Once more to the vineyard

When we last saw our hero, he was rhapsodizing about the romance of the vineyard, trumpeting some tripe about “raven-haired women” and “wine by the jug.” We return to find his high spirits somewhat diminished by the reality of grubbing out goutweed, periwinkle, Japanese knotweed and pine roots the size of a sumo wrestler’s femur in order to create a plot for his beloved vines. He’s tired, sweaty and afflicted with a mild case of poison ivy, which has left his arms and ankles peppered with blisters. Not exactly a Continental look.

What frail things my grapevines seem! They arrived two weeks ago in a long, coffin-shaped cardboard box. The delivery person graciously propped the box inside my apartment’s storm door, where the vines spent the better part of a sunny afternoon roasting alive. Once home from work, I hustled the box inside, removed the original packing material, and wrapped the plants’ roots in a cool, damp towel. They were bare root plants, plucked from some deep Midwestern soil, and no doubt miffed about the change of venue. I knew that it would be awhile before I could plant them, so as soon as I got the chance, I filled a bucket with a mixture of topsoil and compost and set the vines in it, easing them into a sort of floral holding pattern.

My original location for the vineyard didn’t work out, but other friends offered me a section of their back yard in south Asheville. The bed is located on a slope in a sunny clearing, facing roughly southwest, with about 6 inches of dark, loamy, woodland soil over a strong, red clay.

The bed is 30 feet long and 4 feet wide, which should provide plenty of room for three vines at 8-foot spacing. I used a spading fork to dig the bed, loosening the soil to about 18 inches (not quite deep enough to feel the heat of the Earth’s core, but close.) Grapevines are surpassingly deep-rooted plants, and all the guidelines I’ve read favor deep cultivation.

While I was in digging mode, I mixed about 30 pounds of lime into the bed to help buffer the soil’s acidity. I gave each vine a handful of bone meal, believing that the phosphorus might help the roots get off to a good start. It was probably unnecessary, but I’m given to coddling plants. Most soils contain sufficient potassium for grapevines, so no need to add that, and supplemental nitrogen is a definite no-no. Nitrogen spurs weak, leggy top growth at the expense of root growth, and with young grapevines, the priority is to get their roots plunging China-ward into the soil, scavenging away.

There is a popular maxim in wine circles that vines must suffer in order to produce the finest wine. The French have an expression for this: Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? Or is it Apres moi, le deluge? I’m always forgetting. By this measure, nothing says fine wine like those knobby, head-pruned zinfandel vines that grow out West. My vines have years to develop such a storied look. For now, I just want them to be happy and to feel at home. They’ve been through a lot.

Later this summer, once their leaves are mature, I plan on sowing a cover crop of buckwheat beneath the vines. I’m loath to leave soil bare (especially on a slope), but laying a permanent cover crop or sod beneath grapevines is a bad idea, because the undergrowth can harbor pests and diseases in the off-season, and sod absorbs solar energy, inhibiting ripening and sugar production in grapes. Buckwheat will be a nice trade-off, at least for this first year — it grows quickly and will afford some protection from erosion, and I can cut it down easily before it goes to seed. Buckwheat also has a reputation for attracting beneficial insects, which is always a good thing.

My miniyard is visible from my friends’ back deck, and already they’re imagining evenings spent dining alfresco while I toil in the vineyard, sweaty and stripped to the waist. Their excitement is understandable, but they’re forgetting that I’m skinny and sort of waxen — hardly Walk in the Clouds material. But I digress…

My next chore will be to trim each vine back to three buds. As the shoots grow out, this will result in three leaders — a good place to start training them to a trellis. I’ll save the trimmings, dip them in rooting hormone, and try to get them to put out roots. Dr. Norton may be rolling in his grave, but his hybrid is not patent-protected (to my knowledge), so it shouldn’t be an issue to propagate clones through cuttings.

Vitis aestivalis (the species to which Norton’s hybrids belong) and Vitis rotundifolia (the Southern tribe that includes muscadine grapes and the bronze-fruited scuppernong) are best propagated from green or softwood cuttings — in other words, growing stems rather than dormant ones. Cuttings should be 4-6 inches long with two or three leaves on them. Spring is the ideal time to take softwood cuttings, because plants are growing with singular vigor (much like the length of this column). If cuttings are taken later in the season, mature leaves should be trimmed back to reduce moisture loss from the stems. But now, when the leaves are still petite, they can be left alone.

I will use Rootone for the job because it’s cheap, though there are rumored to be better rooting compounds out there — check with your local nursery or horticultural supplier. I’ll place the cuttings in a one-gallon pot in a 3-1 mixture of moist — not wet — perlite and coir (shredded coconut fiber). I plan to insert an arch of wire in the pot and to cover the works with a clear plastic bag. I’ll place the pot in indirect sunlight and within a month or so, the cuttings should begin putting out roots. Behold the miracle of life! Next year, it looks like my vineyard operation will be expanding. Anyone have a spare corner of back yard to lend me? Hello? Hello?

Next: Dude, where’s my trellis?


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