Whether you’re considering trying to plant and grow vanilla at home, or you simply want to learn more about how vanilla beans are grown and harvested across the globe, this article will tell you everything you need to know and answer any questions you might have.
Are vanilla beans hard to grow?
Cultivating vanilla is an incredibly labor-intensive process. The plant itself will not actually start to produce any vanilla bean pods for at least three years. At the point the vanilla beans start to bloom, those precious flowers will only stay open for a single day, and they need to be pollinated within no more than 12 hours of their blooming.
The vanilla orchid, also known as Vanilla planifolia, is the only orchid in the world that produces edible fruit. It is most commonly grown in subtropical and warm tropical climates across the globe, with origins from Mexico. For many, many years, Mexico was the only location vanilla was found, and this is because its natural pollinator is the Melipona bee, a specific type of bee that is only found in Mexico.
Where are vanilla beans grown?
Today, commercial vanilla is grown in the Caribbean, Comoro Islands, Hawaii, Madagascar, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Mexico. However, pollination outside of Mexico is done by hand. When you consider that each flower can open at any given time, and multiple flowers will open every day over a period of many weeks. Add to this the complexity of needing to pollinate each flower within a 12-hour window, and you start to appreciate how and why it isn’t easy to grow and harvest vanilla.
There are no short cuts, nor any type of fast-track approach to growing, harvesting, and curing vanilla. This is probably one of the reasons that it is the second most expensive spice in the world, second only to Saffron.
How long does it take to grow vanilla beans?
In total, it takes an average of 6 to 9 months to grow vanilla beans. After they’re harvested, the vanilla beans need to go through a curing process, and this adds a further few months to the overall timeline.
How To Grow Your Own Vanilla Bean Plant
The Vanilla Orchid is known as an evergreen plant. They have fleshy, green-yellow foliage, and in their natural habitat, they can reach an impressive 75-100 feet in length.
The soil you use to grown vanilla needs to be of a neutral PH; somewhere between 6.6-7.5 is ideal. You can purchase proper soil that is formulated to meet the specific needs of orchids. When growing vanilla, it is vital you keep the soil evenly moist, making sure you do not over-water the plant at the same time. You need to strike the optimal balance so that it does not dry-out but you also want to avoid root rot by having it too wet.
It will typically take a minimum of three years before you see any blooms and when they do arrive, it is usually in spring to late summer. The orchid itself, the vanilla ‘flower’ will only appear for a single day. These flowers are yellow, white, or green and measure around five inches in width. If the flower is pollinated successfully, then around nine months after, you should then get long pods of vanilla seeds that are typically anything between 6-10 inches in length, starting to appear.
As you already know, vanilla orchids prefer subtropical or warm tropical climates as this is where they are grown commercially at-scale. High humidity is key, and overnight temperatures should never drop below 55 degrees. Filtered shade and bright light are preferred, and the pots should be able to drain well and be humus-rich.
Through the warmer spring and summer months, it’s important to gently fertilize the plant with orchid fertilizer every couple of weeks. You should also provide some level of support for the vines, such as a wooden trellis. While the actual growing of the vanilla bean plant isn’t all that challenging, it is vital you have the proper climate and keep a close watch with regular check-ups, particularly during the time the plant is due to flower.
The Final Stages of Growing Vanilla Beans
When the pods start to become loose, and they begin to turn a green/yellow color, it will almost be time to harvest the vanilla pods. It is here that the really hard work starts.
The curing process of vanilla will take a few months, and if you want to try and use your vanilla beans; whether that’s to make a homemade vanilla extract or even try out a recipe for homemade vanilla ice cream, then you’ll want to make sure you follow the curing process steps precisely.
Can You Grow Vanilla Beans in a Greenhouse?
If all of the above sounds like hard work, which growing vanilla at home is, then there is one way you can shave the initial three-year growing period from your timeframe. After all, not too many people want to hang around for three years before they see any real results. As such, there are places online that sell vines, which are usually between the age of 3-5 years.
- First, if you do go down this route, it’s important to re-pot the plants immediately in slightly larger containers that they arrived in.
- Second, always make sure you have specific orchid compost ready for the task.
- Next, you need to give the plants the proper support in the form of stakes or similar. This will enable the vine to climb and grow further with ease.
Be mindful that vanilla bean plants are exceptionally sensitive to light, heat, and moisture. If you want to perfect the art of growing vanilla, you must maintain an optimal growing environment at all times. In Fahrenheit, this means retaining a temperature of between 79-80 degrees.
When using a greenhouse or polytunnel to grow your vanilla, the diffused yet bright light is fine. So far as the water requirements, these are a little trickier to master. To ensure the plant yields pods, it’s important that there are distinct dry and wet seasons. During the wet season, the humidity should be kept high.
When the plants eventually flower, it is only for one day. You will also need to hand-pollinate the flower within 12 hours of its opening. If you miss this window of opportunity, then you can expect there to be no beans. Once the beans eventually develop, which can take around 6-9 months, they will start to turn yellowish, and they’ll also become slightly loose.
Once you reach this point, you’re ready to harvest and cure the vanilla beans.
We’ve written an article that outlines the four stages of curing vanilla beans to show you exactly how this works.