Young grape plants are very unprepossessing. First of all, when you order them shipped to you, you really don’t want to pay to have all that dirt trucked around, so they usually come bare root and dormant. They look just like dead sticks with some wiggly stringy things coming out one end. You look at them and wonder how anything that looks so dead could grow a vine. Then you look closer and see the leaf bud slightly swelling against the dry red bark and think, “Well, maybe it could grow.”
So, you unwrap them from their paper and shake off the excelsior and plunge the root ends into a bucket of warm water to rehydrate them. Then you look at the yard, which has been receiving rain all spring. It has been an unusually wet spring, and the back yard resembles nothing so much as a clay mud pit You head out to the vineyard, and walk around the corner of the fence to see the clay mud pit without benefit of grass (oops I mean vineyard) extending out in front of you.
What you see before you is a sort of ocean view. There are waves washing upon the shore of grass you stand on, waves that consist of crests of wet, rocky earth alternating with troughs of mud puddles studded with more rocks. They look very wet, the troughs do, and very uneven. That’s only because they are. You know that the puddles are also lined with slippery particles of clay that have fallen out of the water once it settled into the troughs after having washed the stones studding the crest of the rows. You go back in the house and put on your rubber work boots.
At the same time you plant each little vine, it is a good idea to put in the cedar stakes that will give the young grapes something to climb up. You create each stake painstakingly by ripping 7 foot long 1×4 cedar planks vertically and then using the chop saw to put a point on the resulting stakes. The cedar is available up at a Mennonite saw mill operation for a mere song.
You also use grow tubes, designed to filter the light the vines are receiving. Research, you have read, indicates that this stimulates upward growth while inhibiting side shoot growth. The tubes also act as wind breaks for the tender young shoots. Considering the raw cold spring winds playing about you as you dig holes in the mud, you know this is a good idea.
The tubes are very cleverly designed so that they require almost no space to ship. They consist of two parts: light strong, flexible blue plastic sleeves and an equal number of sheets of stiffer plastic. You roll up the sheet of stiff plastic and insert it in the sleeve. When you let go of the roll, it expands itself inside the sleeve and you have an instant blue pipe, very light, about 3 feet tall and 4 Inches in diameter.
It has been an unusually rainy spring. You know that there is risk involved in planting your vines in such wet weather. The roots could rot and the vines drown. But at least you won’t have to water for a while, and you know that the subsoil is wet as well as the newly established rows. So you pray and plant.
Can I change point of view here? This you stuff is getting hard to maintain.
We planted the grapes on a raw day, but the sun kept peeking through the clouds, promising that warmer spring weather was coming, and the risk of frost was past. There were only 64 little grape starts, 16 each of four varieties. Whie I dug each hole, laboriously piling rocky clods of mud by each one, Jim would prune the shoot carefully, taking off any broken roots, and leaving 3 eyes to sprout. Once they were properly pruned, we put the dormant grape shoots in the holes, and packed the dirt around them carefully, rocks and all, leaving a well when filling the holes. Ironically, considering the mud hole we were working in, we then watered them in, because it was important not to leave air pockets around the roots; we wanted good soil to root contact. It promotes the development of hair roots and helps keep rot and mold from growing on them.
After each vine was planted, we went along the rows and put in the cedar stakes. We wanted them to be vertical, but alas, this standard was not always achieved. You would not believe how many rocks were in the dirt. But the books all said that grapes loved challenging soil and rocky conditions, and we were following directions. Several of the stakes broke when we were hammering them in and their points encountered rocks. And some ended up not being as close to the grape vines as we had hoped, or bending off at some erratic angle. Once each vine had a stake, we slid the blue tubes over the vine ends extending out of the ground. Each tube was tied to the cedar stake behind it top and bottom, or with the next gust of wind we would have had blue tubes scattered from our place all over the neighborhood.
After we got all that work done, we stood back, looking at all the ROCKS that were piled all over the vineyard. The spaces between the rows desperately needed leveling, and we needed to plant something there to inhibit weeds. It was really something. There were hundreds of rocks, and we looked at them in despair. Then I flashed on a section in “From Vines to Wines” and said “Didn’t he say something about grapes liking a rock mulch?”
We ran in the house, not forgetting to take off our mud encrusted boots before we left the utility room, and consulted the book. Yep, beautiful pictures of rock mulch etc and so we decided to pile all the rocks lying in between the rows on the mounded up dirt that made each row. That took a couple of weekends, I can tell you. And we didn’t get all the rock mulch in place before there were some weeds to pull before you could place it. But that’s okay.
We also decided to plant creeping thyme in the spaces between the rows. It was a recommended companion plants for grapes and we had noticed previously that when it was happy in our gardens it seemed to inhibit the growth of crab grass and other weeds. I figured thyme probably used chemical warfare, like the black walnuts do.
The grapes started to grow. Shortly after we got the new vineyard planted, we were treated to the spectacle of the City Planning and Zoning Department parked on the street next to our lot, trying to figure out why we had put all those blue pipes into our land, wondering if it was a legal activity, finding out who authorized all that excavation, etc. The guy sat there for almost half an hour, parked on the wrong side of the street, conversing earnestly on his cell phone.
A couple of days later, one of the city cops dropped by to admire our new vineyard. Turns out he has the hobby of growing grapes too, and was totally fascinated and awed by the grow tubes. By that time, you could look down in them and see little tufts of grape leaves emerging from the bottom of the baby vines. Very cool. Getting that view involved some danger to shoes however; there was still plenty of mud out there.
Later on, after the thyme had been planted, we bought and installed an irrigation system for the little vines. It had already become onerous to stand there and water all 64 of them individually. We also ran a sprinker tape to encourage the thyme seeds to sprout and grow. They were so tiny and fine we couldn’t find them, and the water made the weeds so happy, we stopped that after a while. I started wondering if I had really planted thyme seeds, pondering the possibility that the seed company had really supplied me with purslane and ragweed seed by mistake.
Then one day in late September, after the grape leaves had started to turn colors and fall, Jim came in from a brisk session of weed eating, and said, “I think the thyme is alive. I was removing the weeds from the vineyard and started smelling thyme, so I decided to stop scalping it.” He led me out to the vineyard, and there were little tiny thyme plants, all over the place. They had used the purslane plants like a living mulch all during the hot months of July and August, growing secretly in their shade. I rocked back on my heels, where I had squatted to smell the tiny thyme plants. All about me, were young grape vines, branches twined about cedar posts, dancing in the autumn breezes.
And that is how we planted our vineyard.