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Tobacco basics

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With the Government once again raising taxes on tobacco, it wouldn't be surprising if many smokers chose to raise the stakes by growing their own.

As tobacco should ideally be planted after the last frost, those looking to short-change the Government purse may need to wait before switching to a home supply. In the meantime, however, it really will ‘pay’ to be prepared.

Smoking – as has been widely and thoroughly reported – causes serious health problems. At Garden-NZ we, in no way, condone or recommend smoking and advise that adult readers use their own discretion as free and responsible citizens.

Also, please remember that, while it is presently legal to purchase seeds, and grow and smoke tobacco in New Zealand, it is not permitted to sell or even give tobacco away. 

‘Baccy to where we once belong

Thousands of years ago American Indians began using tobacco in medicinal and religious practices. After the discovery of the new world, sailors introduced the plant to Europe where, considered a cure-all for everything from bad breath to, ironically, cancer, tobacco gained rapid popularity.

By the 1600s some dissenting voices began to speak out about tobacco. Sir Francis Bacon famously stated that it was a bad habit and tough to quit, and, in 1632, it was illegal to smoke in public, for moral reasons.

While many may still exercise the freedom to smoke, the freedom of an entire nation may not have been possible without tobacco, as, in 1776, revolutionary America used the plant to finance its war of independence against the British Empire.

Despite its growing popularity, by the early 19th century, scientists had concluded that nicotine was a dangerous poison. Tobacco use had reached its apex when the release of the US Surgeon General’s report, ‘Smoking and Health’, in 1964, lead to regulation of tobacco product advertising.

What is tobacco anyway?

A native of North and South America, tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is from the same family as potatoes and peppers.

Although there are many varieties, Virginian tobacco, recognisable by its pink flowers and pale green leaves, is most commonly grown for smoking. Preferring warmer climates, this annual plant can thrive almost anywhere and, in milder climates, can grow for more than one year.

Where, when and how to plant

Seeds should be sown indoors and left to germinate for six to eight weeks, prior to planting outside after the last frost has passed.

Punch drainage holes into a shallow container, and then fill with sand and fine soil or seed-growing mix. Sprinkle seeds over the soil and water lightly. Cover the container with newspaper and keep damp.

Place the container on a window sill where it will receive regular sun. Transfer some of the seedlings to other containers as they appear, to allow sufficient room for growth.  

When ready, plant seedlings outdoors in rows – roughly 60-90 centimetres apart – in an area of the garden which receives full sun or partial shade.


Tobacco doesn’t require a lot of care in order to prosper. Water regularly, particularly in dryer weather. Apply a little general fertiliser and compost, and keep the area free of weeds.

Remove side-shoots as they develop from the tobacco plant stalks (similar to tomatoes).

When the plants mature, remove flowers; although some may be left to provide seeds for the following season.

Put that in your pipe and (don't?) smoke it!

When the flower heads form, the first leaves – near the bottom of the plant – should be ripe for the picking.

Although some of the diseases this plant can cause when smoked are incurable, curing the plant itself is relatively easy to accomplish.

Hang leaves from a length of wire, at least 2-3cm apart, in a warm, dry and well ventilated place, such as a shed or garage. Leaves should be left to cure for at least a few months to a year.  When cured, remove ribs from the leaves and chop or grind the remainder into flakes.

Spreading the seed

Tobacco seeds are readily available online but to save a little extra cash, try saving your seeds.

Once flowers have died off – on plants left to go to seed – seed pods will be left behind. These will gradually dry and split, changing colour from green to brown. They will then be ready to pick.

Pick the pods, break open and pass through a sieve to extract the seeds. Wrap the seeds in paper and store in a cool, dry place until you’re ready to plant once again.

Whether gardeners choose to grow tobacco to smoke, for ornamental value, or simply for the pleasure and satisfaction of cultivating another variety of plant, at Garden-NZ we don’t judge. However, take care readers, there's no 'butts' about it, we don’t want to see your health go up in smoke!