Waiting for Organic Pot

A young friend recently took a look at my garden and suggested that I could grow a few marijuana plants for personal use.

I looked into it, out of curiosity.

Long before I searched for sources of seeds or seedlings, or cultivation advice, I learned that, unless I had a genuine medical need for the herb, growing marijuana (Cannabis sativa) in my garden would be illegal. The related regulations at the local, state and federal levels are full of contradictions and different perspectives, and are in flux.

I’ll wait.

Many hundreds of illegal marijuana “grows” exist already in the Monterey Bay area, and thousands in California, including many in California’s “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties. The numbers are growing, and it is not difficult to find pot, if one were to be inclined to try it.

Last week, at the 36th annual Eco-Farm Conference, in Pacific Grove, Dr. Andy Gordus of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, described and illustrated the impacts of illegal and therefore unregulated marijuana grows in California. The growers are illegally clearing forest lands, damming streams, digging wells that drain streams that wildlife depend on, polluting waterways and killing wildlife with pesticides, leaving mountains of trash, and otherwise being really bad neighbors.

Marijuana plants, like other plants, are subject to a variety of pests and diseases, and growers use a variety of synthetic agricultural chemicals, including some highly toxic materials that are being smuggled in from Mexico. Such chemicals may be sprayed on growing plants, or applied systemically. Also, because rats and other animals chew through plastic irrigation lines, rat poisons are often used.

Marijuana products may be used by inhaling, ingesting, and absorbing through the skin. These diverse forms of use mean that users should ensure that their marijuana does not contain toxic substances. Consumers of marijuana products ideally could rely on the organic label, but at this time there is no such label for these products. Consumers can only rely on trusted sources.

California does not approve any aspect of marijuana cultivation, including pesticides, because it continues to be illegal at the federal level. The federal government also does not recommend pesticides for illegal crops.

In this bizarre environment, California has provided informational guidelines that include a short list of organic pesticides and natural rodenticides that “may be used in and around marijuana cultivation sites consistent with the label.” Visit www.waterboards.ca.gov and search for “Legal Pest Management Practices for Marijuana Growers in California.”

For more information, visit the websites of the Santa Cruz County’s Cannabis Cultivation Choices Committee, or Organic Cannabis Growers Society.

For now, I’ll wait.

During four days last week, the Eco-Farm Conference provided updates about a wide range of organic gardening and farming practices, and related state and federal policies. The short story is that organic, sustainable and regenerative gardening is healthy and expanding steadily. I’ll have more to report in future columns.

Labels are Important

Our gardens are mostly dormant during the winter, but government regulators never rest! This column offers a brief update on three current debates over garden-related regulations.

Labeling Foods as Genetically Engineered

Almost all consumers, when responding to surveys, have said they want labels on foods that are based on genetically engineered plants or animals. I wrote about this issue in late spring of 2015: go to ongardening.com to read “GMO Controversy.”

Consumers in several states, including California, have tried to require labels on such foods, but industry groups have argued against the related ballot measures. Vermont succeeded in adopting this labeling requirement, to be effective in July of 2016. Since then, opponents lost their legal challenge of the requirement, and failed to persuade Congress to ban such requirements (the House approved, the Senate didn’t).

Most recently, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), responding to pressure4s from both side of the debate, issued “Guidance to Industry: Voluntary Labeling Indicating Whether Foods Have or Have Not been Derived from Genetically Engineered Plants.” In brief, the nonbinding recommendations of this Guidance allow voluntary labeling that is truthful and not misleading (as required by the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938).

The FDA is currently accepting comments on its similar draft guidance for labeling genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.

An increasing number of food producers are voluntarily labeling such foods, but the ultimate resolution, a uniform federal requirement, would benefit all parties.

Labeling Foods as “Natural”

FDA, responding to another set of pressures, has requested comments regarding “Use of the Term ‘Natural’ in the Labeling of Human Food Products.” The issue becomes more complex than it would seem at first. Long-standing federal policy interprets “natural” food to mean that it contains nothing artificial or synthetic that would not normally be expected to be in the food.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America want to label as “natural” foods derived from genetically engineered plants or animals.

The Consumers Union wants to prohibit the use of “natural” on any food labels, indicating that the large majority of consumers believe “natural” means no use of artificial materials, chemicals, ingredients, colors, toxic pesticides or genetically engineered plants or animals.

Labeling Garden Chemicals as Toxic

The World Health Organization has found that glyphosate, the active ingredient in the widely used pesticide RoundUp, is a probable carcinogen to humans. In response, consumer groups have asked California’s Environmental Protection Agency to label RoundUp as a carcinogen. The agency received comments on this action until late October of 2015, and is now considering those comments.

Most recently, the agency is currently receiving comments on proposed changes to clarify existing requirements for “clear and reasonable” warnings of a variety of exposure situations.

Another chemical that is under fire is imidacloprid, one of the neonicotinoid insecticides (called “neonics”) that has been linked to risks to honey bees hives. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had approved agricultural uses of this chemical, but in response to President Obama’s National Pollinator Strategy, and recent scientific studies by the State of California, has released a “preliminary pollinator risk assessment” that imidacloprid use potentially poses risks to bee hives. This assessment focuses on agricultural crops and does not consider this chemical’s risks to bees when used on ornamental flowering plants!

Chemical companies that produce this chemical insist that bees are not at risk when this company is used correctly.

The EPA is inviting feedback during 60-day comment period. It is continuing assessment of the risks of this chemical and three other neonics, with more findings to be released in December of 2016.

Irrigation for a Small Greenhouse

Another rainy day project in the garden!

Several years ago, with the help of a friend, I installed a greenhouse in a corner of my garden. This is a typical backyard structure, just ten-by-twelve feet, not an expansive “plant factory” like those on the annual open greenhouse event hosted by local nurseries for mostly flowers.


My greenhouse, although small, has ample bench and shelf space for an ambitious program of propagating and maintaining plants. Plants will assume the primary role of growing, and a greenhouse can easily exclude deer and gophers, but operating a greenhouse still requires investments of the gardener’s time for planning, planting, monitoring and controlling climate, diseases and the smaller pests.

Best intentions aside, other priorities can leave the greenhouse unattended. When that has happened to me, my plants have tended to expire.

In addition, my greenhouse developed another problem. I had installed a sprinkling and misting system to irrigate the plants, using an inexpensive battery-operated timer. It worked fine until the battery died when the irrigation valves were open. The timer did not have the power to close the valves, so they ran for days, unobserved. This resulted in soggy plants, a huge water bill and attendance in a water conservation workshop.

I turned off the system in favor of watering by hand, but because the greenhouse is away from the house, it was easy for me to neglect the watering schedule. Except for some succulents, my plants did not do well under that plan. A clear need existed for a reliable automatic irrigation system.

Working with another gardening friend, we are installing such a system, with the longer-term objective of starting seeds, growing new plants to garden-ready size, and maintaining surplus plants for giving to other gardeners. (I could also grow plants for sale, but the small-scale nursery business would seem uneconomic.)

The irrigation system includes a professional grade controller, capable of scheduling four irrigation valves, and two valves plus capped connections for two future valves. Wires running the length of the greenhouse support flexible tubing over plants, which will be on tables or shelves (not on the ground). The tubing will have multiple emitters that will either spray or drip water on the plants. Spray is best for groups of seedlings or small plants while drip is more effective for larger plants.

Some gardening friends use their greenhouses to maintain collections of succulent plants that require warm, dry conditions, or orchids or other tropicals that require warm and moist conditions. Greenhouses in public gardens often focus on one or the other of these plant groups.

When planning a greenhouse for the home garden, a good first step would be to decide which plants are to be grown, and what climate those plants will need: cool/moderate/warm, or dry/tropical. To learn about these options, search the Internet for “types of greenhouses.”

My greenhouse is intended to moderate temperatures, year-round, and to control moisture levels through scheduled spray and drip irrigation. This growing environment will support a wide range of plants, excluding only those that require extreme conditions. Plants that require a winter chill, for example, grow poorly in the coastal Monterey Bay area, whether in a greenhouse or in the ground.

The home gardener can use a greenhouse to extend the growing season, protect against larger pests, and control the environment for either specialty plants or general gardening. Greenhouse management can be an engaging and satisfying form of gardening; it can also be more expensive and time-consuming than conventional gardening. Enter with eyes wide open.


Gardening Events – 2016

Let’s survey the gardening events of the New Year. The following list includes recurring, mostly free annual events in the Monterey Bay area. The list includes the currently available date information, and identifies organizers for more details.

I invite readers to provide additions. I will post an updated calendar, suitable for display, on my website.

Winter Quarter

Fungus Fair, Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz, www.ffsc.us, January 8, 9 & 10

Scion Exchange, California Rare Fruit Growers, monterey_bay@crfg.org, January 10

Eco-Farm Conference, Ecological Farming Association, https://eco-farm.org/, January 20-23

Solstice Fest, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/ , January 23

Hummingbird Day, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, March 5-6

Phenology Walk, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, January 16

Flower & Garden Show, San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, http://sfgardenshow.com/ , March 16-20

California Naturalist Program, UCSC Arboretum, http://arboretum.ucsc.edu/, begins March 24

Spring Quarter

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, April 9

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, April 9

Dahlia Sale, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, early April

Garden Fair, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, early April

Garden Fair, Santa Cruz Earth Day, April 16

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society April 23-24

Garden Fair & Plant Sale, MEarth, late April

Iris Show, Monterey Bay Iris Society, late April

Plant Sale, Cabrillo College Horticultural Dept., May 8

Garden Tour, St. Phillips Church, early May

Rose Show, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early May

Garden Tour, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-May

Garden Tour, Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, May 22

Consulting Rosarian School, Monterey Bay Rose Society, early June

Greenhouse Open House, Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers, late June

Garden Fair, The Garden Faire, late June

Boot Camp, Monterey Bay Master Gardeners, mid-June

Summer Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Iris Society, August 6 & 13

Plant Show, Monterey Bay Dahlia Society, late August

Succulent Extravaganza, Succulent Gardens, late September

Fall Quarter

Plant Sale, Monterey Bay Cactus & Succulent Society, October 1-2

Plant Sale, UCSC Arboretum, early October

Plant Sale, California Native Plant Society, early October

Orchid Show, Santa Cruz Orchid Society, mid-November

Adding Unexpected Plants to Your Garden

This column presents a case study of adding an unexpected and unfamiliar plant to one’s garden.

A friend gave me a plant that had outgrown its container, and no longer had a place in its previous home. My friend didn’t have a name for the plant, but a neighbor’s garden has a related species: the photo shows much longer leaves than my gift plant, and the potential to grow rather large.


I had never grown a plant like this one, so I was immediately interested. Here is a suggested intake process.

First, inspect the plant visually to check that it is healthy and free of disease or pests. This plant had some dieback from normal aging and outgrowing a large container, but otherwise looked healthy. I gladly accepted the gift.

Identification should be the next priority. I had seen this plant in four-inch pots, and knew it as a Dyckia, but learning the genus and species of a new plant can be challenging. This plant doesn’t appear in Sunset’s Western Garden Book, a convenient reference. In such cases, asking other gardeners or garden center staff can be the best strategy.

Then, examine the plant’s size and characteristics. This Dyckia develops several rosettes eight-to-twelve inches in diameter. Each rosette is comprised of many thin leaves up to eight inches long, with very sharp terminal spines and numerous sharp teeth on both sides. (My neighbor’s magnificent Dyckia has leaves up to two feet long!) The plant is attractive, but neither welcoming nor easily handled!

Considering both this plant’s mature size and hazards, I concluded that it should be should be three feet from any walkway, but still close enough to appreciate its intricate leaf structure.

Also, it should not be under a tree, as it would be difficult to groom dropped leaves from the Dykia’s spiny cluster.

Then, learning about the plant’s cultivation needs will guide planting and future care. An Internet search for “Dyckia” brought me these websites: Wikipedia; Bromeliad Society of Houston; Yucco Do Nursery; Annie’s Magic Garden; and Dyckia Brazil.

Dyckias, I learned, are native to Brazil, members of the Bromeliad family, and related to pineapples (Ananas comosus), Puyas, Tellandsias, and Bilbergias. There are some 158 species of Dyckias.

After comparing my specimen’s appearance with others on the Internet, I concluded that it is D. fosteriana, which is a popular species. This plant hybridizes easily in nature and in human hands, so many cultivars are available. Confident identification requires a specialist.

The Dyckia lacks internal water storage tissue, so it’s not a true succulent, but it will go dormant in response to a lack of moisture. It prefers full sun but will manage partial shade, and has exceptional tolerance for freezing weather. It is pest-free, although snails will nibble at tender flower shoots. Generally, the Dyckia is a sturdy and trouble-free plant.

Dyckias reportedly do not like transplanting during the winter, but I proceeded still to separate and pot up six offsets (”pups”) for gifts to others, and to put my new plant in the ground. I’ll learn how well it responds.

My garden lacks a bed for Brazilian plants. I accommodated this unusual new plant by redefining my existing Chilean bed as Chilean/South American.

Avid gardeners should welcome unexpected, unusual and attractive gifts to their gardens. A systematic process can help to place the plant well and to provide the care needed for its success. New plants are gardening adventures!