How to Grow Tobacco

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In times like these, even the most hardened urban dwellers take another look at the pleasures and profits of gardening.

After all, with supermarket prices going up, farmers going under, and the economy going tipsy, it's tempting to seed that sideyard, rent a plot from the city, or even "claim" a bit of underused urban ground where no one will notice a tomato plant or two. And gardening does have major benefits. As environmentalists have pointed out for years, every mile a piece of food doesn't travel in getting to your table is a bit less greenhouse-gas dumped into the atmosphere. It's a healthy way to save some money, save some oil being burned, and increase your own understanding of the world, while whittling off a few pounds (or more) to boot. No wonder that even the First Family is getting into the act, planting the first White House kitchen garden since before the Truman Doctrine. Gardening for food is never a bad thing, and in a recession it's a great thing.

Just don't think you can do the same for your tobacco supply!

As the following glimpse into the art of tobacco-growing will illustrate, growing tobacco is a very different prospect from raising a few dozen tomatoes, some cukes and a few lettuce heads. First of all, there's your local bylaws to consider. No kidding: tobacco has so long been a subsidized crop (and, at the same time, a heavily regulated one, as the state has an interest in preventing minors from obtaining the smokeable forms of tobacco) that every state has different rules regulating where, how much, and in what form tobacco can be grown. (If food gardeners worry about rabbits making off with their lettuces, imagine how the tobacco gardener must worry about the crop being stolen by would-be makers of illegal cigars and cigarettes!) In many places, if your tobacco is only for personal use, there are no or fewer regulations--but it'd probably be smart to check, in any case.

As to the actual growing, there are two main points to remember: tobacco seeds are lazy. Tobacco seedlings are wimpy.

Tobacco seeds are lazy. You don't really "sow" tobacco seeds--you sprinkle them on the ground and let them lie. The seeds don't like being disturbed by watering--they're very lazy seeds--so what some small tobacco gardeners do is to soak the soil first. (Another method is to swish the seeds around in a pail of water, then dump the water on the bed of soil that you plan to use, letting the seeds fall where they may.)

Not only are tobacco seeds lazy--they don't like having to fight up from underneath the ground--but the seedlings are incredible wimps. They are vulnerable to just about anything: overdrying, overwatering, too much sunlight, mold. If you live in a colder climate, it's a good idea to start them indoors in late winter, then transplant in late May, when there's no further possibility of frost. If you sow them outside, one frost can destroy all your hard work. But if death by ice is an ever-present possibility with tobacco, so is death by fire. The plants are so sensitive that some farmers have been known to drape a sheet over them during high summer to protect them from oversunning.

The plants can literally be cooked if left alone in direct sunlight for too many ninety-degree days. And once they wilt in the sun, they never come back. (You may have heard of Connecticut Shade tobacco, the kind grown mostly on the East Coast and which is highly in demand as a cigar wrapper. They call it Connecticut Shade because it has to spend most of its time literally under the shade of huge nylon tents which protect the crop.)

It's also a good idea to think about your own soil, and consider whether your area's soil best supports tobacco plants. There's a reason that the best tobacco has traditionally come from only a handful of places: certain Latin American valleys; the shady parts of Connecticut; Virginia and North Carolina. Tobacco is (in addition to being wimpy and lazy) very particular about where it grows. The sandy soil of parts of Virginia and North Carolina, for example, is perfect for it. That's why those areas were such a boon to farmers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: they allowed newcomers to America to do all right for themselves, growing a cash crop for which there was an ever-rising demand.

Wimpy, lazy, and particular � who knew tobacco plants were so much like cats! And we haven't even talked about the laborious cutting, curing, and rolling processes that go into making your favorite cigars. Gardeners might be better off sticking to food crops, like tomatoes (which even the black-thumbed writer of this article has grown successfully). Tobacco--and cigars--might be best left to the experts.

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