Cannabis has been happily growing outdoors unaided for thousands of years. Credit: Rachel Hawley

There’s a patch of ground behind the lilies in Lauren’s west suburban backyard garden where tomatoes won’t grow. She thinks it has something to do with the soil’s pH, but whatever it is, it’s a fertile spot for a different kind of plant.

“Lauren,” a 40-year-old sales contractor, longtime cannabis advocate, and new Illinois medical marijuana card holder, moved back home four years ago from Colorado, where she and her ex-husband were avid gardeners. She’s using a pseudonym not because what she’s doing is illegal, but because it used to be. Back out west they grew conventionally edible plants outside, but in their basement they had an aquaponic growing system that allowed them to raise as many as 50 cannabis plants at a time. It wasn’t a big deal in pre-legal Fort Collins. “We were able to provide enough for our own consumption and provide for friends,” she says. “It was kind of what everybody did.”

When the couple split up and Lauren moved into her new home, she didn’t want to deal with the lights, chemicals, exhaust systems, insect invasions, and overall expense one must contemplate when deciding to convert a portion of the home to cannabis cultivation. “It’s a couple thousand dollars between lights and the way you’re gonna do it,” she says.

That spring, a friend gave her three seeds from a plant he grew that produced buds that she liked. She never knew the name of the strain, but she germinated them and put them in little pots and raised them up under a headlamp until early June or so, when they’d grown to about a foot and a half in height. Then she took them out behind the lilies and planted them where the tomatoes won’t grow. 

She mostly left them alone all summer, just giving them water when they needed it, until late September when they’d grown about 3½-4 bushy feet, their stems ending in narrow clusters of lime-green flowers laced with orange hairs, loaded with cannabinoids and terpenes. These she harvested and trimmed, then hung them in the garage from wire coat hangers until the chlorophyll dried up. After that, she “cured” them in Tupperware for a few weeks until they were ready for consumption. 

“I’m pretty familiar with what’s good quality and what’s not,” she says. “These were really good quality.” She says she grew about six to eight ounces of cannabis flower from those three mysterious plants, enough to meet her needs through the holidays.

Illinois’s newly enacted Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act allows for medical card holders to grow up to five plants per household. But the language about where they’re grown is vague. Plants must be in “an enclosed locked space” where they’re not “subject to ordinary public view” and are “secured from unauthorized access, including unauthorized access by a person under 21.”

On its face it seems the safest place to accomplish this would be indoors. And if you decide to go that route you’re in luck. The majority of educational and commercial resources available for home cannabis cultivation is geared toward the indoor grower—or what one local outdoor gardening expert I know calls “bro-growers.” 

Early this spring I attended a class at an indoor gardening supply store on how to grow cannabis. The instructor was another former Colorado grower, and he was armed with a wealth of information on everything you need to know about inside cultivation: seeds, strains, fertilizers, lights, pumps, timers, tents. It got complicated fast. The only thing he had to say about growing cannabis outside was this: “You don’t want to do that. You won’t be happy.”

Well, he might not be happy, but cannabis has been happily growing outdoors, unaided by timed LED light cycles, humidifiers, and synthetic fertilizers, for thousands of years. And while the midwest isn’t the Emerald Triangle, it’s still a good place to grow it. As long as you have a humble patch of secluded sunlight—on a porch, a balcony, or backyard—there might not be a better time than a quarantined Chicago spring to grow your own.

“This plant grew wild all across Indiana,” says Shawn Odneal, a chemist and owner of Root 66 Garden Shop in Bensenville, which specializes in indoor aqua- and hydroponic growing systems. “Even ten years ago it was still growing wild in the ditches. This is where hemp and cannabis grows in the U.S. The climate is perfect for growing cannabis outdoors—for at least one season.”

Odneal says he knows as many as a dozen people who are planning to grow cannabis for personal use outdoors this year—including himself. But his qualification “at least one season” underscores a division in the world of weed cultivation between inside and out. He believes growing outside is fine for beginners, but he also thinks they should graduate to more advanced, controllable, and potentially more productive indoor gardening.

Johanna Silver believes otherwise. “A lot of these indoor cannabis growers have only grown weed indoors,” says the Berkeley-based gardening expert and author of Growing Weed in the Garden: A No-Fuss, Seed-to-Stash Guide to Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation. “They really don’t understand how plants grow outside. They only speak indoor cannabis cultivation. I’m probably gonna offend a lot of people, but I don’t think an indoor cannabis grow is a ‘garden.’” 

But Silver and Odneal agree on more than they might think. They both grudgingly offer some version of the oft-repeated cliché “there’s a reason it’s called a ‘weed.’”

 For one thing, it can largely take care of itself. If you’re growing outdoors with a reasonable set of expectations, there’s not a lot to worry about as long as you take some fundamental, low-intensity steps. You may not duplicate that 23 percent THC hybrid redolent of kiwi and Smurf poo that disappeared from the dispensaries on January 2, but you won’t pay as much for it either. 

First you need seeds. At this stage in the season, Odneal recommends that outdoor growers get a hold of autoflower seeds, which he doesn’t prefer for indoor growing. Plants from classic cannabis seeds are photoperiodic, meaning that after a “vegetative” growth state, they need to be exposed to a reduction in light in order to flower. That’s fine indoors if you can control the light, but outside they may not have enough time to finish before the days get too cold and short. Autoflower seeds flower on their own within two to four weeks of germination. They may not produce as much as photosensitive plants, but they do it fast—and they’re discreetly sized. Silver, who also generally disapproves of autoflower seeds, agrees that they are probably the right move for Chicago’s climate right now.

Cannabis is also dioecious—it grows both male and female plants. Typically most people growing for consumption don’t want the males, which produce seedy flowers that are thought to be less potent than seedless—aka sinsemilla—unpollinated female flowers. If you want to avoid the process of “sexing” your plants, i.e. weeding out the males that will sprout up and pollinate your females, you can buy feminized seeds, guaranteed to produce only female plants.

All manner of seeds are widely available for purchase online. A local source, Mosca Seeds, promises shipment of autoflower seeds within one to two days. Odneal, who advises legal and medical grow spaces across Chicago, can’t sell seeds, but services like his will help select outdoor-appropriate strains that are good for treating specific ailments or diseases.

Once seeds are germinated, it’s a matter of babying them inside until it’s warm enough for them to go out for good. This means little more than keeping them under enough light until they reach a foot or so—a bright windowsill can work. Most importantly, don’t overwater them, and don’t overfeed them with fertilizers (in fact, don’t feed them at all at this stage)—the two most common rookie mistakes, according to Odneal. “Your challenge is to get a nice healthy teenager, grown indoors, so that you’ve got a month and a half head start before you plant it outside,” he says. That’s about the same time you’d put tomatoes in the ground; in Chicago, late May to early June.

Another option this late in the game is planting clones, or cuttings from older plants. If you can find them, they’re a bit more finicky. They don’t have a strong taproot like seedlings do, and they need a careful transitioning period to get them used to the outdoors, according to Silver. The upside: you know you’re getting a female plant. 

The fun part is watching them grow. Sure, there are things to think about over the summer. Containers or soil? Maybe you need a cheap portable greenhouse to protect your girls from wind and rain. Fertilize or not? (Less is more, say Odneal and Silver.) Pests and disease can be a problem, but they can be dealt with (Lauren never had to). 

Silver’s book, which addresses all these matters and more, is the best, most reassuring resource I’ve found about growing small amounts of weed outdoors. “I am a super lazy gardener and I do not give many of my plants special love,” she says. “You have to be pretty tough to survive in my garden.”

It may be that the biggest problem for outdoor growers in Chicago is other people—thieves in particular. Don’t be surprised if it happens, Odneal says. “They’ll wait until the week before you’re ready to harvest and they’ll be on it.” 

That’s why the phrases “subject to ordinary public view” and “secured from unauthorized access” are just as important for plants as they are for city growers. Though crime was down 30 percent last month while the Chicago Police Department was busy enforcing the stay-at-home order, that doesn’t mean five-0 won’t come snooping around this summer if your nosy neighbors get a whiff of the Blueberry Muffin flourishing next to the grill, or the Blue Cheese in the paint bucket on the balcony. “If residents report suspected illegal possession, distribution, or growth of cannabis, we will respond and investigate accordingly,” says CPD spokesman Luis Agostini. “Any enforcement measures of personal cannabis use, growth, or possession will be in accordance with department directives and the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act.”

Hmm. Still not too clear if the law is OK with outdoor growing. Maybe we should check with a lawyer: “It can be a complicated answer, but the short response is, ‘maybe,’” says Larry Mishkin, a local attorney who specializes in cannabis law in association with the Hoban Law Group based in Denver. “Nowhere is there an express written provision directly prohibiting outdoor cultivation for homegrow. Still, to me, it reads as “no outside grow” without saying “no outside grow.”

Mishkin points to all sorts of ways the ambiguities could be stacked against the outdoor grower—including, but not limited to, the nosy neighbor scenario—and therefore he’d advise a client against it. “But, the absence of express ‘no outdoor grow’ language will nevertheless result in some folks trying to grow outside. And then we can all see how the situation plays out, how law enforcement handles it, and whether the legislature amends that part of the Act to clarify the propriety of an outdoor grow.”

But, if you do try it, maybe your neighbors will be into it. Out in the western suburbs, Lauren’s were. She gave clones of her plants to her neighbors on either side, and they’re now growing their own outside too. Her best advice: “Learn as much as you can about the process but don’t overthink it. People make it really complicated and it doesn’t have to be.”  v