Story and Photos by Danny Danko
Some growers remove themselves from society and plant their fields deep in the woods, hiding away at the edge of civilization. They live solitary lives and earn a living from the lush earth, as farmers have done for thousands of years. Others, however, choose to conduct their cannabis-cultivation experiments deep in the heart of America's largest cities, relying on the smog of their industrial surroundings and the anonymity of city life to protect their illicit urban crops.
To meet my new friend “Papers,” I take a long subway ride to a part of New York City not featured in any of the guidebooks. I’m in the birthplace of hip-hop, the “Boogie-Down” Bronx, where the skyline is composed of housing projects, graffiti and run-down factories. Believe it or not, in the midst of all this seeming wasteland, some of the highest-quality cannabis in the world is being grown. With pot prices across the river in Manhattan averaging more than $600 an ounce for strains like Sour Diesel, Strawberry Cough and Sensi Star, the profit margin more than makes up for whatever amenities the neighborhood might lack.
Besides, Papers was born and raised in the Bronx, and he can’t imagine moving upstate to tend his plants. “I’d stick out like a sore thumb in the woods,” he says, laughing. He’s paid his dues on these streets for years as a marijuana middleman, selling to delivery services and shady street and bodega dealers. He worked hard and earned his name by making everybody around him so much money. Eventually, Papers realized that he was getting paid, but he wasn’t getting rich. The only people doing that were the growers. Like modern-day alchemists, they spun the gold and set the price.
Determined to get rich and get high trying, this would-be hip-hop horticulturist embarked on a cultivation experiment that quickly turned into an obsession. His current show has over 300 plants under 21 1,000-watt lights, all cleverly concealed in an otherwise unremarkable apartment--itself tucked away amidst the endless urban landscape. Papers treats me to some serious puffing and a tour of his massive facility before we sit down for an interview.
DD: How did you learn to grow?
P: I’m mostly self-taught. I’ve had some HIGH TIMES and some grow books but, like I said, I became obsessed. I remember these South Americans I used to buy schwag from laughing at me when I told them about indoor growing. They told me, “You need acres of fields to make a profit.”
What are the disadvantages of an urban growroom?
First off, everyone is so close together. Growing in apartments or houses with millions of neighbors, you have to be very aware of odors and flooding, which are less of a concern to those with more space. Sometimes it’s not so easy to get rid of used dirt here in the concrete jungle, whereas someone in the country can just haul it out back. Also, there’s more of a thuggish element that preys on growers, who can’t run to the NYPD for help. It really pays to keep a low public profile.
The biggest advantage by far is the money. I can easily pull $6,000 a pound for my best stuff, and I don’t know anywhere else in the world—besides maybe Japan—where I can get that much so easily. People here are spenders and they want the best no matter what it costs. I’ve seen Sour Diesel sell for $2,000 for a quarter-pound. Delivery guys are breaking that up into 1.8 grams for fifty bucks. That’s almost an $800 ounce!
Another advantage is the vastness of the city: It provides natural cover I wouldn’t have anywhere else. It seems like people aren’t as nosy and mind their own business, for the most part. And, hopefully, the cops are busy with more serious crimes. I’ve been out to California, and it’s all love over there. People help each other out and there’s a whole like-minded community of support. Here, we’re in a war.
Have you ever been busted?
No, thankfully not, but I’ve had several close calls. I’ve had to shut down rooms in the middle of the night, and that is not fun. Let’s just say the super for my current building gets really amazing tips.
Soil or hydro?
My first instincts were hydro, and I really went for it. The problem was, the more crises that arose, the more money I spent, until I had water chillers, air pumps, tons of tubing, chemicals to get the water just right—I even bought some kind of zapper to send electric jolts through the nutrient solution to kill bad organisms. Then I realized I could just be using a soil-based medium in buckets and get similar results for way less money. I don’t have to worry about high water temperatures or leaks. So many things I used to bug out about are no longer an issue. And it’s a lot easier to move or shut down my operation now. It took me a long time and a lot of trial and error to learn this lesson.
What do you grow in?
My partner Tru-Skillz and I fill three-gallon buckets with Pro-Mix [a peat-based mix with perlite], and that’s it. All the food they get is delivered by the nutrients. Each week, we feed them nutrient solution five days in a row; on the sixth day, we flush them with plain water, and on the seventh day, they rest.
Just like in the Bible. What do you use for nutrients?
We’re using the three-part General Hydroponics as a base and then supplement that with Advanced Nutrients additives like B-52, Big Bud and Overdrive. I find that the Advanced stuff really helps with bud size and resin production. We also use a great product called Hygrozyme during the vegetative stage.
How long do you vegetate your plants?
We veg them for one month. Then we cut the light cycle to 11 hours of light to trigger flowering. After a week, we switch to 12 hours of light per day, and after two months they’re done. The last week, all they get is plain water to flush out excess nutrient.
What strains are you currently growing?
We grow Sensi Star and Strawberry Cough right now—we call her Strawberry Haze around here. I’m working with a Sour Diesel mother, and I hope to flower clones from her soon. I’m always looking for new genetics to try out. Maybe y’all can help me out with that? (laughs)
Any closing thoughts or advice?
A great grower taught me, “Never put minor before major.” I’ve seen a lot of growers get bogged down in little things while ignoring huge gaping problems. Plants need light, water, air and food. Provide these in the right amounts and you’ll be golden. Oh, and deal with spider mites as soon as you see any sign of them. Don’t let them get a foothold on your plants or you’re in for a war. The last thing is this: Choose your strains wisely, because only certain ones get top dollar, and I can count them on one hand.
1. Don’t skimp on home remedies for pH up and down. Vinegar and baking soda cause problems of their own with salt build-ups. Buy the real-deal stuff at a grow store.
2. Keep humidity between 45% and 65%, with 55% being the ideal. Low humidity will lead to decreased yields. Get a mister or humidifier if necessary.
3. Growing in the city requires extreme air filtration. Get the biggest can filter you can find and run all exhausted air through it. We have a whole room dedicated to controlling odors.
4. Transplant into larger containers one week before inducing flowering to allow the roots to spread out.
5. If you don’t have enough air conditioners to keep temperatures below 90ºF, take the summer off.