GROWING, CURING, FLAVOURING AND FINISHING TOBACCO FOR CIGARETTES (2013 version))
21st July 2012. I HAVE NOTICED THAT LOTS OF PEOPLE ARE READING THIS POST. PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THE THOUGHTS EXPRESSED ARE DERIVED FROM EXTENSIVE READING OF THE LITERATURE AND A LITTLE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. PLEASE REMEMBER THAT ‘PERFECTION’ IS HARD TO ACHIEVE.
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THE BOLTON SMOKERS CLUB IS THE VOICE OF ‘BOLTONIANS AGAINST THE SMOKING BAN’. WE SEE THE BAN AS ABSOLUTELY CONTRARY TO THE BASIC FREEDOM OF BRITONS. IF YOU WANT TO SEE SOMETHING ABOUT THE LIES AND TRICKERY WHICH TOBACCO CONTROL HAS ENGAGED IN, GO TO ’BOLTON SMOKERS CLUB’ HOME PAGE:
In the sidebar, see ‘GROWING DIARY 2013′. Readers who would like to keep abreast with progress through 2013 might like to view that Page from time to time.
Update 15th June 2014.
Slugs, Slugs, Slugs, Slugs!!
I have to report disaster. I still cannot believe it. Somehow or other, baby slugs were in the ground INSIDE the bottles which I placed over the plants. I only discovered that fact after substantial damage had been done. Here is what I found when I went out one night with a torch and checked within the bottles:
As you can see from the ruler, they are less than 2 cm long, but, boy, can they do some damage. I still cannot believe that they got inside the bottles from outside since I have used the bottle method of protection for two years with great success. It is possible that there were eggs or baby slugs in the compost that I packed the plants into the ground with, or it may be that the weather has hatched out the eggs very early this year, and that the eggs were almost everywhere in the ground. I cannot say. I have since spread slug pellets all around with great success, but the damage has been done.
I had a dozen plants in reserve so I have put them into the ground under bottles. So far, there has been no slug damage to them. I have sown some seeds to start afresh, but it is very late in the season. I’ll just have to see what happens. At least, it is another lesson to be learnt – AT ALL COSTS, protect against slugs.
Update 3rd June 2014.
The plantlets are now outside in the garden. There are just under 60 of them. Here are a couple of pics:
I also covered them with two litre pop bottles so that each has its own ‘greenhouse’ for the time being. Also, the bottles help to protect against slugs and other plant predators:
There is not much to be done now except wait for them to start growing. It may be a couple of weeks before they really start off. The first thing that they seems to do is establish their roots. It is important at this time to make sure that they are watered. The roots are only 2 or 3 inches deep, so any drying out of the soil surface is bad news.
By the way, the plastic things around the edges of the plots are my ‘slug deterrent’ moats. I just dig channels in the soil and line them with plastic. The plastic is held in place with ordinary tent-pegs. I do them in sections because they have to be reasonably level. I don’t rush at these things. I dug the channels some time ago, but only recently lined them before I put the plants in. It didn’ take long – a couple of hours to dig the trenches and level them, and a couple of hours to line them. Recent rain has already filled the moats with water (slugs can’t swim), but I would have filled them manually if necessary.
So everything that I can do is done.
Update Thursday 10th April 2014.
It is only four days since my last update. I thought that I might show a pic taken today of the seedlings. It shows how quickly the seedlings can develop once they get going:
I think that you will agree that the plantlets are developing quite well, when compared with only four days ago.
It’s a bit too early to transplant them into pots as yet. When the biggest individual leaf on a plantlet measures about 1″ (2 cm), then will be the time to transplant. I anticipate transplanting them a few at a time as they grow.
I think that I am running a bit late this year, although I did have a setback when I used the compost that I bought from a ‘street trader’ when I first started to germinate seeds. That compost dried out too quickly and was not sufficiently rotted really. I bought some seeding compost and started again. No big deal – there was only a week or so in it. Nevertheless, since I hope to plant out in mid-May, I may be a bit behind. But it doesn’t really matter. The year before last I had a disaster with my seedlings and had to buy plantlets. I did not get to plant out until mid-June, but I still got a good harvest.
If anyone is thinking of starting now, it is not too late!
Update Sunday 6th April 2014.
Hundreds of seeds germinated:
That is an early pic, but it shows how many were coming through. After a few more days, there were many more. Obviously, there were far too many, and so they had to be thinned. The easy way is to just gently pull them out with your fingers. The roots are tiny at this stage.
More seedlings will appear and must be treated in the same way. After a while, you should be left with two, three or four seedlings per cell. Then, it is a good idea to cut the seedlings down to two per cell. At the same time, build up the compost around the seedlings up to the bottom of the leaves, like this:
The pic is dark, but it is plain to see that each cell now has just two plantlets, buried up to the leaves. The reason for burying them up to the leaves is that the stalks have tiny hairs on them. When the stalk is buried, the hairs will become roots. Thus is the strength of the plant built up.
I shall mist them daily for a week or so since since the roots are still very shallow. Since I took that pic, the plantlets have grown a little and are looking very happy. The leaves are beginning to take proper shape.
Update Sunday 9th March.
As I expected, the seeds are germinating and tiny white spots are appearing. they are the heads of the seedlings. I’ll give it another couple of days and then I’ll add a picture.
5th March 2014.
Germinating seeds for 2014.
Yesterday I went to the local (nearest) garden supply place to get a compost bin. At the same time, I thought that I would nip next door to an auto-electric shop and get some advice (not material to the story). When I arrived, I found that the garden place is closed on Mondays. Oh Dear! Never mind. Also, I found that the auto-electrics shop had ceased to exist. Oh Dear! Again. Today, I went again to the garden place and found that they did not stock compost bins. Sods law, I suppose. When I went into the garden place, I vaguely looked around. There was something in the back of my mind that I wanted, but it would not come. Only when I started to prepare my propagator tonight for the seeds did it come to me what I wanted – a new propagator!
OK – So I’m stuck with the old one for this year. Sod it – it will do. You can see in the pic below that it is shot at.
I’m getting my seeds into the propagator now, so I’m going to do a little commentary.
01:30 Here is the propagator filled with compost. The compost is just ordinary all purpose compost:
So there’s the tray with its insert of cells, complete with compost. I’ve poured a little hot water into each cell to warm the compost up, but it has now cooled. The next step is to put the seeds in.
There, I’ve emptied quite a lot of seeds onto a plain piece of white paper. They are so small that it would be difficult to see them otherwise. The next step is to separate a few:
I have shoved a few onto a sheet of white paper which has been folded to create a crease. From there, I can let the seeds fall into each cell of the propagator in turn. I insert a little tag in the cell that I am filling so that I know where I am up to.
The next event will be when all the cells are filled ……………………….
All the cells are filled, and the propagator is now on the worktop in the kitchen which has a radiator underneath. The rad will keep the worktop warmish and thus the prop:
In the morning, I expect to see the cover misted up a little inside. That would be perfect. In about three days, I expect to see tiny white dots on the surface of the compost, which will be the plants starting to protrude. After about seven days, the leaves will have started to form. A week or so later, I can start to thin out the seedlings.
I shall not be using my heated propagator because I don’t need to if past experience is anything to go by, but, this year, I am started the germination later than I have in the past, so I may decide to use the heated propagator if the heat from the radiator in the kitchen is insufficient. But it should be OK. If the cover is not misted in the morning, then I’ll put the whole thing in the heated prop. It will fit inside.
So there we are then. Let battle commence! The 2014 season has begun!
UPDATE 4pm 5th March.
As I expected, the cover of the propagator has misted up. But I have decided to bring the heated propagator into use because, during the day, the thermostat will turn the radiators off. I have simply turned on the propagator and placed the whole small, unheated prop inside:
I’ll just leave it on for the next few days. It does not consume much electricity. The seedlings should start to show about Saturday.
UPDATE 28TH DECEMBER 2013.
It is some time since I gathered in the last of the crop for this year and processed it. By ‘processed’, I mean curing by the towelling and wadding method. Much of the ‘stuff’ has had a few months to mature, but some is only about two months old. To get some sort of consistency, after I had processed the last batch, I mixed the whole lot up by bunging the whole lot into a big tub and manually mixing it. After that, I put the stuff into tubs, and left it to age for a couple of months. But I opened the tubs from time to time (say, at least weekly) to allow pongs to escape. [I suspect that it could be a good idea to wait even longer because pongs are still very evident]
What is important, however, is that I started to use my home-grown a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve been experimenting with various blends. In order to be clear, here is a list of amusing ingredients:
1. Kinick Kinick.
KK is a blend of very aromatic herbs and shavings from certain plant barks which the Red Indians in America mixed with their tobacco when the smoked their ‘pipes of peace’. It was also used as incense, so you can see that it is strong-smelling stuff. Whatever the Red Indians did was up to them.
2. Nicotine-less ‘tobacco’ derived from lettuce.
I bought this stuff from Israel. It smells and smokes just like ‘real’ tobacco. Mixed with my own stuff, it was really nice. What was important about this experiment was that, if push came to shove, we have a viable substance which looks and tastes like tobacco and may well be easy to replicate. That is an experiment that I intend to pursue in the new year.
This was the best. Virginia whole leaf is a mild tobacco. Mixed with my own, it has produced a very pleasant blend. After a little experiment, my preferred blend is one third my own stuff and two thirds Virginia. It really is very pleasant.
And so we go into the year 2014. No doubt the Zealots will succeed in further extending the persecution. But I don’t care. I have extended my plots a little and dug them over. I am now gradually adding ‘fertilizer’ in the form of human urine, tea bags (split with a spade) and the ash from used cigs. The last is probably the most important because baccky plants need quite a lot of potash.
It will be interesting to see how long my own stuff lasts. I have no delusions about how long my stuff will last. It will not provide for a full year, but I am happy with progress so far.
UPDATE 29TH AUGUST 2013.
A little more about the heated propagator.
We seem to be finding a way to use it brown the leaves. Here is a pic:
The evenness of the heat created by the propagator seems to be pretty effective at causing the leaves to go brown pretty evenly. The significance of that is that, as compared with wadding, there is little stickiness and not nearly as much shrinkage. The only question that arises in my mind is whether or not the leaves have actually fermented. Rose has assured me that the smell is correct (as per bought tobacco leaf). Perhaps people would like to read this post:
I do not intend to abandon wadding since it produces a sweet taste. I simply want to have another arrow in my quiver.
UPDATE 12TH AUGUST 2013.
I have bought a heated propagator. The price was reasonable at £25. It is a simple machine. The whole thing measures 52 cm x 42 cm x 24 cm. It consists of only two principle parts – the base unit in the form of a tray about 8 cm deep, which contains the heater element, and a clear cover with vents in the top which can be opened or closed as required. There is no temperature control, but I believe that it has an automatic cut-out to ensure that it does not overheat.
I shall, of course, use it to germinate seeds next year, but, as I explain in the article below, there is no need for a heated propagator to germinate tobacco seeds. The reason that I have bought it is to make it easy to provide a consistently warm place for the towels containing tobacco leaves to sit in. Also, I am using it to hold the containers which contain the wads. [The significance of the 'towels' and the 'wads' is explained in the article below]
Here are a couple of pics:
There you can see four towels and two wad containers (the fourth towel is under the red/blue towel). I have found that I could easily fit eight towels in there – a bottom row of four and a top row of four. I haven’t yet met a situation where I need that many at a time, but you never know. But you can also see that I could easily have seven towels in there, in addition to the two containers of wads if I wished to. The most that I have had in so far is five – four on the right and one on the left.
Her is another pic with the cover on:
The cover is quite big, about 16 cm high, which gives plenty of room. You can see the two vents in the top (the orange coloured objects). They slide open and closed.
I have using it now for about three days. My only concern has been that the towels are perhaps too warm for too long, and thus tending to dry the green leaves a little too quickly, and so I have taken to switching the machine off overnight. I am also rotating the towels – the top ones go to the bottom in rotation.
I should also point out that I have put a few of slats of wood in the tray:
The idea is to stop the towels being in direct contact with the heated base. Thus, we avoid direct ‘conduction’ of heat. That helps avoid ‘hot spots’ in the leaves closest to the bottom. Such hot spots could cause scalding, meaning in effect that areas of leaf in that place could dry out far too quickly and stay green.
Early results are encouraging. Her is a pic:
The leaf at bottom left is not quite ready, but the rest are just how I want them. Purists (which I do not mean in a pejorative sense) would not be happy, since the colour ought to be something like the leaf on the bottom left though perhaps a little browner. But to get such uniformity would require a curing chamber or kiln. What I like about tobacco cured in my way is that it is rather rich and lovely when mixed with more bland tobacco like Golden Virginia or Pure Leaf (obtainable via the net). People who have tried my ‘creations’ have been impressed.
I had also in mind to use it to dry out the finished cured leaves to a dryness level sufficient for shredding, but, after a trial, I have abandoned that idea. There simply is no point since they can be spread out and allowed to air-dry naturally.
Throughout my efforts in the article below, from the beginning, I have always had in mind those people who might not have the space to build curing chambers, nor the inclination, nor the wish to wait for many weeks for the process to run its course. After starting with only the most basic of ‘tools’, I have gradually introduced some ‘mechanisation’ a little at a time. I have a simple, manual shredder (cost about £20); I have a ‘chopper’ to chop the shreds into little pieces. I had to adjust an old-fashioned meat grinder for that purpose; I bought an electric tube filling machine for about £75. What a godsend that has been! It is hand held and fills only one tube at a time and is thus not regarded as ‘manufacturing’. The propagator is the latest, and ought to be the last, piece of equipment that I need.
At the end of this growing season, I shall amend the article below to reflect these changes. Just one thing to bear in mind when reading the article – there seems to be no need to ferment the leaves as thoroughly as suggested in the article. If they become a little sticky, then that will do.
What a fascinating hobby this is turning out to be!
[I must say right away that I have borrowed material copiously from the internet. In many cases I cannot even remember where I got the information from, being simply quotes which I have copied. I have used videos from U-tube of which I have had difficulty in sourcing the author and similar problems. So I hope that anyone seeing material of theirs here will understand my difficulties and accept my gratitude]
Question: Why are there not huge, cannabis production factories in England? Answer: Because growing cannabis plants (except for authorised research purposes) and producing cannabis is illegal in England. Question: Why are there huge tobacco production factories in England? Answer: Because the growing tobacco plants and producing tobacco is not illegal in England. So if you want to grow your own, there is nothing whatsoever to stop you. QED.
When you decide to grow your own tobacco, you must decide what sort of tobacco you wish to grow. Cigar and pipe tobacco are different entities from cigarette tobacco. I will assume that anyone reading this wants to grow cigarette tobacco, since that it my own interest and what I know a little about. But, just as a matter of interest, I will mention this video which I found on Utube about the curing of cigar tobacco:
If you are serious about growing your own tobacco plants for cigarettes, you should watch that video. Its importance is in the fact that you should not try to emulate their methods. The product which they wish to produce is high value/high cost Cuban cigars which are nothing like the product that we wish to produce. But watch it since it emphasises the need to cure tobacco. Even cigarette tobacco needs to be cured.
What is curing?
There seem to be a number of ‘myth-like’ stories about curing tobacco. A favourite is that seamen, carrying tobacco from America, noticed that bales of tobacco leaf fermented during the course of crossing the Atlantic. The result of the fermentation was that the tobacco leaves emitted a sweet smell (because starches in the leaves underwent a chemical change and became sugars). Smokers of this fermented tobacco found that the taste was much to their liking and better than unfermented tobacco. Thus the idea of deliberately fermenting tobacco leaves came to be. But there are variations on this story. It seems that there was a practice of transporting tobacco leaves inside used rum casks and that the leaves fermented in the casks and, at the same time, absorbed rum flavouring. It is important to understand that tobacco is very ‘hydrophilic’. Hydrophilic means ‘water loving’ – tobacco absorbs water readily. If there is also rum flavouring in the water, the tobacco will absorb the rum flavouring along with the water which carries the flavouring. Thus the idea of not only fermenting tobacco but also flavouring tobacco came to be.
Whatever the history might be, it became the practice to ferment the tobacco leaves deliberately at the source rather than leaving it to chance. Thus, tobacco growers in America built special barns with temperature and humidity controls which created the optimum conditions for the fermentation of the leaves to occur. Once cured, the tobacco can be packaged, stored and transported with ease. We cannot and should not try to emulate these methods, since we do not have in the UK the same climactic conditions, nor the furnaces to raise the temperature and hold it at a specific level, nor the ability to standardise the humidity and ventilation. It is no accident that the best places to grow and ferment tobacco leaves occur in a belt around a position a little north or south of the equator, including the Southern States of America, Zimbabwe, India, China, and many more. It is a question of economics for Tobacco Companies. Here is a video of the collection of tobacco leaves from a plantation in India. Only the first few seconds, showing the stripping of tobacco leaves from plants, is important to us, but watch it all if you want to:
Compare that with this video from Switzerland, where the leaves are being stripped by hand:
From a Tobacco Company point of view, which process is likely to be most economical?
So the Tobacco Company processes of curing tobacco are difficult for us to emulate and we should not even try. Here is a quote from a site which illustrates the methods that Tobacco Companies use – be sure to note the way in which the temperature in increased in a controlled manner over a few days:
In general, curing can be divided into three distinct stages: yellowing, leaf drying, and stem drying. The first stage can be described as a period of major chemical conversions and color development. Air temperature in the barn is maintained between 30 and 40°C, with relative humidity of 80 to 95%, (5,12) for about 48 h or until the leaves turn yellow. In the second stage, air temperature in the barn is increased gradually to 50 or 60°C, while relative humidity is lowered to allow more rapid moisture removal. This stage lasts for 36 to 72 h (12). The last stage (stem drying) generally requires 36 to 48 h. Air temperature is increased to 74°C with further decrease of relative humidity to permit rapid drying of the midrib.
Can we control the temperature, ventilation and humidity in that way? Can we even create such temperatures? The only alternative is to take a longer time at lower temperatures etc, but it is all a bit hit and miss.
Having said that we should not try to emulate Tobacco Companies, many people do build their own ‘curing chambers’ (sometimes known as ‘kilns’). There is nothing complicated about these structures. I have seen instructions on how to build one out of polystyrene. It was about 3’ x 3’ x 5’ high. Another (described as a kiln) was a mere 2’ cube built from plywood. The problem with these chambers is that they need fans, heaters and humidifiers running all the time for weeks perhaps, which can be very expensive. Fortunately, there is an easy way to avoid all this trouble and expense, of which more later.
Essentially, then, curing is simply fermenting – that is, causing starches in the leaves to turn into sugars by innate chemical reactions. How can we, in the UK, satisfactorily cure tobacco? We will see in what follows.
But we must start from the beginning.
December in the UK is the time to prepare your planting plot for next spring. I should really start with ‘preparing your plot’, but it is understandable that people want to start with buying the seeds! So we will start with that, and think of the plot next.
[NB. YOU CAN START TO GERMINATE IN DECEMBER, AND IT IS A GOOD IDEA TO DO SO IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A WARM, SOUTH-FACING PLACE TO PUT YOUR SEEDLINGS WHEN THEY HAVE GERMINATED. YOU NEED TO USE YOUR INTELLIGENCE. THERE IS A LOT TO BE SAID FOR STARTING SOME OFF IN DECEMBER AND SOME IN JANUARY AND SOME IN FEBRUARY. SEEDS ARE INCREDIBLY CHEAP. ]
UPDATE JANUARY 2014.
Different countries have different climates, so the precise time which is best to germinate seeds will differ widely. Also, a lot depends upon where you are obliged to keep the seedlings once they have germinated. On my early attempts, the only window ledge that I had available for the seedlings was a West-facing one. Thus, they received little light, and so grew very, very slowly. That is why I needed to germinate the seeds in January. Now, I have a heated propagator, and so have no need to germinate seeds until around mid March. Bear in mind also that I have no intention this year of planting out before mid May.
If you have a South-facing window ledge, germinating the seeds in February might be about right.
If the seedlings start to get ‘leggy’ (growing taller rapidly) before it is time to plant them out, you could try putting them in a cool dark place every other day. It might slow the growth down somewhat.
[From time to time, I will name organisations and suppliers. I have no connection with these organisations at all, and so I am not plugging any of them. If a name pops into my head, I might mention it]
I obtained my first supply of seeds from Coffinails via the internet. That was in February-ish 2011. I paid about £10 for a special offer of three varieties of cigarette tobacco plant. The varieties were Virginia, Maryland 609 and Monte Calme Yellow. Each has slight differences, but only marginal differences, in characteristics. Each little pack had over 200 seeds each, since the seeds are very small – about ½ a millimetre across. Amazing, isn’t it, that the plants grow over 5’ tall! The seeds came with instructions on how to germinate them and how to care for the seedlings, along with advice about tending the plants once they are planted out, plus advice about curing. Different parts of the world will have different climactic conditions and so it is not possible to recommend any particular varieties. It would be best to check the various sellers of seeds on the internet.
So it is January, and you have seeds to germinate, but you are not too sure how best to proceed. Heated propagator? Ordinary propagator? No propagator (sow directly into pots)?
GERMINATING THE SEEDS
Here is a tip. The seeds are extremely small, and so it is difficult to sow them in small numbers. What I did was to shake some seeds out of the packet onto a sheet of plain, white paper. A4 size should do. It is thus much easier to see the seeds. My pots/propagator were already prepared, so it was an easy matter to separate small groups of seeds from the pile (I didn’t actually count the seeds – probably about ten). I brushed/shoved the little group onto another sheet of paper and, from there, into each pot in turn one pot at a time. Don’t forget to observe closely which pot/section of the propagator you have just done! I use a little stick which I move from compartment to compartment of the propagator as I go along. The seeds do not need to be buried – just let them fall onto the surface of the soil/compost.
Unfortunately, at the beginning, I personally had a disaster. I sowed my first seeds into an ordinary propagator (with 40 small, individual sections). I was already late since I knew no better, it being around March. It turned out that the compost that I was using was ‘sour’. That is, it had been lying in the garage for years and had dried out completely, thus rendering it very concentrated and acidic. The seeds germinated ok, but died a week or so after germination. It was only when I remembered that lupin seeds had suffered the same fate that I realized that it was the compost that was the problem. I started again with brand new ‘seeding and cuttings’ compost, and, this time, there was no problem – the seeds germinated and thrived.
But I was curious. I wanted to know whether or not a ‘propagator’ was really necessary. So, just as an experiment, I filled several 2” plant pots with my old ‘sour’ compost. I put the pots into an old washing-up bowl and sprinkled seeds on the top of the compost. I then covered the bowl with a hot, damp towel. After about five days, the seeds germinated! This proved to me that there is no need for propagators at all. Seeds can be sowed straight into pots. All they need is a warm, damp atmosphere, and they will start to germinate in about five days. My intention in January 2013 is to use both pots and propagator. In the propagator, I’ll use compost. In the pots, I’ll use soil from my garden. I’ll keep the pots and propagator on a shelf in the kitchen which is over a radiator. As I said earlier, the pots will be in an old washing up bowl which will be covered with a warm, damp towel to maintain a warm, damp atmosphere. Here is a pic:
However, we must bear in mind that using my garden soil was just an experiment. It is much wiser to use a ‘seeding compost’. Rose recommends John Innes No3 LOAM based compost.
It takes only about five days for the seeds to start to germinate. Once they have germinated, the seedlings will be ok in normal everyday temperatures. Try to avoid watering them for a few days to allow the roots to dig in a little – the seedlings are likely to be barely attached to the soil/compost at that stage. If necessary, mist them using a fine spray.
This is what the seedlings will look like after a few days:
At that point you can start to thin them out. I use my fingers to grip the weaker-looking seedlings which are close together and gently pull them out. I like to leave about three well separated seedlings in each compartment of the propagator or in each pot. After about another two weeks, you can expect them to look like this:
At this stage, they grow very slowly. It is not a bad idea to gently top up the soil/compost to be level with the bottom of the leaves.
If you use a propagator, then you will have to transplant the seedlings into pots. It may be as well to let them grow in the propagator until they are reasonably big:
Transplanting the seedlings into pots is not is difficult at all. Simply use a teaspoon to easy the seedling out of a section of the propagator. Gently does it because the seedlings might have longish taproots. Make a hole in the compost in the pot with your finger and slip the roots of the seedling into the hole. Put the seedlings deep into the hole – right up to the bottom of the leaves, and press the soil in around the hole. Ensure that compost is damp. I poured very hot water into the compost-filled pots to raise the temperature and to kill off bugs. Of course, I allowed the compost to cool right down to room temperature before putting the seedlings in!
When I started my seeds off this year, I had a disaster. Although the seeds had germinated without trouble, they failed to develop. For weeks, they sat in their pots, about a centimetre tall with a couple of little leaves, but did not grow. I tried to speed up the process by warming up the pots. That was a mistake. I have found out since that tobacco plants will die if the temperature of the soil is above 40° C. 40C is not a high temperature – it is just warm. I made a mistake by trying to increase the warmth of the seedlings in the mistaken belief that they would benefit and grow better. They did not. Instead, they began to die.
The germination of the seeds is easy. The difficult bit is keeping them alive and well. My plan is to do what I did in 2011, which is to put the trays containing the pots along with the propagator on the window ledge in the spare room. That room faces South, so the plantlets should get some light. The radiator will keep the room at a temperature of about 20C, which is good. Yes, the plantlets will grow very slowly, but we must remember that the seeds are extremely small and the roots are extremely small until the plants gain strength, which takes some time. So the order of the day is, “Patience, Friends!”
UPDATE JAN 2013.
Here is a pic of my present seedlings:
[CLICK TO ENLARGE]
I have already thinned them out somewhat, but you can see that they are growing well.
That’s about it for dealing with the seeds and seedlings.
PREPARING YOUR PLOT
There are three possibilities that occur to me.
1. You live in a flat or apartment without balcony
2. You live in a flat with balcony, or you live in a ‘maisonette’ or house with very little garden space.
3. You live in a house with sufficient garden space to create tobacco plots.
In case 1, you have no alternative but to grow tobacco plants within your home. In that case, the only limitation upon how many tobacco plants you should grow is how much space, within your home, you are prepared to grant to the plants. They are big plants. That is for you to decide. But there is no reason that they should not grow and prosper that I know of, even if you only have one plant. But be aware that one plant will produce very little tobacco. If you are really, really lucky and your plant really, really does well, you might get 50 – 100 fags from it. That figure is an educated guess, because I do not really know at this time. What I do know is that my plantation has produced about 300 fags at best, and I had quite a lot of decent sized leaves. The problem is that, no matter how wonderfully big your leaves might appear to be as they grow, when you dry them and cure them, they will shrink and shrink. That is because they are about 70% water.
But do not be deterred! You need experience! In your first year, especially, you must take it as it comes. A lot depends upon how much you smoke, with all the implications which come with that thought.
As an experiment, I grew three plants indoors as an experiment. They have grown through their cycle and have flowered and are going to seed. The only thing is that the leaves were very small compared with the same plants outdoors. I have, as yet, no answer to the question of why this should be so.
In case 2, tobacco plants will grow happily in buckets. Remember that tobacco plants are, generally speaking, ‘annuals’. That is, that they have to be started from scratch from seeds every year. Here is a picture (courtesy of Leg Iron) of a plant happily growing in an ordinary bucket:
I have since learnt that there are important considerations when growing plants in buckets. First, the growing medium (the ‘soil’ in the bucket) must be loose enough not to become compacted. Ordinary garden soil is too ‘dense’ in itself. In such a dense medium, especially when confined in a bucket, the roots of the plants cannot push their way into the soil. Try mixing compost, soil, twigs, stones and vegetative material. the important thing is to avoid compaction. But it must be said that growing plants indoors, although not difficult, will not produce big leaves. I do not know, but I understand from what I have been told is that the problem is THE LIGHT. Wherever you put plants indoors, they will spend most of their time in partial shade. Thus, in effect, they will be deprived of ‘food’ (since sunlight is ‘food’ to tobacco plant leaves). Frankly, I do not think that it is worthwhile trying to grow them indoors. People who have no garden, or at least a balcony, might consider acquiring ready-cured leaves via the internet, if you live in a place where there is no law against it. Most places do not have a law against it. And they can be quite inexpensive. Use your brain and google the right words – you know, ‘whole’ and ‘leaf’ and the other word.
In case 3, the whole situation changes. It all depends upon how much of your garden you are prepared to ‘sacrifice’. I am talking about replacing pretty flowers with a cash crop! In my own case, I found that I had an area which was ‘available’, provided that I did the work involved in clearing the area. Since I was quite ignorant of what to expect in terms of the produce which would result from my plantings, I assumed that a plot of some 18 feet by 5 feet, sufficient for 30 plants, would produce an enormous amount of tobacco. Oh dear! Not so.
In the first place, the big tobacco-plant leaves shrink like nobody’s business when they are dried and cured. That is a matter of fact and must be accepted. One must accept that 70% or so of the leaves is water. Thus, if you remove the water, you are reducing the volume of the leaves by 70%. But sites that I have looked at suggest that about 20% of the water remains in the leaves during the curing process, provided that temperature etc are carefully controlled. Whatever, your leaves will shrink a lot.
In cases 1 and 2, there is no plot preparation problem since there is no plot. Essentially, you just grow your seedlings until they are reasonably big and then bung them in buckets full of compost. No problem. But in case 3, in order to produce the best yield, it is worth your while to give the matter of plot preparation some consideration.
I can only describe what I personally have worked out.
Remembering that I ‘allocated’ a plot of some 18 feet by 5 feet, I turned the ground over and removed weeds and such. When my seedlings were reasonably big, I planted them. There was enough room for about 30 plants. In order to remove the slug threat, I cut the top and the bottom from 2 litre pop bottles, leaving plastic cylinders. I put these cylinders over the plants and pushed them into the ground. I also spread slug pellets around. I shall show you a pic of the result after a couple of months:
Notice that there is good growth on the left (the white thing is a 12″/30cm ruler), but on the right and at the back (the top of the pic), the growth is pathetic. WHAT WENT WRONG? My answer is that I did not prepare the ground adequately. When I ‘turned it over’, I did not dig deep enough. I did not loosen the ‘subsoil’ sufficiently. I did not ‘de-compact’ the soil. My plants never had a real chance of putting their roots down. I did not ‘fertilize’ the ground. I did nothing in preparation adequately.
Now look at this pic:
as you can see from the position of the silver birch tree (top of pic) I have cleared a load of useless shrubbery and expanded the plot a great deal. Now look at this plot (Plot 1) again:
Since the previous pic, I have double-dug Plot 1 (see below), thus opening up the soil to allow frost to enter deeply. The frost will freeze the water in the soil and expand. When the ice melt, millions of holes will appear in the soil and be filled with nitrogen from the atmosphere. The soil will be ‘conditioned’.
And look at this one:
I have created plot 2 in the same way.
As regards ‘plot preparation’, the important thing is that I have ‘double dug’ the ground. That means that I have dug deeply and reversed the levels of the soil. The sub-soil has become the top soil. I do not expect to have to do this annually! There were 20 years of neglect to take care of and loads of shrubbery roots, and so on. The plot 2 pic is not very clear. In the foreground (the bottom of the pic) is a big pile of soil which is on the lawn. The actual plot is at the top of the pic, behind the pile of soil. The big pile of soil is the top ‘slice’ of the soil. I wanted to make that soil into the subsoil. I made harder work of it than necessary! I had to gradually remove another ‘slice’ and then back-fill with the soil from the first ‘slice’. That was much harder than necessary.
The best way to ‘double dig’ the plot is this:
Given that you have a plot something like the above plots, start at the furthest point away. Dig a trench across the plot. Put the soil from the trench on one side. Dig out a further ‘spit’ (a spade depth) out of the trench and put that soil on one side. Now start another trench alongside the first. Put the first ‘spit’ from the second trench into the first trench. Dig a second spit out of the second trench and pile that soil onto the top of the soil in the first trench. Thus, the subsoil becomes the topsoil. Gradually work your way across the plot. The last trench will be filled with the soil from the first trench. Thus, no big piles of soil are necessary.
My good friend, Rose, told me that she liberally spreads manure over her plot each winter so that nutrients taken out of the soil by the plants are replaced. She said that she has never had problems in re-using the same plot year after year as a result. Last winter, I saved tobacco ash. In spring, I spread the tobacco ash liberally over the surface of the plots. By another internet investigation, I have found out that human urine is a great fertilizer! So, after digging over the plots this winter, from time to time, the plots will receive doses of human urine! Does the reader feel squeamish about such a plan? Oh… For heaven’s sake! Just DO IT! Piss in a pot and chuck the stuff on the plot. What is the problem?
THE PROGRESS OF SEEDLINGS
The seedlings grow slowly. There is no doubt. It takes weeks for them to get to a size where the leaves are 2”/5cm long, which is another reason to start early. Having said that, once your plants reach this stage and you plant them out, they grow like the clappers, provided that the weather conditions are good. But, in my experience, the rootballs of the seedlings are very small to start with, unless I did something wrong. I checked several of them. This is why I think that 2” pots are sufficient. Only if you decide to grow the plants indoors or in buckets do you need to worry about transplanting on into bigger pots. But I am not sure about that – starting the plants off earlier may mean much bigger plants before planting out. I’ll have to check that next year. There is no reason that I should not take a plant out of a pot, have a look at the roots and then re-pot it. Here are a couple of pics of the root structure of the plants. The first pic is of a couple of badly developed plants:
Rather pathetic. The roots of the 1st plant are only about 4″ (10 cm) long. Those two plants are from the group which did not grow properly, which I mentioned earlier.
The next pic is of a well-developed plant (though not nearly a fully developed plant):
You can see that they spread out and would appreciate depth of soil. Those roots are almost a foot (30 cm) long.
The only other consideration of significance is when to plant out, or put your buckets (plant pots) out if you are using a patio or a balcony.
The only important point is frost. New tobacco plants do not like frost one little bit. Here in the North of England, I am aiming for mid May. A very important consideration is the temperature of the soil. There is little point in planting out if the temperature of the soil is less that 15°C. They will not die, but nor will they grow much. Better to keep them in pots and wait until the soil warms up.
I used an ordinary thermometer to test the temperature of the soil in my garden. I suggest that you do likewise. Just make a hole in the soil and stick a thermometer in the hole a few inches deep. Here is a pic of my thermometer:
It’s only about 6″ long, but perfectly adequate. When the soil temp gets to 15C, then that might be warm enough to plant out.
There is also another point. What is the point of planting out when the ground is cool and your plants will not grow much, and put them in danger from slugs and snails?
I saved empty 2 litre pop bottles. I cut the bottoms off, but left the top, including the bottle top, intact. When I planted out, I covered each plant with a bottle, forcing the bottle into the ground. That created a mini-climate inside the bottle. The bottles also protect against slugs:
The pop bottles worked fine and certainly created the ‘microclimate’ and protected the plants from slugs, but the slugs and snails had a fine feast once I took the bottles off! I only found out what was happening around July when I went out about 2am and found, to my horror, that about 20 slugs and snails were munching away at my bedding plants and tobacco plants. To make things worse, it was the GROWING TIPS of the tobacco plants which they were eating. Before I investigated the question of how tobacco plants grow via the net, I thought that the stalks of plants extended, as the plants grow, all along their length. They do not. What happens is that plants grow taller by extending the growing tip. The stalk below gets thicker, but does not get longer. Thus, if slugs eat the growing tip, the plant cannot get longer. It will not die, but nor will it develop. It will try its best to grow, but will be stunted. I took it upon myself to solve the slugs problem by going out each night and searching for them. That does not mean that I was searching in the undergrowth! Slugs tend to slither out onto the lawn at night. All I had to do was to collect them up and kill them by squashing. I got rid of several hundred, young and old. Of course, I checked the actual tobacco plant leaves and was astonished at how many baby slugs were feasting on the leaves overnight.
Although I think that I have got rid of most of the slugs and snails, I have a plan for this year. Slugs and snails cannot swim. My plan is to make trenches around my plots. That may sound difficult, but it is not. When I say trenches, I mean just V-shaped trenches a few inches deep. Each individual trench need not be very long – say, six feet. The critical thing is that, over the six feet, they should be level-ish. That is not a problem to engineer. Either use a spirit level or simply pour water into the trench and see what direction the water flows in, and then dig it a little deeper where necessary. Different sections of the trench can be separate. There may be ‘bridges’ here and there, but not many and not very wide. When I have done it, I’ll post a couple of pics here. Once the trenches are dug and levelled, then it is a simple matter of lining them with plastic and then filling them with water. Frankly, if that works, I think that it is by far the easiest way to solve the problem of slugs and snails.
Be sure to water the plants in well when you plant out and keep them watered well for the first week or so. During the summer, there is not a lot you need do provided that we have a normal, watery summer!
And so we wait. The plants get bigger and bigger and the leaves get bigger and bigger. And you say to yourself, ”When can I start making tobacco then, for heaven’s sake!” There are all sorts of ways of harvesting. Remember the Indian leaf stripping video and the Swiss picking video? In both cases, the leaves (all the leaves in the stripping video and the leaves which were being picked in the picking video) had started to yellow, but they were not very yellow. They were still generally green. Rose has sent me this contribution regarding when the leaves can be picked:
“One of the skills of a Virginia cropmaster was the ability to judge just when the tobacco should be harvested. An experienced planter would look at color (a yellowish green), texture (thick, rough and downy) and pliancy (a leaf that broke when it was folded between one’s fingers).”
I have seen a recommendation that we should wait until the flowers themselves wilt and the seed pods start to form, which may be about 5 weeks (or much longer in practice!) after the flowers appear. By this time, the bottom leaves should have started to go yellow. It would be nice if that were to happen, but my experience has been that life isn’t that simple! Apart from the very early small leaves at the bottom of the plant, the leaves stayed stubbornly green.
I think that there comes a point, after the plants have been growing for several months, where you must decide for yourself. In my case, I noticed that the oldest leaves started to gain yellow or brown spots. I took this to be a sign that the leaves were beginning to deteriorate, and so I started to pick them. It certainly seems to have done no harm since the tobacco that I have made is fine. But it is hard to be certain since the weather this summer as been so atrocious. In general, I would say that if the leaves start to show signs of yellowing, then pick them. But there is plenty of evidence on the net that leaves are not necessarily expected to go yellow on the plant. Here is a quote from Brit Am tobacco:
“”The harvested tobacco leaf is then cured. This is a carefully controlled process used to achieve the texture, colour and overall quality of a specific tobacco type. During the cure, leaf starch is converted into sugar, the green colour vanishes and the tobacco goes through colour changes from light yellow to orange to brown like tree leaves in autumn.
Clearly, not a lot of yellowing can be expected on the plant.
There comes a point around October/November when the nights are getting colder and the light is going. In that case, watch out for the signs which I have mentioned, but I see no problem in picking the lower leaves once they have reached full size and have aged somewhat. I was picking some of the leaves in late August.
Only one of my plants flowered, but it was too late for the seeds to develop. Hopefully, next year we will do better. Generally speaking, the recommendation is to ‘top’ the plants. That is, don’t let them flower or run to seed so that the energy of the plant goes into the leaves. Cut the flowering stem off. But I have also seen a recommendation to collect seeds from plants grown in your own soil which will be acclimatised to your soil. My own intention is to let a couple of plants flower and collect seeds from them. But it is suggested that you ‘bag’ any plants that you allow to flower. What that means is to cover the flower buds with some sort of fine mesh bag or something so that insects cannot cross-pollinate the flowers – especially if you are growing more than one variety.
And now for the biggy – curing the leaves. Wehey!
CURING TOBACCO LEAVES
I had a heck of a job in finding a simple, straight-forward definition of the word ‘curing’ as applied to tobacco. Only after I had read and read and read did I realize why that is so. The fact is that there is no one way to cure tobacco – there are several ways. Thus, the word ‘cure’ is a generic word. It is not dissimilar to the word ‘cure’ as applied to health. You can ‘cure’ a cold by taking lemsip I suppose, or by taking anti-viral drugs, and you can ‘cure’ broken bones with splints. ‘Curing’ tobacco depends upon what type of tobacco you want to cure and what the final product is intended to be. Do you want pipe tobacco, cigar tobacco, cigarette tobacco, snus, snuff, chewing tobacco, expanded tobacco, etc? Different treatments are required in every case. When I started to grow my own, I had no idea that this was the case. As far as I was concerned, tobacco is tobacco.
Again, I would strongly recommend that you watch this video about curing tobacco for Cuban cigars again:
Again, I must emphasis that this process is not one for us to copy. Cuban cigars are high cost/high value commodities, and so lots of effort and time goes into their creation. In particular, I should remark upon the method of fermentation. The leaves are hung up in controlled heat, humidity, ventilation conditions to colour them. They are then packed closely together in heaps and allowed to ferment. Then they are packed and stored for years, in order to let them mature. Do we want to take months to make the stuff and wait for years to smoke it?
There are ways to circumvent delays, which I will go in to shortly.
First, let me show you this statement about curing:
Tobacco can be cured through several methods, including:
- Air cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry over a period of four to eight weeks. Air-cured tobacco is low in sugar, which gives the tobacco smoke a light, mild flavor, and high in nicotine. Cigar and burley tobaccos are air cured.
- Fire cured tobacco is hung in large barns where fires of hardwoods are kept on continuous or intermittent low smoulder and takes between three days and ten weeks, depending on the process and the tobacco. . Fire curing produces a tobacco low in sugar and high in nicotine. Pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco, and snuff are fire cured.
- Flue cured tobacco was originally strung onto tobacco sticks, which were hung from tier-poles in curing barns (Aus: kilns, also traditionally called Oasts). These barns have flues run from externally-fed fire boxes, heat-curing the tobacco without exposing it to smoke, slowly raising the temperature over the course of the curing. The process generally takes about a week. This method produces cigarette tobacco that is high in sugar and has medium to high levels of nicotine.
- Sun-cured tobacco dries uncovered in the sun. This method is used in Turkey,Greece and other Mediterranean countries to produce oriental tobacco. Sun-cured tobacco is low in sugar and nicotine and is used in cigarettes.
Interesting? Yes, but all these methods are applied in bulk. As small producers, they are time-consuming and/or expensive for us.
Let me show you a couple of pics:
That is ‘sun curing’ in Iran. Erm….just a minute……is that snow on the ground? It looks very like snow to me! Here is an enlargement:
Now then, if it is snow, what does that suggest? It suggests to me that, once the tobacco plants have grown, then the ambient temperature no longer matters. Frost and snow only matter in connection with tender new plants. The leaves will sit there, unaffected. When summer comes and the sun shines and temperatures rise, the process of ‘curing’ will recommence.
Now look at this pic:
That is a tobacco curing barn in Connecticut, USA. We can see, by implication, that very different methods of curing are being used. The first is simple and primitive, whilst the second is methodical.
A number of sites recommend hanging leaves in places like garages. Here is a video of one such:
The intention is to hang the leaves for as long as is necessary for them to cure themselves. But note that there is a fan running constantly! The fan is required to circulate air to avoid mold; mold can occur very easily in stagnant conditions. Mold spores float about in the air and, given warm, damp, stagnant conditions, can gobble up leaves in no time. Here is horror scenario about mold:
It seems that mold can be white, grey, blue, green, black…… Best to avoid it, don’t you think?
But there must be something that I am missing here. Why should tobacco leaves ‘cure’ simply by being hung up for a long time? Do you see the problem? We are back again to the meaning of the word ‘cure’! And are they not therefore likely to be more susceptible to mold?
Look – one way or another, tobacco leaves have to ferment! If they do not, even though they may be yellow in colour, they will still be just unfermented leaves – like the leaves falling off trees in the Autumn. If the leaves do not ferment, they will not have the sweetness that is an essential part of the taste. Tobacco manufacturers ensure that conditions are just right, in terms of heat, air circulation and humidity, for fermentation to occur, even if the leaves are merely hung in barns.
Here is a quote from Tobacco Science:
Chemical changes mediated by enzymatic activity (6) during the yellowing stage lead to the formation of desired compounds in the cured tobacco. Starch is converted into reducing sugars during yellowing and early leaf drying. As starch degrades, reducing sugar concentration increases and reaches its peak by the end of the yellowing stage. It then declines due to respiration, which oxidizes reducing sugar into carbon dioxide and water. Reducing sugars contribute up to approximately 22% of flue-cured leaf dry weight and are major components of cured leaf quality (22).
Chlorophyll degradation, noted by the disappearance of green and the emergence of yellow colors, is widely used to judge the curing progress. Full development of yellow color is often used to mark the end of the yellowing process, which is usually associated with completion of certain chemical reactions, especially starch to sugar conversions. This is possible because the degradation of starch and chlorophyll occur at about the same rate (5), although the reactions are independent. However, in some cases tobacco leaves appear yellow before desirable chemical changes have been completed. This might lead to low quality tobacco and a poor smoke taste (5.
The bold bit [my bold] suggests that you can have yellow leaves which have not fermented or fermented leaves which have not turned yellow!
Easy solution? Make sure that the leaves ferment!
There is another problem connected to just hanging leaves up and hoping for the best. Let me show you this flow chart (strictly speaking, the chart is about ‘casing’ (which seems to mean ‘putting moisture back into dried leaves’), but it will do:
[CLICK TO ENLARGE]
The only interesting thing here is the temperatures in the top line. 140 degrees centigrade! ‘American Blend’ tobacco (most fags) contains Burley tobacco which has been ‘toasted’ (see note under 140 degrees on top line). But look at the diagram carefully – it tells us quite a lot. Look at the left hand column – Burley tobacco,Virginia tobacco, reconditioned tobacco and stem (the mid-rib) tobacco. All go into the final mix. In 2011, I cut out the stems (mid-rib of the leaf) and chucked them. In 2012, I cured them as well. It is a good idea to crush the mid-ribs. I used a rolling-pin. The rib is quite soft and easily crushes pretty flat. As it crushes, fluid is squeezed out. After a certain amount of experiment, I decided to cut out the mid-ribs and treat them separately because they carry so much fluid, even after they have been crushed.
But even if we ignore that, we are still encouraged to raise temperatures to 60 degrees centigrade. Here is a quote from the instructions for growing which came with the seeds I recently bought:
“Once the leaves have changed colour, the tobacco is now ready to be dried. To do this, increase the temperature further to as high as 60 degrees centigrade, allowing air to circulate freely around the leaves”
How are we to do that in the autumn when ambient temperatures are falling rapidly? Well, if you wish to, you can build a kiln out of plywood. Here are instructions courtesy of Seedman:
Or you can build a ‘curing chamber, courtesy of Coffinails:
I wouldn’t imagine that the cost of materials would be particularly great for a handyman, but running costs could be significant, unless you are curing a decent amount of stuff.
BUT ALL THESE COSTS AND PROBLEMS CAN BE AVOIDED! We shall move now to the Junican/Rose method of curing tobacco.
THE JUNICAN/ROSE METHOD OF CURING.
My first efforts involved my ‘yellowing box’:
I had this bright idea that I could maintain a temperature of some 30 c and at the same time, maintain a high humidity. The idea was to have an electric fan heater blowing slightly downwards onto the surface of a pan of water. Inside the box, the air temperature would be about 30 c but moist. It worked well enough (well, to be honest, no it didn’t – DON’T TRY IT – IT COSTS A LOT AND DOES NOT WORK). But my good internet friend, Rose, pointed out to me that the same result could be achieved simply by wrapping the leaves inside a ‘fluffy towel’ and putting the bungle on a warm, sunny window ledge (inside the house, of course). Mature green leaves will turn yellow after a few days. The problem was that I had already tried that and found it wanting – the one leaf that I tried that method with dried out all right, but it remained obstinately green. But, on Rose’s recommendation, I tried it again, this time with several leaves. The result was astonishing. Here are some pics:
But note that the leaves have not really become yellow! They have gone from green to brown. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it is our soil hereabouts – it used to be arable land. It is black and carbon rich. Why should the leaves not turn dark brown when they have so much carbon in them? Remember that Virginia Tobacco was called ‘bright’ tobacco originally because it turned yellow and then a light brown as it fermented. It seems to have been a happy accident that this tobacco variety grew particularly well on poor soil. It produced a ‘light’ tobacco somewhat lacking in nicotine, which was to the taste of many smokers.
Here is another pic:
But they are usually a much darker shade of brown – almost black. Actually, that is not a very good pic. How about this one:
So what has happened to the leaves, apart from changing colour? Have they fermented? All I can say, not being a scientist, is that at that stage, the leaves still smell like leaves. That is, they have little odour – just a vague earthiness. When we get to the actual fermentation part, we will see (or rather, smell) the difference.
But before we move on to fermenting, let us look at the ‘towelling’ in a little more detail.
Before towelling, you will wish to clean the leaves. Detritus easily washes off. My procedure is to run warm water into a washing up bowl. I immerse one leaf at a time and rub front and back with my hand. It takes only seconds. I them stack them on the plate rack to drain somewhat. When I have finished all the leaves, I shake them to remove as much water as possible. I then spread them out so that the surface moisture can dry off. But I do not want them to dry out! Just to remove the surface dampness. Half an hour usually suffices.
There are two separate ways to use the towelling method. One involves simply putting leaves inside a folded towel and the other involves rolling leaves up in a towel. The first applies best to small leaves while the second is useful for large leaves.
Very simple, really, but worth describing:
The towel is opened up and the leaves inserted. In that pic, I have cut large leaves in half. At the time, I was using only the ‘folding’ method. It was only later that Rose suggested rolling large leaves up in the towel, which is what I started to do later on this year. It certainly saves time and works just as well. Oh, and you need to use bath towels, of course.
As regards the ‘stems’ (the mid-ribs), here is an interesting statement:
There are several negative points in the production of tobacco leaves. One of them is the waste of stems of the tobacco plant. According to Haygreen and Bowyer  25% of the total weight of tobacco is the stems, therefore, there will be around 24,000 tons of waste per year or around 70 tons per day. Currently this waste from the cigarette industries cannot be utilized well and only a small part of them are usually sold to farmers to be converted to be organic fertilizer. Some of them was used to produce pesticide by taking the nicotine out of the stem (nicotine content is around 2%).
Daft to throw the stems away when they are 25% of the leaves. However, in all honesty, I must admit that I am not sure that the above is not referring to what I call ‘the stalk’. That is, what I might call ‘the trunk’ of the plant from which the leaves grow. There is some uncertainty about terminology. I have seen the ‘trunk’ of the plant sometimes described as ‘the stem’ and sometimes as ‘the stalk’. I have seen the mid-rib of the leaf described as ‘the stalk’. It can be confusing. Here, I shall use the word ‘stalk’ to refer to ‘the trunk’ of the plant from which the leaves grow. I shall not use the word ‘stem’ at all. I shall use the word ‘mid-rib’ to describe the thick rib which runs up the centre of the leaf. Occasionally, I might refer to the ‘minor ribs’. If I do, the ‘minor ribs’ are the little ribs which run across the leaves.
The problem with the mid-ribs is that they are so wet. What I decided to do was to cut them out and treat them separately, although still putting them into the folded towels. I decided to put the pieces of mid-rib inside a couple of sheets of paper kitchen towel:
I decided that the leaves were still too damp with the midribs still attached to leaves, especially on mature leaves which had big midribs. I cut the midribs out and separated them from the leaves by placing inside a piece of paper kitchen roll, thus:
In that pic, the pieces of mid-rib have already dried out. I have been really pleased with the results. The picture above does not do justice to the colours. Some of the pieces are a light, carboardy shade of brown and others are quite dark brown, but they have dried nicely.
UPDATE: JANUARY 2013.
The midribs are a damned nuisance. Frankly, after they have dried out and lost all the moisture, there is not much left of them. Here is a pic:
The white thing is a 30cm ruler. What do you see? Do you not see a TWIG? When I took that pic, the midrib was still fairly bendy, but when I dried it out completely, it became hard and brittle. Why should we try to cure parts of tobacco leaves which are, essentially, TWIGS?
You could decide to just throw them away – they do not have a great deal of substance, but I personally hate the idea of throwing away ANYTHING which I have gone to the trouble of growing. My new plan for this coming season is simply to remove the midribs and dry them out completely and then to break them into little pieces and grind them to bits in my coffee-bean grinder. I am actually doing that now. The ground twigs are very bitty and there is a lot of dust, but I have found that it does not matter. The dust still goes into my stock – it just mixes in with the flakes.
Sometimes, the leaves start to ‘sweat’ in the towels. When that happens, it is a good idea to separate the sweating leaves by inserting paper kitchen roll sheets between them. As an experiment, I also tried separating each leaf with paper. The result was very good:
Again, the colours are wrong (crap mobile). The green in the middle parts of the leaf are actually definitely yellow. This variation of the towelling method of drying leaves seems very worth-while following up. Do try it, especially if leaves seem to become very wet. Having said that, it is rather time-consuming to separate each leaf, and so I dispensed with it, except where leaves became black and wet as they sweated. This sweating, by the way, is fermentation. To some extent, it happens while the leaves are in the towels, but it is intermittent. What we want is for all of the leaf to sweat, and we shall see how to accomplish that when we get to the ‘wadding’ part of the procedure.
Rose said that she put the towels containing the leaves ‘on a sunny window ledge’. I use the hot water cylinder cupboard since, as I have said, my leaves are not ready early enough in the year to have ‘a sunny window ledge’!
The process is simple - open up the folded towel and put the leaves inside. Close the towel. Although the cylinder is insulated, there is nevertheless a constant temperature of some 20 – 25 c in the cupboard. That is enough. Daily, I open the towel and go through the leaves, separating them from each other (they tend to stick to each other somewhat). That is simply to give them a little air. No big deal. At the same time, I re-arrange them – a few of the top leaves are moved to the bottom. The tips of the leaves (top and bottom and, to some extent, the sides) tend to dry rather too rapidly, and so I give them just a little spray with cold water. The leaves readily absorb the water. Nothing much seems to happen for 3 or 4 days, then, quite suddenly, they start to go yellow or brown; usually, from the tip upwards, but sometimes and/or from the sides. Three days or so later, they will be almost totally brown. At that point, they are ready for fermenting.
I got quite a little production line going. I had four towels (not ‘fluffy’. I’m afraid! But it didn’t seem to matter). The first two held green leaves. I called them the ‘green’ towels. The leaves change colour at different rates, so those leaves which started to turn, I moved into the third towel. I called that the ‘green/brown’ towel. Again, different leaves in that towel progressed differently. When the leaves were some two-thirds brown, I moved them into the fourth towel, which I called the ‘brown’ towel. Although one or two leaves started to get sticky (fermenting), they could wait there until there were sufficient to roll up into wads, and begin the fermentation. A little trick that I developed was to cut off any pieces of leaf which were particularly sweaty and black. I put those pieces inside paper kitchen roll which absorbed the dampness and dried those pieces out somewhat.
The ‘rolling up’ method is essentially the same. In this method, big leaves are ‘rolled up’ inside towels rather than being cut into pieces. With the big leaves, the mid-ribs are really thick. I read a tip somewhere that it was a good idea to crush the mid-ribs. I did so with a rolling pin. It certainly removes a lot of the moisture and also flattens them. This system works perfectly well. I tried leaving the mid-ribs in place at first, but problems occurred because the moisture in the mid-ribs caused problems, and so I cut the mid-ribs out and treated them separately [BUT NOTE MY NEW PLAN OF ACTION FOR THIS SEASON]. Here is a pic:
You can see that the towel can be rolled up with the leaves inside. However, in that pic, the mid-ribs are still in place.
So there is a pic with the mid-rib cut out. The long, half leaves can still be rolled up side by side. They will turn yellowish/brownish/blackish. I cut the midribs into pieces and treat them separately inside paper kitchen towel sheets as I have already described. I still enclose the mid-ribs with the other parts of the leaf. They are just separated by the paper from the rest of the leaves, that is all. [AGAIN, NOTE MY NEW PLAN]
By towelling we have saved ourselves months of waiting for the leaves to go brown of their own accord.
UPDATE MAY 2013.
I have recently discovered that it is important to towel the leaves for a few days, even if the go yellow quickly. The reason is that they must be allowed to dry out at their own pace, and the towel absorbs the moisture. Here is an up-to-date picture:
There are several leaves there. Only a couple of are still showing green, and even those are turning yellow rapidly. But they MUST be given enough time to dry before moving to the ‘fermenting’ stage.
And so to the fermentation.
I came across a video on Utube which described wadding. Unfortunately, the video was removed ‘by the author’ (?). That was unfortunate because it was good. The process advocated completes the process of fermentation in a few days (in respect of the brown leaves previously described). It can be as little as two days. The leaves are rolled up into wads. Every day or two, the wads are opened up. When the wads are opened up, a distinctly sweet odour can be detected. There is also another smell in there – possibly caused by the release of ammonia. The leaves become very sticky to the touch and turn decidedly brown.
The process involves rolling the leaves up into a wad:
In that pic, you see a group of about 30 pieces of leaf. They have already ‘browned’ in the towel (excuse the crap colouring – cheap mobile). The easy way in which to ‘wad’ them is to fold the ends inwards and then to fold the sides inwards.
You end up with a structure something like this (the shininess is due to the fact that I have just given it a quick spray of water):
Now roll that structure up like this:
I, personally, put an ‘identifier’ tag into the end like this:
[NB. I HAVE NOW CHANGED TO NUMBERED TAGS, BUT THE PRICIPLE IS THE SAME] The objective is to identify the particular wad (as to when it was first wadded) and to indicate where the ‘entry point’ is. Believe me, the leaves are so thin and sticky that it is difficult to see where the topmost leaf is situated. Put a tag in – it is very helpful. Notice that the tag has a couple of notches cut into it. That is my way of identifying the wad – one could easily write a number on the tag, but that idea did not amuse me at the time. I got up to six notches when the production line was working at full belt. Of course, as the fermentation completed, I used the tags again and again.That was last year. This year I have used numbered tags. I write the number of the tag and the date on a list so that I know how long that wad has been fermenting. It certainly helps when you have five wads fermenting.
It is a matter of fact that as the pieces of leaf lose moisture, they shrink. They become paper-thin. At first, I was separating every leaf when I took the wad apart. After a while, I discovered that it was not necessary to separate every leaf. Given, say, thirty pieces of leaf, it was only necessary to split them into groups of, say, six leaves. That is five groups. The really important thing is to re-arrange the groups so that the outermost becomes the innermost. In other words, rotate the groups through the wad. Recently, I found that my wads were fermenting so rapidly that I did not even need to split the leaves up – I merely turned them inside out and re-wadded them so that the inside was on the outside and vice versa. I don’t know if that is some peculiarity of this year’s crop.
You can see that I tie the wads tightly with string:
The reason for tying them is to keep the chemical processes happening within the wad. In the fermentation process, starches turn into sugars, which gives the tobacco the sweet taste which you want. By opening the wad daily, you allow ammonia to escape, which is what you want. The ammonia is a by-product of the chemical reactions. Note that the nicotine content is not affected. The nicotine is ‘fixed’ in the leaves. It will not evaporate.
Once the wad has been constructed, spray the outside with water, and then put the wad into a container. Seal the container and place it somewhere warm. (In my case, that place is on top of the hot water cylinder). Water will evaporate from the wad and condense on the underside of the lid of the container. That is fine – that is what you want. You want the tobacco to become pure. You want to smoke tobacco and not dried leaves.
It is a matter for your own judgement as to when you decide that your tobacco is sufficiently fermented. Experimentally, I have tried short periods and long periods. It does not seem to matter that much. I tried four days of fermenting and five and ten. I do not know enough of the science to be sure. It seems as though a couple of days of fermenting does everything that is required. It seems not to matter whether or not you prolong this period of time. In this regard, I can only think in terms of continuing the experiments next year, but I have no doubt whatsoever that it works.
Once the tobacco has fermented, it needs to be dried. What I did was separate the leaves and spread the out on a tray:
I then put the tray on the hearth in front of the fire.
In my first experiments, I dried the tobacco partially and then cut it, using scissors, into strands. But, by happy coincidence, one night I was drying some leaves and I forgot about them. So they dried out completely. They became brittle. Thus, I was able to simply crush the leaves with my fingers. No more snipping. Well, that is not perfectly true. Even though the major part of the leaves crushed easily, the little ribs in the leaves turned out to be quite tough and wiry. They needed to be snipped. The important point though is that allowing the leaves to dry completely, made the job of snipping a non-event. Most of the leaf broke up while crushing, leaving only the wiry little ribs needing snipping. Recently, I have been able to avoid even that small amount of snipping. What I have been doing is drying them out in front of the fire and then finishing them off in the microwave. They emit quite a stink, but it works. The leaves became very brittle.
So, after crushing, I had a container full of very, very dry bits of fermented tobacco leaf. Very dry or not, the reality is that the tobacco stank. It smelt like poo – it cannot be denied.
I felt impelled, in my mind, to analyse the smell of poo – strange though it might seem. What is it, about the smell of poo, that repels us? My opinion is that the smell of poo is sickly sweet, among other things, and that we do not like that sickly sweet smell.
I assume that I am speaking here to adults and not to children.
Anyway, the odd thing is that the tobacco thus created is very nice to smoke. But, as I have said earlier, it can be very strong to the taste. Perhaps we are smoking tobacco as it should be, and not how tobacco has become!
Be that as it may, the happy thought about drying the tobacco out thoroughly means that it can be re-moisturised! That means that we can not only dampen the tobacco, but we can add flavours at the same time.
How to do it? It is ever so simple. Tobacco is ‘hydrophilic’, which means that it ‘loves’ water. Very dry tobacco will absorb water with ease. The trick is to ensure that the water absorbed by the tobacco is flavoured. That is easy. Use apple peel or orange peel or banana peel, or any such thing. Simply put the peel into a gauze pouch and put the pouch into your tobacco container. Problem solved. Here is a pic to illustrate:
[UPDATE JAN 2013. I HAVE DISPENSED WITH THE GAUZE POUCH, BUT I HAVE KEPT IT JUST IN CASE I WANT TO FLAVOUR MY TOBACCO WITH RUM OR SOMETHING, IN WHICH CASE I CAN USE IT TO HOLD COTTON WOOL SOAKED WITH RUM. I NOW PLACE ORANGE PEEL DIRECTLY ONTO THE SURFACE OF THE TOBACCO, PITH SIDE DOWN. IT IS REMARKABLE HOW READILY THE DRIED TOBACCO ABSORBS THE MOISTURE AND THE FLAVOUR FROM THE ORANGE PEEL]
Remember, however, that merely using apple peel will not make the tobacco taste of apple. The peel simply sweetens and moistens the tobacco. The idea of flavouring tobacco is not new. It has been happening for centuries. Don’t take my word for it – see this quote:
What is important is to realise that there is no such thing as over-drying tobacco – the drier it is, the more it absorbs water (and flavours). Also, the risk of mold is almost entirely eliminated.
My practice has been to have two containers, one for my stock, and one for present use. It is the tobacco in the later that I moisten, as in the above pic. I put the orange peel in the container for several hours before I intend to use the tobacco. Better still, leave the peel in the container with the tobacco overnight. My own preference is orange peel. It certainly adds a bit more sweetness to the tobacco and moistens it sufficiently for it to become soft and pliable. That is what you want – you do not want the tobacco to be wet. Some people have mentioned using rum to flavour the tobacco I haven’t tried rum yet, but I intend to. The method I shall use will be to soak a piece of cotton wool in rum and put the cotton wool in my gauze pouch. That should do it. It will be interesting to see what the taste is!
When the leaves mature, you will get a lot of produce at roughly the same time. I spread the job out by treating a few leaves at a time. In fact, I set up a mini-production line! I had green leaves in the ‘green’ towel, browning leaves in the ‘green/brown’ towel and brown leaves in the ‘brown’ towel’, along with wads in various stages of fermentation. Next year, I expect to produce much more stuff. I’ll then have to store the tobacco. How to do it?
Frankly, I see no problem. When the tobacco is very, very dry, mold has a job to take hold. Mold needs moist stuff to grow on and a moist atmosphere. My dry tobacco is stored in sealed containers. I take out only a small amount at a time – enough to make, say, 20 fags – just as illustrated in the blue container above. I also bought one of these:
It is a simple herb cutter. Even though my dried and stored tobacco is in flakes, the flakes are still quite large. For tubing purposes, it is better if the flakes are quite small, so I pass the flakes though the herb cutter which does the job. NB. It CANNOT be used on the midribs. They are far too hard. I use a coffee grain grinder for those.
I realised early on that it is very unlikely that I will ever be able to grow enough to satisfy the needs of both my wife and me. I also had in mind that my stuff is very strong-tasting. So I decided to mix weak commercial tobacco with my strong stuff, half and half. I found the result very pleasant. Some people might have access, via the internet, to ‘whole leaf cured tobacco’, in which case, that stuff is ideal to mix with home-grown since Virginia whole leaf is quite mild.
I am sure that many people reading this will be adept at rolling fags, but I am not – never had the experience! So I had in mind to buy one of these:
But, while looking on ebay, I discovered ‘tubing machines’. I didn’t even know they existed! So I bought one – £5 for the machine plus one hundred tubes. Enough to experiment with:
I was disappointed when I got the machine to find that they are really only suitable for ‘expanded’ tobacco. Want to know about expanded tobacco? Read this:
(Scroll down to ‘Expanded Tobacco’)
Prior to taking up tobacco plant growing as a hobby, I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as expanded tobacco.
But a bit of ingenuity sufficed to dispense with expanded tobacco. What I did was cut a superking fag in half and removed the paper from one half. I fed the tobacco into the container (the slot in the right hand side of the machine), being sure to push some of it into the little ‘spout’ which the empty cigarette tube fits onto (if you do not, then your tube is likely not to fill right up to the filter tip). I then topped the container up with my own stuff, spreading it out with the side of my finger. I then compress it hard with the little compressor tool. I fed a little more of my stuff in and then compress it hard again, put the tube on the end and slowly and gently operated the sliding mechanism which pulls the cigarette tube over the tobacco. I find that I am now quite expert at it – I rarely ‘pop’ the tube and almost always get a nicely packed fag. At 1p each, the tubes are hardly expensive, even if you make the odd mistake. Note well this important tip. If you get a tubing machine like the one above, there can be problems with the paper tube ripping. Look at the picture of the machine above. You see the little red gummage on the extreme left of the machine? When the machine is closed, that red thing closes onto the end of the paper tube which is on the ‘spout’ (the point where the tube is attached to the machine in the picture). You will find that it greatly assists tubing if you rotate the tube so that the glued strip where the edges of the tube are stuck together is uppermost so that the red thing grips that strip. At that point, the paper is doubly thick, and it makes a big difference. Before I noticed this, I found that the tubes often ripped at that point, which was annoying. Also, if the tobacco was not packed into the tray of the machine just right, it does not fill up the tube right up to the filter tip. Having that double thickness of paper where the red thing grips the tube has made all the difference and has made the job much easier and much quicker. It gets easier with experience. [UPDATE JAN 2013. THIS IS WHERE DRYING AND GRINDING THE MIDRIBS IS MOST BENEFICIAL. HARD, SHARP BITS OF MIDRIB CAN EASILY TEAR THE TUBES] It is also very helpful when tubing if the tobacco is very slightly damp. This is where flavouring with orange peel comes in. It dampens the tobacco just sufficiently to make the tobacco soft and pliable. Sometimes, the tobacco is just a bit too damp, but it very quickly dries. I pick it up with my fingers. If it clumps, it is too damp. Just doing that a few times and sprinkling the tobacco onto a tray very quickly dries it out sufficiently. But do not process too much at a time – it can very quickly dry too much.
A final pic:
That is a pic of the container in which I keep the stuff over-night for use the next day. You can see the orange peel lying on the surface. The flavour of the orange certainly gives the tobacco a lovely, sweet taste. You can also see that the tobacco is quite finely flaked. I mix my own with and equal quantity of either rolling tobacco, cigarette tobacco or whole leaf, if it is available. I get six or seven fags out of that quantity (the little heap plus an equal amount of, say, rolling tobacco).
UPDATE 25TH APRIL 2013.
In the recent past, I have ‘mechanised’ to the extent that I wish and need to.
First, I bought a shredder for about £30:
[The ruler is there only to indicate the size]
That shredder cuts the leaf into strips about 2 millimetres wide. I understand that you can get shredders which cut to less than 1 mm, but I did not see any on the net when I was looking. I am very happy with it though because what I want is flakes rather than strips (see below).
Just one thing – if you buy a similar machine. Look at the underside. You will see lots of little teeth which clean bits out of the grooves. Here is a pic:
It was very tricky to get a good pic because of glare. Look at the dark area. Just above the white spot there is a row of what look like slots. Actually, it is the metal bits between the slots which are the teeth! Now, if a thick bit of tobacco passes through the shredder, it can force one or more of those teeth to open up a bit, in which case that particular groove can get gummed up. It is quite easy to force the tooth back into position.
Secondly, I needed some sort of machine to chop the strands into bits. I could not find a suitable ready-made machine and so I bought a cheap meat grinder/mincer for £7 on the net:
But I had to adapt it.
It was intended to mince meat and came with this gummage:
Meat is chopped and forced through the holes so that you get spaghetti-like strings of meat. That did not work with tobacco. The best that came out was just dust. So I got a piece of plastic and, by trial and error, created this extruder:
You can see the chopping blades behind the plastic. Since I took that pic, I have increased the size of the holes in the plastic still further, even though it was working well as it was. I cut more plastic out around the circumference so as to reduce dust. It is working very well. This is the result:
As you can see, the strips have been chopped into small pieces.
Finally, I bought an electric cig making machine. The first one that I bought, a Zen Supershooter, turned out to unsuitable (long story – forget it). I then bought a Powermatic 2. Here is a pic:
I have used it again and again in the last few days and it works really well. You can find videos on Utube about how it works, so I shan’t go into detail.
I see no reason to require any other machinery. Simple tools are adequate for the pursuit of my hobby.
There is still some way to go. I am not happy about the amount of shrinkage which occurs in the towelling/wadding process. But there is nothing I can do until the autumn when I have some produce to experiment with. It may well be that to leaves can be towelled for a shorter time or wadded for a shorter time, or both. We shall see…
I have thoroughly enjoyed my new hobby so far. Experiment and ingenuity is all you need.
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