Growing Virginia Tobacco in Central California – 2nd Season
This is my second year growing bright Virginia tobacco in the central California Sierra mountains. This year’s tobacco plants are turning out great even though I planted them 6 weeks late in the season. In just 10 weeks my Virginia plants have grown to about 4′ and should grow another 12″ to 18″ over the next month.
Tobacco is a hearty crop and can grow in many different climates. To give you a better idea of my growing conditions, and to show that you don’t have to live in the South with high humidity to grow, I live in the California Sierra mountains (near Yosemite) at 3,000 foot elevation where it can get up to 95 degrees (35 degrees Celsius) in the summer with very little humidity.
In the past two seasons my bright Virginia tobacco plants have grown great in the heat but I did have to keep them well watered on very hot days. If it was going to be a hot day (93 degrees +) I water them in the morning and again when I get home from work if the soil is dry a few inches down or if the leaves are wilting. On days where the temp got to 95 degrees I would see some wilting but it goes away once they have been watered and it cools down.
If you haven’t grown tobacco before I’m sure you’re wondering about how much tobacco your potential tobacco garden can produce. Last year I had 4 bright Virginia plants in 17″ wide pots and 2 plants in 14″ pots. With all 6 plants I ended with 1.4 lbs of tobacco at it’s final dried weight.
Below are some basic tips for growing tobacco at home
Below are some basic growing tips from my brief experience of growing tobacco the past 2 years. Though I’m not an expert at growing tobacco the tips below have worked for me and have had a lot of fun.
- Start early in the season. For example in California the hottest months are June, July and August. This coming year I will start my seeds indoors at the end of February so that I can put them in pots by the end of March as I did the previous year.
Germinate your seeds indoors preferably with a light or grow light above to keep them warm and give them adequate light. I used natural peat starter trays with a clear plastic lid to germinated seeds in. Once the young tobacco plants were a few inches tall I would place them where they would get indirect sun during the day. You don’t want to shock your young plants by putting them in direct sun too soon. Plan on having your young plants indoors for 4 to 6 weeks before moving them outdoors.
- Fertilizing. Since the tobacco plant is related to tomatoes they do great with tomato plant fertilizer & nutrients. Fertilize using the same fertilizing instructions on the tomato fertilizer.
- Tobacco & Tomatoes. Do not keep tobacco plants near tomatoes in your garden! Tobacco can give tomatoes the disease Tobacco Mosaic Virus.
- Insects. Your young tobacco plants are more prone to insects when they are very small, or at least in my area. I use an organic insecticide made from a soap solution that I buy at a local gardening store to keep the insects off the plants. Don’t use poisons since you will be smoking the tobacco.
- Deer. I have A LOT of deer where I live so I need to protect my young plants from them. Deer don’t like to eat tobacco plants once they are over about a foot tall but they will eat very young tobacco plants. Note that I have had hungry deer take rip leaves in half and take bites out of full grown plants so I now keep them behind a wire fence.
- Trimming Suckers. As your plants grow be sure to check them for “suckers”. Suckers are little shoots that start near larger branches. Be sure to trim these off since the plant will divert energy to these new shoots instead of making your leaves larger.
- Topping your tobacco plants. You will also want to cut off the buds that start at the top of the tobacco plant unless you want one of your plants to flower for seeds. The tobacco plant produces pink flowers which then turn to seed pods. The buds take up energy so you want to cut them off as soon as you spot them. More will return so keep cutting them as they develop. I will usually let my healthiest plant go to flower so that I can get the seeds for next season.
- Harvesting. You will pick the tobacco leaves as they ripen. This is true for Virginia tobacco but I’m not sure its true for all tobacco plants. The Virginia leaves will ripen from the bottom up. They will turn a yellow or a yellow with light green spots when they are ready to pick and hang. Virginia tobacco turns yellow when the sugar content is at it’s peak.
- Handling leaves. When handling the curing/drying tobacco leaf always wash your hands with soap and water so that you don’t get bacteria on the leaf that may turn to mold later in drying or aging.
Color Curing Home Grown Virginia Tobacco
In the Southern tobacco growing states where tobacco thrives the humidity runs high and rains often in the summer time. The tobacco is hung in barns where the tobacco dries very slow because of the very high humidity. Where I live it’s low humidity and the leaves dry too fast hanging them outdoors. The tobacco leaves need to slowly dry over a period of 2 to 4 weeks. You’ll have to adjust your drying area to try and maintain a humidity level of 70 to 80%. I first tried drying my tobacco outside and they dried too fast leaving green areas. You want the leaves to turn a golden to a golden brown brown with NO green. The green portions of a dried leaf are not smokable. If I feel my leaves are drying too fast I mist them with water to help slow the drying process.
Aging the tobacco
Before aging the tobacco you have to get the tobacco leaves to the right moisture level. You do not want the tobacco to be too dry that it cracks or crumbles. If your color cured leaves will crack if folded you will need to mist it with water and let it sit for a bit. The tobacco leaves need to feel almost like soft leather without feeling damp. You should be able to take a leaf and wad it in your hand into a ball then be able to stretch it back out. The other extreme is if your tobacco is too moist. Tobacco that is too moist will mold. The right amount of moisture is key in getting your tobacco to age properly.
When your tobacco is at the right moisture level you will need to age it. To age your tobacco I recommend Mason/jam jars with new lids. You can buy these jars in all different sizes up to 1 gallon. You need to seal it in these air tight containers for at least 6 months but more is always better. When packaging the tobacco into the jars be sure to wash your hands and any table surface the tobacco is going to be in contact with to prevent mold.
While aging for your 6 months or more you never want to break the seal on your container. It must not get any fresh air during this aging process. Only break the seal on the container if you see mold. I’ve never had any of my tobacco mold. If you want to sample as it ages pack some tobacco in small 1/2 pint jam jars but leave the bulk in your larger jars.
Resources on growing tobacco in your home garden
I think the fair trade tobacco forums have some of the best info for growing .
Very good answers to common questions
Where to buy tobacco seeds online
Sustainable Seed Company – http://sustainableseedco.com/tobacco-seeds/
Whatcom Seed Company – http://seedrack.com/
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