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Zachary Crockett / Vox

This woman teaches you how to legally grow weed in your home

"Are you ready?" asks Natalie Carver as we round her beat-up hatchback onto a tree-lined street in Washington, DC.

It’s a quaint part of town, sprinkled with generously proportioned estates. From high boughs, above manicured lawns, warblers and sparrows emit throaty chirps.

We park in front of a three-story home, walk up the steps, and ring the bell. A man in his mid-30s answers with a smile, two toddlers tugging at his shirt. He’s a prototypical suburban dad: gel-swept side part, khaki shorts, flip-flops — the works.

"Head down," he tells us. "I’ll meet you there in a sec."

I follow Natalie through a chic living room, past a sprawling kitchen, down what seems like an endless staircase, into a private gym.

Natalie meanders around a punching bag and opens the door to a utility closet in the corner of the room. Inside, there is a tall canvas tent with Neoprene air ducts snaking up the wall. She unzips it and flicks on an LED lamp.

Four healthy marijuana plants bask in a purple glow.

As Natalie kneels to "tend the buds," the home’s proprietor — who insists on going by "Blaze" — comes in to survey her work.

"You know, I never thought I’d have a weed coach," he says.

"Why’d you decide to grow, again?" Natalie inquires from inside the closet.

"Why? Because I can. The law passed."

The "gardening" business

In February 2015, Washington, DC, passed Prop 71, which, among other things, made it fair game for anyone to cultivate up to six marijuana plants (three fully mature) for personal consumption.

The law made the District one of four places in the United States where growing weed is 100 percent legal in the confines of one’s home.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

At the time, Natalie Carver and her business partner, "Maxine" (name changed), were running an urban farming business, teaching DC residents how to grow vegetable gardens on tiny rowhouse plots.

"It’s a simple business model," says Maxine, who still operates the business. "We do an initial consultation, charge a fee to set up a garden, then charge a smaller fee for monthly checkups.

As the company’s horticulture director, it was Natalie’s job to visit clients' homes and train them in the art of gardening. "It was very wholesome — we worked with a lot of families and kids," she says.

But after the marijuana cultivation law passed last year, something strange began to happen. Natalie’s gardening clients — many of them "not the type you’d expect to smoke weed" — began asking her if she grew marijuana too.

In the summer of 2015, Carver and Maxine launched Buds Organic, DC’s first "cannabis consulting" company.

A cannabis farmer renaissance

Natalie isn’t your stereotypical cannabis enthusiast.

She rolls her joints with rosemary, lavender, and mullein, a bronchial dilator used by Native Americans in spiritual ceremonies. Well-poised and articulate, she respects marijuana as a sommelier would a fine wine. To her, weed isn’t just a drug — it’s a crop.

This mentality appears to be part of a larger trend: that of traditionally minded farmers entering the cannabis industry.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

At this year’s Governor’s Forum on Agriculture in Denver — usually a reserved affair where "farmers in bolo ties mingle with agriculture professionals" — there was a panel called "Cannabis: An Emerging Crop of Colorado."

"There’s an opportunity where traditional agriculture can help an industry emerge in this state," Colorado’s agricultural state regulator told a Nebraska newspaper.

Across the nation, small cliques of soil microbiologists, plant geneticists, and seasoned farmers are applying their expertise to the cultivation of marijuana. Since the industry is still too controversial for the likes of Monsanto to join, there is room to play for forward-thinking pot startups.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

At a recent cannabis conference in DC attended by Buds Organic, Natalie says there were a number of other firms following the same business model.

"People want to know where their food comes from," she says. "In the same strain, people want to know where their weed comes from. As farmers, we can help with that."

As a woman-operated business, Buds Organic is something of an anomaly in the pot space — and it works to their benefit.

"When a lot of people think of the cannabis business, they think of guys who are potheads and wear neon T-shirts," says Natalie. "But we are gardening, professional women. It’s a better appeal."

The weed consultant

Zachary Crockett / Vox

Today, Natalie manages the pot dens of about a dozen clients throughout DC — most of whom first connected with her through her urban gardening services. She says her client base is rapidly expanding.

For a one-time fee ranging from $800 to $1,200, Natalie journeys to a customer’s home and installs a fully functioning marijuana growing operation: indoor tent, lighting, air filtration system, soil, and pots.

Under DC law, Buds Organic is not allowed to provide the client with the actual seeds (any paid transaction of drugs is illegal) but can provide tips on where to buy them.

After this initial setup, Natalie revisits the client once every few weeks (at $75 per visit) to check in on the plants and impart wisdom about the growing process.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

In DC, there are two ways to legally get pot: You either 1) go to a doctor, get a medical card, and buy from a dispensary, or 2) grow your own.

"Dispensaries are expensive; you’re spending around $60 to $80 for an eighth," says Natalie. "Once you have your own growing operation in place, each yield is cheaper and cheaper."

Natalie says she is seeing an uptick in DC residents pursuing their own in-home grow operations. And it’s not "potheads" who are seeking out her services — it’s housewives, young professionals, and suburban dads, like Blaze.

Like most of Natalie’s clients, Blaze met Natalie first through her gardening business.

"Someone down the street had hired her to put in a garden," he tells me. "I liked the idea of an edible landscape, so I called her." A few months later, with the help of Natalie, Blaze had a thriving forest of blackberries, bok choy, lettuce, and herbs in his yard.

One day, while Natalie was pruning his rosemary bush, he turned to her and asked: "Do you grow pot too?"

A few months later, Natalie was in his basement, retrofitting a utility closet with a canvas tent, an air filtration system, a high-powered LED light rig, and special cannabis-growing soil from Eugene, Oregon. The cost of his system, detailed below, ran about $1,150.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

On an overcast afternoon in May, I join Natalie for a check-in on Blaze’s stash.

"When I’m growing cannabis, it’s like growing a beautiful house plant, or a vegetable crop," she tells Blaze, as she picks at his pot with a pair of shears. "The healthiest plant will produce the highest-potency cannabis — just like a healthy tomato plant is going to give you the most delicious, satisfying tomatoes. It’s both an art and a science."

Blaze crouches near Natalie in the closet. He scans the crystalline buds, his face illuminated, trancelike, in the purple light.

Zachary Crockett / Vox

In about three weeks’ time, Blaze’s Northern Lights indica should produce about 6 ounces of weed — a healthy yield. This pleases him: With a smile, he emerges from the closet, back into his private gym.

"I smoke, like, one time a year," he tells me. "I’ll end up giving it all away to my friends as party favors."

Blaze’s father, a pediatrician, stands cross-armed against the wall, beside his son.

"How do you feel about all this?" I ask him.

"I’m a product of the '60s," he says. "There are worse things than growing a little pot in your home."


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