How to Grow and Cure Tobacco at Home
Firstly, a warning: smoking can be bad for your health. That being said, so can drinking, singing off-key, eating too much (or not enough meat), and so on. You get the picture. This article is not about health issues or hobbyhorses; 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 legally sell it, trade it, or give it away. The same regulations govern brewing, winemaking, and the distilling of alcoholic beverages. If you live elsewhere, check your local legislation to ensure that you're operating within the law.
Having gotten that off my hairy little chest, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.
Anyone Can Grow Tobacco Successfully!
Virginia tobacco, the stuff of commerce, is one of the hardiest plants you'll ever grow. If where you live is warm enough to grow cabbage, tobacco will thrive. If it's warmer there, that's even better.
I grow tobacco in a tiny area where I live, about 400 feet (120 metres) above sea level, with a moderate, semi-coastal climate. For three months of winter, we have occasional light frosts, bitterly strong winds, and 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, but the leaves stayed healthy—no wilting or browning—and around the end of September, they took off again. Compared with correctly grown plants, they were small, but still over 6ft high.
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.
Note: I'll continue this in feet and inches only, for the sake of our American cousins. For those of you more comfortable with metrics, 1 ft. = 30cm.
What You'll Need
- Seeds: You can buy seeds here in NZ from Kings Seeds in Katikati. For North American readers, use Victory Seed Co. in Oregon. My thanks to YouGrowGirl for this contact. Elsewhere, try local seed merchants, heritage seed suppliers, or the Internet. When ordering online, be sure to check importing restrictions.
- Somewhere to grow the seedlings: A sunny window-sill is fine. The seed is tiny, like ground pepper, so it won't need much space at first.
- A shallow container: An ice-cream container with a few drain holes punched in the bottom works well. A six-part seed tray other seedlings come in or even a small egg tray would also work.
- Seed-growing mix, or a mixture of fine soil and sand
- A bucket: This will come in handy when you soak your seedlings.
- Somewhere to grow the plants: The seedlings need to be planted with a minimum spacing of 2ft between seedlings and 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 the main stalk from ground level up, diminishing in size with height. A full-grown plant is 7ft tall and self-supporting, so make sure you have enough space before you start growing.
- A small knife: This will be used to slit the leaves and prepare them for curing.
- Thin tomato stake (or something similar)
- A length of cord or wire
- Nails: You'll use these last three items to hang your tobacco leaves to cure. Measure the space you'll be using to see how much wire/cord you'll need. Two nails are enough to hang one length of cord/wire. Plan accordingly.
- A warm, dry place to cure your tobacco: Attics and garages typically work best.
- Knife and cutting board, food processor, tobacco slicer, OR pasta maker: See the section below on "Preparing the End Product" and choose whichever method suits you best.
How Many Plants Do You Need?
This depends on what you want the tobacco for. If it's 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 and walk you through some basic arithmetic if you haven't already done so yourself. Take what you pay a week for smoking (probably around $50). Multiply it by 52 to find what it costs you a year (over $2,500?). Subtract the one-time cost of the seed ($2.50 buys about 1,000 seeds at the shop down the road from me) and the price of the couple of cups of seed-raising mix and fertiliser you may have purchased. You probably displaced 12 cabbages to grow enough tobacco to keep you in cancer sticks for a year. Go figure.
How to Plant Tobacco Seedlings
- Put seed-growing mix, or a mixture of fine soil and sand in a shallow container.
- Stand the tray in a dish so that you can water it without soaking the carpet.
- Sprinkle seeds very lightly over the soil, and water (note: It's probably best to do this by placing the container in a bucket or the sink to soak in an inch or two of water, then allowing it to drain before you put it back on its dish).
- Cover with a newspaper or a bit of cardboard and keep damp.
- In about 2 weeks, the seedlings should start showing.
- Thin the seedlings as soon as they're big enough, either placing individuals into four-inch pots or about a dozen into an ice-cream container.
- When they're about four inches high, and after the last of the frost, plant them out.
Be warned: I used the barest pinch of seeds sprinkled into a six-pot seed tray and got over 100 plants!
Maintaining Your Tobacco Plants
Now that you've got your tobacco planted—it's quite an attractive ornamental with small, pretty, pink flowers—how do you raise the delicate little darlings? Well, short of dynamiting them, running them over with a ten-ton digger, searing them with a flamethrower, 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.
- Sit back, drink your moonshine (I'm doing an article on distilling, later), and watch it grow.
Note: 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 with 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 as well. You may need to stand on something to do it! I suggest that you leave one plant to flower for seed.
Keeping Pests Away From Your Tobacco Plants
Here in New Zealand, nothing much seems to bug tobacco, or mine anyway, 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. Generally, 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 Your Tobacco
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 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 and Hanging the Leaves
As Mrs. Beeton once said: "To make jugged hare, first catch your hare." The same goes with tobacco: to cure it, first, you've gotta pick it. If you've got a bit of time to spare, take your time and pick the leaves as they come ready. Around the time that flower-heads start to form and the plants are fully grown, the bottom leaves will be ready to pick. If they show signs of yellowing before this, pick them straight away.
- Pick whichever leaves are ready (see above), and cut a slit near the butt end of the centre rib of each leaf.
- Feed a thin tomato stake (or something 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.
- Hang these sticks somewhere dry, out of the way, and preferably warm. An attic or garage rafters are great, provided you still have headroom. You can string the leaves on a length of wire, a cord stretched between two nails, use your imagination.
- Make sure leaves are not touching the walls or floor.
Here are a couple things to be on the lookout for as your tobacco is curing:
- Keep leaves well separated from one another.
- Make sure they don't go moldy OR brittle (dry only means they're not rained on, or so wet that they rot. If it looks like your leaves are becoming too brittle, move them somewhere cooler, or spray them using one of those very fine misters you can buy for a few dollars to do houseplants.)
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 enough for the average punter, at least. The only other basis 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, though 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 a cigarette or use 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 this process for several leaves until you have a generous handful, and then proceed in one of the following ways:
- The old-fashioned way: Squeeze the leaves together into a tight bundle. Using a very sharp knife and a chopping board, slice the tobacco as thinly as you can. Then 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.
- My favorite way (the lazy bugger method): Begin the process outlined above, but don't muck about trying to finely cut everything. Fast and rough is good enough.Then chuck the lot into a food processor with a sharp bottom blade 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 too dry, or you want to enhance the flavour, you can dissolve a little honey in a couple teaspoons of alcohol (port, rum, vodka, or moonshine) and dribble it in as you zap.
- The fancy way: Buy a hand operated tobacco slicer. 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. While interesting and inexpensive, I suspect this method is not much faster than cutting by hand.
- *Bonus* clever way: Claude Desgroseilliers has sent me the following brilliant suggestion: "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."
Optional: How to Harvest Tobacco Seeds
Further up the page, I suggested that you let one plant flower for seed. This has several advantages:
- You don't have to fork out another $2.50 for seed. In fact, a little bit of bartering might even 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?
- Let the flowers bloom and die off. Little green capsules about 1/4in long will be left behind. (These have some glorious botanical name that doesn't matter a bit. 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 won't happen all at once, as they become ready over a period of weeks. In fact, 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 seedheads into it and rub the central core to get the seeds off.
- Gently shake the sieve. The seeds will pass through while most of the rubbish will stay behind.
- Store the seeds safely. Wrapping them in a bit of paper or square of toilet tissue and placing them in a little jar or pill container is fine. Keep in a cool, dry place out of direct light.
That's All, Folks
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, but I don't think many would be easier or cheaper than the method I've described, and I know what I've written about works because I've done it.
Have fun, good luck, and thanks for dropping in.
Questions & Answers
How fast does tobaco grow?
From seedling to mature plant (in a temperate climate) in about three months if planted in late Spring - early Summer; longer if planted later.