I have been growing vanilla for the better part of a decade. And I’ve killed my share of the orchids as I learned the ins and outs of this mysterious vine. It has been an education that I paid for, but one that was worth every penny – as today I have vanilla that is just going bonkers and growing like a weed. It all revolved around a chance observation…
Vanilla is a terrestrial orchid, but it quickly abandons terrestrial dependence as it climbs up into the canopy. Most of its nutrients comes from absorption from its leaves and from the advantageous roots that grip the bark of the trees the vine likes to climb. In it’s native habitat, that means frequent rains, mossy bark, and compost in the nooks of trees. The roots of the vanilla will seek these out and when they find them will exploit them for all they got, with their clinging roots converting quickly to collecting roots. A well situated vanilla can even lose dependence on its terrestrial roots altogether and become completely epiphytic.
I have had opportunity to witness this tendency personally in my own vanilla vines. When the vines get long, their terrestrial roots are quickly out-grown – unable to support the vine. Roots grow from the leaf nodes and stretch down, seeking more water. On a lark, I provided a jar for one of the extending roots and it took to it like chickens to a moth – quickly branching out and forming the distinctive fuzz of feeder-roots. This inspired me so whenever I saw a long root in my tangle of vanilla, I’d find a cup or jar and put fish water or rainwater in it and plop the root into it.
It wasn’t long that I discovered that in some of the vines, the base had died altogether and the entire vines was living on what the cups and jars of water were providing, and they were flourishing wildly! For an orchid that’s supposed to be slow growing, these guys were shooting out like rockets! It got to the point where I even stopped watering their pots and just kept their cups and jars topped off with water. They didn’t even notice.
Problems occurred however. First – these guys had no trellis so they were growing across my grow-room with little or no guidance. They were indeed becoming a weed – taking over the office. Secondly, it was hard to keep track of what vine was what and making sure each had cups of water. These vines were easy to neglect because they simply require so little care so often they’d slip my mind until I just happen to notice that their cups and jars needed topping off. A few even withered a bit and I had to give them TLC to bring them back. These were no longer small cuttings of a few inches anymore – but were several feet long and starting to become unwieldy. It was time to give thought to organizing them, especially if I was interested in getting any kind of production from them.
From my reading, I’ve learned that many farmers will grow these vines up trees and loop them back down to the ground where they’d bury their nodes to form more roots then train them back up the tree and continue looping. That way every 16′ of vine or so there were roots in the growing media. I decided to emulate that, but keeping the aquaponics motif that these vines had performed so well on. I have them in my growing room because even tho my pit-greenhouse keeps most of my tropicals happy without additional heat over the winter, these were super-tropicals – much more tender. As such, they are consigned to my grow-room pending an planned renovation of the pit-greenhouse intended to allow their growth down there. My grow-room has a single window that faces south but only gets direct sunlight during the winter – the eves overhangs enough to leave the window in bright shadow the rest of the year. I decided that the winter sun wasn’t too much for the vanilla – after watching some of the exposed vines not behaving badly – so I decided that their new home would be in front of the window.
Hanging the vines in front of the window was actually a rather simple affair. I made a string and PVC-pipe “ladder” trellis that I hung in front of the window. I tied loops in the string at pre-measured spots and just stuck the PVC-pipe into these loops. It’s not tight – I can easily slide the PVC out if I need to – which I will to loop up another tangle of vines, so it’s a handy design. The vines would drape from this trellis and form a living curtain for me. On the floor below this trellis I placed a 25-gallon bucket and filled it full of water. Then, I started dragging my vanilla orchids out of where they’d tangled themselves up in and organizing them. What a discombobulated mess! It took a while to get them untangled. Some I just cut out and made new vines. Once I got them untangled and stretched out, I cut off any dead parts and got ready to hang them up in front of the window.
The bucket that they would be deriving their water and part of their nutrients from was a molasses bucket used by ranchers here that often ends up in the burn-pile. Massively useful buckets – 25 gallons are perfect for a lot of my projects so I collect them whenever I can. I had picked a nice clean one and filled that puppy up with water. Into the bottom I placed some large limestone rocks that we have scattered about here. This would help buffer the water and mineralize it. Then I took my favorite DIY aerator – a loop of 1/4″ soaker hose and weighted it down with the rocks and plugged it into my aquarium pump. The bucket was ready. Fish would go in later as soon as the water’s chlorine fully gassed off, but after a night of bubbling I figured I could start the vine-work.
Each vine was an individual. Most were rather long – 15′ or so, even 20′ already! They didn’t look that long in the tangle but once straightened out they just kept getting longer and longer and longer. Wow. I cut some of them to key nodes – the ones that either already had roots or looked fairly fresh – and stuffed those down into the bucket of water. I took the rest and draped them up over the top rung of my trellis and looped them back down to the water. The shorter ones I either tied to the first or second rung or used the longer vines as guides. And… that was it. Very anti-climatic.
It took a while to get them established. Some of the vines were wrinkly from being too dry and they were the slowest to recover. But recover they did, and more. Since I set those up I’ve again largely ignored them. They seem to do best that way. Just keep the bucket filled. I put some skeeter-fish in there – some of the toughest fish I’ve ever kept. And then I just keep the water topped off pretty much. And it’s paid off. Lately I’ve been having to re-drape new growth and the vines are once again growing like weeds. At least now they are organized. When they get long enough I train them back down to the water and loop them in the water and start them growing back up, and repeat. Finally, I’m getting the good thick growth of mature vanilla. Here before long I’ll cut out the thinner growth to make more room for the thick growth. This mature growth is where the flowers will come from and that is what I am eagerly waiting for now – to enter into the next stage of my vanilla project. Making vanilla!!!