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The New Vanillery has been Built and Planted

We’ve been work­ing on get­ting this new vanillery (locat­ed on the north­west cor­ner of our prop­er­ty) built for a cou­ple of years now. This bit of land was not in use, and sev­er­al very large “weed” trees were in the way and need­ed to be removed. No point in plant­i­ng under a tree you’re going to cut down, so we had to wait until we had the help we need­ed to get the trees down. The sto­ry of get­ting rid of those trees is long and con­vo­lut­ed, it took sev­er­al tries to get the job done…but thanks to lots of able help (maha­lo: Jonathan, Tim, Christopher, Freddy) and sheer per­se­ver­ance, we got it done.

Once the trees were cleared, we need­ed to deter­mine where the vanillery would go and how big it would be. After tak­ing some mea­sure­ments, we found the new vanillery was going to be 30′ x 30′ mak­ing it 1 1/2 times as big as the first vanillery. We still had some plan­ning to do, though: we want­ed to avoid some of the mis­takes we made the first time, and design it so that it would be eas­i­er to work in. Our cur­rent vanillery end­ed up hav­ing so much lush growth that it is dif­fi­cult to move around in there.

The new vanil­ery will built with bam­boo columns instead of trel­lis­es. The trel­lis­es gave us a lot of room for the plants, but not enough room for peo­ple! With the trel­lis­es, you have to walk all the way around the row to get to the next row…which is some­thing you need to do a lot. Building it on columns will allow peo­ple to walk around each plant, mak­ing it a lot eas­i­er to main­tain the vines. 

The columns also have the advan­tage of being stronger: anoth­er of the lessons we learned is that vanil­la plants are very heavy and some of our trel­lis­es snapped under the strain after 3 or 4 years of abun­dant growth had built up. Columns can sup­port a lot more weight, even after the bam­boo has weak­ened with age. When a bam­boo post gets too degrad­ed, we replace it with a new one, and this is much eas­i­er to do with a col­umn than a hor­i­zon­tal support.

Planting the Vanilla Cuttings

So, giv­en the kinds of ques­tions I’ve been get­ting from vis­i­tors to this site, many of you will be inter­est­ed to learn how vanil­la can be propagated. 

image of a vanilla cutting on a bamboo column
The vanil­la cut­ting is tied to the bam­boo with a leaf

First, you need about 3–5 feet of the grow­ing tip of the vine. It needs to be the grow­ing tip so that you are using young vig­or­ous vine for your start. The first 6–10 inch­es of the grow­ing tip are snapped off, and then start­ing at the base of the cut­ting, most of the leaves are removed. Then the cut­ting is allowed to dry out for a few days so all the parts that were cut can scab up and be pro­tect­ed from rot­ting. Vanilla has a lot of water stored in its stem, so it can be per­fect­ly viable for a long time after get­ting cut off the main plant.

Next, you pre­pare where the cut­tings are going to be plant­ed. At the base of each col­umn, we cleared a 3′ diam­e­ter cir­cle. Sheet mulched it with clean card­board (to pre­vent any weeds in the soil from sprout­ing up) and then on top of that, well com­post­ed wood chips. We give these chips a few amend­ments, Korean Natural Farming style, and then on top of that some heavy mulch like tree branch­es and leaves. They can stay like that for a long time while you’re get­ting your cut­tings ready.

Once the cut­tings are ready to go, we move the heavy mulch off of the wood chips, then lay down the cut­ting. The tip goes on the col­umn, and the rest of it goes on the ground. It does not get buried in the soil…vanilla does not grow into the soil at all. After the vine is in place, we mulch it with some­thing pro­tec­tive, yet not so dense as to smoth­er the vines. Green leafy mat­ter is good for this: it’s mois­ture retain­ing, pro­tec­tive from the sun, and fluffy enough to allow some air around the vines. Orchids like air…in fact they live off the air alone! So, when we’re encour­ag­ing growth, we make sure the vines are not smoth­ered and there is some air around the part of the vines that are going to pro­duce roots.

When the vine starts to grow, what will hap­pen first is roots will grow out of the nodes, then if things are going well, a new vine will sprout out of one of the nodes that is exposed to the light. This whole process can take a lit­tle as a month, but 2 months is not unusu­al. Once 3 to 4 months has rolled around, you’ll have new vines creep­ing up all your columns. Three years after that…your first harvest.

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The Amazon Vanilla Project

Peruvian vanil­la grow­er Ashley Britton has launched a project to bring vanil­la pro­duc­tion to the Peruvian Amazon to ben­e­fit the indige­nous Awajun people.

Vanilla pom­pona has been wild­craft­ed in this part of the Amazon for a long time for local use, but with glob­al demand for real vanil­la grow­ing, this is a good time to estab­lish vanil­la pom­pona as an export prod­uct. The region suf­fered a set­back in its abil­i­ty to pro­vide a cash income when the cacao was reject­ed for too high a cad­mi­um con­tent. Ashley hopes that vanil­la, specif­i­cal­ly vanil­la extract, can sup­plant the lost cacao income.

Continue read­ing The Amazon Vanilla Project
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2019 Harvest Season Begins!

Went out to the vanillery and was greet­ed with the sight of ripen­ing beans! You get used to the beans grow­ing for months, then all of a sudden…they’re turning.

This year seems a bit ear­li­er than usu­al, but that could have been expect­ed since the 2018 flow­er­ing sea­son also start­ed ear­ly. The flow­er­ing sea­son in Hawaii starts in January and extends through June. April and May are the peak nor­mal­ly, but trips to the vanillery every morn­ing need to hap­pen for a full 6 months!

Perfectly ripe: these will be picked today!

Picking the Ripe Beans

When the beans ripen they need to be picked right away because they devel­op quick­ly once the yel­low­ing starts. We search the vanillery for ripened beans every 3 days or so to get the beans at the peak of ripeness. 

Like most fruit, the sug­ar con­tent starts to go up rapid­ly in the final stages of ripen­ing. This sug­ar is in the form of glu­co­v­anillins that are the pre­cur­sor to vanillin and relat­ed aro­mat­ics. Developing these aro­mat­ics is the most impor­tant goal in pro­duc­ing vanil­la, so let­ting the sug­ars ful­ly devel­op is critical.

We try to pick the beans when they are ful­ly ripe, but not opened at the tip. As the beans ripen, they begin to split open to even­tu­al­ly release their seeds. The beans that open are still good from a fra­grance and fla­vor stand­point, but can­not be sold as grade A or grade B as they tend to dry out too much and don’t meet the aes­thet­ic stan­dard of a grad­ed bean. Ungraded beans are used to make our own vanil­la extract. These in the pic­ture are per­fect, how­ev­er, and will prob­a­bly yield grade A beans after curing.

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Ripe Green Vanilla Pods

The beans are indi­vid­u­al­ly picked as they ripen.

We are at the peak of the har­vest sea­son, and dur­ing this time, we are har­vest­ing about a hun­dred beans out of the vanillery every two to three days. Choosing which beans to take requires some pret­ty sharp obser­va­tion: the col­or change can be hard to see in the shady tan­gle of vines. The beans were pol­li­nat­ed almost a year ago, and a lot of vine growth has tak­en place since then, bury­ing many of the brooms deep with­in the growth. In the dim light, it’s easy to mis­take the gen­tle light­en­ing that takes place as the bean matures for the clear sig­nal of true ripeness.

Choosing the moment to har­vest any one bean is a bit of a game of brinks­man­ship. We want the bean to be at the absolute peak of ripeness, but if you miss it or wait too long, the bean begins to split open, prepar­ing to release it’s seeds. At that point, the vanil­la pod can­not be sold as a whole bean, although it is still good for mak­ing extract. We’re look­ing for a strong orange-yel­low col­or at the tip of the bean, along with a hint of the split begin­ning to form.

A pas­sel of ripe beans, these will become Grade A beans when cured and aged.

Oh, and watch out for the sap! Like many trop­i­cal plants, vanil­la employs a chem­i­cal defense against for­ag­ing ani­mals. This is due the pres­ence of cal­ci­um oxi­late crys­tals, which are small and sharp enough to get into the pores of your skin, caus­ing minor but some­times pret­ty painful irri­ta­tion. During har­vest, we’re care­ful not to touch the sap or get it on the skin. When han­dling fresh­ly-har­vest­ed pods, latex gloves are used, as the sap is hard to avoid once the pods get into the har­vest box.

 

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A Natural Vanilla Nursery

The cluster of seedlings beginning to climb up.
The clus­ter of seedlings begin­ning to climb up.

In the first sea­son of fruit in the vanillery, I let a cou­ple of beans ripen nat­u­ral­ly, as I some­times do when they’re too small or over­ripe. When they ripen on the vine, they split open, turn black and even­tu­al­ly the tiny, tiny seeds come out. I guess if things are just right where those seeds fall, they will ger­mi­nate and grow into new vines.

This is, in my expe­ri­ence, pret­ty unusu­al. Most of the time none of those seeds sprout, and the lit­tle vines that emerge aren’t tough like full-grown vanil­la, they’re extreme­ly del­i­cate. It would­n’t take much going wrong for that sprout to not survive.

Near one of the bam­boo posts in the vanillery, it looks like the con­di­tions were just right, because a whole clus­ter of lit­tle vines formed in that one spot. You can see that in this pho­to, although the seedling vines are tucked way in. They’re begin­ning to climb up the bam­boo post and the oth­er vines.

I won­der if these vines will be dif­fer­ent? Almost all of the vanil­la plants here came from a sin­gle vine my grand­moth­er plant­ed some 40 years ago. These new vines will have some genet­ic variation…who knows how much, though, because the pollen came from the same plant. We’ll see.

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Peak Flowering Season 2016

seven-flowers-raceme-1
Vanilla raceme with 7 open flowers.

This morn­ing I came across two racemes in the vanillery that had sev­en open blos­soms on each of them! This is real­ly quite unusual.

When the vanil­la vines are real­ly grow­ing strong­ly, the flow­er­ing racemes can come out dou­ble or triple or more. Usually, the raceme is a sin­gle stalk of flow­ers with 1 — 20 flower buds on it. The buds will open usu­al­ly one at a time over a peri­od of sev­er­al weeks until they have all opened.

When there is a huge amount of vital­i­ty in the vine, though, the raceme can include branch­es of racemes, mak­ing it pos­si­ble for a large num­ber of flow­ers to  sprout from a sin­gle node. This is a very good thing, because each node can only pro­duce once (if at all—most don’t): and it will be either either a new vine or a flower raceme.

Of course, not all the flow­ers on a raceme should be pol­li­nat­ed, it’s impor­tant to only pol­li­nate as much as will devel­op into full-size pods. Pollinate too many, and you’ll end up with a lot of use­less­ly-small pods. But with so much vital­i­ty in the vine, the num­ber of flow­ers you can pol­li­nate increas­es. We’ll prob­a­bly get 15 full-size pods on these big racemes, while a typ­i­cal raceme will usu­al­ly only pro­duce 5–7.

raceme-branching
This is one of the big racemes ear­ly in the sea­son, you can see it branch­ing at sev­er­al places.

Vanilla blos­som­ing seems to come in waves: you’ll have days where the blos­som­ing is sparse, and days like today, where near­ly every raceme on all the vines has one or more flow­ers blos­som­ing. I don’t know what gov­erns these cycles, per­haps weath­er, per­haps the moon. We already know that the vines are quite sen­si­tive to lunar cycles.

This morn­ing, I pol­li­nat­ed 49 flow­ers in the vanillery. An impres­sive­ly large num­ber con­sid­er­ing it’s age…this is real­ly the first year we’re hav­ing flow­ers on vines that grew in the vanillery. Perviously, all the flow­er­ing was done by vines that were a cou­ple of years old when they were trans­plant­ed in. The vanillery is final­ly com­ing in, but this is only the beginning.

I say today is the peak of the 2016 flow­er­ing sea­son because in all, I pol­li­nat­ed 153 flow­ers today. Looking at the racemes out there now, I doubt we’ll have as big a day again this sea­son. All the racemes that are going to emerge have done so by now.

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First Flowers 2016

first-flowers-2016-1Flowering took place sev­er­al weeks lat­er this year than last year. Not sure why, but there is a strong pos­si­bil­i­ty it is due to a very dry win­ter here. Meteorologists are call­ing it a drought, although it would­n’t resem­ble what most of the world calls such a thing.

Last week, the rains returned, lucky us, and spring weath­er is back to it’s sog­gy nor­mal here. For us, these flow­ers mark the begin­ning of typ­i­cal­ly eight weeks of ear­ly-morn­ing trips to the vines to do the pol­li­na­tion. Flowering in the vanillery was slow to get start­ed, but it looks like it’s going to be good. This is the first year we expect to get a decent har­vest out of it, and it’s going get bet­ter every year for sev­er­al years.

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New Shoots

growing-tip-vanillery-oct-2014It occurred to me today that count­ing new shoots might be a good way to mon­i­tor the flow­er­ing poten­tial of the vanillery. I was inspect­ing the vines and think­ing about ways to quan­ti­fy the suc­cess of each plant­i­ng. For each cut­ting we plant­ed, most sprout­ed one new shoot, a few more than one. Enough time has passed so that some of the orig­i­nal new shoots have thrown off new shoots them­selves. Since each node of the vanil­la plant can either grow a new shoot or flower once (if at all), it is nec­es­sary to keep the vines con­stant­ly grow­ing. Maintaining a good num­ber of grow­ing tips means more poten­tial flow­er­ing loca­tions for the next season.

First year vines are smooth and soft to the touch, espe­cial­ly the grow­ing tip, which is quite soft and ten­der. As the vines age, they get dark­er, hard­er and end up being quite stur­dy with a dull, waxy sheen. In the first year, the vines are going for dis­tance, tend­ing to climb as high as pos­si­ble with­out wast­ing ener­gy on side shoots. In the sec­ond or third sea­son, the mature nodes are like­ly to branch or flower if there is suf­fi­cient vitality.

In march of 2015, I count­ed 38 grow­ing tips in the vanillery.