High on Gardening

Tara Ragsdale-Cronin, left, and her mother Susan, a founder of the Merry Jane Gardening Club, inside their medicinal herb garden in Del Rey Oaks.

The phrase “garden club” falsely conjures a genteel image – mostly women of a certain age and class getting together over tea and crumpets and talking leaf blight and showing off their best roses. But the Garden Club of America, formed in 1913, represents 18,000 garden clubs across the country with a mission not only to “stimulate the knowledge and love of gardening,” but also to protect the environment through educational programs and conservation activism. (Pay attention to the activism part, it’s an important one.) Garden clubs have become hip enough they even have their own anime series, The Garden Club Detective Squad.

And to the constellation of hip clubs comes one based in Del Rey Oaks, with a mission to educate nascent gardeners about the ins and outs of home-grown cannabis. The Merry Jane Gardening Club, founded by Simeon Etoria, Susan Ragsdale-Cronin and her daughter, Tara, holds virtual meetings from 2-3pm every Saturday on subjects as varied as how to support the mindful growing of cannabis, which strains are best for particular purposes and how to create great organic soil. Membership runs $10 a month.

Etoria’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, and he works as a personal coach and real estate investor. He and Susan connected last year, when he was living in Monterey, before he temporarily moved to Texas to attend to some real estate business.

“My ancestors used it for medication and for just having fun,” Etoria says. “Meeting Susan, a plant lady who can say, ‘This is what this does,’ was a magnet for me and that’s how I got involved.

“We’re giving people an outlet, a safe space to talk about what’s going on with them,” he says. “Whether it’s depression, anxiety or stress, there are things that can help you, and it’s not only growing your own plants, but using them in recipes.”

Ragsdale-Cronin, meanwhile, had for years been involved in growing plants in her lush Del Rey Oaks yard, and manufacturing tinctures and salves in her kitchen. But with the advent of Prop. 64, which legalized the adult use of cannabis for all, she found securing permits for manufacturing at scale was wildly cost prohibitive.

“Being a plant person and healer is what I am, and I thought, I need to do this for free,” she says. “There are a lot of people out there with issues and Western medicine leaves a lot of people lonely and isolated and all of their money going to pay for prescription medicines. We’ve been racking our brains trying to figure out how to reach them.”

One member, Brenda Lewis, turned to cannabis two years ago after back surgery left her in unrelenting pain – and on so many pills a day with so many nasty side effects that there was almost no point in taking them.

She met Ragsdale-Cronin on a neighborhood app when she posted two kittens she had found for adoption; while delivering the pair to Ragsdale-Cronin, they struck up a conversation about cannabis and how it might help her.

“I stopped taking the medications and went through about five weeks of hell, and even after that I had blood pressure issues because my pain level was off the charts,” Lewis says. “I started with CBD capsules, but they didn’t do much, and Susan taught me about different strains and what they can do. When it became legal to grow it, I started growing it.”

Her first year’s effort failed because Lewis hadn’t realized that male and female plants have to be separated, or else the male will fertilize the female, resulting in so many seeds that they’re impossible to pick out. Last summer’s crop she calls “gorgeous,” but extreme heat followed by swampy humidity caused most of the plants to mold.

Still, she calls cannabis her saving grace. “I feel so much better now, there’s no comparison,” she says. “When you go to a dispensary and buy cannabis, you don’t know how they grew it or if they used chemicals or sprays. The only way you know is to grow it yourself and thanks to the Merry Jane Gardening Club, I’ve been able to do it successfully.”

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