Starting and Growing Tobacco from Seeds.

Tobacco is a relatively easy plant to grow and can be grown as far north as Canada and Alaska with the proper planning and preparation.

Tobacco seeds are extremely small (Fig. 1) not much larger than a pin prick and care should be taken when sowing seed as to not sow to thickly. Tobacco seed require warm temperatures for germination of about 75-80 degrees. Seed should be started indoors 4-6 weeks before your last frost date. Start by sprinkling the tobacco seed onto the surface of a sterile seed starting mix and lightly water in. DO NOT cover the seed with any soil as they need light for germination and covering can slow down germination time or if covered too deeply the seed won't germinate at all, watering in lightly is all that is needed.

Seed will begin to germinate in about 7-10 days with some tobacco varieties taking a few days longer to begin germination (Fig. 2). If your seed don't germinate right away be patient, it can take up to 2 weeks for some tobacco varieties to germinate.

The soil should be kept moist but not soggy and should never be allowed to dry completely out. Care should be taken when watering freshly emerging tobacco seedlings because the force of the water can uproot the tiny seedlings causing them to die. The best way to water seedlings is from the bottom, the way this is accomplished (if you are using a pot with holes in the bottom) sitting the container with the seedlings into a pan of water for only a few seconds or a bit longer, the potting mix will wick the water up into the seedling container allowing your seedlings to be water without getting the leaves wet.

"Transplanting into trays/flats"

The next step is to transplant the tobacco seedlings into a larger container such as a pot or transplant cell tray as seen in Fig. 3. so that they can develop a good root system.

Under 'normal' conditions the tobacco seedlings will be large enough and ready for moving into pots or cells after 3 weeks from the beginning of germination. 
Once seed have germinated and seedlings are big enough you can grasp them Fig. 5 proceed to transplanting into your pots.

Transplanting into containers is easily accomplished by making a small hole into the soil and inserting the roots of the tobacco seedling and backfilling the hole with a little soil mix, Fig 4. Once you have them potted in, water in with a plant starter fertilize solution such as miracle grow or seaweed/fish fertilize emulsions.

The initial fertilizing you gave at the potting stage should be sufficient food for the plants until they reach transplanting stage, (Fig. 6) which normal takes approximately 3-4 weeks. If your plants begin to yellow or look stunted another dose of fertilize may be needed but do so sparingly, over fertilization while in pots or trays may burn the plant's roots and may also lead to overgrown spindly plants.

Tobacco plants are considered 'transplantable plants' meaning they, like tomato plants, can be planted bare root with out the need for any soil attached to the roots. If you have large containers or seedling flats you can sow the seed very thinly and leave the seedlings there until they reach the size for transplanting outdoors and pull the plants and transplant directly into your garden but I recommend using pots or celled trays.

This is a much easier way to to do it but also has it's drawbacks. Once planted, bare root the plants will go through a sort of 'transplant shock' where some or most of the largest leaves may yellow and wilt and the plant may appear it is going to die, but it will not, the main stem and bud of the plant will continue to strive and in a week or so will begin to grow and flourish. By growing your seedlings in containers or celled trays there is no transplant shock and plants begin to grow immediately.

If you are growing your tobacco seedlings in a greenhouse or indoors they should be "hardened off" before you transplant into your field or garden, but is not always necessary as long as your plants are not spindly and weak and weather conditions are favorable. This period allows the plant to adjust to outdoor weather conditions. A week of hardening off should be ample time but 2 weeks is even better.

 General note if planting more than one tobacco variety

Tobacco is considered a self pollinating plant meaning it has the ability to fertilize it's own flowers without the aid of insects. But different tobacco varieties planted close to one another can and will become crossed by insects such as moths, etc. that commonly visit the plants flowers. Tobacco can also become cross pollinated by wind although at a much lesser degree than by insects. To keep tobacco varieties pure, isolation of one mile is needed between different varieties to insure continued variety purity is maintained or other preventive cross pollination methods should be used if isolation distance is a problem.

"Transplanting into garden"

Tobacco is a heavy feeder and if grown continuously in the same spot will deplete the nutrients in the soil. So to counteract this it is wise to employ a 2 year rotation in your growing space by planting 2 years in a specific location and waiting a year or more before you plant your tobacco back into that location again. Tobacco also requires good amounts of nitrogen and potash both of which can be achieved with a good compost but we recommend a good garden fertilizer if you do not have or use compost.

Space the tobacco plants 2-3 feet apart in the row and space rows 3 1/2 - 4 feet apart when it is practical. Water the plants thoroughly once transplanted and if no rain or dry weather is forecast, water each evening for a few days till plants become established.

The roots of tobacco grow quickly and the root structure is quite large with thousands of small hair like feeder roots that grow close to the soil surface. Care should be taken when cultivating as not to till or hoe too deep and damage the roots. 
Keep the tobacco clean and free of all weeds and a few good hoeings by pulling up soil around the base of the plant will help in strengthening the plant. The structure of a tobacco plant's leaves enables the plant to make use of light rains and heavy dews by collecting and funneling the water down to the base of the plant as can be seen in Fig. 5 by the wet soil.

After 3-4 weeks from planting heavy deep tilling should be stopped (Fig 8) and only light scrapings to control weeds should be done.

 Diseases and Insects

There are many insects and diseases that can attack tobacco.
Here in Tennessee, two of the prominent insect pest are the hornworm and aphid.
More information on insects and diseases can be found on our tobacco links page.

Images on Planting

Fig 1

Tobacco seeds

Fig 2

Seedlings beginning to germinate.

Fig 3

Potted seedlings.

Fig 4

Transplanting seedlings into trays

Fig 5

Close up of a seedling getting transplanted

Fig 6

Plants ready for transplanting in the field.

Fig 7

Tobacco plant after about 2 weeks from planting in the field.

Fig 8

Nice healthy Burley tobacco plant.