Tobacco Growing Instructions
Tobacco seed is extremely small, difficult to handle, and can be challenging to germinate but, once sprouted and rooted in the garden, will flourish like a weed with little attention needed up until harvest.
Begin seeds indoors 6-8 weeks prior to final frost date in a 72-cell starting tray to allow for plenty of successful and unsuccessful germination attempts. Lightly fill trays with about 3” of fine potting mix (not potting soil). Do not use garden soil. Sift potting mix to remove clumps that could impede growth. Thoroughly soak potting mix in trays and allow to drain before sowing.
Because tobacco seeds are so small, evenly sprinkle seeds over all 72 cells in the starting tray without being too particular. Once sown, mist with a spray bottle and do not cover seeds in a top layer of potting mix. Using either a greenhouse dome or simple plastic wrap, cover the tray to create humidity and ideal conditions of about 70-80° F (not to exceed 85°). Keep seeds in a sunny location while leaving a corner propped open to allow for air flow. Continue to mist with a spray bottle until germination 7-14 days after seeding.
Once sprouted, remove greenhouse dome or plastic wrap and immediately place starts 1-2” from a grow light. Placing seedlings 1-2” from grow lights will keep starts from becoming too leggy and tall, causing uneven development in the garden. Keep soil moist but not saturated as it may stunt root development. As seeds mature, select the best starts to thin and divide into larger individual containers until ready for outdoor transplanting.
Transplanting and Growing:
Tobacco is ready for transplanting once two sets of true leaves have developed. Harden off outside 2-4 hours per day for a week before transplanting. Similar to tomatoes or sweet corn, tobacco is a heavy nitrogen feeder benefiting from an organic fertilizer prior to transplanting. Traditionally, soil is amended with wood ash for tobacco cultivation. Plant starts in the garden with 24” in all directions once all danger of frost has passed.
During these first two weeks in the garden, tobacco plants will use most of their energy for root production and, on the surface, will show signs of wilting and seem to have stopped growing. Once firmly rooted, tobacco requires little watering and only a light addition of fertilizer 4-6 weeks later. Cut off flowering heads and side branches (suckers) as they appear, forcing plants to direct energy into stronger, healthier leaf production. Leaves ripen 2-3 weeks after removing flowering heads - turning yellow, mottled green, and curled when ready to harvest.
Harvesting and Growing:
Tobacco leaves are ready to harvest when a pale golden yellow, which allows for an even and fast curing process. Leaves do not turn yellow all at once but begin slowly from the base of the plant as green chlorophyll is broken down. Plants can be harvested whole if 50% of the leaves have yellowed. Harvested leaves and plants should be hung ½” from each other to cure and dry in a location with an average 70-80% humidity such as a basement or outdoor shed. If the leaf dries too quickly without properly curing (turning yellow) then it will be unsmokable. Allow leaves to continue drying until main stem snaps like a twig. Once cured and dried, the leaf can be left to hang and age where it is. Aging allows time for nitrogen compounds in the leaf to break down, removing the harshness of freshly cured tobacco and allowing true flavors to be accentuated.