To begin, I am going to preface this entry with a note about tobacco since I know this topic is controversial and likely to ruffle some feathers. As adults we are all aware that smoking tobacco is addictive, is accredited to causing various forms of cancer, and is generally not a healthy thing to do. By writing this post I am not condoning smoking tobacco and I am definitely not encouraging anyone to start! But I also believe that it is an interesting plant worth discussing and that if you’re going to smoke, growing your own is a much better way to go.
One afternoon last year, while riding my bike through an alleyway, I was stopped short by a little garden tucked into a thin strip of soil between the pavement and a garage wall. A large nicotiana sat growing alongside a crop of mint, a sunflower and a tiny coniferous bonsai. By its size and girth I could tell the nicotiana was a smoking tobacco plant (Nicotiana tabacum) and not one of its flowering cousins, common in many home gardens including my own. I got off my bike to take a picture. Turns out I was right. The grower was actually sitting on a lawn chair in the open doorway of the garage with a group of young dudes. We chatted about the garden and his tobacco plant briefly and I went on my way.
I thought about that plant for the rest of the year, stopping to watch its progress whenever I rode through the area. I hoped to catch the gardener out on a lawn chair again before the end of the growing season. I wanted to ask more questions and possibly take some pictures of him with the plant for my Green Minds Project. Unfortunately the end of the season came without our paths crossing again.
When springtime rolled back around I started to think about that little garden once more. I rode through the alley several times hoping to find a new little seedling in its place. Finally, about a month ago while on my way to photograph my brother’s garden, I happened upon Charles, the urban tobacco farmer out on the lawn chairs again.
Charles is a young guy, probably in his 30s. Whenever I bump into him he’s shirtless and listening to classic rock while smoking joints and enjoying a few brews with his buddies. They make art in the garage. I think he also works long hours in construction which is why he was unable to commit to another plant this year. In addition to growing tobacco, Charles also grows hot peppers that he then uses to make his own homemade sauce. And he cans it too! If you were to look up the photo of a gardener in a book or magazine you would not see a picture of Charles. Not even come close. I’ve met a lot of gardeners by now and the more I meet the further away I get from finding THAT gardener. I’m more certain then ever that the stereotypes we’ve culturally cultivated around the myth of the gardener are a total load of crap. Gardeners, even the hardcore sort, can’t really be pinned down. Ultimately, why we garden is personal and there are just too many reasons to take it up.
And yet while few gardeners I have met actually fit The Profile, what they all have in common is an infectious enthusiasm for their gardens and a generosity about sharing them. In that sense Charles is like all the best gardeners I have met. He has an enthusiasm for growing plants that pours out of him in conversation and has had an obvious effect on his neighbours and friends. While showing me some of last year’s tobacco harvest, still hanging in the garage, he mentioned that a few other neighbors had been inspired to grow the plant in their own yards from seed he was more than willing to share. I explained that despite a dedication to flowering tobacco varieties and a whole lot of enthusiasm for his plant, I am not a smoker and don’t have any use for smoking tobacco. Chances are slim that I will ever grow the plant, yet he still insisted on sending me off with enough seed to start my own tobacco farm.
He also sent me home with a big piece of uncured leaves and a brief outline of the curing and fermentation processes. While they do seem like fairly involved processes and a lot of labor they also seem like something anyone can do with some practice. You’ll have lots of opportunities to try and try again until you get it right since one tobacco plant makes A LOT of tobacco! Growing your own means taking control over the quality of the product, removing the herbicides and pesticides that are most likely in use during commercial growing practices never mind the harmful additives that are used to cure and ferment. And for every smoker that grows their own, there’s a few thousand dollars less per year in the hands of the big tobacco companies.
For More Information About Home Growing, Curing and Fermenting Tobacco: