Canada’s saddest grow-op: My humiliating adventures in growing marijuana

When Ian Brown was tasked with cultivating some home-grown pot, he did what any eager, if inept, gardener would do: he borrowed a state-of-the-art weed machine and hoped for the best. But as he discovered, growing good cannabis is way harder than it looks.
Story by Ian Brown
Photography by Timothy Moore

Before we move on to the truly humiliating material in this story – and because it is a gardening story, in which a puny human tries to best unfeeling nature, you know it’s not going to end well – perhaps I could explain why I tried to grow cannabis in the first place.

It wasn’t my idea, but that of one of my editors. His name is unimportant. All right, it was Sinclair Stewart. We were sitting in a bar in one of those so-hip-no-one-has-heard-of-it-yet neighbourhoods where bars are the size of eight telephone booths, not that anyone there is old enough to remember those. The bars have ironic names such as Bus Stop and Brenda’s Favourite T-Shirt. We were dreaming up fresh ways to write about cannabis, which Canada planned to legalize that very fall, and discussing how the anti-establishment roots of cannabis had been co-opted by Bay Street financiers.

Suddenly, Mr. Stewart said: “Why don’t you grow some pot?” His theory, from what I could make of it, in between the references to Moby Dick and fly fishing – Mr. Stewart likes to operate on at least three channels at once – was that this quest to grow marijuana would acquaint me with the obsessions of the gardening mind, that jungle of detail and duty in which a watchful soul evades the thugs Random Weather and Lurking Pestilence and manages, with little more than a seed and her dirt-stained hands and her patience, to create something more. At least I think that was what was on my editor’s mind. The point is, he did not for a moment consider the likelihood of humiliation. Editors seldom do. But it’s always lurking somewhere in a gardener’s sense of the future.

Ian Brown takes a moment for himself after relocating and refilling the Grobo automated grow box.

The following September, I happened upon the Grobo, a marijuana-growing device. It seemed to solve a lot of problems. I am an eager if inept gardener, but growing pot is complicated. It was winter, for starters. Growing it indoors in my house was never going to happen, because of the smell and the stigma.

The Grobo, on the other hand, was a data-based, tech-driven, algorithmic answer to the mercurial unkemptness of Nature herself: a self-contained metal unit that did the dirty work for you. It looked like a stereo speaker, and was depicted on the Grobo website sitting demurely in the sleek living room of what was obviously a high-rise. It grew hydroponic cannabis of any variety one plant at a time, from seed (nowadays clones work, too), and was managed via an app on a cellphone. For an inexperienced blackthumb, it seemed perfect.

The Grobo factory was in Waterloo, Ont. I set out immediately to pick up a unit and meet the godlike machine’s inventors, two twentysomething engineers named Bjorn Dawson and Chris Thiele. They had come to the cannabis business via other enthusiasms: the former because he was a “bad grower” looking for a computerized way to grow tomatoes indoors in the winter, the latter because he was obsessed with LED lights. Mr. Dawson was the CEO and mechanical designer of the device; Mr. Thiele wrote the software.

They were obviously engineers: tall, young, faintly earnest. Their horticulturist, Stephen Campbell, on the other hand, was older and looked like the somewhat alarming guy who camps next to you at Burning Man. He wore his hair in a fully waxed Mohawk. A former philosophy major, he’d been growing cannabis for 20 years under Canada’s medical-marijuana rules since discovering that avascular necrosis was consuming his bones. He tried opioids, lost 80 pounds and felt like Superman, only to have the problem get worse. Then he tried cannabis. He never looked back.

The Dawson/Thiele team started work on the Grobo in 2014. Within two years, they were fine-tuning a prototype in China, complete with an app that guided the grow via cellphone notifications such as “Your Grobo is thirsty.”

“It’s still pretty early for a growing machine in the cannabis space,” Mr. Dawson told me. By then, the company had shipped 250 units; it now sells two models, at $1,999 and $2,199, and keeps sales numbers secret. I was going to borrow the Grobo’s seventh iteration to grow some pot for the first time in my life.

The box was white, a foot square and four feet high. It looked clean. The bottom was a water reservoir in which a bank of sensors sent readings back to HQ. Five bottles of nutrients fed the plant automatically. Covering the well was a plastic lid, in the centre of which a seed in a blob of thatch known as a cocopod could grow, hydroponically, its roots dangling down into the water.

The upper part of the box was a metal cabinet lit by a bank of LED lights that shifted between eight different spectrums to maximize the plant’s development. A filter eliminated odours, and two small fans kept humidity down. The gizmo was like a modern romantic partner: All it needed from me was WiFi and an electrical outlet, no emotional investment necessary. “We’re trying to replace the coffee maker,” the mohawked Mr. Campbell said, but in fact the Grobo team was aiming for something even bigger – the secret digital dream, the reduction of all human functions to a single handheld device, the pocket genius that will make life work as planned. Not that Mr. Campbell said anything so impractical. He simply claimed the Grobo could produce an ounce of dried cannabis per grow, two if you were an experienced grower.

"I think people will come to love growing,” Mr. Dawson said as we neared the end of our factory tour. “But it’s a much more complex problem than we anticipated.” He was enthusiastic, but wary, because he knew the secret behind the popular misconception that cannabis is a weed anyone can grow anywhere. The truth is, growing good cannabis is way, way harder than it looks.

Eventually, we loaded the Grobo into the hatch of my car. I drove to Toronto and dollied the hulk up to my desk at work. I felt like a revolutionary. There it stood for three weeks while I tried to find something to grow in it.

To grow cannabis, you need a cannabis seed – preferably a feminized one, as only female cannabis plants produce the flowers that contain the cannabinoids some 380 million human beings consume. You could grow a male, but by the time you discovered this disappointing fact, you’d have wasted six weeks.

There are at least 5,000 known varietals of cannabis in the world today, usually sativas (the original slower-growing cannabis plant that produces a cerebral high) or indicas (body buzz, stoney) or a hybrid of the two. The catalogue of the Canuk Seeds catalogue, “a proudly Canadian company,” presented a fraction of those possibilities. The array was still bewildering.

How was I to choose? By the name of the strain? Northern Lights was a mostly indica cross between Afghani, Skunk #1 and Haze. But the its effect was described as “couch-lock, physical.” That didn’t sound pleasant. The catalogue’s macro-close-up photographs of giant purple resin-crusted cannabis buds weren’t any help, although they did resemble landscapes in Game of Thrones. White Widow was a tiny frosty pine tree whose Indian and Brazilian genetics could be grown indoors or out in 54 days. But its THC rating was 23 per cent (high!) and its yield was “very large”: What was I going to do with all that pot?

Three feminized seeds of the 707 Headband strain from California’s Humboldt Seed Company.

And nothing was cheap. Coco Melon was a sativa cross of Chocolate Thai and Cannalope Haze with a “chocolate/coffee/fruity” flavor and a “euphoric, motivating” effect – bingo! – but it was $125 for a minimum order of seven seeds, or roughly 200 grams of pot, more than enough to ruin my life.

Eventually I purchased three (3) seeds of 707 Headband – a vintage sativa, according to the Humboldt Seed Co. catalogue, “a Mendocino elite clone and a True OG” (that is, “ocean grown” in California). It grows large resinous buds in two and a half months, is moisture resistant and combines aromas of lemon and exotic wood with flavours of pine and citrus fruits. “The high is definitely cerebral, producing powerful, invigorating, euphoric and long-lasting effects.” The seeds were just more than $22 each. Three was the minimum buy.

The trio arrived three weeks later in an inch-long glass tube embedded in a piece of wood that bore the words “With love from California.” They were tiny, even smaller than grape seeds.

I set about setting up the Grobo. Mr. Stewart, the editor, had authorized the grow in one of the glassed-in telephone rooms near my desk on the 16th floor of our fancy downtown office.

The Grobo’s instructions were clear without pandering. True, the screws that fastened the hugely important odour filter in place snapped off in my fingers, requiring a jury-rigged duct-taping of the odour filter. But that was the only snag. I admit I was paranoid about the odour disturbing my colleagues.

I filled the reservoir with tap water. I looked up 707 Headband on the Grobo app’s list of growing schedules. The grow would last 77 days.

I planted my first seed in the cocopod. I plugged the machine in. The box glowed purple. It looked like a device out of a 1950s Peter Sellers movie about the future, and sounded like a running refrigerator. The online instructions required that I download the Grobo app. The trick was to link the Grobo to your phone, thence to the building’s WiFi.

The Grobo is unpacked, loaded with nutrients and water, and connect to the wifi network.

Every once in in a while, the phone sent me a notification that my Grobo was offline. I then went into the phone room to put it back online. This went on for a week, until I had to make a short trip out of town. Upon my return, the Grobo was offline, and a thin thread of a seedling was lying, dead, upon the coco pod. It looked like it had been grasping for the door.

I reviewed the instructions. The Grobo gods recommended distilled water. I replaced the tap water with distilled water, and went through the online routine again. Two weeks later, my second seed had thin roots, but had not sprouted, and was dead again.

It was at this point I discovered that The Globe and Mail’s ferocious firewall was throwing the Grobo offline, because it was an unauthorized user. I spent four hours with the clever folks in IT, who set up a dedicated WiFi network on a nearby modem. We called the new network Phillip, after our publisher. I replaced the distilled water with new distilled water. On Nov. 23, 2018, I planted my third and last (and smallest) seed. I crossed my fingers.

Two weeks later, on Dec. 7, while changing the Grobo’s water (which requires dropping a built-in tube into a bucket and turning on an osmotic pump via the app), I made the discovery: a small, four-leafed, inch-high plant popping out of the coco pod. I named her Gretchen.

By Week 3, Gretchen was still a four-leafed, inch-high plant. They don’t call it the vegetative state for nothing.

The inch-high cannabis plant sprouts from the coco pod on week two of the grow in early December, 2018.

Early in the evolution of the Grobo, its inventors drove up the highway from Waterloo to visit Prof. Mike Dixon in Guelph, Ont.

Prof. Dixon directs the Controlled Environment Research Facility at the School of Environmental Science at the University of Guelph. For the past 25 years, he and 30 faculty have focused on the challenge of growing plants in outer space, on which subject their lab is one of the world’s leading experts. “Food is one of the main determinants of space travel,” Prof. Dixon will tell you if you phone him and ask. “It determines how far we go and how long we can stay.”

From spacemen, it was not a giant leap to space, man: Prof. Dixon’s latest project is the Guelph Centre for Cannabis Research, which will transfer the plant-growing technology he developed for astronauts to the phytopharmaceutical space, otherwise known as the medical-cannabis game. Prof. Dixon is convinced this has to happen if Canada wants to capitalize on being the first developed country to legalize cannabis.

“In the medical-cannabis sector,” Prof. Dixon says, “the holy grail is standardizing the compounds in the plant.” A rigorous scientist with a serious jones for scientific proof, he’s convinced cannabis will “go down in our lifetime as one of the most significant pharmaceutical commodities we’ve ever come across.” But for cannabis to be taken seriously as medicine, licensed producers have to find a standardized way to repeatedly reproduce not just big buds, bro, but buds that deliver exactly the same strength and dose of precisely the combination of cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids a patient needs. (This is the so-called “entourage effect” that medical researchers now know is crucial to cannabis’s therapeutic effectiveness.) Standardizing medical marijuana is not a trivial task: There are more than 500 compounds in the cannabis plant in addition to its 140 cannabinoids, “and we know a little bit about two of them,” Prof. Dixon insists. “There are extremely early days.” He says the quest will occupy scientists for “several generations.”

The Grobo lads had questions for the professor when they visited. “I showed them my toys,” Prof. Dixon says, “and they kind of kicked the tires.” The early versions of Grobo had problems with unstable probe data, variations in humidity and light quality. “We educated them on some of the environmental principles they needed to set up in their little box.” Whereupon he added: “To do it really well is extremely difficult.” This made me feel slightly but undeservedly better about my two failures.

“The plant,” Prof. Dixon explained, “is the product of its environment": light and CO2, temperature and humidity, water and nutrients. Manipulate (i.e. screw with) any one of them and you affect the compounds a cannabis plant produces. Many, many modern marijuana mavens insist “cannabis is just a plant,” the blithe expression of Nature at its most forgiving. This is balderdash. Cannabis is a 65-million-year-old vegetative life form that produces cannabinoids that automatically bind to the human endo-cannabinoid system, an ancient neurological system within our own bodies. “This plant was made for us, I feel,” Prof. Dixon says.

A plant as complicated as cannabis needs to be grown in a rigorously standardized environment. But the methods of organic and even large-scale commercial cannabis growers are still rife with variables and superstition. Research has found, for instance, that some strains of cannabis reduce certain forms of epilepsy in children. But the efficiency of the cure, the Dixon lab discovered, varies according to the light cycles the plant is exposed to. Then there are licensed producers who grow cannabis from clones and clip the leaves of the baby plants to avoid “transpiration fatigue.” That actually lowers yields, Prof. Dixon’s team found. But it’s a common practice in an industry that, seven months after legalization, still isn’t close to keeping the market supplied.

“A lot of this stuff just grew up in the basement of Vancouver, spread by people who were not horticulturists,” Prof. Dixon scoffs. “They were just stoners.” Instead, “we should seize the opportunity to become the absolute leaders in the science of the industry. This is a national trust that we can potentially exploit both for our national health and our national economy.” I felt my Grobo and I were doing our part.

My tiny pot plant did not grow in Week 3, or in Week 4. It was now almost Christmas. The following week, it added a few fat understory leaves at ground level, but the size of the plant was still the same. But a week later, during my Jan. 7 water change, I discovered the plant had tripled in size. Now it was starting to stretch. I ought to have pruned its undercarriage at this point to obtain the “lollipop shape” the Grobo app urged me toward. But I was a first time grower: There was no way I was going to lop off what had taken so long to appear.

The plant tripled in size by week six of the grow in early January, 2019.

By Jan. 18th, the plant was a foot high and bigger on the bottom than the top – another mistake. The machine was now automatically shutting off its lights and enclosing Gretchen in darkness for longer and longer stretches of time, to trick her into flowering. The first spindly white hairs of what would become colas, or buds, appeared.

By Feb. 22, the buds were filling in and – I suppose – “thickening,” as per the Grobo’s predictions. My only standard of comparison was the weed porn pictures in the seed catalogues and online – and my colas were tiny twerps compared to those great drooping monsters. At the same time, I fretted endlessly that I wasn’t ruthless enough in my pruning – I wasn’t disciplining my measly colas enough! It was all very neurotic, not exactly what Thoreau meant when he urged his readers to get back to Nature, because “every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.”

The colas of spindly, white hairs were blossoming at the beginning of February, 2019, week ten of the grow, and the plant was bottom heavy with large fav leaves.

And yet: I loved coming in to work early, slipping into the grow/telephone room at the start of the day, opening the locked Grobo door on the app, trimming fan leaves, examining Gretchen’s colas under a small microscope. It was all so … practical. Growth! The earth! Something from nothing! How proud I was of little Gretchen, who had started out so small and runty!

Admittedly, I had virtually nothing to do with the growth of the plant: The process was automated. But this is what even the slightest commitment to a garden does. This is why gardeners garden: because it isn’t a slam dunk, ever, even in a sanitized, automated box.

By week fourteen of the grow, the buds had filled in, the pistils were bright brown and the trichomes, or microscopic glands containing all medicinal properties, were near their opaque white, mature colour.

The only problem was the smell. By Week 13, as the buds began to display bright brown pistils that indicated they were reaching peak maturity, the 16th floor near the grow room started to smell like a weed dealer’s apartment. Grobo had supplied industry-standard odour eaters – essentially urinal pucks in their own perforated plastic containers – but they smelled even worse than the stank of 707 Headband at full ripeness. As for those website pictures of weed growing in the living room? It is to laugh, my friends. (Grobo has since improved its door seals.) Still, people were interested in the experiment. They dropped by and asked when the weed would be ready.

But then the smell got worse. Colleagues started sending e-mails. Dear Ian, read one, I fear your colleagues are soon to revolt. I may too grab a pitchfork. Is the experiment coming to an end soon??? With affection Your narcy friend. I had to act. I found a neighbour with a heated, electrified garden shed.

Ian Brown drains, drives and drags the Grobo to a friend’s garden shed in early March, 2019, week 14 of the grow.

I drained the machine and drove Gretchen to her last home. After five days of purging the plant of its nutrients (which give cannabis a bitter taste), I cut her down (three inches above the pod!) and hung her upside down to dry on the clever magnetic clothesline that came with the Grobo. The humidity wasn’t an ideal 55 per cent, and because there was no WiFi, I couldn’t lock the Grobo’s door. After the recommended six days of drying, the buds still felt like a tissue you find in your gym shorts after a workout. Nevertheless, on March 11, 2019, in the kitchen of my home, I trimmed 32 grams of pot, and put it in a small glass jar to cure. (Another mistake: I should have used a large jar.) I was inordinately proud of my 32 grams. “That’s most people’s first grow,” Grobo’s Mr. Dawson later told me. “But the average is closer to 45 to 55 grams on their second.”

I tested some of my first weed that very afternoon, drying it beforehand for 10 seconds in the microwave, which I have since learned does not enhance the terpene profile of cannabis. But the high did not make me want to cut off my head and mail it to some Salome of my ancient acquaintance, which I thought was a plus. Meanwhile, my most experienced pot-smoking friend popped some in a jar for two days with a two-way humidity-control packet. He later sent me an evaluation. “Pretty much exclusively a head high,” he wrote, “in the classic sativa style … the vibe is more torque than speed so the effect lasts longer but you don’t get the burnout. Very serviceable.” He noted that the taste was “a bit musty front end, turns sweet at the back end with a hint of cinnamon and goat.” His note was spatially disorganized, uncharacteristically for him: he later admitted that the pot had made him want to do his housecleaning at the same time. I took that as a compliment.

After trimming the sugar leaves and stems away from the bud, the plant yielded 32 grams of semi-dried cannabis.

It was only later, of course, that the disappointment set in, the sense of what might have been, as it inevitably does for a gardener. Halfway through what should have been the final 30 days of curing – it’s a long process, growing your own weed – terrified that Gretchen would develop mould in the jar, I drove to Brantford, Ont., to have my product assessed by Jeannette VanderMarel, the co-CEO of 48North Cannabis Corp.

Ms. VanderMarel knows how to garden. She grew up on her parents’ apple farm near Cavendish, Ont. A nurse by training, she started growing pot with a personal grower’s licence in 2010, a few years after one of her daughters died from Dravet Syndrome – an illness cannabis is now known to abate, but which pharmaceuticals of the day couldn’t cure. Back then, Ms. VanderMarel had 30 plants. “I was learning,” she said. “I would not be proud of those plants today.” She went on to found and then sell The Green Organic Dutchman, the 32nd licensed cannabis producer in Canada, and last year joined forces with 48North to create The Good Farm. This summer, she hopes to grow 88 acres of outdoor cannabis (at least 2,270 kilos, dried and packed for 25 cents a gram) on a farm near Brantford.

I thought she would be a gentle judge of my novice efforts. I was a fool.

On the walk to her office where the final judgment of Gretchen was to occur, Ms. VanderMarel led me into Pod 6, a shipping container where Chad Rigby, her master grower, was overseeing the indoor cultivation of 250 Girl Guide Cookie plants – $125,000 worth of pot, ready to be cut and dried and cured. The plants were packed so tightly together you had to turn sideways to pass down the central aisle of the humming white shipping container. Envelopes of carnivorous insects had been attached to each stem, to eat any mites who dared show their heads. The growth was tall and thick with buds the size of Oh Henry bars. Unlike my beloved but heavy-bottomed Gretchen, these had been lashed vigorously into a trumpet shape. Each one yielded 60 grams.

48North’s Girl Guide Cookie strain basks in the orange sodium light of grow pod 6. Under the LED lights in another pod, Ian Brown examines what professional trichomes look like, a week out from maturation.

Chad was waiting in his office. He was 26 years old and six feet, seven inches tall. He’d been growing weed for five years.

I handed Gretchen to Chad. I told him to be brutally honest. He opened the jar. He smelled one of Gretchen’s buds. He examined it under a tiny finger loupe. He detected no mould, despite my weed’s stratospheric moisture content – about 30 per cent, he estimated. Between 10 per cent and 12 per cent is optimal, if you must know.

“I’d have to give this a two out of 10 ,” Chad said, the way only a six-foot-seven-inch man named Chad can.

I expressed some dismay. What if I redried it and recured it?

“Four out of 10, maybe.” It wasn’t just the dampness. The colour was too drab, not purple enough. The buds were … puny.

Chad looked at me. He seemed to take pity on me. That was not an experience I wish to repeat. “Cannabis is different from a lot of crops,” Chad said then. “It’s not like growing vegetables. Your hands are tied a lot more with cannabis.”

Then Ms. VanderMarel walked in. She sniffed my jar of Headband. “I wouldn’t smoke that,” she said. “It smells mouldy.”

“Chad says he can’t see any mould!” I yelped, somewhat gracelessly.

“I still wouldn’t smoke it,” she said.

And that was that. It was my own fault, of course, for not pruning and drying and curing more assiduously, for letting the smell complainers in the office throw me off my game. I felt like a dog that had been tossed out of its home. But I want to try again, just to show Nature I’m not a complete sap. What was it Thoreau said? “Live in each season as it passes. Breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” That’s still the proud motto of the unretreating but ever-defeated gardener. Even with a grow box.

Co-CEO of 48North Cannabis Corp. Jeannette VanderMarel and master grower Chad Rigby closely examines Ian Brown’s homegrown, dried and jarred cannabis.

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Credits: Story by Ian Brown; Photography by Timothy Moore; Editing by Lisan Jutras and Shawna Richer; Presentation design and development by Christopher Manza