Nicotiana Tabacum – Solanaceae or Nightshade
I’ve been working in or around tobacco since I was a kid. I worked the fields of the tobacco belt as a 12 year old, and in the years since have had an infatuation with the many different strains of tobacco which are available to the home gardener. The beautiful plants produce a medley of varying blossoms with different colors, shapes and sizes, and is quite an attractive, enjoyable plant to grow.
Unlike the tobacco grown when I was a kid, the varieties that I have focused my attention on are more exotic and require specialized treatment to ensure a “bumper crop”. Connoisseur tobacco is grown in much smaller quantities than the 300 acre fields I was accustomed to cultivating and tending as a child. This is because each plant requires more TLC from the grower, and one BIG part of treating, cultivating and caring for these wonderful giant plants, is to leave the chemical sprayer in the barn. I’ll skip the organic lecture, it’s pretty self explanatory. While I realize that smoking anything habitually will eventually cause health problems, it should go without saying that the tobacco produced using only natural additives is considered the lesser of 2 evils. If you think it would harm a person to have prolonged physical exposure to a certain chemical, why in the world would you spray that same chemical on the vegetation that you’re going to consume on a daily basis? Organically cultivated crops may cost more, and involve more work, but the reward is quite satisfying.
When to get started is a timing issue that has everything to do with where you are planning to grow your crop. Tobacco can never be touched by frost, so germinate your seedlings according to your regions climate. Seeds can be bought very inexpensively online. A quick google of ‘tobacco seeds’ will produce plenty of stores that would love to sell you their seeds. To produce cigar quality tobacco, you’ll need at least 2 different varieties of tobacco. I suggest HAVANA 503B for your natural wrappers, and SMALL STALK BLACK MAMMOTH for your maduro wrapped cigars. The wrapper type tobacco produces a thinner, less veiny leaf and should be reserved for outer cigar wrappers only. For the filler, the basic choice is VIRGINIA GOLD but as a grower you can produce different varieties and create your very own blend. And remember, you will need much more filler tobacco than wrapper, so plant your seedlings accordingly. AND ALWAYS KEEP YOUR DIFFERENT PLANT TYPES MARKED FOR IDENTIFICATION! Keep these ID signs with their respective plants throughout the growing and curing process or you’ll not have a clue as to which tobacco is which, especially after curing.
It takes anywhere from 6-12 weeks for seedlings to mature into plants large enough to be transplanted into their permanent spot in the garden. This figure averages out to around 9 weeks, just a touch over 2 months. Here in the southeastern united states, the climate dictates that you should germinate and begin planting your seeds indoors in late February, early March. If you have a late spring and frost is still threatening you may have to keep the plants indoors longer. I start all seedlings indoors, in individual cups, with a mild soil blend that is kept moist and warm. Some people sterilize the soil prior to planting seeds either by burning, steaming or chemical applications. This soil sterilization process helps prevent disease, weeds and even insects and is recommended for organic projects. Prevention is always easier that cure. Take this important first step and use only sterilized soil to start your seedlings.
In the meantime, while it’s still bitter cold outside, you can be preparing the spot where you plan to transplant your tobacco seedlings. The soil should be cultivated to remove old root systems. Apply generous amounts of compost and manure and work it deeply into the existing soil. An unpleasant chore, but one that is absolutely necessary if you want your tobacco to thrive and produce large healthy leaves suitable for working into cigars.
Once the seedlings are around 8 inches tall, they will be ready for transplanting. Growing the hearty tobacco plant really isn’t very difficult. There are topping and suckering stages during the second half of the plants life which are necessary to ensure that the nutrients are delivered to where it counts, the main leaves, and not wasted on useless parts of the plant. Do not use sucker suppressing chemicals! Sucker your plants by hand. The two main types of sucker control chemicals are contact and systemic chemicals. Contact chemicals work by burning young suckers that are newly formed. Systemic chemicals inhibit cell division and can either work locally or throughout the entire plant. Maleic hydrazide is the most common systemic chemical used for sucker control. Avoid these chemicals like the plague because they are certainly not naturally occurring compounds. One drop of either of these harsh chemicals, anywhere near your plants, and your efforts to produce an organic crop will have been in vain. Spend the time and do it right, and just break the little suckers off as they shoot out of the limb/stalk intersection. Once the top has reached 12 inches break or cut it off and discard it. Keep your plants watered but don’t over do it. Tobacco is a moisture sensitive crop, and can easily drown. Make sure your plants have sufficient drainage at all times. Standing water around your plants for very long is almost always fatal. Go to your crop after a hard rain to check that the water is running off. If it isn’t draining away you’ll need to cut small trenches to direct the water away.
Harvesting the tobacco should be done by hand. Never try to speed up the ripening process with pre-harvest chemicals which cause yellowing of the leaves so more can be harvested at one time. Plants indicate their ripeness by beginning to yellow, a signal that chlorophyll is beginning to break down. Each leaf should be carefully inspected before it is removed from the stalk to ensure that it is ready for harvest. If it is collected too soon, the curing process will be flawed. The leaves will ripen in stages, from the bottom up. Usually 3-4 passes are required to allow each stage of leaves to fully ripen. This process of collection is referred to as “priming”, and is used the majority of the time. Burly tobacco plants are stripped all at once, referred to as “stalk-cut”, and left in the field for 2-3 days to wilt before being sent to the curing facility.
Curing the tobacco is an entirely different subject. There is plenty of information readily available online, just do a quick search for “Curing Tobacco”.
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