In the garden with Jeff Hickey

Karen Kiser
With skill and care, Jeff Hickey cultivates a small but prolific crop.  
05/20/2020

Driven by his love for his wife, Jeff Hickey is taking cannabis growing to another level. In the backyard of his West Marin home, he’s harnessed natural growth, spring water and sunlight to cultivate some of the finest outdoor marijuana around. The medicine has helped his wife, Karen Kiser, find relief from agonizing joint pain that has plagued her for years, and it has given him a renewed sense of purpose after challenging times. 

Four years ago, Jeff was a wide-eyed student at Oaksterdam University, the nation’s first cannabis college. Now he is an expert at outdoor growing, and when Oaksterdam canceled its classes, the college invited him to blog through this year’s harvest. The blog launched on April 20, and his daily posts serve as a crash course in sustainable outdoor growing. 

“Jeff is one of the most detail-oriented cannabis growers I’ve ever met,” said Oaksterdam professor and dean of faculty Natalie Darves, a 15-year industry veteran. “The complexity of his grow and the attention to detail that he has absolutely rivals or exceeds many commercial standards—yet it’s in his backyard.”

Jeff and Karen live on a bountiful property whose centerpiece is a centuries-old buckeye. They have grown food there for 18 years, but for the last four the beds have been mostly reserved for cannabis. The land gets just enough sun, and they installed their own water system on the property. 

Jeff has several secrets to success. He scavenges for wild plants and brews them into compost teas to feed to his own plants, and he spends months developing healthy soil. Through trial and error, he has fine-tuned the growing process to a point of mastery. 

Jeff first received a medical marijuana prescription after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014. While recovering, he suffered from bladder spasms that made him scream. Antispasmodic medication only dimmed the pain, and the drugs made him feel like a zombie.

His best option was to sleep through the pain, until one day an employee from his dispensary called and offered a CBD lozenge, which had an incredible effect: Within 15 minutes, the spasms stopped entirely. When they returned the next day, Jeff took another lozenge, and they never returned. His recovery took off.

With Karen’s illness, which followed quickly after, treatment wasn’t as simple because her ailment was a mystery. For the first two years, doctors thought she had fibromyalgia. She was seen at the Stanford Rheumatology Clinic and tried a number of steroids and over-the-counter drugs that had no impact. The only thing that relieved her pain was floating in water. She was later diagnosed with two forms of autoimmune arthritis.

With traditional avenues exhausted, Jeff looked everywhere for a CBD product to take Karen’s pain away. He tried different dispensaries and new products, but nothing worked against the pain.

Eventually, he found a product with a 20:1 ratio of CBD to THC, so it wouldn’t get Karen high. The tincture, called Jayden’s Juice, also had an inspiring story. 

Founder Jason David’s son, Jayden, was diagnosed with Dravet syndrome, a rare and catastrophic form of epilepsy, when he was months old. Jayden was taking 22 pills a day and still experiencing hundreds of seizures each day. Doctors feared he wouldn’t live past his fifth birthday. Desperately, Jason bought CBD oil and held onto the product for weeks, scared about subjecting his child to an unfamiliar treatment. The day he gave Jayden his first drop was the first seizure-free day of Jayden’s life. Jayden, now 12, is primarily treated with Jayden’s Juice.

Jeff drove to Modesto to get the tincture and returned to Karen in bed, where she had spent much of the year. He measured her a dose of Jayden’s Juice, and after a few minutes, he noticed her eyes had changed. Instead of darting around in frightened misery, they looked normal and relaxed. 

“It was her eyes again,” Jeff said.

Karen still had pain with movement, but it became much easier to sleep and be still. It was obvious that cannabis helped her, but the product was expensive: Even at a wholesale discount, the tincture cost $160 a bottle. 

Purchasing wasn’t sustainable, so Jeff decided to grow. He was already a productive tomato gardener, but he considered cannabis growing a whole new challenge. He enrolled in the Oaksterdam horticulture program and was immediately one of the most engaged students there, Ms. Darves said. With his story and his age, he was just the type of person the school strived to serve but was seeing fewer of in recent years. 

In class, he studied microbiology and soil science. He learned about THC, the chemical that gets people high; CBD, which is good for pain relief; and CBG, a less-researched chemical that Jeff is interested in for its potential antispasmodic quality. He learned about the stages of growth, from germination to harvest, and all of the steps in between.

The next challenge was to apply this education to his own location in the most cost-effective way. Jeff discovered a natural spring at the edge of his property, and he and a contractor dug eight catch basins connected by pipe to a 1,500-gallon tank, the largest size allowed without a permit. The installation cost about $20,000, but it was worth it, Jeff said. 

The grow begins in a small cottage, where Jeff has full control over the conditions. When the seeds begin to sprout, he keeps the lights on for 15 hours, reducing the time by five minutes each day. The waning light trains the plants for the amount of light they will receive outside.

While the sprouts grow inside, Jeff tracks the sun’s path, which has to slide over a redwood grove and a Japanese maple before the rays hit dirt. He charts when the sun hits the dirt each year because the trees change between grows. If the amount of sun dips below 12 hours, the plants begin to flower prematurely.

After three weeks in the cottage, Jeff can start determining the sex of the plants. With cannabis, it is prudent to grow only female plants. If a grower doesn’t dispose of the male plants when pollinating sacks appear, they will pollinate the females so that energy is spent on creating new seeds instead of flowering. A single male plant in the neighborhood can ruin Jeff’s entire crop. 

Jeff grows 12 plants annually, and each harvest has yielded more than the previous one. Around half of his plants are CBD-rich while the other half has higher THC content.

By late May, the crop is ready to go outside, where soil becomes key. Jeff grows fava beans in the winter to replenish the soil with nitrogen, and he buries fish to fertilize the dirt with minerals, protein and oil. He’s gotten the dirt so fluffy that he can stick his whole arm into the bed.

The plants grow under the sun for two months, until around the end of July. During this time, Jeff checks for pests and deploys his compost teas.

“I am in love with compost tea,” Jeff writes in his blog. “Having brewed and poured hundreds of gallons over a four-year period, I am more than converted. I am a devotee. I find every tea I make is a form of self-expression, by celebrating and utilizing the very plants growing around me that can aid my crop.”

When his teacher at Oaksterdam first talked about compost teas, he thought of the food scraps in his compost bin, but brewing compost tea is actually a much more careful process. Jeff uses plants that match the growth stage of his cannabis crop, because they will carry the appropriate micronutrients. So, if the cannabis is young, he fills a bag with sprouts found in his neighborhood, and if the cannabis is flowering, he fills a bag with foraged flowers. He fills a teabag and infuses it into a mix of mostly water and molasses, which provides energy for the microorganisms. After it brews for a couple of days, he pours it on the dirt, and the plants flourish.  

“His compost tea method is the core of his effectiveness,” Ms. Darves said. “The symbiosis of nature is something he totally gets.” 

Another way that Jeff increases his harvest is by bending the branches on the plants so they are exposed to direct light. His son Brenden, a cook in Mill Valley, is in charge of this training, and he has a gift for it, Jeff says. He can bend the plant just enough to space out the branches without breaking them, and Jeff credits the practice for increasing the harvest from seven pounds in 2016 to 17 pounds last year. 

By early August, the sun no longer shines on the garden for 12 hours. The plants begin to flower, and after about nine weeks, Jeff and Brendan harvest the crop. They hang the plants in the cottage to dry, then trim off the leaves and stems. The flower goes into jars, where it cures for months before samples are sent to a laboratory for testing.

Testing is not common for home growers, but Jeff and Karen want to know exactly what they are putting into their bodies. They learn the exact terpene profile and chemical content of the flower, then label and organize it in a closet that serves as their at-home dispensary.

Once the bud is ready, it's Karen’s turn to step in. She networked with others who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis until she bought a prototype for a processing machine. Using ethanol, the machine can extract the chemicals from the flower to be turned into tinctures, pills or edibles. They grow more than enough to share with friends who also have health conditions. 

Staying home and making medical marijuana was not how Jeff and Karen, a former Pixar animator, envisioned spending their 60s. Karen’s illness was a dramatic twist. Initially, they went through dark times of pain, loneliness and abandonment. It was enough just to survive. But through that ordeal, they have emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. 

They are well-adapted to being isolated, so the Covid-19 shelter-in-place order has not been too challenging. Karen is vulnerable because she takes immunosuppressants, so they have been staying home since a week before the order took effect. She has been sewing masks to keep busy. Friends help them with groceries, and they are growing as much food as possible this year. They feel prepared for two years of staying home.

“We are pretty used to this,” Jeff said. We’ve gone through the worst of it, in terms of the loneliness, the isolation… We’ve already grieved from that and sort of came out on the other side.”

When Oaksterdam asked Jeff to blog about his grow, he was flattered. After publishing three fiction novels, he had stopped writing for the last several years.

“I haven’t been asked to do anything for a long time,” he said. “I haven’t had that sense of self-worth, so when they called me up, I wept. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ms. Darves is struggling to keep up with his writing output—some 1,500 words each day, and that limit was only imposed by Oaksterdam. The blog will last six months, until the last plant is harvested. He is trying to balance being educational without drowning readers in information. 

Writing again has inspired him to return to his fourth novel, told from the point of view of the buckeye in his backyard, once the blog is complete.

For the first couple weeks of blogging, he focused on individual topics, like pests, sexing and terpenes, as he introduced readers to the vocabulary. Eventually, he will transition to writing more about the day-to-day challenges. He wants readers to experience the garden with him, feeling the stress or the success of the moment in real time.

 

To follow along with Jeff’s grow, visit oaksterdamuniversity.com/blog.