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.