A spice with as rich a flavor profile as real vanilla doesn’t just happen overnight. In fact, it takes many nights, numbering up to 1,825, since vanilla has a maturation period of up to 5 years. Even after vanilla beans are harvested, they must undergo an extensive curing process whereby they become the sleek, fragrant brown pods we use in our cooking.
Vanilla is a flowering orchid vine that, in the wild, usually twines around tree trunks and thrives in humid temperatures and indirect sunlight. It’s the only orchid in the world that produces an edible fruit. (Yes, vanilla beans are technically fruits.) Today tens of thousands of vanilla plantations around the world — mostly in Madagascar — are equipped to grow this beautiful plant.
But did you know you could grow your own vanilla at home? Whether you’re looking to grow a beautiful new house plant or save money on vanilla in the long run, the vanilla orchid is a challenging yet rewarding choice. With enough attention and TLC, you’ll be able to harvest, cure, and eat your own vanilla, all from the comfort of your own home.
Pre-Grown Vanilla Orchids
To start, search for orchid growers in your area to find healthy vanilla plants that have grown at least 3-5 years. This will ensure that you won’t have to wait such a long time to see results, i.e. flowers and pods. Once you get it, you’ll want to transplant it to a larger pot, preferably one that is twice as large as the plant itself and has good drainage.
Soil and Support
The soil you’ll want to use is orchid potting soil, which provides the plentiful air pockets and moisture retention that orchid roots require. If you aren’t able to get that, you can try mixing half bark and half regular potting soil. Gently place the orchid in the pot and cover the roots with soil, not too deeply. To guide the orchid’s upward growth, twine it around a trellis or wooden post made of redwood, cedar, cypress, or other wood that does not rot easily.
Sunlight and Temperature
Vanilla orchids thrive best in hot and humid conditions, at around 70-90 degrees Fahrenheit and about 70-80% humidity. Try to keep it out of direct sunlight but not in complete shade either; the orchid does best with bright, indirect sunlight. A greenhouse, sunroom, or warm room with grow lights will do the trick.
When watering, make sure that both the air roots and potting mix get damp by watering the soil and support. Be careful not to water too much, however, as this will oversaturate the plant and make it harder for the soil to drain evenly. Allow the plant a short dry period between waterings, so as to reduce the probability of root disease.
It’s also a good idea to apply a diluted solution of plant fertilizer at every other watering during the summer. Choose an orchid fertilizer like Orchid Myst — which contains organic nutrients and pure plant oils — to promote the health of your vanilla and prolong flowering. Occasionally, you may have to leach the potting soil with regular water in order to avoid the build-up of fertilizer salt
The vine needs to reach at least 3-5 feet or start hanging off the support you’ve twined it around before it starts flowering. Each flower blooms only for a day, so they might all bloom at the same time, but more often than not, blooming happens sequentially. Be sure not to miss these crucial pollination days, because you’ll need to pollinate by hand if you want your flowers to grow vanilla beans. (The Melipona bee, vanilla’s only natural pollinator, can only be found in Mexico.)
The best time of day to pollinate is late morning, shortly after flowers first open. The first thing you’ll have to do (unfortunately) is tear the flower open so that you can get at its reproductive column. Next, you’ll need a steady hand and a toothpick to lift the thin flap between the plant’s male and female parts. Once you’ve done that, push them gently against each other with your thumb and forefinger, in an action that should look kind of like stapling. Be careful not to let any pollen fall out, as it’s very loosely connected to the flower.
If you’re not able to salvage the fallen pollen, no worries — that just means there’s going to be less to pollinate with. If your pollination is successful, the stems (which are actually ovaries) will swell and turn green as the flowers dry up.
Harvest the Seed Pods
Vanilla pods should start growing within a couple of months. To know when they’re ready to harvest, they should have matured for 8-9 months and turned yellow at the tips. (Some splitting at the ends is another indication that they’re ready.) The closer to this timeframe you harvest, the higher quality vanilla you’ll get. Use a pair of scissors or pruning shears to detach them from the vine.
If you continue caring for your vanilla orchid, it’ll keep blooming and bring with it a fair harvest of beans for the next few years.
In order to get the thin, aromatic dark brown pods of vanilla we’re used to, they have to go through a curing process, a series of chemical reactions that bring out its intense flavor and aroma potential. Although it’s less common, this can be done naturally, especially if you’re growing vanilla at home, where you’ll typically have more control of what elements interact with your plant. (You can move your plant indoors when it rains and better protect it from pests.) So your first option is to put off harvesting and allow the vanilla beans to cure naturally on the vine — they’ll eventually prune up, turn dark brown, and be highly fragrant.
The other option is to hand-cure, where you take ripe, harvested beans, and put them through stages of sweating, drying, and resting. This is a more reliable way to protect the vanilla from the elements since wind and rain can easily break the mature pods. Read this article on how farmers cure vanilla beans on a mass scale. You can simulate these conditions at home if you’ve got a freezer, food dehydrator, cooler, gallon jugs, towels, a thermometer, and freezer bags.
That concludes our step-by-step guide to growing your own vanilla. If you decide to give it a go, keep us posted via email or social media — links at the bottom of the page! We can’t wait to see how you spice things up with your homemade vanilla!