — about 30 to 60 days — to avoid mold problems.

If you’ve made it this far, it’s time to celebrate. We highly recommend a harvest party with friends and neighbors. Don’t forget to play Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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