When pondering the Zombie Apocalypse, Mayan Meltdown, Government Collapse, or whatever disaster awaits us, a tobacco shortage is on every smoker’s mind. We don’t smoke at The Spin, but we also recognize that sometimes the things that bring joy to life are not the healthiest habits in the world. We are all free choose our own vices, and there’s no reason why we can’t make it a little healthier. Growing your own tobacco is one way to go!
Is growing tobacco legal? Yep! What is not legal is growing it and distributing it for sale; you need a government license for that. But you’re more than welcome to grow your own tobacco for personal use, and here are the basics:
GENERAL GROWING CONDITIONS
Tobacco grows best in a sunny location. While you can grow tobacco in shadier locales, the plants will be thin and spindly and will not likely make you happy with the results.
The soil needs to be well-drained to avoid rot, and the ideal pH is about 5.8. Once pH gets to about 6.5 and above growth disorders start to occur. Whether this would be detrimental to the home grower probably depends upon a few factors, but it’s not a bad idea to have your soil checked if you are serious about growing your own supply of tobacco.
Tobacco plants can only be grown on a piece of land once every four or five years to avoid disease. And, tobacco is related to tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, so this means that during the “off” years, these vegetables can’t be grown on that plot, either. Good plants for crop rotation include grasses or other vegetables that are not related to tobacco such as beans or squashes.
STARTING SEEDS AND TRANSPLANTING
Tobacco seeds can be purchased from different suppliers such as The New Hope Seed Company, The Tobacco Seed Company, Victory Seeds, and the Sustainable Seed Company. The sites have an overview of the many kinds of tobacco you can buy, so you can select the variety that will best meet your needs, whether you intend to smoke it or chew it. You can even choose heirloom varieties!
Tobacco seeds are about the tiniest seeds you can plant! Think grains of sand are small? Ha! Because of this seeds need to be planted indoors first so you can keep an eye on things. Mixing the seed with a bit of sand first is a safe way to make sure you don’t plant them too closely.
Start the seeds in a well-drained growing medium indoors about 50 to 60 days before you plan on transplanting outside; you can use plastic flats or even something like an egg carton. Sprinkle the seeds on the surface of the soil as evenly as possible, and pat them down to get some good seed-to-soil contact.
Water the seeds with a gentle spray and apply a gentle fertilizer. You want the soil to remain moist during germination, but not water-logged. Application of a weak fertilizer that is appropriate for related veggies like tomatoes or potatoes will help produce healthy transplants.
Make sure your transplants get adequate light and heat. The newly planted seeds need to be in a southern-facing window, or you can supply sufficient light using a grow lamp. Keep the seedlings covered with plastic to retain moisture, and make sure they are warm for the best germination. A heat mat is one way to go.
When your plants are 6 to 8 inches tall and all danger of frost is past, it’s time to plant them outside. Plant them in your well-drained soil about 24-inches apart and water immediately.
Fertilize enough to keep the leaves a healthy green color. This will depend upon the fertility of your soil, but what you do NOT want is to fertilize so much that you get huge plants…this will negatively affect tobacco quality.
Remove the terminal bud of the plant (called “topping”) as soon as the flower buds form, but before they open. This will help the plant produce larger leaves, which is the thing you’re producing the plant for (though the flowers are quite pretty, and there are some species of tobacco plans that are grown for ornamental purposes).
Remove the suckers that will occur after you top the plant, similar to removing suckers from tomato plants. This will increase your yield at harvest. You can just pinch them off or cut them off.
Harvest the leaves at one-week intervals, from the bottom of the plant to the top. You can start doing this soon after you top the plant, when the leaves start to yellow slightly. You can get four to five harvests this way.
CURING AND AGING
Your harvested leaves need to be hung upside down and properly air-cured before they are fit for use as a tobacco product, though some pluck the leaves right off the plant and call it good. (mass-produced curing occurs with supplemental heat, but the home grower is not likely to have this sort of set-up). Tobacco can be cured at temperatures between 60F and 95F, and at humidity levels between 65 and 70 percent. Make sure air circulation between leaves is good to avoid rot and mold. It takes a few weeks to cure tobacco.
Age your tobacco for at least year (or even up to five years), for improved flavor (but, again, this depends upon your taste). Aging requires environmental conditions that do not allow the tobacco to rot/mold nor get too dry and crumbly. You don’t want to dry tobacco like you do herbs…it needs to stay somewhat supple without getting moldy. Unfortunately, each grower needs to experiment with their own home options to determine the best location for aging. Is it a basement or a barn? It all depends upon where you live and what you have available. But have fun experimenting!
For more information on growing tobacco visit: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/aa260
Visit tobacco topping photo source here.