How a former Sunset editor became a cannabis expert

Through life changes, former Sunset garden editor Johanna Silver keeps learning.|

Just days after COVID-19 closed down California last year, former Sunset magazine Garden Editor and James Beard Award-winning author Johanna Silver saw the publication of her new book, “Growing Weed in the Garden: A No-Fuss, Seed-to-Stash Guide to Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation” (Abrams, 2020).

However difficult the timing, the debut proved to be a significant next step in Silver’s jam-packed career, putting her on a new path in horticulture in the wake of a pair of major life changes — motherhood and the loss of her job.

After spending two years on “Growing Weed,” which followed her previous book, “The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden” (Timber Press, 2017), Silver realized the unforeseen pandemic shutdown was not the best time for a book launch. Copies were stuck in the warehouse as the long-awaited launch, book tour and talks were scrapped.

“It was all a bummer, but at the time it was not important,” Silver said. “The publicity eventually happened; it was salvaged, but the new book didn’t bring with it a return to a career I was excited about.”

She spent last year parenting her toddler son, who has now started preschool. During the pandemic shutdown, her virtual book launch and writing for publications such as Better Homes and Gardens, The San Francisco Chronicle and Martha Stewart Living kept her busy.

“While my son was home full-time, I wrote during his naps and in the evening when he was asleep,” she recalled. Now with more time to herself, “I’m still struggling with pandemic malaise and am not super-motivated for more.”

Even so, she is looking forward to continuing her journey in gardening.

Urban upbringing

Silver grew up in an urban setting in Denver. She had no connection to plants or gardening until, in a college study abroad program, she visited rural areas for the first time in her life, in England, the Philippines, New Zealand and Mexico.

“I discovered I really loved gardening,” she said. “I thought my path was chosen — finding an issue and running with it, like food security and growing food.”

After college, she worked on a small CSA farm outside Denver and loved the hard physical work. She became “a worker bee with a shovel in my hand. It was all a learning experience. I didn’t know what kale was, and I had hardly eaten chard before.”

Silver moved to California in 2007 for a teaching internship at the Slide Ranch in Marin County. In a pivotal moment in 2008, she applied to be the test garden manager at the well-known Sunset magazine home campus in Menlo Park, a job that entailed building and growing gardens for magazine features.

Silver learned by some trial and error, killing a lot of plants but getting a valuable hands-on education in the process. Silver was responsible for the year’s editorial lineup, in tandem with longtime Garden Editor Kathy Brenzel, who focused on editing and updating “The Sunset Western Garden Book” and other gardening publications. It was an exciting decade, unfolding at a time when people were becoming more interested in urban gardening.

For years, “The Sunset Western Garden Book” and Sunset magazine were trend-setters, main sources for gardening, homemaking and living in the West. Many people eagerly anticipated each new edition of “Western Garden” and kept magazine articles for reference for years.

“I slowly cut my teeth (at Sunset) and learned how to interview, pitch and write stories and blogs for the magazine,” Silver said. “I had a lot of freedom to develop articles and styles; it was a great opportunity to be creative.”

Like many publications, Sunset gradually incorporated video into their storytelling.

“I loved learning new things. ... There was never a dull moment,” Silver said. “It was a home away from home, and the people there were like family. I can’t speak highly enough about the managing editor, Alan Phinney, who believed in me before I believed in myself. I feel so lucky for this chapter of my life.”

Life changes

But that chapter didn’t last. After a series of downsizing moves at the magazine, Silver lost her job a week before her maternity leave ended.

“It was a pretty big blow,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it. I had just become a mother.”

The Southern Pacific Railroad began Sunset magazine in 1898 to promote the West and encourage people to travel to the area. The Lane family bought Sunset in 1929 and refocused it to highlight Western lifestyles. It was sold in 1990, to Time Warner, and again in 2017, to private equity firm Regent. The iconic Menlo Park campus was sold in 2014.

With each change and downsizing, “we tried as long as we could to keep the magazine solid editorially,” Silver said. Sunset moved from Menlo Park to Oakland, and, Silver said, “At this time, we were proud of the accomplishment of initiating new gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma in collaboration with the magazine, despite having very few staff.”

After losing her Sunset job, Silver said, she was confused about what to do next. So she contacted former editors for ideas and connections. The San Francisco Chronicle engaged her to grow cannabis in her backyard in Berkeley, as the basis for a 10-part series on cannabis growing for the home gardener.

Silver knew nothing about growing cannabis, not even how to find and buy seeds. Eventually, “one search led to another” and Silver met and was mentored by some very helpful and knowledgeable people, including the founder and owner of Humboldt Seed Company, a geneticist and cannabis breeder as well as farmer and gardener.

Meeting only with licensed outdoor growers, Silver said, “I saw a mix of stewardship and regenerative farming, some really lovely farms, a lot of really dreamy off-grid situations. ... I was very moved by many things, how connected to the land (farmers) were and what stewardship and ownership they expressed.”

Her new book delves deeply into cannabis growing and is full of very approachable information.

“I feel like I started my career with gardens on a farm and then developed it with Sunset,” Silver said. “Now I want my own garden and want it to be really beautiful — a place people want to be in. I still want to hone my ability as a gardener.”

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at:, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool.

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