The Vanilla Guy: Nothing plain about Cellier’s sweet Kailua-Kona garden

  • Vanilla plants in the first shade houses were planted in pots in long rows.
  • JR does the pollinating of vanilla orchids quickly and expertly.
  • Guy does regular rounds looking for vanilla beans that are ready to harvest.
  • Vanilla grown at The Vanillerie is extracted on site.
  • Guy Cellier’s vanilla farm is now open to the public as The Vanillerie. (Photos by Diana Duff / West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Guy Cellier has been growing plants in Hawaii for more than 20 years and has been cultivating vanilla on his land (leased from the Department of Agriculture) for the last decade.

Two years ago, he decided to start sharing his passion for this interesting orchid with the public. The result is The Vanillerie on Laui Street just off Queen Kahumanu Highway in the ag lots a little north of Kailua-Kona.

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“I like things to be neat and clean and pretty,” Guy remarked as we began our tour of his vanilla farm.

He has created a space that is all of those. Up a picturesque tropical drive that widens into a parking area you come upon a galvanized steel building with a wide wooden deck and French doors that lead into a lovely retail shop of products made from the vanilla he grows. In addition to extracts and beans, he also stocks creams, scrubs, washes, balms and candles all infused with his vanilla. He also stocks kits for creating your own extract.

Cellier has been a plant guy for most of his life. Growing up in South Africa, he spent lots of his childhood on his uncle’s pineapple farm in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.

With a bachelor’s degree in forestry, Guy went on to the University of Washington for an advanced degree in rural development. This education prepared him well for a job in the forestry service in Alaska where he worked for several years before coming to Kona. In 1997, Guy leased a 6 acre ag lot on Laui Street and began a series of growing ventures in Hawaii.

He started by growing millions of tree seedlings for the eucalyptus project on the Hamakua Coast. Next, he grew nearly a million koa seedlings for a Kamehameha Schools restoration project. For a Queen Emma planting, he grew thousands of sandalwood and koaia seedlings.

“While dealing with all those tree seedlings, I took respite in my shade houses researching ways to best grow vanilla,” he recalled.

Today, he grows his vanilla in hardware cloth columns in three separate shade houses. His longtime assistant in plant projects, JR Pataray, serves today as chief pollinator and caretaker of the nearly 1,000 plants currently producing on the farm.

JR hails from a small ranch in the Philippines that grew rice as well as livestock. With interest and experience in agriculture, he came to Hawaii in his early 20s to work on Guy’s farm. Twenty years and lots of plant experience later, he is the perfect person to manage the daily needs of the vanilla plants.

For an operation this size, those needs are considerable and include fun stuff like pollinating, harvesting and curing, as well as day-to-day attention to water, fertility and pest issues. Though they have recently added plants to the third shade house, most of the vanilla vines were planted about 10 years ago. The vines grow up a tall hardware cloth column and after about five years they begin to produce vanilla orchids. Three or four slightly different vanilla species exist but the Bourbon vanilla (vanilla planifolia) is the one Guy is growing. It is known for its high quality flavor and aroma.

Once the vines begin to flower, attention is required. The cream colored orchid flower is only open for a few hours and must be hand pollinated while it is open in order for beans to be produced. JR has perfected the pollination process and, armed with a toothpick, can pollinate a flower in a few seconds.

Once pollinated, the plants begin producing beans that may take up to 10 months to mature. As they approach full maturity, the green beans begin turning yellow and are ready to harvest. Harvesting is actually the beginning of a lengthy curing process which involves two weeks of sweating and sun drying and finally several months in the humidor. Once they are soft and leathery and have a strong vanilla aroma, the beans are ready for use.

The long process from the planting of a new cutting to the finished vanilla bean is well described by Guy in his tours. His congenial personality makes him well suited to meet and greet visitors and be the tour guide and educator at The Vanillerie.

Part of one of Guy’s shade houses serves as an education center for the folks on his tours. They start with a short talk about growing vanilla, and include a walking tour of the facility with stops to watch pollination techniques, as well see the steps in the curing process. Every tour ends with a cup of his signature vanilla ice cream.

When asked what he liked most about his new business, Guy was quick to respond. “I love teaching people about vanilla, how to grow the plants, pollinate the flowers and process the beans.”

He also said he really enjoyed imagining and planning the project, and he is still doing that. He recently planted another 500 vanilla vines out on the farm under a variety of jatropha trees that grows quickly and will provide excellent trellises for his wild vanilla.

Guy’s wife, Jeannie, is an important part of The Vanillerie’s operations. She has participated in the creative style of the business, including the design and marketing of their products. As part of her contribution, Jeannie is establishing reciprocal relationships with local chocolate, tea, coffee and honey producers. She is also conducting tours several days a week.

Her own business, Island Style Interior Plants and Flowers, has been providing plants for high-end homes in Kohala for more than 30 years. She moved her design studio onto the farm a year ago and is involved in the planning of a new shade house. When complete, she will establish it as a garden center in conjunction with a coffee bar. It is planned as an onsite space that will be available for farm to table and cultural events.

If you are considering growing vanilla in your garden, you won’t want to miss Guy’s talk “Vanilla Growing for Home Gardeners” 10 a.m. April 7 at the Kailua-Kona Public Library. Come with your questions. Guy will have answers.

Info: www.thevanillerie.com or by calling them directly at 331-8535. The farm is located at 73-4301 Laui Street near the bottom of Kaiminani Dr. Visitors are welcome with advance reservations.

Diana Duff is a plant adviser, educator and consultant living in a dryland forest north of Kailua-Kona.

Gardening Events

Monday: “Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Monthly Meeting” from 7-9 p.m. at West Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers office 81-6393 Mamalahoa Highway in Kealakekua. White wooden building on makai side across from the Department of Transportation yard. Park in front or on the north side. For more information contact Brian Lievens President West Hawaii Chapter at 895-8753 or greenwizard@hawaii.rr.com.

Friday- Sunday: “Korean Natural Farming” 12 hours of hands-on instruction over 3 days in Kealakekua. $95. For more information or to register contact Jason at 854-4275.

Saturday: “Work Day at Amy Greenwell Garden” from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Garden Visitor Center across from the Manago Hotel in Captain Cook. Volunteers will be able to help with garden maintenance and are invited to bring a brown bag lunch. Water and snacks provided. Call Peter at 323-3318 for more information.

Farmer Direct Markets

Wednesday: “Sunset Farmers Market” 2-6 p.m. in the HPM parking lot at 74-5511 Luhia Street in Kailua-Kona (across from Target)

Wednesday &Friday: “Hooulu Farmers Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Sheraton Kona Resort &Spa at Keauhou Bay

Friday: “Pure Kona Market” 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

Saturday: “Keauhou Farmers Market” 8 a.m. to noon at Keauhou Shopping Center

“Kamuela Farmer’s Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at Pukalani Stables

“Waimea Town Market” from 7:30 a.m. to noon in front of Parker School

“Waimea Homestead Market” from 7 a.m. to noon at the Waimea Middle and

Elementary School Playground

Sunday: “Pure Kona Green Market” 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Amy Greenwell Garden in Captain Cook

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Plant Advice Lines Anytime: konamg@ctahr.hawaii.edu Tuesdays &Thursdays: 9 a.m. to noon at UH-CES in Kainaliu – 322-4892

Mon., Tues. &Fri: 9 a.m. to noon at UH CES at Komohana in Hilo 981-5199 or himga@hawaii.edu