Grow Vanilla Bean at Home (on a water tank wall)

vanilla bean on rain water tank wall

When we undertook our Permaculture Design Certificate course (PDC), we were introduced to the concept of vertical growing. We were shown by Bill Mollison (via his designer’s manual) that many people are blind to the use of this practice.

He didn’t invent the idea, but he did steer everyone to observe the natural systems that support and make up the natural world.

Through this observation, we decided to put a few vanilla bean cuttings at the base of a rainwater tank and see what happens. This post is about the outcome of this test. The list below is the information for growing vanilla at home.

  1. The planting medium needs to be well drained.
  2. The plant enjoys dappled sun/shade.
  3. Vanilla loves to climb.
  4. It doesn’t require fertilizer in a healthy system.
  5. Vanilla needs hand pollination where we live.
  6. The flowers are available for pollination for just a few hours of a single day.

Planting Medium for Vanilla Beans.

Many people collect and grow orchids; because of this, the gardening community has developed dedicated media in which orchids thrive.

We took a different path, but purely by accident. This is how we ended up with an excellent growing media by mistake. After completing the PDC, we set about turning the yard upside down. During this phase of the yard evolution, we installed three rainwater tanks.

One large one at 11000 ltrs and two medium tanks of 5000ltrs each. We knew that we needed well-draining bases for the tanks to sit on, so we set off to the local bulk garden material center to see what they had that would be suitable.

We decided on a material called scoria. It is similar in structure to pumice but harder and heavier. It has volcanic origins.

The bases were laid out and levelled, and the tanks were delivered and placed into position. We discovered soon after that plants loved the base of the tanks.

It held moisture for far longer than the soil nearby. We also discovered that this rock has some mineral content, but plant availability is unknown to us.

Over time, leaf litter has covered the top of the exposed edges of the tank bases, and this has broken down into basic compost.

vanilla vine roots touching ground
Scoria has proven to be a good growing medium for the vanilla beans.

What are the Light Conditions for Growing Vanilla Bean?

This is relatively easy to observe when researching the natural climate and vegetation that is the natural home to the bean.

It prefers shade and struggles with the full sun in the tropics. It shares very similar growing conditions to peppercorn vines, as shown in the article “growing peppercorns.” (hint… they can be grown together.)

It is a true vine and is always reaching upwards. I have wondered what the plant’s behavior is when it reaches the tree canopy and runs out of tree. It must sprawl, I think.

We are lucky here at home because a mandarin tree shades the large tank, and the two smaller tanks are partly shaded during the year.

One of them was well shaded by banana trees fertilized and watered from the filtration process attached to the fish growing system in the swimming pool—link to that article here.

This tank and the large one are the subjects of this post. The smaller tank has had the bananas removed due to results explained in the linked article, so the tank is now in far more sun than before.

It has been good to see how the plant holds up in the full sun for periods of the day. It definitely prefers part shade. The larger tank is the best location and is where we intend to place several more cuttings taken from the smaller tank nest.

Does vanilla Climb Walls?

Vanilla orchid is a vine that clings to structures by roots that grow from the leaf base. These roots will attach to anything and everything, including walls.

The aerial roots grow and cling with a surprising grip. The tanks we have are made from polyethylene, and when I first placed the cuttings against the tank, I doubted if they would hold.

I built a rudimentary lattice frame for them to scramble over, but they soon rejected that and started growing on the tank wall itself.

The plants have now sent down roots on the tank wall surface and have connected to the ground under the tank, so I know they are well watered. Once the vanilla was re-adjusted to the sun exposure, it commenced climbing.

It has now made it halfway up the feeder pipe from the roof to the tank. I am thinking about how to deal with this, and I do know that once the lattice has rotted and collapsed, I don’t see myself replacing it.

tank feed pipe covered in vanilla bean vine
Everything looks like a tree to this vine. Even a down-pipe for a rainwater tank.

Does Vanilla need to be Fertilized?

Growing vanilla at home can be achieved without the use of fertilizers. Commercial growers may use some at certain times of the season.

This may surprise some, but I doubt that there are people who run around in the jungles where vanilla is native, throwing fertilizer at the thing.

In a natural setting, not a commercial venture, the vine took care of itself, as the jungle floor naturally held enough nutrients to support growth. This is the growth model we are attempting to copy for several reasons.

It is less work. It is more reliable. It is more educational for nature lovers.

The only nutrients the vanilla plants on the tanks here receive is the leaf litter that falls to the ground around the base of the tanks.

In a commercial setting, it’s logical they would apply some fertilizer to maximize the return, but that does not apply in our situation.

Manufactured fertilizers are an added cost we can avoid, as we are about saving money and building self-sufficiency.

Is hand Pollination Needed for Vanilla Bean Flowers?

Unless you live in Mexico where the particular species of insect is available to do the job for you, vanilla bean flowers must be pollinated by hand.

This insect is under great environmental stress and hopefully doesn’t succumb to the pressures placed on it. If it does succumb the growers in Mexico will also need to hand-pollinate.

Either way, if you live outside of the insect’s habitat, the task to pollinate falls on you and the better you get at doing this the more vanilla beans you will be able to enjoy.

Is Pollinating Vanilla Bean Flowers Hard?

Not really. The tricky bit is getting to the flowers early enough on the day they open. It is pretty simple if you get this right and learn how to pollinate them.

The flowers open over a period of days, so you will be watching them intently for some time. It is not a case of pollinating the whole bunch, and you’re done. One day you might get 1 or 2, then nothing the next day, then a half dozen in a hit.

Be observant and enjoy the job. The end product is fantastic.

There is plenty of information on hand pollinating on youtube, so there is no need to repeat it here.

Our Observations on Growing Vanilla on Tank walls.

First of all, I want to point out two things. First up, the tank walls were empty, meaning it was a perfect situation to use a location without concern for other plants’ needs.

The second thing is the tanks are full most of the year due to the generous amount of hard roof that feeds the tanks with rainwater.

The full tank keeps the wall cool, and the vine seems to enjoy this immensely.

Climbing vanilla bean plant

The tank does not seem to be damaged by the roots at all. It appears it is a surface connection with a microscopic grip involved. I don’t know exactly, to be honest, but the tank looks unharmed, and the vanilla doesn’t care.

So the plan from here on is to guide the vines around the base of the tanks where it is a little more shaded and maybe have enough plants to give us a few Kgs of beans every year or two.

We have the tank wall space; it’s completely vacant and waiting, filling a spot in the permaculture design we hadn’t considered when the tanks first arrived.

The lesson learned is to sit back and look at every structure around the property with a view of what will grow on it. The yard is full of these little niches, and it is our job to fill them, or nature will pick her own varieties, which may not taste so nice.

Article by Tim Blanch for He is a qualified Permaculture designer.