James Beard Award-winning author and seasoned gardener Johanna Silver didn’t grow up gardening, though at age twenty-one, the life-changing experience of working on organic farms truly branded her. Nearly twenty years later, Johanna has now written two books about plant cultivation, her latest called Growing Weed in the Garden: A No-Fuss, Seed-to-Stash Guide to Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation.
For ten years, Johanna worked for Sunset Magazine. She started by running the editorial test garden and then she began to write. She began crafting blogs and eventually blossomed into magazine editor, “writing about everything under the sun about gardening, but never touching cannabis.”
At the time that she moved on from Sunset to the San Francisco Chronicle, “it was right on the cusp of recreational use and cultivation going into effect.” Johanna was asked to explore cannabis cultivation for the first time. She says, “I was asked to grow weed in my garden and document it as a gardener. I told the editor I didn’t know where to get seeds, and she told me that was my opening line. And that was the start of that.”
Johanna wrote a ten-part series for the Chronicle, “discovering indeed what a lack of information there was for people who wanted to grow outdoors without chemicals, without fuss… there wasn’t anything just about elevating the plant, celebrating the plant, so then I wrote my second book.”
“I have really fallen in love with the plant from a small-scale cultivation perspective; it’s really unique, so for the gardener who’s never touched cannabis, it’s just a summer annual like a tomato. Also, the smells are wonderful and how the flowers look as they grow; it’s a super unique plant to add to your garden.”
“Sometimes I liken cannabis to a nice scented crop, like scented geraniums that have a wide range of smells, like lemon or chocolate or nutmeg. Scented geraniums are quite novel and might interest someone from a cultivation standpoint, who is already into growing weed.”
And for those who’ve never gardened before, Johanna comments, “cannabis is a great gateway plant because it is so rewarding to grow. It’s extremely captivating, grows easily and changes rapidly. You could go to the dispensary and buy buds, or you can try your hand at gardening and witness the entire life cycle of the plant. Many cultivators where cannabis was their gateway crop start with weed, realize how cool it is, and next they end up with tomatoes, cucumbers and beans.”
What makes Johanna unique in the space is that she is not a regular cannabis consumer. She’s sometimes not even a monthly consumer. Johanna grows cannabis for the experience and sheer love of growing, because it’s fun and rewarding, and because she can gift it to her friends and family.
In her latest book, Johanna outlines the desire to cultivate cannabis quite simply because we can. Post prohibition has created a space for everybody to get in touch with this beautiful plant, encouraging them to really experience it for themselves.
“I’m more of a gardening advocate than a cannabis advocate,” she affirms. That being said, Johanna feels there is something valuable within the whole Canna-mom movement. She found that even as an infrequent user, when she was suddenly without child care, “a super low dose of THC allowed me to suspend my worries and be incredibly present with my kid. To be creative and in the moment, where it actually wouldn’t be safe to be doing the same thing while boozing. So, I do think that it can be a useful tool in the toolbox when things get a little crazy.”
Maybe there’s a special affinity here with women as traditional farmers and medicine makers, or an innate alliance between the female cannabis plant and women in general, but there is certainly something to be said about the effortless connection between women and cannabis cultivation. Meditative and calming, gardening entails being outside, connecting with the earth and working in the soil, which many find to be equally enjoyable and therapeutic.
There is a measurable benefit to the state of presence that can be achieved by working in the garden. Johanna can personally attest to that by the fact that her favorite plant to grow changes with the seasons. This depends on what plant is in front of her in the moment and is most captivating her senses—sometimes that’s harvesting sweet pea flowers in the springtime, watching as the magnolia trees come into full bloom, or relishing the first scent of tomato leaves in the heat of summer.
Growing cannabis is a transformative hobby for many reasons. Among them is that the cultivator is almost guaranteed to fall in love with growing plants at large, bringing more backyards and balconies into cultivation. This process enriches our lives with community gardens as well as fresh food and medicines for us and for our pollinator friends.
“I don’t want people to think that just because they killed something doesn’t mean they’re not actually gardeners,” says Johanna. Gardening is hard, but the key to being a successful gardener is killing things and still continuing anyway. Especially when it comes to organic gardening.
“Sometimes I spray Bt, which is an organic pesticide for moths and the caterpillars that leave eggs and excrement in the flowers, leading to bud rot. But then it messes with the monarchs. I would rather lose some of my crop to bud rot,” she says, “I think that’s just part of being an organic grower, you make peace with loss.”
Recently, regenerative agriculture has become quite fashionable, making headlines in prestigious publications. The recent New York Times article, “Why is Fashion Talking About Regenerative Farming?”, likens regenerative agriculture to “yoga, but for farmland.” The article states that “advocates describe [regenerative farming] as a holistic approach, working with nature, rather than trying to control it. That means foregoing various industrial agriculture practices, which could include pesticides, store-bought fertilizers, tilling or neat little rows of a single crop.”
Regenerative farming seeks to restore vast tracts of land to their original closed-loop, biodynamic ecosystems, where every input is an output, and vice versa. Rather than depleting over time, the land is continuously replenished with healthy living soil, often in conjunction with permaculture practices. The organic poly-cropping method found in permaculture design encourages stability and resilience by harnessing the interconnected web of life found undisturbed in nature.
“Some of the farmers I interviewed for my book were my first exposure to regenerative farming,” says Johanna. Though she had a previous understanding of organic and biodynamic practices, it was through the cannabis farmers, “some of whom are incredible stewards of their land,” that Johanna learned about regenerative practices. These teachings inspired her to modify techniques within her own backyard garden and cease disturbing the soil and the lifecycles of pollinators.
Whether it’s market gardening for the whole community, or beginning with a few pots in the fire escape, participating as a steward of nature is an inspiring activity with abundant reward. Passive activism can take many forms, and regenerative farming is certainly one of them. The intention behind which might sprout from as little real estate as a window sill planter in the decision towards self-empowerment and cooperation with nature.