How To Grow Your Own Tobacco - From Seed to Smoke
Ray French, Cool Springs Press, $22.99
Last year, Kurt Van Keppel of Xikar put out a challenge on Twitter for folks to grow their own tobacco. I was among the few that decided to give it a try, but I was not the only one who pretty much utterly failed. To be honest, I don’t know that any of those that tried was successful. Starting off too late in the season was my first mistake…then there came the lack of knowledge of how to property seed, feed, water and light the small plants, the poor manner in which I transplanted them to larger vessels, and the poor place I put them in our yard with way too much direct sunlight and heat and far too little water. I was completely ill-equipped to even start such a venture…and I will be honest, I had not really tried picking up on any of the gardening knowledge that my wife had been trying to amass. She tried to help things along, but some mistakes you just can’t recover from. I elected not to try again in 2011 because I just had too much to do.
Then I got an e-mail from Cool Springs Press (located near Nashville) about a new book they were publishing. “Would you like to read and review it?” Sure! Since we changed our content focus on the Tiki Bar to be cigar-specific-only, I had not done any book reviews, so this would be the perfect chance to bring back a favorite feature of mine. How To Grown Your Own Tobacco – From Seed To Smoke by Ray French, is a slim, hardcover book that starts with the basic premise that tobacco growing for personal consumption is legal, inexpensive and probably healthier than buying the mass-produced product.
French gives tips on different varietals, specifically which ones are good for which type of consumption (cigarette, cigar, pipe) and which ones grow best in different climates. He gives good information on the differences in growing in a garden versus growing in pots. And he comes at it from an “organic” standpoint, arguing that the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers could be a contributing factor to why there is so much tobacco-related disease (at least with cigarettes) in this country today. I have never been one to buy into the “organic” fad, but he breaks it down into a fairly manageable regimen…at least as it pertains to the individual tobacco farmer.
The book’s strengths are in the matters of general knowledge of tobacco, preparing soil and managing the growth. The weakness is in the after-harvest part. While there are some general guidelines to prepping your leaf for cigarettes, pipes, and even cigars, I found the information to be pretty basic and incomplete for the cigar enthusiast, leaving me to wonder how much of that part I will have to figure out myself. Yes, based on my reading of this book, I will be attempting to grow my own tobacco in 2012. Maybe some Tennessee-grown Connecticut Broadleaf will be good. Or perhaps I’ll try to find some Habano seeds and see how they fare. From my previous attempts I did find out that a lot more folks out there have tried growing their own leaf at home and have come up with some pretty unique ways to cure, ferment and store leaves long-term…you just have to look in the right places on the web.
If you have the urge to give this a try yourself, especially if you do not have the “green thumb” background to begin with, I would recommend picking up this book. I’m sure I will be referring to it time and again next spring and summer.
Addendum: After I completed reading and reviewing the book, I got an e-mail from the publisher that included the following Q&A with the author, Ray French, regarding some further questions about "Cigar Grade" tobacco.
Describe a leaf reserved for the cigar wrapper. You mentioned it has to be perfect:
A cigar grade leaf has to be harvested when ripe with no puncture wounds or holes from insects or handling. The best will tend to come from the upper part of the plants – and are usually the healthiest in terms of color. To put it frankly – they’re the best looking leaves on the plant. Thin veins are also a desirable characteristic.
After the drying and curing process is complete, you will select the best leaves to be used as wrappers. Again, these are leaves without holes. Another standout characteristic: these leaves have flexibility. Once you identify leaves that will make wrappers, store them a little on the moist side. Professional cigar makers store in a special sealed tin to maintain flexibility right up until they are needed.
Lizard Tail Oronoco: did you grow? How does it compare to other types? Why does it make the best cigars?
Yes I did grow it. It has a longer and narrower leaf than other varieties. One noticeable difference - the leaf was much thicker than any other type I grew. It is known for producing strong flavors. I actually blend with other types.
Describe your control standards during the drying and curing process (cigar grade).
During the initial drying process I tried to harvest leaves when they were ready, but the window of opportunity may only be a few days. So, watch closely! Remember – throughout the drying process keep the environment dry enough to turn the leaves yellow within a few days. If the environment is too humid, the leaves will mildew. I used several drying methods, but draped over an indoor clothesline was the easiest.
Another note: do not let the leaves dry all the way to powder. Moisten them carefully by either increasing the humidity or misting them a bit with distilled water. Once they are flexible you can then pack them flat and apply pressure, or store them hanging in a fairly humid environment.
What is your easiest curing recommendation (cigar grade)?
Depending on the quantity, either in a vacuum sealed bag or in bales wrapped in burlap and bound under pressure.
What types of tobacco make the best cigar grade?
In my opinion, the Virginia Gold and Havana Gold both made nice cigars as filler, binder, and wrapper.
Break down your do’s and don’ts in growing cigar grade tobacco.
Do a good job preparing the soil. Do check on your crop every day. Don't keep it so wet it mildews.
How does it differ from cigarette tobacco?
Typically the left over pieces and bits of scrap can be shredded further and turned into cigarettes. The cigar grade tobacco leaves are always the highest quality harvested, dried, cured and stored correctly. If I let some get too dry or did not moisten correctly to handle, I would toss to the cigarette stash.
While not answering every additional question I may have had, this does help to fill in some of the holes. As I start to formulate my own plan for growing cigar-grade tobacco next spring and summer, I will try to come up with a list of additional questions that I can send to Mr. French. I will also do my best to share the whole experience with you here online.