Hey everyone. I was recently asked to do a review of a book about growing your own tobacco by Ray French. I have been interested in this subject for some time so with much excitement I obliged. Here is a little background info on the book:
Garden Industry Leader Masters Organic Home-Grown Tobacco Growth
New Book Breaks-Down Tricky Process into Simplified Step-by-Step
(Brentwood, TN) – Ray French, product director of Floragem, one the of most successful plant propagation companies in the world, is author of the upcoming How to Grow Your Own Tobacco: From Seed to Smoke (Cool Springs Press, September 2011). French is a master grower – with a complete and pure understanding of the ancient practice of creating the perfect soil. His growing habits are uncompromised and of the classic form: plant on time, create good soil, water with precision, prepare the climate, and watch the sun. He knows exactly how to grow.
French’s horticultural interests are vast and mixed. In any given season, French’s travels may take him to Mexico on hunt for a rare tropical plant or the Netherlands for a summit with the world’s finest breeders. His quest for the rare and the beautiful gives him exclusive plant knowledge that precedes the market often by months or even years. In this country, he plays a role in shaping what we buy and what we grow in our own gardens.
So, tobacco. French’s interests were peaked. With a finely tuned knowledge of sustainable agriculture, he was eager to apply the same principles of good gardening to organic tobacco growth. He tackled the notoriously tricky processes of drying and curing with the same simple practices (manage water and know the climate) and transformed his own three acre lot, patio and office space into a home-grown tobacco facility.
How to Grow Your Own Tobacco is French’s diary of sorts – documenting the process from seedling to transfer to picking, drying and rolling. His delicate handling of minuscule seedlings – with spoon and toothpick – is almost parental; and his pointed watering advice climaxes with a do-it-right-or-die scenario. Drying and curing chapters are marked with advice only a true agriculturist could know with drying strategies that any home grower can duplicate. “You can make a tent with plastic sides that hang over a portable heater with a wet pair of jeans draped over top to control moisture,” says French. “This process doesn’t have to be complicated, but it needs your attention.”
Deep in his element, French eliminated all pesticides from the typical process of home tobacco growth and relied, instead, on his trusted solution of liquid soap, minced garlic, dried lemongrass and a chopped jalapeno. His yield, a combination of six varieties, is enough to save a typical smoker a year’s worth of commercial cigarettes, not to mention the consumption of some of the world’s deadliest pesticides.
French is proud of his harvest, and admits the flavor is deeper and richer than any commercial cigarette. His Virginia Gold #1 performed the best in the soil of his Fairhope, AL, garden – but recommends and outlines a dozen varieties that any home grower can attempt. Even though tobacco typically requires several months and even up to a year to reach peak flavor, French liked the flavor of Virginia Gold #1 after six short weeks of drying. “Just grab a bundle from the rafters of your garage and cut it with a sharp knife,” he says.
How to Grow Your Own Tobacco is one of only a handful of resources available to those attempting a backyard tobacco crop. French brings his experience in large scale farming, botany, and a specialty in nursery crop production – to what is arguably a centuries old art form.
About the Author:
With a strong history of large scale farming dating generations, French graduated with a degree in Agriculture specializing in Nursery Crop Production and Botany from Auburn University. Upon graduation, French managed some of the largest commercial growers in the country. He is now a consultant for a large home improvement retailer and travels globally in search of new plants. In this role, French can claim credit as an integral part of bringing some of the most popular plants to market, such as the Knockout Rose, Encore Azaleas and SunPatiens.
I found that this book has an intriguing focus on growing organically, after all, why would you grow any other way for your own tobacco? It provides many compelling arguments as to why you should grow your own. I had never put much thought into the fact that even our beloved premium cigar tobacco is drenched in chemicals while it is being grown.
The book clearly outlines the history of tobacco, legality of growing, types of plants and methods of curing, soils and nutrients needed, pests and controls, harvesting, and how to roll cigars.
I have been interested in the subject for some time so, naturally, I had many questions regarding growing. I didn’t know if it was legal, how to do it, and what to do afterwards. The book gracefully answers all of these questions and has given me the confidence to try it myself this spring. How to Grow Your Own was well organized, straight to the point, had lots of pictures, and was fascinating. I highly recommend giving it a read and then, of course, growing your own!
Quick Q&A: Cigar Grade Growing Techniques w/ Ray French
Describe a leaf reserved for the cigar wrapper. You mentioned it has to be perfect:
A cigar grade leaf has to be harvested when ripe with no puncture wounds or holes from insects or handling. The best will tend to come from the upper part of the plants – and are usually the healthiest in terms of color. To put it frankly – they’re the best looking leaves on the plant. Thin veins are also a desirable characteristic.
After the drying and curing process is complete, you will select the best leaves to be used as wrappers. Again, these are leaves without holes. Another standout characteristic: these leaves have flexibility. Once you identify leaves that will make wrappers, store them a little on the moist side. Professional cigar makers store in a special sealed tin to maintain flexibility right up until they are needed.
Lizard Tail Oronoco: did you grow? How does it compare to other types? Why does it make the best cigars?
Yes I did grow it. It has a longer and narrower leaf than other varieties. One noticeable difference – the leaf was much thicker than any other type I grew. It is known for producing strong flavors. I actually blend with other types.
Describe your control standards during the drying and curing process (cigar grade).
During the initial drying process I tried to harvest leaves when they were ready, but the window of opportunity may only be a few days. So, watch closely! Remember – throughout the drying process keep the environment dry enough to turn the leaves yellow within a few days. If the environment is too humid, the leaves will mildew. I used several drying methods, but draped over an indoor clothesline was the easiest.
Another note: do not let the leaves dry all the way to powder. Moisten them carefully by either increasing the humidity or misting them a bit with distilled water. Once they are flexible you can then pack them flat and apply pressure, or store them hanging in a fairly humid environment.
What is your easiest curing recommendation (cigar grade)?
Depending on the quantity, either in a vacuum sealed bag or in bales wrapped in burlap and bound under pressure.
What types of tobacco make the best cigar grade?
In my opinion, the Virginia Gold and Havana Gold both made nice cigars as filler, binder, and wrapper.
Break down your do’s and don’ts in growing cigar grade tobacco.
Do a good job preparing the soil. Do check on your crop every day. Don’t keep it so wet it mildews.
How does it differ from cigarette tobacco?
Typically the left over pieces and bits of scrap can be shredded further and turned into cigarettes. The cigar grade tobacco leaves are always the highest quality harvested, dried, cured and stored correctly. If I let some get too dry or did not moisten correctly to handle, I would toss to the cigarette stash.