Through a front security door is the waiting room and check-in area for Don McKay's Southern Colorado Medical Marijuana. Through another door across the room is a 10,000-square-foot space full of lights and dank, heavy smells and green leaves — some sitting still, some lightly bobbing from the air blowing through vents to stave off the heat generated by 1,000-watt light bulbs.
"Don't stare at them," offers McKay's partner Elisa Kappelmann, who's helping Don tour me around their grow space one Thursday night. "It's like the sun."
We're in the beginning part of the couple's huge hydroponic grow room, where cuttings are started in small black tubs underneath 50-watt, T5 fluorescent lights. Each tub sports thin, black tubes running out from it, which carry nutrients to the plant's roots, around which are tucked hydroton — brown, round clay pellets that have been super-heated to expand and hold more oxygen.
"In the plant, the roots like oxygen, and the top half of it likes carbon dioxide," says McKay. "So the more oxygen you can get to them, the better."
The room's currently 81 degrees with 63 percent humidity. Both of those numbers are higher than is desirable, McKay says; marijuana does best at 76 degrees, and below 50 percent humidity. Still, the second step of the grow process, just a few feet away from the cuttings and underneath the 1,000-watt lights, contains very large, very happy plants that have been allowed to grow between three and six feet tall. Beyond there is a huge, cafeteria-sized "flower room," where they'll be taken to begin budding.
Anyone growing marijuana indoors employs a similar basic process with similar equipment: high-pressure sodium lamps; fans; containers; something for root structure, soil or otherwise; an eye on the plant's pH balance; and a varying light cycle. But walking around this well-oiled machine, it's clear that the gulf between the professional at work and the amateur stringing up lights in his closet is plenty wide.
McKay builds many of the grow's structural needs, like stands, plant holders and wall framing, by hand. Yet still, the co-owners — she a corporate trainer with HP and he an equity analyst with Wells Fargo, in previous lives — estimate they've spent more than $100,000 on custom ventilation, filters, environmental monitoring, circuits to change how the electrical current's distributed, and more.
Then there are the costs associated with the growing process they've chosen. Hydroponics are defined by Merriam-Webster as "the growing of plants in nutrient solutions with or without an inert medium (as soil) to provide mechanical support." Remember the black tubes running out of each plant? Those run on a one-minute-on, five-minute-off cycle of nutrient delivery to the roots.
Growing hydroponically typically requires greater up-front costs than growing in soil, but you'll find devotees of each method. Users on the rollitup.org message board generally agree that soil offers a better "taste" and less cost and maintenance. "Mr. Ganja" writes, "Using a soil system, I can water on friday and go away for the weekend and my marijuana plants will be fine. If you were to leave a hydro setup, and something were to go wrong, you could wipe out your whole crop."
Hydroponics, however, are believed to offer faster vegetation and larger yield. As put by wyteberrywidow, "From what i noticed in hydro they seem to ripe quicker because everything they need is right there ... for soil you have to wait plants have to search for food,air etc."
Either form of indoor growing will allow the grower complete control over the crop, as opposed to the environmental risks that come with growing outdoors. And either will demand a certain type of TLC. As explained by howtogrowmarijuana.com, "Plants grown indoors will not appear the same as their outdoor cousins. They will be scrawnier, appearing with weak stems and may even require you to tie them to a growing post to remain upright."
In McKay's "flower room," stems of many plants on individual wheeled stands indeed are tied with string onto stabilizers. As the buds grow thicker and heavier, the skinny branches need the support.
Contamination and complication
Once you know how you want to grow and where you want to grow it, your work is hardly done. The weeks and months of cultivation can be more all-consuming than you might think. For instance, while McKay is happy to have me track my daily-life-dirt through his grow room, others take a more cautious approach.
"We replace the plastic sheets that cover the floors and counters regularly to ensure cleanliness," says Best Budz master grower Aaron Franklin. "It's just, tracking dirt in [from] your car and house ... you can contaminate anything."
The potential for impurities is the reason that Best Budz's grow house isn't located at the retail center, says employee Bob Kirby. "It's great for aesthetics, but horrible for the quality of the buds. You risk spreading so many things to them."
Given the money and time that pro growers invest in their cultivation, it's easy to understand the caution. Consider it just one more thing that separates your average basement setup from a large-scale operation.
"People think you throw a seed in and go, and it's a little more complex than that — it's a lot of work," McKay says. "We don't come in and work six hours a day, and then go and spend all the piles of cash we've earned. We're farmers — we're here every single day. We have to, to tend the garden."