The Pros and Cons of an Early Spring

Rain clouds hover over the vineyard.
Rain clouds hover over the vineyard.

An epic battle is being waged in the skies over the farm.  And for a brief moment, it appeared as though the Sun might win. It happened at about 3:07 Thursday afternoon.  The sideways rain shut off, the wind stopped blowing, the grey clouds gave way, and the whole farm seemed to radiated with sunshine and warmth.

Sunlight shining through the blossoms.
Sunlight reflecting off the forsythia blossoms.

Of course, it didn’t last.  But while Winter and Spring duke it out in the sky, the ground battle here on the farm is being won decisively by Spring.  The most spectacular sign of victory thus far is the bright, yellow forsythia which sits just outside our front door between the house and the vineyard.  It started flowering during the final days of February.  And just today, I noticed one of our camellia bushes is in bloom.  This is only my fourth Spring on the farm, but things sure seem to be blooming early this year.

A perfect camellia blossom, as alarming as it is beautiful.
A perfect camellia blossom.

All of these early blooms mean that bud break in the vineyard can’t be far behind.   We usually see bud break during the first week or two of April in Elkton.   But this year, we might see the first green shoots in our vineyard as early as March 15th!  This is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking because the potential for our 2014 harvest, and by extension our wine, is contained completely within those buds.

Each little white bump on the vine is a bud that will grow into a shoot.
Each little white bump on the vine is a bud that contains three potential shoots.

As hard as this may be to believe, each of the little buds on a grapevine is really made up of three buds. And each of those contains not one, but three tiny, compressed green shoots complete with all the cells needed to form leaves, tendrils and grapes.  Only the primary shoot will push out at bud break.  The other two buds are back ups, in case the first shoot is damaged by frost or other extreme conditions.

Blue checks a vine for wolly buds.
Blue checks a vine for wolly buds.

Right now, our buds are still dormant.  But we are starting to see early signs of swelling, which means the primary shoots are getting ready to pop.  Eventually, the buds will become so swollen from the pressure of the shoots pushing outward, the white fibers that form their outer shell will start to fray and the buds will look fuzzy.  We call those wolly buds. Once we see those, we know bud break is next.  And the warmer the weather, the quicker it will come.

Frostbitten vines on the morning of May 1st, 2013.  The shoots grow from the tip, so if it's damaged, the whole shoot eventually dies.
Frostbitten vines on the morning of May 1st, 2013. The shoots grow from the tip, so if it’s damaged, the whole shoot eventually dies.

If our hunch is right, and our buds open early this year, it could make for a tense couple of months. We are at risk of frost in our vineyard until early May.   If the temperature drops below about 28 degrees, any green shoots on the vines will die.  The vines themselves will survive thanks to the back up buds and their shoots.  But the back up shoots are not as fruitful as the primary shoots and could produce less fruit, fruit of poor quality, or no fruit at all.  So an early bud break followed by a late spring frost could have a devastating impact on the size and quality of this year’s harvest.

I won’t lie.  In the battle between Winter and Spring, I am rooting for Spring.  But it might be better for the vineyard and our wine if I endure a few more weeks of cold, winter rain.

Evidence of the battle between winter rain and spring sun; the blooming forsythia is reflected in a raindrop on one of its blossoms.
Evidence of the battle between winter rain and spring sun; the blooming forsythia is reflected in a raindrop on one of its blossoms. (Click the picture to make it big. You’ll see it).

 

 

 

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