When locals enter the Grow Store in Colorado Springs asking for advice about growing "tomatoes," store manager Cory Gallagher knows they're not all seeking the plump, red fruit needed to perfect their homemade salsa.
"Some people will come in and say they want advice on how to grow tomatoes and stick with it, but others will approach it a little more directly, asking for help with 'tomato plants' right off the bat," says Gallagher, lowering his voice and rolling out the air quotes.
Tomato plants have become code for marijuana plants in many garden stores, says Tony Carmendy, owner of Pikes Peak Alternative Health and Wellness. It's because of the U.S. government's prohibition of marijuana cultivation of any kind; vendors are often regulated by federal rules that make suppliers nervous to sell to medical marijuana centers like PPAHW.
But supplies are available, whether covertly or not, so there are options for the patient interested in growing his or her six state-allotted plants. Those patients will find cost savings as compared to purchasing marijuana in a center, and some will discover growing to be therapeutic, says Gallagher.
It's just not an endeavor for the half-hearted.
"It's an investment just like any other," he says. "If it's done well, it can pay off in the end, but if not, it can get expensive if something goes wrong."
For beginners, Gallagher estimates a basic soil setup for six plants will cost between $300 and $350. The bulk of that goes to lights — one for vegetative, and another for flowering, plants — that run about $100 each. Pots are fairly low-cost, usually under $20; soil's around $40; and nutrients, $30.
Gallagher recommends starting with seeds or clippings from a vegetative plant, rather than clones, in order to avoid beginning with a plant that may already be contaminated by pests or mold. Prices range slightly depending on the strain, but run roughly $15 per seed.
Getting started with a hydroponic system requires a larger investment, likely in the $500 range, says Gallagher. But the less demanding upkeep may be worth a larger initial cost: The system requires around one day per week of work once it's functioning, while the soil plants require regular watering and new soil with every cycle.
"Sometimes it just comes down to your instincts," Gallagher says. "Either you have a green thumb or you don't; and sometimes you can try to do everything right, and it just doesn't work."
The center owner says most people who are looking to grow will live in an urban area, which means they often have to conceal their plants to keep the neighborly peace; basements and cabinets with doors provide an easily manipulated space.
Pikes Peak Alternative Health and Wellness Center offers a month-long "grow college" for $250 to help educate new growers about equipment, basic techniques and troubleshooting. Likewise, most dispensaries will be able to help out in some way. And there are classes available via Denver-based Cannabis University (cannabisuniversitycolorado.com).
In general, the biggest concerns for most growers are mildew and pests that could potentially damage their property, Gallagher says. Though Colorado's dry air helps against that, a supplemental fan can really improve air circulation, reducing most concerns.
And regardless, Gallagher says, the best practice is a proactive approach: "Keeping a clean environment is key," he says. "Whether you're using soil or hydro, it doesn't matter — it all needs to be clean and maintained well."
Before you do any of that, though?
"Try tomato plants first," says Carmendy. "If they die on you, don't waste the money."