As I reached for the gate latch, I heard the sound of leaves crunching in the woods behind me. I whirled around, terrified that my parents had followed me here. But it was only a squirrel scurrying across the underbrush, clutching an acorn tightly in it’s mouth.
Letting my breath out, I turned back to the gate. Peering through the fence that stretched far above my ten-year-old head, I could see a virtual jungle of flowers, herbs and grasses, forming a thick canopy. Many of the plants I recognized, as I’d seen them in our garden, or growing wild in our yard. There was basil, dill, cilantro, lavender, peppermint, clover, and even sunflowers. But there was one plant that stood out among the others that I didn’t recognize.
It was strange and beautiful, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Tall stems supported fan-like leaves, and were topped with a furry-looking kind of flower that sparkled in the light of the sun rising behind the trees. In some cases, the flower appeared to extend all the way up a branch of the plant, like the hairy fingers of a giant reaching for the sky. It would be many years before I’d see this plant again. And only then would I realize why my parents had kept this garden a secret.
But looking back on the experience of discovering that garden many years later, what really struck me — besides the fact that I’d seen my first cannabis plant — was how wild and haphazard the garden appeared. And with all the time and effort required to maintain a house, two jobs and three children, how did my parents ever find the time to cultivate such big and beautiful buds?
While this garden was tucked deep in the woods behind our house, my family kept another garden in our backyard that was visible to everyone. This garden, by contrast, was kept neat and manicured. It was defined by evenly spaced rows of uniform varieties of vegetables and herbs. There was a row devoted to growing carrots, another one for peas, and another one for broccoli. Sometimes I’d spend hours on the weekend — when I’d rather have been playing with my friends — helping my parents pull weeds from the garden.
Everyday we would save food scraps and dump them out in the garden, where they would eventually decompose and turn back into soil. In the late summer and fall, I’d search excitedly under big, broad leaves to find squash and pumpkins. And after we’d carved the pumpkins and roasted most of the seeds, we’d throw the leftovers back into the garden. Occasionally, this would result in a surprise pumpkin plant sprouting up in the early spring. The garden and the associated organic waste cycling was a regular part of our lives. Fertilizer and pesticides were not. We never bought them.
I grew up along the coast of Maine, where I spent much of my childhood exploring the woods and running through fields; having sword fights with sticks, catching fireflies and building forts among boulders. As a result, I developed a strong affinity for nature at a young age. Much of that time was spent on the homestead of our family friends the Rowlands, where they also had a large garden, and raised chickens, goats, pigs and other animals. They had a large barn with stacks of hay bales that my friend Riley and I loved to climb on — until one day when I disturbed an ornery rooster and got chased from the barn.
My dad had grown up in a military household and had learned to hunt for food with his father, since they often didn’t have enough money to buy food. Even though our family was better off, my father continued this tradition. After one day of hunting, he brought back a deer, and decided that in addition to cutting up and freezing the tasty venison, he would use it’s skin to make a drum. I remember watching him string the hide up to hang on the edge of our back porch. At the time this didn’t strike me as out of the ordinary, but now I can see that my parents were uniquely resourceful. My dad saw a way to utilize and find value in something that most people would have discarded. This was one of my first lessons my parents taught me in how to work with nature: It’s possible to find a useful purpose for almost any kind of “waste.”
I remember when my uncle saw the finished drum, he commented that my dad, “Didn’t have to kill a deer and cut down a treat for that. You could have made it all from hemp.” I asked him what hemp was. “Oh, it’s the best kept secret in the world,” he raved. “The US government doesn’t want anyone to know about it; it’s a plant that has 10,000 different uses. It would put so many industries out of business, it’s too much of a threat for them to allow it.” Even though I was young, I was already questioning what adults told me. So I was skeptical. And this particular uncle had a reputation for being a joker. Was this another one of his jokes? When he mysteriously disappeared many years later, I thought back to this conversation, and wondered if maybe he’d known something he wasn’t supposed to.
Occasionally, very fresh looking herbs would turn up in our kitchen that I knew we didn’t have planted in our garden, and that didn’t seem like they had come from the grocery store, since they were too fresh. One time, I asked my mom where she’d gotten the peppermint she was chopping up. “Oh, Sue Rowland gave it to me,” was the reply. But I didn’t remember seeing peppermint in the Rowlands garden. I certainly would have noticed, since I spent a lot of time in their garden, usually picking and immediately eating the carrots and sweet peas.
Another time, I had gotten up earlier than usual on a Saturday morning and was in the kitchen looking for a snack, when I looked out the window and noticed my dad heading into the forest carrying what looked like small scissors. This seemed very strange. I thought of running after him to see what he was doing, but judging by how early it was, I had a feeling he didn’t want me or my siblings to know where he was going. I didn’t dare follow him; thanks to his military background, my father has a sixth sense for people sneaking around, and would have surely known I was there (this would make sneaking out of the house very tricky later in my teenage years).
But as time passed, my curiosity grew. So one day after I had seen him go out into the woods again, I decided to follow the trail and see if I could retrace his steps. It was a trail I knew well, so as I walked I looked for disturbances in the vegetation that might indicate someone had gone off the trail. Eventually, I reached a familiar sight: a trail branching off from the main trail, with a sign that said “Danger: Predator Control Traps in Use.” My parents had always warned me and my siblings from going down this trail. Apparently, as they had told me, a crazy neighbor had laid all kinds of traps on the trail, and never bothered to remove them, so they’d been overgrown and would be difficult to spot. “If you don’t want to lose your foot, stay off that trail,” my mom had warned.
But now, considering the sign again, I wondered why nothing had been done about these supposed traps after so many years. I realized that this would be the perfect way to keep people from finding something you didn’t want found. On the other hand, what if there really were hidden traps? Was it worth the risk?
I was a rather adventurous ten year old, and so I decided I would just proceed with caution. As I walked slowly down the trail, I felt for a moment like Indiana Jones, walking carefully through a jungle, on the lookout for booby traps. But they never came. Eventually, I saw the fence. Soon, I came to a small clearing, and stood in front of my parent’s secret garden. Why had they kept this place a secret? Did it have to do with the strange looking giant finger plants? After opening the gate and entering the garden, I walked up to one of the plants.
There was a strong fragrance coming from it. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. But I was mesmerized by what looked like frost spread over the flowers of the plants. It was too early in the year for frost, and yet these plants seemed to be covered in it. I reached out and touched the flowers, and my hands immediately felt sticky. Surprised, I pulled my hand away. Then I smelled my fingers. Now I could detect a fruity undertone in the smell. There was something special about this plant. This must be the reason for the secret garden.
Then I looked around. There were no rows in this garden, no order. I’d tried to be careful not to step on any plants as I walked through, but it was almost impossible to avoid, as there were herbs and flowers everywhere, blanketing the ground in a thick coat. As I looked around more, I could see several bees coming and going from the flowers. I also spotted a spider spinning its web between two leaves, and nearby, a ladybug crawling up the stem of a cilantro plant. None of these sights were out of the ordinary for me, but I remember the scene with great clarity many years later because of the strangeness of discovering that my parents had another garden, where they were clearly trying to hide this strange flower that appeared to be covered in frost.
What strikes me now is how yet again, my parents were relying on nature for another purpose: to take care of their cannabis plants. With very limited time to tend to this secret garden, they had sown the seeds for success with all the herbs and flowers they’d planted densely around their cannabis. Plants like clover would fix nitrogen in the soil, while other plants like dill and cilantro would attract predatory insects to keep pests at bay. There was no room for nutrient sucking weeds, because every square inch of ground was purposely covered. And as I would later learn, the high fungal to bacterial ratios in a forest mean that most nitrogen is in ammonium form, while weeds tend to prefer nitrates. The lack of tillage or soil disturbance meant that the roots of all these plants would ensure good soil structure and promote diversity in soil microbial life, especially mycorrhizal fungi, to bring nutrients to the plants roots and fight off soil-borne diseases.
In short, they had used biodiversity to build a balanced ecosystem to keep these plants not only alive, but healthy and thriving. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was my first lesson about the power of biodiversity.