Part 1: What we did at first…
We’ve been growing vanilla here on Kauaʻi since 2004. We started out small, as hobbyists with a vine my grandmother received as a gift in the 70’s. She planted it out by an old steel shed where it likely served as a minor garden conversation piece. My grandmother loved to garden, knew a lot about plants, and probably would have loved to grow vanilla pods, but she never did. She moved to a second house nearby in the late 70’s, and the garden here was left to the tenants. The vine was ignored for all those decades, climbing first an avocado tree, then an African tulip (a kind of fast growing invasive tree) which is where it was when this place came into our care in 2003.
At first, we put big chunks of the vine under a couple of lychee trees, and before long new vines were rapidly growing up the trunk. When they eventually flowered (it takes a couple of years) we pollinated the flowers we could reach, climbing the tree and using an orchard ladder as needed. Our first few harvests were small, and I began by simply drying the pods in a food dehydrator. This resulted in a surprisingly good quality cured pod, and so I was curious about the various methods used to cure vanilla and wondered if the time and labor of the traditional “bourbon” method was really necessary. After several years of research and experimentation, I am still refining and improving our curing method, which I plan to discuss in this series.
The actual growing of vanilla is pretty darn easy. The vines propagate easily, you just have to cut a good length of it and provide a suitable environment. Nothing much bothers it, it does like to be moist most of the time, but it will put up with dry spells if it’s properly rooted in the mulch. That means it doesn’t need irrigation here (we get around 60–80 inches a year) which is a significant factor. They love to grow up trees, and will grow as high as they can, well up into the crown of an 80-foot tree. We have a few we have let do this and it’s magnificent.
I initially experimented with the idea that the vine could be allowed to grow well out of reach, but the lower sections could be pollinated and pods harvested. There is a limit to the number of pods a vine can support, and artificial pollination can lead to over-pollination and fruit that is too small if you’re not careful.
The idea was that the huge vine could support a few really densely-pollinated racemes in the lower reaches. This worked well in a couple of cases, but it soon became clear that this was not a viable approach to sustained production. A single node of a vanilla vine can only either flower or branch once, so once the lower parts of the vine had flowered, only the third-year nodes that had not flowered could flower. As the seasons pass, these 3rd-year nodes are higher in the tree. Although I was willing to do some ladder-assisted pollination, it’s not sustainable, and way too much effort to accomplish across several vines.
In about our 4th year, I decided to build a trellis for the vines so they could be more easily cared for and harvested. I found a suitable spot under a lychee near our driveway and built a simple frame out of some bamboo we had growing. I has seen pictures of vanilla vines growing in a plantation, and they were just draped over a pole. I placed vine cuttings at the base of every vertical leg of the frame and within a couple of weeks, the new growth was clinging it’s way up the bamboo. Vanilla is like other arboreal orchids and prefers to grow on a living tree, the roots adhered to the bark, but not penetrating it. As the vanilla shoots climbed up the bamboo, the roots wrapped around and clung to it, affirming the appropriateness of my choice of materials.
Every year, I built a new trellis, placing them in various locations trying to find the kind of situation the plant liked most. Under a tree is too shady, out in the open works, but the plant looks a little bleached in the sun. Best is a situation that is open to one side, shady to the other so the plant is getting some strong light, just not all day long. With our trellises, the vanilla pod production increased a lot, and it was a lot easier to pollinate the flowers and generally keep things cared for.
21 thoughts on “Growing Vanilla on Kauaʻi”
Hello i want to know,want the variety of vanilla you product vanilla planifolia..or vanilla tahitensis ..? Thank you
It’s all vanilla planifolia.
Interesting stuff. A bit surprised to find you “farming” as I knew you as a musician. I wish you a good harvestfrombpetoskey Michigan-annie
Hi Annie, nice to hear from you! I got out of the music biz a while ago, finally ended up on my grandparent’s land on Kauai. I hope you are well!
Thanks and all the best to you!
Hi I am on Kauai for a week is there a way to buy your vanilla beans locally? Bonnie
We don’t sell our beans in any stores, but you can arrange to come by the vanillery and get them directly from us. Email me at [email protected], we are around Wed — Sat, but I’d like to arrange a time for you to come by. Thanks!
I live on Kauai and have to work on Friday’s. Is it possible to do a tour on Saturdays or Thurdays ?
Yes, it’s possible…email me with when you’d like to come by: [email protected]
I would like to know the best way to store vanilla beans once the vacuum pack is opened.
I usually don’t have much luck storing the beans once I have opened the pack so I end up making vanilla sugar
because I don’t want the beans to spoil.
What specific problems have you had with the beans and how were you storing them?
The primary issue with storing vanilla beans is controlling the mosture in the container.
Vanilla beans are commonly stored in an airtight container like a small jar with a lid or stopper and that works pretty well. You will want to choose a container that is as small as possible so you minimize the amount of air you are including. This is one reason the vacuum pack is good. They should last quite a long time like that. I have beans in a small vial (like a test tube) with a cork stopper that have been in there for over 5 years, and they’re doing fine, although a little dry.
Beans that you are planning to use whole for cooking need to be protected from drying because you want to keep the supple quality of a grade A bean. If you’re going to make extract and for some reason don’t want to use the beans right away, drying is less of an issue, you really don’t care if they dry out, the flavor and aroma will still be there for the extract.
Beans that have spoiled (typically, this means mold) can usually be salvaged. If it’s white, fluffy mold it’s not a big deal, just wipe it off. Beans with black mold should be discarded. If they have dried out too much to be used whole, use them to make extract. Putting them in sugar (which pulls the moisture out of the beans), as you are doing, is another alternative.
All that said, I don’t recommend storing whole vanilla for a long time. It should be used within a year for best results.
I was wondering if you sell the plant itself? If so, would you ship to the states?
No, I’m sorry, the USDA requires I have a special license for that, which I don’t have. You can find vendors of live plants on Ebay.
In your described method of initial bean processing, how long can the beans be frozen without negative impact on the remaining processes. Some of my beans are fertilized a month apart. Thanks
As long as they are well protected against freezer burn, a month or two in the freezer is fine. I freeze some of my beans every year and don’t cure them until after all the other beans have cured, so they are in the freezer for 2–3 months.
Hello Roland. Many thanks for your excellent and generous advice on vanilla growing and curing. I’m in Northern Australia and have about 250 beans in the freezer awaiting curing. Do I need to steep the frozen beans before sweating and drying?
Wow, that’s a good harvest! My technique with the frozen beans is to get a big pot of hot water (about 150°F) and drop the frozen beans in there. It will probably take about 3 minutes, enough to get them pretty warm. Drain them, then put them in 1 or 2 plastic bags. I use 1 gallon ziplock bags. If the beans fill the bag more than 3/4 full, I’d split them equally into two bags. This is mostly to make it easier to handle when moving them in and out of the bag as described in the sweating process.
If you’ve got that many beans this year, you’ll likely have more next year. It’s best to use the hot water kill if your harvest size is large enough, the quality will be better than using the freeze method.
If you want to send some photos of your vanilla and how you’re growing it, I’d love to post an article on this site about it.
Great, many thanks. I only froze them because they didn’t ripen all at once. The first harvest this time, was 140 beans. The rest came in drips and drabs. Maybe next year I will have enough at the first picking to start curing straight away and freeze only the latecomers for a subsequent curing.
I will make some pictures for you of my humble vanilla set up.
It started with a friend giving me a cutting of his vine, which I then planted under a large palmtree. Before long the vine grew all the way up this gigantic palm tree and started flowering very high up far out of reach for pollinating and subsequent picking. I managed to get some parts of it down and planted it so it could be accessible. It took a couple of years before it started flowering. After a few hits and misses, I got the hang of pollinating the beautiful flowers and had a small harvest of maybe 20 beans that I cured the old fashion way. It was incredibly labour intensive but still worth it. They turned out surprisingly well. I used the vanilla beans to make typical vanilla flavoured desserts and I made some vanilla salt which I use on mangoes and many other tropical fruit.
Sounds great, I’d love to see it.
Je suis distributeur de vanille en France.
Auriez-vous la gentillesse de m’appeler sur Whatsapp.
where and when can a person buy your vanilla ????