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How to Grow Tobacco; From Seed to Harvest

Growing tobacco from seed is easier than you might think. If you can grow tomatoes, then you should be fine with growing tobacco. After all, tobacco and tomatoes are in the same family (Solanaceae). The truth is that growing your own tobacco is cheaper, and while it is not necessarily healthier, it may in fact help you avoid a lot of artificial chemicals that you really don’t need.

The first decision you need to make is the soil type. Tobacco is notorious for requiring lots of nutrients, so a very fertile soil is absolutely essential. We have found that using pure compost for growing tobacco works very well with very minimal organic fertilization needed afterwards. In fact, if you’re going to be doing any serious amount of gardening, it might be worth starting your own compost pile or getting a truckload of compost delivered for the season. In our area, you can get anywhere from one to several yards delivered for $100-$200. You can use it to spruce up existing beds and gardens. Plus, depending on your needs, it is likely to save you over the cost of buying multiple bags of commercially made soil.

You will notice that tobacco seeds are very small. Even the largest tobacco seeds are still considerably smaller than even a poppy seed. The general rule when dealing with seeds that small is to sow them on the surface of the soil. In nature, small seed, such as tobacco seed, tends to be produced in large amounts. These thousands of small seeds tend to be scattered over the top of the soil and washed into various crevices in the soil where they can eventually take hold. Since small seeds are so easily washed away by wind or rain, we recommend using trofts to start your tobacco seeds rather than direct seeding. We have also found that aluminum roasting pans with drainage holes made in the bottoms work well for starting small seeds.

Since water is likely to carry your tobacco seeds and clump them together in areas where the water pools most easily, we’ve found that it is best to engineer this process ourselves. By using a stick or finger to make rows in the soil, you can determine where your tobacco seeds might end up if pooling occurs. Another option is to make poke marks over the entire surface of the soil so that you end up with a series of small holes. You’ll eventually be separating your tobacco seedlings anyway, but this will help a little with spacing beforehand.

It is safe to sow tobacco seeds outside once any danger of frost has passed. We like to keep our trofts in partial sun to start off. This is to ensure that the tobacco seedlings will not have a chance to dry out if we are not completely on top of our watering. Sometimes a hot spell will catch you off guard and dry out your young tobacco crop before it even gets off the ground, so by keeping the seedlings a bit shaded, it will give you more of a buffer. Seedlings in nature often tend to be shaded by larger plants anyway, so you are essentially recreating this experience. As for watering during the seedling stage, we like to keep the soil continuously moist. If there is a forecast of a strong storm, take measures to protect your tobacco seedlings from the direct force of rain so that the seeds will not be washed away. Usually putting your tofts or trays under a deck, an awning or even a lawn chair will help in such instances.

In our experiences, we have found tobacco seedlings to transplant very well. For instance, we have separated fully crowded tobacco seedlings at less than an inch in diameter (from leaf to leaf) and put them into the ground with nearly 100% success. The key is to use a fork to carefully separate roots, disturbing them as little as possible. Ideally, you should wait until plants are about 2” in diameter if you were initially able to provide that much space for them to get that big in your troft. Upon transplanting, you want to preserve as much of a rootball as there might be without taking it apart. Press a little hole in the soil about the same size as the rootball, lay it in and fill in around the edges nicely. Tobacco plants average about 2 feet in width, so a spacing of around 3 feet between plants and 5 feet between rows is the minimum you want to allow. If growing nicotiana rustica, a closer spacing may be used. The other key to successful transplanting is to provide plenty of moisture around the newly transplanted tobacco seedling. If you keep the tobacco transplants consistently well-watered, there should be no problems with them taking hold. Pay special attention to your newly transplanted tobacco until you’re sure the plants are putting on new growth.

As mentioned earlier, tobacco is known to use up a lot of nutrients. Compost is extremely nutrient-rich. But we usually will supplement the compost with a dose of bloodmeal about every two weeks. Simply scratch out the soil about an inch deep over an area several inches around the stem of the tobacco plant so that the bloodmeal will penetrate the surface of the soil. Add your bloodmeal and then smooth the soil back out so that the bloodmeal is mixed in. Be sure to remove and competing weeds as you do this.

Once tobacco starts flowering, most of the energy of the plant goes into that process. Some growers will choose to harvest their tobacco leaves before flowering begins to end up with the highest quality tobacco. But most growers choose just to top the plants. By removing the flowering tops, it will allow more energy to go back into leaf production and increase overall tobacco harvest. Once the leaf tips begin turning yellow, the plants should be harvested. Harvesting should be done in the morning after the dew has dried from the leaves.

There are numerous ways of curing tobacco, and it is a science that can be pretty involved. At the most basic level, the entire tobacco plant can be cut at the base and hung upside down to dry. Leaves can also be removed from the stalk and bundled at the stems in small bundles for drying. But beware that bundles tobacco leaves leaves tend to stick together, so leaves used for cigar wrappers should not be dried in this manner. Curing is typically done in a tobacco curing barn. But a well-ventilated, dark shed or even a garage can suffice. Air curing tends to produce tobacco that is high in nicotine but low in sugars. It is normally used for cigar and Burley tobacco. Allow 8 weeks for the tobacco to fully cure.