Vanilla beans grow from a particular species of orchid called Vanilla planifolia. In fact, vanilla beans are the only edible fruit produced from an orchid plant. Fresh vanilla bean and its pure extracts can be quite expensive. Growing them at home can be more than a novelty, but a cost-saving challenge for the ambitious gardener. Here’s how to grow vanilla beans in your home garden.
WHERE TO GROW
Vanilla orchids grow best in tropical or subtropical climates. They thrive on high humidity and dry winters. They are not tolerant to any frost or nighttime temperatures that drop below 55° F. In the U.S. they should be planted in USDA Hardiness Zones 10 – 11 only.
Vanilla planifolia prefer bright light and dappled shade, not full sun. They should be well sheltered from the wind and other extreme climate hazards. Vanilla grows from vines so you’ll need a fence, trellis or other structure for support. You’ll hang the vines over your support structure to make them easily accessible.
Vanilla can also be grown in the green house and even indoors in colder climates. Choose a hanging planter so the vines have room to spread out.
WHEN TO PLANT
Orchids can be planted any time of year so long as it is warm and humid.
BEST SOIL FOR GROWING VANILLA
Orchids grow best in well draining, humus-rich soil. A light, sandy mixture works great. For best results, purchase a soil mix that is intended for orchids. Soil pH is best at 6.6 – 7.5.
Vanilla should be grown from cuttings taken from a healthy, mature plant. The cutting should be about 20 inches long. Remove the leaves from the bottom of the cutting. Lay it out on the ground and mulch over the middle section with dry leaves, compost and other organic matter. Be sure to leave both ends poking out but bury the middle in a thick layer of mulch.
For best results, plant your cutting indoors in a one-gallon growing pot. Remove the bottom leaf and plant it in moist potting soil. Keep the cutting in the indirect sun and away from cold air. Give it lots of warmth and humidity. Mist daily with a spray bottle. Set it in the bathroom near a warm, steamy shower for great results.
Most growers will order a cutting online and it’s best to follow the specific planting instructions that come with your cutting.
WATERING & CARE
Water your vanilla orchid regularly during the summer. The soil should be kept slightly moist. Do not over water. Put your finger in and water only once the top inch or so has dried to the touch.
Mulch over for winter and water occasionally to keep the mulch slightly damp, but for the most part your plant will need dry winter conditions.
Feed every spring with a fertilizer intended for orchids.
Keep your plant well taken care of for the next three years. Once the vines are about 10 – 25 feet long, you can hand pollinate for vanilla beans to be produced.
Vanilla is naturally pollinated by tiny bees in its natural habitat in Mexico, but you will have to pollinate yourself when growing in the U.S, indoor or out. The pollination window is narrow because the blooms only open for about 24 hours. Pollinate within 12 hours of the buds opening. This is no easy task. If you know somebody who has successfully pollinated a vanilla orchid before have he or she give you a demonstration. Otherwise, try these instructions:
Use a large sewing needle or toothpick to pollinate. First, find a labeled picture or drawing of the plant to familiarize yourself with the different reproductive parts of the flower. You’ll need to locate the stamen, anther, nectar and stigma.
Pollen must be taken from the stamen/anther and transferred to the nectar, which is inside the stigma. The stigma has a tiny flap that must be lifted to successfully place the pollen. Look at the top right column behind the flower to locate the stigma. Take great care not to damage any part of the flower while you pollinate, which may result in the flower falling off shortly after pollination. Pollinate around mid day for best results.
Hand-pollinate each and every flower as they open, which usually occurs around mid to late summer. They may not all open at the same time. The tubular flowers are tubular and usually white, yellow or green and about five inches wide. They’ll turn downward and elongate after being pollinated. They may wither and turn brown as well.
Long, green pods will begin to grow if pollination is successful.
Mature vanilla beans can be picked in the fourth year after planting. This is about nine months after pollination. Seedpods are 6 – 10 inches long and turn brown when they are mature.
Seedpods must be cured for three months after harvest. Leave them in a warm, lighted space during the day but cover them at night while they are curing. When they are completely dry, remove the beans from the pod to use in cooking and baking.
OTHER TIPS & ADVICE
Under ideal climate conditions, vanilla vines can climb up to 80 feet.
Vanilla bean plants exude a white sap that may irritate the skin.