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Backyard Botanist: Growing Your Own Tobacco

By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Mar 22, 2010 6:00PM

In spite of this weekend's snow and cold, spring is here in Chicago, and the last frost will probably be in early May. That, along with the longer days, sunshine and warmer weather, means local gardeners are getting ready for planting season. And for those of us that grow tobacco, now is the time to get the plants ready. A relative of the tomato, tobacco is a fun and easy plant to grow, if cared for properly. In spite of its associations with the South and the Caribbean, tobacco can be raised in climates even farther north than Chicago. If you can grow tomatoes, you can grow tobacco. And even if you don't smoke, tobacco is an interesting, attractive plant, and will flower later in the summer, and will be fragrant in the afternoon.

To get started, you'll need a few basic things:

  • High-quality fertile potting soil
  • Planting trays (you can use cardboard egg cartons if you like)
  • Fresh water
  • Tobacco seeds

Everything you need for your tobacco garden can be picked up at a local garden supply store - I like Adams and Son, but any garden center in the city should have what you need. You can cut corners on the materials if you like (substituting cardboard egg cartons for planting trays, for example), but generally speaking, you'll be glad you put down a few extra bucks now when you have tall, healthy plants in July. You'll also need to get tobacco seeds. You may be able to find ornamental tobacco seeds (nicotiana alata) at a garden center in the city, but you'll most likely have to order a packet of smoking tobacco (nicotiana tabacum) seed online. I ordered an envelope of White Stem Orinoco from the New Hope Seed Company in Tennessee.

Mix the soil with water in a large mixing bowl. Be careful not to get the soil too wet - you want moist soil, not mud, and you don't want to drown the seeds. Mix the dirt well, breaking up clumps of dirt and dry patches, and fill the cells of the seed tray with the damp soil. Fill each cell with soil, but don't pack it too hard or the seeds won't be able to take root later on.

Tobacco seeds are incredibly small, about the size of a pin prick, so you'll need to be careful to lightly sow them into the flat with overdoing it. Lightly sprinkle those seeds over the soil mix, making sure they're in good contact with the soil, but not covered. Lightly water the seeds into the soil, and set them somewhere where they will get full sunlight. It should take one to two weeks for the seed to germinate, but if they don't start growing right away, be patient, as some varieties take longer. Along the way, make sure that you don't cover your seeds with dirt, as they need sunlight to germinate. Although tobacco is a hardy plant, it is also very delicate when it is young. Don't cover the cells with cellophane, and make sure you keep the soil damp, but not too soggy, and never let the soil dry out.

Over the next eight weeks the weather will get steadily warmer, but the Chicago climate probably won't be hospitable to outdoor planting just yet. We'll check back on the plants when they're ready to be transplanted.