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.
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.