Tobacco Growing and Curing at Home.
Firstly, a warning. smoking can be bad for your health. So can drinking, singing off key, sleeping with your neighbour's wife, too many fatty foods, too much meat, not enough meat, too many vegetables, not enough veg....... well, you get the picture. This hub is not about health issues or hobby-horses, it's about growing tobacco and curing it. What you do with it then is your own damned business.
Secondly, don't break the law. Here in New Zealand you can buy tobacco seed, grow the stuff, and, if you want to, smoke it quite lawfully. You may not lawfully sell it, barter it or give it away. The same regulations govern brewing, wine making and the distilling of alcoholic beverages. If you live elsewhere check your local legislation to ensure that you comply.
Having got that of my chairy little hest, lets get down to the nitty gritty:
Anyone Can Grow Tobacco Successfully !
Virginia Tobacco, the stuff of commerce, is one of the most hardy plants you'll ever grow. If where you live is warm enough to grow cabbages, tobacco will thrive. If it's warmer there, all the better. I grow it in a tiny section where I live, 400ft. (120 metres) above sea level, with a moderate semi coastal climate. For three months of winter we have occasional light frosts, some bitterly strong winds, some hail. I planted a few seedlings in February last year as an experiment. That's late summer here in the Southern Hemisphere. They were small plants, about 2ft (60cm.) high when winter hit. They stopped growing until spring. The leaves stayed healthy - no wilting or browning, and around the end of September off they went again. Compared with correctly grown plants they were small, but still over 6ft high.(I'll continue this in feet and inches only, for the sake of our American cousins. For those of you more comfortable in metrics, 1 ft. = 30cm.)
I got tired of fighting past the damn' things to get to my garden shed and pulled them out last May, still healthy and hardy, with a root system the size of a football.
What You Need.
- Seeds: You can buy seeds here in NZ from Kings Seeds in Katikati,
- Somewhere to grow the seedlings: a sunny window-sill is fine. The seed is tiny, like ground pepper. Put seed-growing mix, or a mixture of fine soil and sand in a shallow container, (a 2 lt.-about 3 pint, ice-cream container with a few drain-holes punched in the bottom is good, or one of those little 6 part seed trays you got some other seedlings in, or a small egg tray for that matter.) Stand the tray in a dish or suchlike so that you can water it without soaking the carpet, sprinkle seed very lightly over the soil, and water. It's probably best to water by standing the container in an inch or two of water in a bucket or the sink to soak, then allowing to drain before you put it on it's dish. Cover with a newspaper, bit of cardboard or some-such and keep damp. In about 2 weeks the seedlings should start showing. Be warned, I used the barest pinch of seeds sprinkled into a six pot seed tray and got over 100 plants! Thin the seedlings as soon as they're big enough, either to individual 4in pots, or about a dozen to an ice-cream container. When they're about 4in high, and after frosts, plant out. See my reply to Patty Inglish's comment, (first one, below) for extra seedgrowing tips.
- Somewhere to grow the plants. The seedlings need to be planted with a minimum spacing of 2ft between plants and the same between rows, although 3ft between rows is better. They prefer full sun but will grow well in partial shade.The leaves can be up to 2ft long each, droop, and grow on a main stalk from ground level up, diminishing in size with height. A full grown plant is 7ft tall, and self supporting.
How Many Plants?
This depends on what you want the tobacco for. Just for the fun of growing the stuff and possibly to use the leaves to make a bug spray a couple of plants are fine. If you want to cure and smoke it, put in at least a dozen plants if possible. If you can't, stick in as much as you can.
This seems a good place to take you by the hand (Not too close!) and walk you through some simple basic arithmetic, if you haven't already done so yourself. Take what you pay a week on smoking (probably around $50), multiply it by 52 to find what it costs you a year(over $2,500?), subtract the one time only cost of the seed ($2.50 buys about 1,000 seeds, down the road from me) and the cost of the couple of cups of seed-raising mix and fertiliser you may have bought. Still over $2,500? Well, you probably displaced 12 cabbage to grow enough tobacco to keep you in cancer sticks for a year, go figure.
Now that you've your tobacco planted out behind the wife's begonias (it's quite an attractive ornamental with small pretty pink flowers), along a wall, down the drive, in a bed of its own, all of the above, where-ever, how do you raise the delicate little darlings? Well, short of dynamiting it, running it over with a ten ton digger, seering it with a flame thrower, or soaking the stuff in weed-killer, tobacco pretty much looks after itself. Treat it as you would tomatoes: Plant it in reasonably rich well dug soil, (with well composted vegetable matter if you've got it) water it regularly in dry weather, give it a side dressing of general garden fertiliser now and again, weed around it, and thats about it. You can sit back, drink your moonshine, (I'm doing a Hub on distilling, later) and watch it grow.
When it gets bigger, you'll see small tobacco plants starting to grow as side-shoots from the main stalk at the base of the leaves - the same as tomatoes and that other stuff some people smoke. The same rules apply: Pinch out or otherwise remove them. If you plant them, they'll grow for a later crop. When the plants reach maturity they'll set flower heads at the top. Pinch them out. You may need to stand on something to do it! I suggest that you leave one plant to flower for seed.
Here in New Zealand nothing much seems to bug tobacco, - or mine any-way, either from above or below ground. After all, cigarette butts soaked in a bucket of water was an old way of making insect spray that my parents and grandparents used. If you do have problems see your local nurseryman, or talk to a friend who gardens. What works on tomatoes should work on tobacco.
You might try planting cabbage amongst the 'backy to deter the cabbage butterfly; I intend to this year.
Harvesting and Curing
A lot of unmitigated drivel is put about over the difficulty of curing tobacco. I believe that it's an evil plot put out by the tobacco magnates and perpetuated by our respective but seldom respected or respectable Governments to wring money from us unnecessarily. Curing tobacco is basically the drying of it in a moderately controlled environment. There are all sorts of bells and whistles you can add to enhance the end result, but YOU DON'T HAVE TO! You can make a perfectly acceptable product by just drying the leaves adequately, slicing them thinly, rolling them in cigarette paper, and setting them alight, - so put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Picking The Leaves
As Mrs Beeton once said "Oh Sh-", I'm sorry, I mean "To make jugged hare first catch your hare." The same goes with tobacco: to cure it, first you gotta pick it. You're not in the commercial growing business, you're not paying for labour, and, hopefully, you've a bit of time to spare, so take your time and pick the leaves as they come ready. Around the time that flower-heads start to form and the plants are full grown the bottom leaves will be ready to pick. If they show signs of yellowing before this pick them straight away. Take the leaves, cut a slit near the butt end of the centre rib of each leaf, feed a thin tomato stake or similar through these slits so that when you hold the stick horizontally (that's the way you have to hang them), the leaves hang down about an inch apart, and hang these sticks somewhere dry, out of the way and preferably warm. An attic is great, so is from the garage rafters, provided you still have head-room. You can string the leaves on a length of wire, a chord stretched between two nails, use your imagination.
Keep picking the leaves over the next weeks when you think that they're ready. Too early or a bit of yellowing before picking will make damn'-all difference to the end product; one of the reasons that I suggest that you pick this way is so that you don't get thoroughly sick of slitting and hanging the beastly stuff! It also gives the higher leaves a chance to grow a bit more.
Don't look now but you've already done it - well, good enough for the average punter. You've hung the leaves in a warm(ish), dry, preferably dark and airy environment not touching the walls or floor, you've checked them occasionally to see that they haven't jammed up together on their' sticks, or gone moldy, or the mice haven't developed a bad nicotine habit, and you've made sure that they haven't become so dry that they're brittle - dry means they're not rained on, or so wet that they rot. If the brittle bit looks a problem, move them to somewhere cooler, or you could spray them using one of those very fine misters you can buy for a few dollars to do house plants.
The only other basic for curing is time. Time is said to cure all things, and tobacco is near the top of the list. Some say that it should be left hanging for two years. I've found that one year is quite enough. (I turned out a first class flake tobacco from some leaf that I'd left in a box in a corner of my garage for a year, and forgotten about.) A friend hangs his tobacco for about three months, by which time it has both a nice colour and texture, then cuts it and uses it straight away.
Preparing The End Product.
I assume that you want to either roll your own, or stoke a pipe. Preparing the leaf is the same for both: Take a leaf, strip out the center rib and any large side ribs if it's a big leaf, repeat for several leaves until you have a reasonable handful and then proceed in one of the following ways:
- Squeeze the leaves together into a tight bundle and using a very sharp knife and a chopping board slice the tobacco as thinly as you can. cut it cross-ways a few times and you're there. This is tedious, but it costs you nothing other than time, and it does the job.
- Buy a hand operated tobacco slicer. A friend brought one back from Holland a few days ago. He bought it new for around 20euro. It consists of a cast metal cylinder about the size of the cardboard tube at the center of a toilet roll, cut in half length-ways with a hinge on one side and a clamp on the other, so that it can be opened, stuffed full of leaf, and clamped shut. It has a flat plate attached to a worm at one end of the cylinder and a small guillotine at the other, linked to the worm by levers and a ratchet. Operating the guillotine causes the worm to turn and slowly drive the wad of leaves down the cylinder. A fiendish device, but I suspect not much faster than cutting by hand.
- Claude Desgroseilliers has sent me the following suggestion. It's brilliant."I use a hand operated pasta machine to slice my tobacco leaves, my machine has two attachments, one for spaghetti which I use to cut the tobacco." http://www.kasbahouse.com/villawareonline/images/atlas.jpg)
- Try my way, I'm basically a lazy bugger: Do the first way suggested, but don't muck about trying to fine cut everything. Fast and rough is good enough.Then chuck the lot into a food processor with a sharp bottom blade fitted and zap it until the fineness of the flake suits you. This also has the advantage that if you think that the tobacco leaf was a bit dry, or you want to enhance the flavour, you can dissolve a little honey in a couple of teaspoons of alcohol (port, rum, vodka, moon-shine) and dribble it in as you zap.
Further up the page I suggested that you let one plant flower for seed. This has several points of merit:
- You don't have to fork out another $2.50 for seed. In fact, a little bit of bartering will get your money back.
- You may have had difficulty getting seed in the first place. Problem solved!
- The seed will have adapted to your environment.
- I can't be bothered, think up a few for yourself.
Presuming that you did this, what do you do next? Well, here goes another list:
- Let the flowers bloom and die off. Little green capsules about 1/4in long will be left behind. (These have some glorious botanical name it doesn't matter a bit about. You know what to look for.) You'll have lots of them.
- Let them dry out, they'll turn dark brown and eventually start to split.
- At this point pick them. This is sequential; they are ready over a period of weeks, think of the fun you can have. Actually each capsule has dozens of seeds so one picking of ready seed-heads is more than ample, unless you have several acres you want to plant out.
- Put a fine sieve in the top of a clean dry bowl, or on a sheet of paper, break the seed-heads into it and rub the central core to get the seeds off.
- Gently shake the sieve. The seeds will pass through, most of the rubbish will stay behind.
- Store the seeds safely. Wrapped in a spill of paper or square of toilet tissue and placed in a little jar or pill container is fine. Keep in a cool dry place out of direct light.
And that's about it. I hope that you learned what you wanted from this article. There are other ways to grow tobacco, and other ways to cure the stuff. Some are undoubtedly better. I don't think many would be easier, or cheaper, and I know what I've written about works, because I've done it.
Have fun, good luck, and thanks for dropping in.