Keeping up with George Bianchini can be difficult. As the 58-year-old hobbles around his Marin County property with the help of a cane, words tumble out of his soft, friendly face in a torrent.
We're on his fenced-in spread in a small community just off of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard near Fairfax. Below our feet is hardscape: rocks, gravel, concrete, and artificial turf. All around us are plants. There are peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and squash growing out of planter pots set up on turf that used to be Bianchini's private mini-golf course. Underneath a shaded trellis on what was the bocce ball court are delicate greens, including lettuce and peas.
All this produce requires a lot of water: 700 gallons a day, to be precise, according to Bianchini's last bill. But he says he can cut that number in half, thanks to an ancient dry-farming method that can save California from itself during this drought.
“You don't need to have a dead-brown lawn,” he says, his eyes lighting up like a department store Santa Claus. “Times have changed and we need to adjust the way we use water. But that doesn't mean we have to suffer at all.”
The vegetables surrounding us are never watered. Not directly. Demonstrating on one of the squashes placed atop wooden slats over a large tray, Bianchini reveals the secret: a length of nylon rope, the kind used to tie up boats. It runs from a hole underneath the plant's container into the tray, which is filled with water. The rope is the plant's straw.
This is the “wicking” method Bianchini, the founder and CEO of pre-roll joint company Medi-Cone, has borrowed from the Aztecs. Dry farmers who learned to cultivate gardens in arid conditions like California's, the Aztecs used vines to link covered reservoirs with food-bearing plants (Bianchini wanted to use hemp rope, he told me, but it didn't work. “Too fibrous,” he says).
By covering the water source, losses to evaporation — as much as 33 percent — are eliminated immediately. The plant takes care of much of the rest, by regulating its own water intake. Bianchini's plants can “drink” water through a rope that's as long as two feet — and they appear to be judicious with their water intake.
“They use exactly the amount of water they need,” Bianchini says. “And the plants are healthier.”
Bianchini thinks this strategy can bail out farmers and their crops punished by the California drought. That includes the Emerald Triangle marijuana growers who are blamed for draining mountain creeks dry and poisoning ancient redwoods with toxic fertilizer.
He's excited about it, and wants to spread the word. Hence my visit on a sunny weekend, about 10 days after he invited some 100 people — news crews, his neighbors, and anyone else who would come — out to see the garden in action.
I follow Bianchini as he limps around the side of the house to the backyard. Here, the land slopes steadily upwards into a tree-covered hillside. Near the property line are four large water tanks, which Bianchini says he can fill just by capturing rainwater and runoff that falls onto the property.
This is the sophisticated, marijuana-friendly setup (though Bianchini is demonstrating it with sunflowers). The tanks feed lines that run underneath the hardscape into 22-gallon plastic tubs, the kind sold at Wal-Mart, buried just underneath the ground. These are the “reservoirs.” More ropes run up from the reservoirs to crops planted in plastic kiddie pools placed on top.
If a grower doesn't want to bother running yards and yards of lines, the reservoir can be fed by a 55-gallon plastic barrel set up near each plant. That will be enough water to feed the monster plants that produce five pounds of marijuana a year for about two weeks. Meanwhile, the plastic kiddie pool shields the fish emulsion, bat guano and other nitrogen-rich fertilizer from leaching into the rest of the environment.
It's simple and it's cheap, and perfect for the cannabis grower set up on a remote hillside. It's also impossible to patent, which is fine with Bianchini, who has no plan to even try to make any money off of it.
“You really don't need a 'system,'” he says. “All you need to know is the concept.” If it worked for the Aztecs, and it works on thirsty marijuana crop, it can work for the rest of us.