Charles’ Tobacco

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

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.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

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.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

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.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

For More Information About Home Growing, Curing and Fermenting Tobacco:

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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19 thoughts on “Charles’ Tobacco

  1. Interesting! I can’t say that I am a fan of smoking, or condone it in any way, but if you are going to smoke, this would be the way to do it!

  2. I grew up with a tobacco plant in my yard and always appreciated the beauty of the plant. I do not smoke and have never smoked. I would some day like to have it growing in my yard.

  3. A thoughtful post. I especially like the implied question, “What is a gardener?” Or maybe, “Who counts as a gardener?” …It’s very much akin to, “What is a garden?” I look forward to seeing The Green Minds project unfold as you start to offer a few answers to these questions.

  4. Actually, dried and twisted tobacco is really useful for repelling bugs and moths. If you lightly wet a twist of dried tobacco and rub it on your skin, it protects you from insects (until you wash it off), and a dried twist left in with some clothes will keep the moths out. Dried tobacco without all of the additives has a much sweeter, syrupy smell that is much more pleasant than what we commonly associate with “tobacco smell.” Granted, cedar still smells nicer, but tobacco as a natural bug repellent is a viable alternative.

  5. Dakota: Good point. I meant to mention that tobacco can be used as a bug repellent in the garden, although I have never been comfortable with the idea of using store bought since there are additives that negate the organic aspect of it.

    Not a good idea to use even the homegrown stuff on nightshade family plants however.

  6. My hub loves his cigars and I’ve been debating on growing tobacco on a whimsy. I’m not a smoker BUT I have had that once-every-two-or-three years cigar on a darkened porch. ;)

  7. Tobacco as bug repellent, eh? I didn’t know that! My father’s a food hunter and could certainly use some when in the woods. That might make it into a nook next year.

  8. Interesting! I’m not a smoker, but I find it fascinating that a guy who makes art in his garage and works construction grows his own tobacco. I agree that most gardeners don’t fit the profile portrayed in gardening magazines. We’re not all 50 something, wealthy women with acres of land on which to garden! Some of us are 20 something working class women who wear electric pink gardening clogs while gardening on our balconies…

  9. Tobacco is good also for treating all sorts of plant ailments like black spot on roses. Those of us who dont have a tobacco plant have to go to the store and look all embarrassed and explain to the clerk, “No, I’m never EVER going to put this chewing tobacco in my mouth. Really,” and buy a pack of chewing tobacco. Put it in a sock and make a tea out of about a table spoon of it to a few cups of boiling water and spray your roses. Itll take off aphids and repel them and then fix blackspot. My grandmother taught me that years ago.

  10. I love this! I’m from Maryland and actually from a family of former tobacco farmers, so I’ve always loved the plants just for nostalgia’s sake. Also, even the for-tobacco kind has a pretty pink flower. Most of the tobacco farms around here are now soybeans after the big buyout program.

    I’ve never grown tobacco in my garden, but maybe I will next year and make a couple cured rolled doodads. I’m sure someone in my family remembers how. My mom still has one in the shape of a heart that my grandfather made. ahhhh plant nostalgia!

  11. This post is awesome. Im not a smoker, but I think growning your own tobacco is such a great idea if you do smoke. I guess I just like the whole “homemade” aspect of it. I think I want to grow one :)

  12. Sorry to be a downer, but even in it’s natural state, smoking tobacco is a dangerous plant.

    When I was a kid my family visited Cuba. My family is big on educational trips, so they supplemented lying on the beach with trips to historical sites and local industries (like banana plantations, rum makers, and cigar rollers). The ladies who rolled cigars there could only do so for a few years – otherwise they got skin cancer on their hands. This was, of course, after many years of rolling cigars, but still.

    Tobacco Pickers are also similarly susceptible to nicotine poisoning.

    I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that even though they are natural, some plants can still be dangerous. Natural does not inherently mean safe.

    So if you do plan on growing that stuff, at least wear gloves when handling it. At least.

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