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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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Mo’o in the Vanillery

I see a lot of these guys in the vanillery. It must be a great envi­ron­ment for them, a mil­lion places to hide and hunt, with con­ve­nient walk­ways so you nev­er have to touch the ground. Mo’o is the Hawaiian word for lizard or reptile…it gets a lot of use since geck­os are so com­mon here.

Back off, this is my vine!

Mostly the ones I see in the vanillery are the green anoles. They look like tiny drag­ons, and they have a lot of personality…certainly when com­pared to a gecko! Their typ­i­cal green col­or match­es the vanil­la foliage per­fect­ly. They can change col­or, so they’re often referred to as “chameleons” and though they do have eye­lids that are a bit like them, they aren’t chameleons.

I came across this one, stand­ing out quite obvi­ous­ly because he was a very dark brown col­or. He was look­ing at me defi­ant­ly, so I snapped a few shots. Later he showed me his impres­sive dewlap. I think he was try­ing to scare me.

This oth­er guy is a less com­mon sight in the vanillery, the gold dust day gecko blends in pret­ty good, despite some stun­ning col­or and over­all bejew­eled effect. (we jok­ing­ly call them “gay deck­os”) These ones have been slow­ly tak­ing over from the typ­i­cal lit­tle brown geck­os we’ve always had. I’m pret­ty sure these day geck­os are more aggres­sive and so have been edg­ing out the orig­i­nal population…seems like we see more and more of them every year. For some rea­son the vanillery is not a usu­al place to see them. These guys love fruit, so instead we see them in the bananas and where we bring in our fruit from the yard.

The usu­al­ly very shy gold dust day gecko
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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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2018 Harvest Season Begins!

a vanil­la “broom”

This is the first year we are get­ting a full har­vest out of the vanillery. It’s been a good year, growth-wise, maybe even too good. The vines are grow­ing so thick­ly now, it’s hard to see the beans for harvesting.

This har­vest sea­son actu­al­ly began on January 3, we missed a few ear­ly ones, but on that day I har­vest­ed 3 dozen beans. It seems to be com­ing in much ear­li­er this year. Last year’s first har­vest was in February some­time. I can only guess that the onset of the har­vest sea­son moves around a lot.

a giant vanil­la bean

Today’s har­vest was par­tic­u­lar­ly boun­ti­ful in terms of bean size. In the pho­to, I’m hold­ing one of the biggest beans I’ve ever seen, 240mm in length and weigh­ing in at 33 grams. The aver­age length for a grade I bean is about 180mm and 17g, so that’s sub­stan­tial­ly larg­er than most of the large beans.

You might expect a bean like that from a Tahitian vanil­la (Vanilla tahiten­sis) plant, but we are grow­ing the more com­mon Vanilla plan­i­fo­lia, which pro­duces a small­er bean generally.

Vanilla bean green grades are by length: grade I is 150mm and over, grade II is 150 — 100mm, and grade III is less than 100mm. This is impor­tant because the pro­cess­ing is slight­ly dif­fer­ent for each grade. The larg­er the bean, the more time it gets in the kill bath and in the sweat­ing stage.

For the beans in this kill bath, it is the begin­ning of a long process: 10 days of sweat­ing fol­lowed by 3–6 weeks of air-dry­ing. After that, the by now shriv­eled and dark brown or black beans are con­di­tioned for 9 months before they are grad­ed and made into extract.

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Our First Full-Scale Flowering in the Vanillery

The vanillery is exact­ly 3 years old now. This Spring, for the first time, we’re see­ing full flow­er­ing on all the rows. This is great news for vanil­la pro­duc­tion here, our last two years have seen fair­ly small har­vests. At this rate, there may be many hun­dreds of pods in here for next win­ter’s harvest.

Having this many flow­ers does require a sig­nif­i­cant time invest­ment to get them all pol­li­nat­ed. This is the peak of the flow­er­ing cycle, and we’re see­ing 1 — 1 1/2 hours of pol­li­nat­ing each morn­ing, and that will keep up for 2 — 3 weeks. You def­i­nite­ly have to plan your morn­ing around that.

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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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Grading the 2016 Harvest

full-harvest-aug-2016-3Took the beans out of their box today: it’s time to grade the har­vest. The last beans came off the open-air dry­ing racks two months ago, and they’ve been con­di­tion­ing in their box since then. The beans are grad­ed at this point, divid­ed into the two grades by size, mois­ture con­tent, and appearance.

The grade A beans are bun­dled and placed in the con­di­tion­ing box for anoth­er 7 months, so there is a total of 9 months of con­di­tion­ing after the dry­ing is com­plete. The cured beans are sold to the culi­nary trade for direct use in recipes. They are brown in col­or and filled with fra­grant, oily “caviar,” the seeds and pulp of the vanil­la pod after cur­ing. This is where the fra­grance of the vanil­la bean is concentrated.

The grade B beans in part will be sold as grade B beans, but most will be used to make extract. We make two dif­fer­ent types of extract: one, a 100% local extract using Koloa Rum, made on the west side of Kauai. The sec­ond is an organ­ic extract using Prairie organ­ic vod­ka. The beans sit in the alco­hol for a min­i­mum of 6 months before we begin to sell them.

It’s a good har­vest this year, I’m very proud of it! The beans are in beau­ti­ful condition.