Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

June 4, 2004

The True Vine

Before I left Uganda to come to the USA for my furlough, I was working hard in my garden. One of the crops I have planted in it is vanilla. Vanilla takes about 2 years to begin producing its flavorful beans, and as I have learned, it is a very labor intensive 2 years! After a year and a half, some of my vines looked quite good, others looked rather sick, and I didn't know why. But one day the chairman of our vanilla growers' association, an agriculturist, stopped by, spent a couple of hours with me in my garden, showing me what I needed to do to improve my crop.

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family. It originally grew in the tropical rainforests and was cultivated in India, so famous for its spices. In order to grow vanilla, each vine is planted next to a tree start, which has been planted for this purpose. They will grow together in a symbiotic relationship, the tree forming both support and shade for the vine.

As the vine grows up the tree, it grows more offset pairs of rather fleshy, dark green leaves, at regular intervals, which sprout an air root between each of them. These roots curl around the tree trunk like little white snap-on wires. Meantime, the vine roots are spreading out laterally away from the tree, barely under the ground. So no cultivation of the soil can be done without harming the vines; even chickens scratching the ground can destroy the delicate roots.

The vine is allowed to grow as high as a gardener can comfortably reach, in my case, maybe 6 feet high. It is then allowed to drape between the fork of a branch and begins to grow back towards the ground. When it gets long enough to both reach the ground and travel about 3 feet across the ground, back to the base of the tree, it forms a rough triangle with the tree. The 3 feet of vine across the ground is actually de-leafed, leaving only the rootlets, and is planted just under the ground, to develop an additional root system for the vine. Then the growing end is then tied in a manner to begin climbing back up the trunk.

After this 2nd growing vine again reaches about 6 feet high, this process is repeated from a different forked branch, forming yet another triangle of vine, but in a different direction. Eventually, a number of such triangles encircle the supportive, growing tree, and the vines begin to bloom. The bean pods begin to grow inside the triangles formed by the vines and tree. Nine months after the blooming, the harvesting begins.

This is only part of the story. Because of the delicate nature of the vanilla roots, and their shallowness in the soil, the hot tropical sun takes a big toll on them. This is why some of my vines were looking sick. Some serious mulching is needed to keep the sun off and the moisture in around them. As I was working in my vines, I would first put a layer of dry cow manure over the roots to fertilize the plants. Over that would go a thick layer of mulch, which I gathered up from under the trees and other plants in the garden. On top of the mulch would go halved banana tree trunks (the trees themselves are cut down to harvest the bananas, so the water-filled trunks, which make me think of celery, are left to mulch the garden). On top of that goes a thick layer of dry grass that has been cut for this purpose. This protective covering is also put where the growing vines have been replanted to make the triangles, as those lengths of vine then become supportive roots. I could do about 5 of these vines in the morning before the sun got too high in the sky and the temperature soared to 95 degrees or so.

Now if this is not enough, the blooms, when they come, must be hand pollinated! My vines should bloom in September, so I've not seen vanilla blooms yet, and I'd hoped they would be large flowers. I've been told they are not and a safety pin is used to open part of each stamen

Why do I want to grow vanilla??? Well, it happened largely due to my ignorance! When I was on furlough last time, I told my gardener that whatever money the garden generated in my absence, to reinvest it into the garden. He planted vanilla for me! It's a cash crop and he said I'd start getting back some of the money I'd invested the past few years into my garden. I said ok, and that was that. Little did I know how labor intensive it would be! But to I found that I really loved working in my vanilla patch! Even though my back would be aching and sweat pouring off of me by the time I'd quit each day, I found I loved what I was learning about my vines, and the work was exhilarating. My body has adapted to the tropical heat, so the sun did not bother me, nor did I get dehydrated as I used to. I was disappointed to have to leave my job unfinished and in the care of others while I left to come to the USA.

Living in Africa has provided me with many literal observations of Bible stories; little has changed here in farming since biblical times, so I get to observe many things that before were only stories I could try to picture in my mind. The one of course that my vanilla experience has been demonstrating so aptly to me is in John 15, the story of the vine and the branches. It tells us that God is the Gardener, Jesus is the true Vine, and that we are the branches. Branches cannot live apart from the vine, and they must be tended by the gardener in order to bear the fruit they were intended to bear. If they don't, they must be pruned. If a branch is broken off, it withers and dies; it must be attached to the vine in order to live and bear fruit.

As I have tended my vanilla, I have grown to love it and care for it. I want it to be healthy and to produce its beans. At times I've had to prune off branches that will not produce; they only sap the strength of the rest of the plant. At times I've had to correct the direction of the growth; it had grown too high for me to reach when it produces the beans that I must pick. Or it had caught itself on a nearby tree and begun to grow away from its supporting tree. If the triangles are not formed, the vine will not produce. I put fertilizer on the roots to make the vines grow stronger and bigger, to produce better beans.

So our Father God, our Gardener, is with us. As we, the branches, get our nourishment from our Vine, Jesus, we grow, but sometimes we need to be pruned. We may be growing the wrong way, or sapping the strength of others. Life's trials, allowed by God, fertilize and prune us, making us more fruitful. As we remain connected to our Vine, by our love for Jesus, He says His joy will be in us, and our joy will be complete. He has appointed us to bear fruit that is the job of a vine.

I have often been amazed at the different directions God has led me into since living in Uganda. First it was training village health care workers. I've taught women's health classes, in schools, and at conferences. I work with 2 indigenous orphan projects, teach a Bible institute in several villages, have been involved in a water well drilling project. I work with a developing emergency first aid and rescue organization, and I led a medical team from the USA last summer.

So it's like the vanilla vine making its triangles in all the various directions around its supportive tree. Jesus is our true Vine who supports us and gives us life, and as we live and grow in Him, He moves us out in various directions where we may bear different clusters of fruit.

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Margaret Nelson