cigarette pack Growing tobacco plants
in small spaces.
cigarette pack

Usually I grow my tobacco in the garden, however last year was different as I only had access to a small patio. As these, or balconies, or window ledges are likely to be the only outdoor space many people have, I kept notes.

Preparation.

The most important thing is to be sure the outdoor temperature is at least 15 degrees centigrade before putting out your seedlings. Seedlings take several weeks before they're strong enough to re-pot, so best start the whole process four weeks or so beforehand.

I filled four small pots with fresh compost, then left them to soak through the holes in the bottom of the pots until everything was saturated. I then took a pinch of seeds and scattered them over the wet compost - and that's it! Don't turn the seeds into the compost, just leave them on the surface.

It's important you use fresh compost. It seems no matter how well you've stored stuff from previous years, the seeds will not germinate, or germination will be slow and patchy.

Early stage growth.

A friend allowed me to leave two pots in his greenhouse, where they got hot during the day and about 13 to 15 degrees at night. The other two pots were left in a cupboard in my apartment where there was no light, but the temperature was a steady 21 degrees all day. Both sets of pots were kept moist, either by dunking them in shallow water, or gently spraying the surface from about 10 inches. It's important you water gently to ensure the seeds don't become displaced or covered with compost.

The pots in the cupboard showed tiny little hair-like growths after about 12 days. They were removed from the cupboard and left behind a sunny window. Within hours the hairs had morphed into tiny little two leafed plants and all the seeds had germinated. Two days later the ones in the greenhouse germinated, leaving me with the saddest part of the process.

Each pot now contained far too many seedlings, so I had to thin them out. I hate having to do this and experience has shown that I must be cautious because what seems like a strong seedling can suddenly just wither, so over the next fortnight I whittled them down to four seedlings per pot.

Still indoors, the pots were kept behind a nice sunny window or temporarily placed outdoors during the heat of a calm day as they developed their second and third leaf stage. By this time, about four weeks, I could see which ones I wanted to grow on. So two plants from each pot were selected and transferred to a larger pot that contained saturated compost.

It was now warm enough outside for the plants to be left outdoors during the day. I'd take them indoors at dusk and put them out the following morning, always making sure the compost was nice and moist. One seedling was badly damaged by an insect, leaving seven that, after two more re-pots, went on to look like this.


Tobacco plants grown in pots in balcony or patio.
Potted tobacco plants about 4.5 months old.

You should be able to judge from the photo the amount of space you'll need because each floor tile is 60 cms square. With pots it's easy to move them around, but in a garden they'll need at least 75 cms of clear space around each plant - so 150 cms between plants.

This was the maximum amount of foliage I allowed. Some types of tobacco show when a leaf is ready to harvest because the lower leaves will start to change colour; they lose their vibrant green and start to turn yellow. Ignore them and the plant will simply let the leaf die off, at which point they're useless, so remove the leaf as soon as you see a colour change.

However this variant of Virginia tobacco does it slightly differently. At night each leaf will "close up" and move upwards, so shortly after that photo was taken some leaves remained in the horizontal position at night, meaning the plant was finished with them. That's when it's time to start harvesting.

Handling leaves.

I do not recommend you handle the leaves for long; just cut them, then get all the crud off them by rinsing in cold water, then hang them up to dry. Wash your hands thoroughly to get the stickiness off.

You don't need a great deal of space, I use this setup in a tiny shed that's bone dry and has good air circulation.


Simple way to dry tobacco leaves.
Drying tobacco leaves. Note crushed central vein and two or more leaves per clothes peg.


Some nylon string and some clothes pegs in a shed with good ventilation - and that's it. I leave them to hang until they turn brown, then put the leaf between some old magazines for a couple of days until they're pressed flat. Makes it easier to store because I learned that tobacco needs at least two years before it burns properly and develops its full flavour. Try to smoke young leaves and they taste bitter and will extinguish within seconds. I'm currently smoking leaves that are four years old and they give a lovely mellow smoke,

Please do not dry leaves within the living areas of your house or apartment. They give off a powerful odor that's similar to a heavy oil based paint. I made that mistake a few years back when I dried leaves from 32 plants in my living room. Watery eyes, clamminess and when I caught a cold it got deep into my lungs, leading to a lousy cough then a scary shortness of breath. My GP said it was COPD, however he was wrong; it was Green Tobacco Leaf Poisoning. So always dry leaves away from your living areas. Once they're completely dry and stored they're fine, though I don't risk bringing them into the house until they're at least a year old.

That's one advantage of growing small quantities, it's easy to keep up with mature leaves. They don't need a lot of space and they dry within a few weeks if you crush the central vein in the leaf. Don't crush it and they can take three times longer to dry. I do it because it speeds things up, and I find it easier to strip out the central vein when the time comes to shred the leaves. The other reasons for pots is they make life difficult for bugs and snails; they love the plant. Also just move them when there's a strong wind. That's a big issue in some places because the wind can shred leaves or even flatten the plant.

Pot sizes.

This is what the plants looked like about five and a half months after they'd germinated. You'll see that I've taken all the lower leaves and all that remain are the little ones that I leave until the flowers have withered. Also those closest to the flowers that eventually become the seed pods. I never keep those leaves; they're small, waxy, never dry properly and produce an unpleasant bitter taste if you attempt to smoke them.


Tobacco plants stripped of lower leaves.
Potted tobacco plants stripped of lower leaves showing flowers and seed pods.

The one in the largest pot (about 40 cms at the top) produced the largest leaves as well as the largest number of seed pods and matured long before the others. The next pot down produced far fewer seed pods and the leaves were slightly smaller. The Black pot produced yet smaller leaves and a pathetic number of seed pods, while the little brown pot in the foreground produced the smallest leaves and was so slow I couldn't be bothered to wait until it could produced seed pods.

The three black pots to the left; one has been stripped of leaves, the stalk's been cut and disposed of. The other two await the same fate; didn't need the seeds, so cut off the branches that carry the flowers. Some say this puts more growth into the leaves: not so, the plant just grows another branch to produce flowers. All plants were pot-bound by this stage with an enormous need for water - a feature of tobacco plants; they need a thorough watering every day. Moral is the bigger your pot, the better the plant.

Seed pods are important because they can be sold (I paid £5 for 10 pods advertised on ebay). The flowers are very attractive to bees and other pollen gathering insects. They do a fine job of fertilizing each flower meaning you'll have viable seeds for your next crop. I'd suggest you store dry seeds in your freezer, then remove them a week or so before you intend using them, so if you plan on giving it a shot, don't use little pots. The plant becomes pot-bound very quickly and the leaves are next to useless - and I'd never suggest growing them indoors beyond the third leaf stage. This is what happens without the full spectrum of natural sunlight and left in pots that are far too small.


Tobacco plants pot bound and unable to mature.
Tobacco plants grown indoors in undersized pots.

I have a large number of seed pods, so anyone who wants a few they're welcome to them. Just send me your name and address (my email address is on the home page) and I'll have them in the mail. Airmail's not a problem. There is no charge whatsoever; once they're gone, they're gone.

Smoking Scot
March 2020.
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