Whether or not you think anyone should smoke or snuff Tobacco it is still an interesting plant horticulturally. It was widely used as an extremely powerful pest killer, however it did for several gardeners along the way. The actual active substance nicotine is a strong nerve poison and one drop can be absorbed through the skin to kill. A cigarette or two contains more than enough to slay you if you absorbed it all. A by-product of the tobacco industry nicotine was often the gardeners poison of choice, and always under glass, as it was so effective even if hazardous. It was however not cheap. Lawrence Hills founder of the old HDRA now Grow Organic described an economical cigarette butt and soap stew – the nicotine concentrates in the butts, but this would be illegal now, and seems rather unsavoury if not unhygienic.

Nicotine was most often used as the liquid concentrate added to soap sprays whence it became diluted and slightly less dangerous. Or, under glass, as the smoke. And we are not talking a little whiff behind the bike shed, we are talking thick cloying smoke more like a smog, from burning tobacco waste or paper soaked in nicotine. A pyre of this was used to fumigate a greenhouse and would indeed kill most things but harm remarkably few plants. (Though prompting some to flower such as pineapples.) Pity the poor underling sent in to relight a smouldering pile of tobacco shreds, some did not make it out again.

Now nicotine is no longer widely available and not allowed to organic growers anymore but in emergency it may make a comeback as it is so effective. And it is a pesticide we can grow at home. Indeed it grows very well here in the UK, we once had a thriving tobacco farming industry in the north west until it was killed off by cheaper rivals from abroad and an unfavourable tax structure that benefited big importers of the day.

Indeed tobacco is an odd plant with tax and Customs and Excise implications, and European legislation as it is still a major crop in many other EU countries. Anyway it is apparently quite legal to grow and make tobacco products for your own and family use BUT you are not allowed to give any to anyone else, not even the tiniest pinch. And yet if I’ve got it right you are allowed to grow and make up to forty, yes forty, pounds a year of tobacco –I don’t know any family yet alone any single person who could smoke that amount in a year. Never mind, a challenge for my retirement.

I dabbled but never took to cigarettes though I occasionally enjoy a Cuban cigar when offered. My grandfather however smoked a pipe and had grown and made his own tobacco since the privations and rationing of his wartime experiences. Amongst his belongings was a tin of his own which I still treasure though I cannot say the contents have exactly continued to mature with great age. They are however still a potential smoke. And in desperation my wife who was still a smoker tried some; she gave up smoking for a short while after.

Realising this could be a good economy measure, one way or the other, I wondered how easy was it to grow a fresh crop, and after all I might take it up again one day just because I’m fed up with being told not to! Especially if it was good. So more out of curiosity I thought I’d try to grow tobacco and see if I could make some at least as good as grandpa’s. After all I have taken it as a challenge to grow every food crop possible, why not this wicked weed. Indeed as everyone seems so down on it I get a perverse pleasure from wishing to defend it’s few virtues. I must say that although it has not got me addicted to it I rather love this amazing plant. It is very handsome and grows so big from so little so quickly.

The seed is minute and needs surface sowing under cover. The wee seedlings are pricked out and grown on just like tomato plants to which they are closely related. Being prone to Tobacco Mosaic virus these two crops should be kept apart, and smokers should never handle either without washing as they may infect them. They can need potting up a couple of times until the ground has warmed up.

Once the frosts are passed the small plants can be put out, they can be cramped together for a show but to grow big leaves they need to be nearly a stride apart for the strongest growing varieties. The soil also needs be rich and moist. Other than wind and slug damage little seems to bother them as they romp away. However whereas for a garden plant we let the plants flower, for a good leaf crop the flower-stem buds must be cut out. (Wear rubber gloves as the sap is strong) This makes the lower leaves swell hugely, and more flower buds break to also need removing.

Once the lowermost leaves start to colour they can be picked. They show a yellowing of the usual green and develop brown spots, pick these and the next pair up. Then a week or two later another pair and so on. The lowest leaves are considered the better, the middle leaves are traditionally the filler and the topmost leaves only good for Chewing tobacco (I don’t want to go there) and pesticide use.

In my light dry soil the average plant gave me nine usable leaves and some stems and seconds, though apparently in better soil conditions up to twenty leaves can be had.

The cut leaves can be threaded on to canes by cutting a slit in their mid-rib near the base. These batches are hung to dry out of the light until the mid-ribs turn soft and brown which takes up to a month. Warmth towards the end helps finish them. Once the leaves have dried they can be stored without further processing and will mellow obtaining a fine aroma with age. For pesticidal use they are strongest like this, and if to be burnt or extracted all parts and grades are full of nicotine, but for smoking the leaves need improving.

Handle them on a damp day (you can steam them instead) when the leaves have absorbed enough moisture not to be so dry and brittle they break up you as you touch them. Take them from their supporting canes and for the finest grades remove the mid-ribs from the leaf by tearing or cutting with a sharp blade. Obviously if you are after cigar wrappers you must be very careful not to damage or tear the leaves and reserve the best for this. Torn leaf can be used for filler and depending on your taste this can include mid-ribs.

What you then do depends on which of several different types of tobacco you have grown and the product you require from them. In the UK most cigars and cigarettes are made from the Virginian varieties, Nicotiana tabacum, which is a tall plant with quite attractive, usually pinkish, flowers, closely resembling N. affine the garden sweet scented tobacco. If you are growing tobacco to save money and keep yourself in rolling tobacco then this is the one. If you like French and Turkish tobaccos then you may prefer the peasants choice of N. rustica. This is a shorter hardier plant with a smaller rounder leaf and greenish flowers. It is less productive but easier to grow and is stronger than most Virginian varieties. (And for space jockeys, or those looking for a pesticide source then the white flowered garden or woodland tobacco N. sylvestris may be the one. A native of Argentina and taller than the Virginian this produces huge leaves that are several times as strong, indeed life threatening. One friend, a hardened smoker, in desperation once tried some of this fresh from his garden and reported it had more effect on every interior part than he had ever wanted with most of them trying to leave by the nearest available orifice.) Be warned, do not experiment, these are poisonous plants!

Newly dried raw tobacco leaves need either ageing, or curing to turn them into a more palatable form as they can be very coarse. To reduce the strength some soak and squeeze the leaves, most prefer the max. Likewise some may add honey, spices etc at this stage, or add them later after curing. To cure them the slightly dampened leaves are flattened, packed, rolled and put in a warm dark place for a week or several when they ferment. This changes the burning quality as well as the flavour. A difficult process to control this has proved simple enough in practice. However much too damp and they go mouldy, too long and they go dark and fall to powder. The French and Turkish tobaccos are traditionally fermented a bit longer than most Virginian tobaccos which are only lightly cured except for pipe sorts. Turkish tobaccos are also often dried in an oven further darkening them. Though many peasants just smoke rustica once it’s aged by hanging. The dark solid pipe tobaccos can be blended from Virginian and rustica, and the rarer Shiraz or Persian tobaccos. An old way of strongly compressing the leaves to make dense tobacco to smoulder in a pipe is by winding a thin wet cord around a cylinder of blended leaves. As the cord dries it squeezes them tighter. Having been put away to cure it can be unwound and finely sliced like salami. For rolling cigarettes and filling cigars fibrous cigarette cuts are made by laying the matured or cured (and soaked and dried if weaker strength is required) leaves in a block, compressing this in a vice then slicing fine strips off the end. The finished tobacco, especially once cut needs keeping fresh in a humidor, a wooden box with a bit of damp cotton wool wrapped in foil as a humidifier serves. If too dry tobacco cannot be rolled or packed in a pipe.

Cigars proved rather difficult; indeed hilariously so. I guess my thigh is not virgin enough…Certainly the rolling of a cigar is an acquired art. Snuff also proved difficult; the leaves were not easy to powder finely and the additional flavourings I added seemed to make it into a paste more often than a powder. In the end my snuff certainly worked and made me sneeze my head off but never having had that addiction I’m not sure quite what I was after. However if it’s snuff you want then you can grow it.

To summarize; I found neither growing tobacco, nor drying or curing nor preparing the pipe or cigarette tobaccos to be difficult and the finished products were tried and proved sufficiently like the ‘real’ thing to satisfy my curiosity. Unfortunately they are not good enough for my wife. But fortunately also not so good I have taken the habit up. Anyway- forty pounds, I’ve barely made four ounces in total and that was trouble enough. Interesting though.