“My largest Virginias plant is over my head with beautiful pink and white blossoms. My Yenidji is also doing great and my Barinas leaves are bigger than my head. All plants are healthy and strong.
“I smoked the first of my own home grown tobacco today! Delicious!!! I was really quite surprised. Other than the tobacco I received from you, this is the best tobacco I have smoked in my life! I have not even really started to harvest my plants yet. This was just some leaves that I had removed from the bottom of plants because they either wilted or were accidentally broken at the stem. I kept drying them as I picked them and stored them in a glass jar. I thought I would try some today and I expected the worst. Imagine my surprise when the smoke was cool, smooth and tasty! The relaxing and thought focusing effects of the nicotine are also quite amazing. Now I am quite excited about harvesting my beautiful leaves and curing them properly. Your seeds and your wonderful book have made all the fun I am having possible. Thanks very much! – Joe D.
Ready – Set – Sow!
It's almost Spring, and that means it's time to start seeds to set out in your tobacco garden. Tobacco is easy to grow, but the seeds can be a little tricky to get started. So, here are a few tips to get you growing this year.
First, you should know the age of the seed. If you are saving your own seed from previous crops, they should be dated with the date you harvested them. Store your seeds in the refrigerator to extend their life. Kept cool and dry, tobacco seed will remain viable for many years.
Tobacco seeds are tiny. Each one is about the size of a pin head and because they are so small, they can be difficult to handle. The seeds are not planted - they are sown. That means they are simply dropped on the surface of the soil - and given the right conditions, they germinate within three to five days. Generally, germination rate indicates age of the seed. Fresh seed, a year or two old, will have a high germination rate: nearly all will germinate within three to five days. The older the seed, the lower the germination rate, and the longer it will take for them to germinate (as much as 10 to 15 days).
It's best to use light 'seed sprouting' soil in small 2 or 3 inch pots. Each pot can sprout numerous seeds, which can be thinned down to just a few select seedlings at transplant time. Make sure the potting soil is soaked, evenly moist, and well drained. Use a small card (like a business card) folded lengthwise, sprinkle just a few seeds on the card, then tap the edge of the card to bounce the seeds evenly across the surface of the soil. Its too easy to over-sow these tiny seed, so be careful.
Once you sow the seed, keep the small sprouting pots in an optimal environment to promote germination. Keep them warm, moist, and well lit. Most tobacco gardeners start their seed in an enclosed sprouting tray with a transparent lid (humidity dome). This holds moisture and warmth in while letting light shine on the surface of the soil. Tobacco seed needs some light to germinate (a small twist florescent bulb works well). Maintain the optimal sprouting environment undisturbed for at least three days, then check them for germination.
In three to five days, the first tobacco seeds will sprout. They will be extremely small at first. Keep them sheltered in their sprouting tray for about a week until they start to get established. Vent the tray a little each day, but be sure to keep the soil moist and well drained. The lid can be removed by the second or third week. The seedlings should be ready to transplant within another week or two after uncovering them. So, sow tobacco seed about 4 to 6 weeks before you plan to set them out in the garden.
Of course, you can find complete detailed instructions (and more pictures!) on every stage of growing natural tobacco in the home garden in my book, The Heirloom Tobacco Garden. It's a great investment toward producing bountiful crops of natural tobacco grown in your own home garden. You can purchase the book from the publisher (Xlibris), or at Amazon.
In about four weeks after germination, tobacco seedlings are ready to transplant into separate pots. There they will grow another three to four weeks until they are four to six inches tall with well developed root systems. At this point they are ready to set out in the garden.
If seedlings are going into an outside garden, they will need a few days to ‘harden off’ before setting plants in the garden. Place seedling trays in a semi-shaded spot outside for several days. Keep them well watered, as they will dry out more quickly than when inside. Move the seedling trays where they will receive more direct sunlight for a couple more days. When plants are vigorous even with some direct sunlight, then they are ready to set out in the garden.
In a well prepared garden spot, arrange rows North to South to get maximum direct sunlight. Set plants in level with the ground, and space them at least 12 to 14 inches apart. Some varieties that grow low and have spreading leaves (Little Dutch, Bosikappal, etc.) will do better spaced about 24 inches apart. Plants crowded in the garden are more susceptible to pest infestation. Mulch around plants and water them until soaked. It also helps to keep the freshly planted tobacco garden covered with shade cloth until the plants get well rooted and show rapid growth.
Tobacco seems to take its own sweet time getting started. It grows almost painfully slow after setting them in the garden. Gradually things progress and the pace picks up a bit. You can see new leaf sets unfolding slowly, while lower leaves enlarge a little more.
At this early stage, the plants are growing roots to support the growth of more leaves. Help stimulate root development during this time by using willow water and a nutrient solution higher in phosphorous (like a ‘bloom’ formula as for tomato plants or flowers like orchids). Dilute half of what the manufacturer recommends (1tsp per gal of water = ½ tsp per gal of water). This provides a brief boost to root growth before fertilizing for leaf growth later. After the plants put down roots, then all of a sudden, they take off!
As tobacco grows it tries to add side branches. These first appear as little leaf shoot buds called 'suckers' because they can suck the size out of lower leaves. Unless you want a short thick bush with mostly small leaves, then these little suckers must be removed. Look closely for small sucker buds. Suckers are leaf sets that form at the base of leaf nodes on the main stem. They ’misdirect’ growth energy away from the main growing top and tend to stunt main leaf development. Just pinch any sucker buds off and dispose of in a safe place. The result is a ’clean’ tobacco plant with vigorous growth in the garden.
If you are growing an in ground garden, watch for weeds and pests. If you added a layer of mulch around each plant, this will discourage weeds and help retain soil moisture. Every couple of weeks, just inspect your garden and pull weeds and grasses that are taking root around your tobacco. Herbicides are not recommended due to their residual toxic effects - due diligence and elbow grease to pull the weeds by hand is safe and free.
The most common pest in the tobacco garden is the dreaded caterpillar! Again, insecticidal sprays are not recommended (though some gardeners consider OMRI certified products safe). Nature's way is best! I inspect my garden almost every day and pluck the little devils wherever they appear.
I do get some help from mother nature ... I've seen small birds feasting on caterpillars in my tobacco garden, and certain wasps are attracted to the leaf distress hormone of tobacco being eaten by caterpillars. This seemed far fetched to me until I saw it for myself. This picture is proof positive! This wasp is clutching a fat caterpillar and feasting on it with some relish. So, if you see wasps around your tobacco garden, don't break out the wasp spray - they are protecting your crop!
In a container garden, you planted your tobacco sets in one gallon pots. As plants grow they will need re-potting in three to five gallon containers to grow to maturity. When the one gallon pots dry out quickly and need frequent watering, it is time to re-pot.
Watch your plants closely. Keep the sprinklers set on high so the soil is kept well watered - don't let your tobacco wilt or it will have to struggle to recover. If the soil is well drained, there is little chance of over watering tobacco with a well developed root system. The more the plants grow, the more water they will need. Watch them closely and keep the garden well watered.
When plants show rapid leaf development in the garden, a light nitrogen fertilizer will stimulate growth. I like to use natural organic fertilizer. A combination of seabird and bat guano works great and helps bring out natural varietal flavors of natural tobacco. I also add some supplemental micronutrients by including a liquid kelp solution when fertilizing.
As tobacco matures it will suddenly stop producing more top leaves and flowers appear! The first thing you will notice is a cluster of little buds or flower pods. These tight clusters burst into bloom to announce that the plant has reached maturity. If you harvest leaves before the plant flowers, then the leaves will not dry or cure properly. Flowers produce seed. You will want seed for your next crops. Select the best two or three plants in your garden to produce seed. All other plants should be 'topped' when flower buds appear. Simply cut the top out just below the lowest flower bud - make sure little 'suckers' are also removed or they will just make more flower buds.
As the days of summer pass, and the first tobacco flowers appear, harvest draws near. The next tobacco garden update will focus on how to tell when your tobacco is ready to harvest. Tobacco harvesting is a fine art of 'priming' that involves some experience to get it right. Check back to the Garden Page to make sure you harvest your tobacco when its in its prime.
When tobacco has reached its full potential, its time to harvest. Tobacco harvested in its prime produces primo smoke. That’s why it’s called ‘priming’. Priming tobacco is the art of knowing when the leaf is in its prime.
Tobacco needs to mature and ripen before harvest. The first sign of mature tobacco is the appearance of flowers. All of a sudden, the plant just stops making leaves and instead buds into flowers. Leaves picked from a tobacco plant before it flowers will be immature. Leaves picked prematurely will not cure properly. Immature tobacco leaf is more likely to rot than cure. It dries out too quickly and smokes hot, harsh and tastes green.
Flowering tops produce seed for the next crop. Select the best two or three plants to produce seed. All of the other plants in the crop should be ‘topped’ – cut the flowering tops off completely. This will redirect the plant’s growth energy back into fattening up the leaves rather than producing seed. The flowering plants eventually drop most of their blossoms and seed pods will fatten up full of an abundance of seed.
After tobacco sets flowers, or is topped, proceeds to gradually ripen to its prime. Tobacco leaves ripen from the bottom to the top. The lower leaves ripen first, so they are the first to reach their prime. Large scale commercial farms harvest most tobacco all at once, then the plants are usually left to bake in the full sun forcing upper leaves to wilt and yellow prematurely producing less flavorful upper leaf.
Tobacco leaves show signs of ripening. The first is a slight color change from dark emerald green to a lighter shade of pale green. Next, the pale green leaves become droopy – their leaf edges sort of curl under and look kind of wilted. Droopy pale green leaves ma also develop spots – some tobacco leaf spots are small and well defined like little bird’s eyes, other tobacco develops irregular shaped leaf spots. However, not all varieties of ripening tobacco will have spots. Some varieties of tobacco ripen quickly, and the process from color change to drooping may take only a few days – while other kinds of tobacco ripen more slowly and may require a week or so.
Droopy pale green tobacco leaves are ripe and ready to harvest. Pick the ripe leaf by grasping the base of the leaf stem where it attaches to the main stem and bend it sharply downward. The leaf stem should break off cleanly with a decisive snap. Ripe tobacco leaf stems are brittle and crack easily. Start with the lowest leaf, and pick only the ripest leaves. If the leaf stem bends without breaking easily then stop picking and wait several more days for more leaves to reach their prime.
Freshly picked tobacco leaves need to dry properly. Leaves should dry slowly. First leaves will wilt, then yellow, and finally turn brown. This gradual process allows leaf chlorophyll to break down naturally. Quickly dried tobacco retains leaf chlorophyll and will be more green than brown, resulting in green cure (smoke hot, harsh and taste green).
The best way to dry ripe tobacco leaves is slowly in the shade. The most efficient way to shade dry primed tobacco leaves is to string them on wire, like beads on a string. Use light gauge wire about four to six feet long. Secure one end of the wire to a nail or knob, piercing stems at the base of the leaf, thread leaves on the wire. Allow a little space between leaves on the wire to give them room to ‘breath’ and dry more evenly. It takes another day or two for most leaves to yellow, and a few more days for them to turn brown.
Within five to seven days drying in the shade most tobacco leaves will be mostly brown. The leaf stems may not be completely dry. Most leaf stems will still be moist and even be a little yellowish or pale green. Leaf stems need to be almost dry before it is ready to cure, so remove the shade dried leaves from the wire and pile them in a clean dry plastic bag (like a shopping bag). Tie the bag loosely closed and leave it in a warm spot overnight. Open the bag on the next day, and brown leaves will have softened up and become more moist and pliable by having passively absorbed some of the leaf stem moisture while closed in the bag. Leave the bag open in a warm spot during the daytime to allow the leaf to dry out again. Tie the bag loosely closed again and leave in a warm spot for another night. Check again the next day to monitor leaf stems for proper amount of drying. Repeat this process until all the leaf stems are almost completely dry – brown but flexible (will bend but not break). When leaf stems reach this stage, the leaf is ready to cure. This process takes about five to seven days.
Tobacco leaf from the home garden can be cured naturally in different ways. The next update will outline the process of two curing methods: Jar Curing and Bag Curing.
Heirloom Tobacco Curing & Aging
Tobacco leaves that are dried without curing will be undesirable. Three things are needed to cure tobacco: containment, moisture, and heat.
Curing methods employed in different parts of the world are many and varied, but all involve some sort of containment for a period of time. Freshly dried tobacco leaves are traditionally simply piled up in a heap and usually covered snugly with something like canvas or hides. Traditional methods also include leaves that are tied in bundles and hung in the rafters of a barn, twisted or pressed in a plug, wrapped in corn husks or other large leaves, stuffed tightly in a hollow log, or pressed into a gourd.
Tobacco curing is really fermentation. Containment provides an environment conducive to the natural process of leaf fermentation. Ripe tobacco leaves once contained begin an amazing alchemical process of complex biosynthesis converting residual compounds to produce a natural refinement of different qualities including exceptional flavor and aroma.
Tobacco needs some leaf moisture to cure properly. 15 to 25% leaf moisture is about right to cure tobacco naturally. As tobacco cures, it is sort of stews in its own natural juices. Water can be sprayed or misted on dry leaf to add moisture, but this adds nothing to the natural compounds in the leaf. In fact, every time tobacco leaf dries out, it loses some degree of its original chemistry. Volatile oils evaporate. Nicotine content degrades. Natural leaf sugars break down. Natural tobacco flavor and aroma are lost. For this reason, freshly harvested tobacco leaf is shade dried slowly to closely monitor when it is dried just right – when natural leaf moisture content is just enough to cure properly.
Probably the most important ‘juice’ is a leaf compound called ‘sucrose ester’. This is a natural part of leaf moisture content. This natural leaf sugar is necessary for fermentation. Sugar is the fuel source to cure tobacco naturally. Most heirloom tobaccos and old world classic varieties contain more than enough natural sucrose ester to cure naturally. If leaves dry too much before curing, or if there is reason to suspect the variety may contain low natural leaf sugar, it will help to add a light misting of honey water. Make honey water by mixing one teaspoon of honey in two cups of warm water.
It is preferable to cure natural tobacco in a ‘neutral’ container which will contribute little or nothing to the natural distinctive flavor and aroma. The Jar method is simple, and well suited to small crops of home grown tobacco. Larger crops from the home garden will do better with the Bag method using large zip-lock bags.
Glass jars are ideal for curing natural tobacco from the home garden. Large wide mouth apothecary type glass jars (½ to 1 gallon) work best. The closed glass jars can be visually inspected anytime during curing without opening them. Large zipper locked plastic bags are a reasonable substitute. Jars can be washed and reused, but bags cannot be cleaned well enough for reuse.
Pack stacks of properly dried tobacco leaves into the jars snugly. The jars should not be packed so tightly that any single leaf could not be easily pulled out by its stem. The leaves need a little space to breathe and transpire inside the closed jar as fermentation perks along. Insert leaf stacks in jars with stems pointing up, to allow condensation to form near the top/opening of the jar, and to make it easier to move and check them during curing for mold or fungus which usually develops first on the leaf stems.
Leaf fermentation begins when lids are closed on jars placed in a warm dark place. The best temperature is 75 - 85F. The jars should be easily accessible to check regularly. In warm climates a shelf in the garage or carport will do fine. Inside kitchen cabinets work well. The closed cabinets keep things in the dark, and temperature tends to stay just a little warmer than room temperature. These are ideal conditions to cure tobacco naturally.
Tobacco leaf fermentation becomes accelerated by increased heat over 85F. Various methods add heat to artificially speed up the process. Tobacco kilns are popular for the fast cure, and are most comparable to air cured barn dried tobacco. The kiln method heats curing tobacco to just over 110F (or even higher) for rapid fermentation. Flue cured tobacco similarly vents heated air through the tobacco to accelerate curing. Stove cured tobacco actually cooks leaves in a soup of additives and bakes the leaves dry for smoking. These high heat methods are fast, but destroy volatile oils and other natural leaf compounds which produce the distinctive flavor and aroma of naturally cured tobacco. Some scientific research also suggests curing tobacco with high heat converts chemicals in the leaves into compounds with a higher degree of carcinogenic effect.
During the first week of fermentation there will be condensation inside the jars. If there is no condensation, make sure the jars are warm enough (75 to 85F). The leaf stacks in the jars have stems holding on to some moisture. Some of this moisture is absorbed by other leaves in the jar, equalizing moisture content throughout all the leaves in the jar. When excess moisture condenses inside the jar it needs to evaporate more quickly than the leaves can absorb. Check jars every day. When condensation appears, remove the lid and allow the condensation to evaporate. Replace the lid when condensation completely evaporates. The goal is to equalize the moisture content evenly throughout all the leaves in the jar.
The jars should be condensation free within the second week. At this point, the leaves in the jars have equalized moisture throughout all the leaves. Fermentation proceeds by leaving the jars closed and undisturbed in a warm dark place for one month. During this difficult wait, the only task is to keep the temperature within ideal range and check the jars regularly for evidence of mold or fungus.
Often airborne mold spores get into curing tobacco. Mold and fungus spoil tobacco quickly. If mold or fungus appears, open the jar and remove the molded leaves, and allow it to vent for about an hour before replacing the lid. Keep a close check on that jar for reappearance of mold and remove it as soon as possible. Take preventative steps: inspect visually, keep jars closed, and wash hands well before opening the jars to vent condensation. An ounce of prevention may save a pound of tobacco!
During this time, leaf colors begin to change, and good stuff is going on inside those jars. This is a critical time in the leaf fermentation process. Opening the jars prematurely will likely interrupt the biochemical transformations going on inside – or worse yet, mold may invade. Better to just leave it alone. Curing tobacco is a natural process, and it takes some time. Resist the urge to open the jars before one month.
After one month, open the jars to check on the progress. Curing is complete when a distinctive tobacco aroma is noticeable. The odor may have a somewhat earthy scent, but there should be a distinct tobacco aroma to the leaf, not grassy or sour. Off aromas are probably just evidence of incomplete fermentation, but it may also indicate undetected mold. Check visibly by moving the leaves around a little using the stems. (Remember, wash hands before touching tobacco while it cures.) Stalled leaf fermentation is usually due to temperatures falling too low. I have found that an additional two weeks with optimal temperature will allow tobacco to finish curing.
After the tobacco leaf is cured, it is ready to process for storage and aging. Remove the main leaf stems before storage. Removal of this main leaf vein is called ‘stripping’. Go through the stacks or bundles of cured leaves and strip out the main leaf stem from each leaf. Flatten each leaf and fold lengthwise so that the underside of the leaf is folded inside and main leaf vein forms the top ridge of the fold. Pinch the main leaf vein near the tip of the leaf, holding the leaf with fingers of the other hand, and pull the leaf vein down toward the base of the leaf. This strips the vein out of the leaf and prepares it for storage.
Add a touch of honey after tobacco is cured naturally. Honey is a natural antibacterial antimicrobial that inhibits mold and fungus development during tobacco storage. Mix one teaspoon of honey with one cup of pure water, then use a spray bottle to mist tobacco lightly. Allow the leaves to set overnight to equalize the honey water. Make sure to let the leaves dry out enough for storage (mostly dry, but not so dry as to crack or crumble).
Cured stripped tobacco should be sealed in containers for aging. Tobacco tins or glass jars work well for storing tobacco. Natural tobacco aged for a couple of months may be good, but after a year or two it will be great!
Even after tobacco is cured, it needs time to mellow. Like fine wine needs time in the bottle to age into something wonderful, natural tobacco needs time to age before it is in its prime. If you are really motivated, you can pull out a choice leaf and sample it. Be realistic, it will be somewhat harsh, but you can get a reasonable preview of what the crop has to offer. So, exercise some restraint and wait for a month or two in storage. The wait will be well rewarded.