How It All Began; Our First Planting

Our first five acres in early April, 2011, all tilled up and ready for planting. I did a little photo editing on this picture and turned it into the label for our Hundredth Valley Pinot Noir.
Our first five acres in early April, 2011, all tilled up and ready for planting. I gave this picture an antique look with photo editing and turned it into the label for our Hundredth Valley Pinot Noir.

I am feeling a bit reflective again today, because it was three years ago this week that our farm became a vineyard.  We started planting our first vines on April 8th 2011 and finished on April 18th. 5,445 vines went into the ground that spring, followed by another 8,469 in 2012. Yep, we got a bit more ambitious with our second planting! By then, I guess we figured we knew what we were doing.

The delivery truck containing our vines backed up to the hay barn for unloading.
March 9th, 2011; The delivery truck containing our vines backed up to the hay barn for unloading.

That was not the case three years ago, when our vines arrived in early March. Until the day they were delivered, I had no clear picture in my mind of what they would look like.  Both Bob and I were taking viticulture classes online, and so I was familiar with the concept of a grafted vine.  But until I saw one, I didn’t get it.

Bob carrying a tray of 25 vines. That's George, our resident cattle rancher, taking the next tray off of the truck.
Bob carrying a tray of 25 vines. That’s George, our resident cattle rancher, taking the next tray off of the truck.

I got my first look at a grafted vine when the back of the delivery truck opened up, and out came the trays of vines. With 25 vines per tray, we had over 200 trays to unload.  As they kept coming and coming, I started to get a sense of what we had gotten ourselves into.

A close up look at the dormant vines.  The bulge near the top is the graft point between the French wine grape on top and the American root stock below.
A close up look at the dormant vines. The bulge near the top is the graft point between the French wine grape on top and the American root stock below.

To start with, the vines were dormant, so they were nothing more than brittle little sticks about four inches tall.  It was easier than I thought it would be to spot the graft point on each vine, where the French wine grape-vine is grafted to an American rootstock, which is more resistant to disease. Looking closely at the vines, I could see that some of the grafts still had greenhouse tape around them! I was worried the whole time we’d snap a graft.

Unloading the vines was a slow and careful process.
Unloading the vines was a slow and careful process.

We also had to be very careful so that we didn’t damage the dormant buds on all those little vines.  If we let two vines in a tray rub against each other while we carried them, or if we were careless when we set one tray down next to another, we could knock the buds off of the vines.  And as you know by now if you follow the blog, no buds, no green shoots.

Our future vineyard, 5,445 little vines.
Bob looking a little overwhelmed as he takes in all 5,445 vines.

Once the vines were safely in the barn, our mission was to keep them cool, moist and in the dark to discourage bud break until we were ready to plant, which we were not.  It was only early March, so it was really too early to plant them anyways. But we still had a lot of work to do.

Bob in the field installing the trellis posts.
Bob in the field installing the trellis posts.

Our deer fencing was in place, but we had more than 1,000 trellis posts left to install.  It is possible to install the trellis after planting, but it’s hard to operate heavy equipment in a planted vineyard and you could end up damaging the vines. Bob headed up the trellis crew, which used a Bobcat and a pile driver to pound all those posts into the ground.

Brent helped us out a lot during our first year on the farm, which was his senior year of high school.
Brent helped us out a lot during our first year on the farm, which was his senior year of high school.

At the Bobcat controls was Brent, a local cowboy who at the time was also the quarterback of Elkton High’s football team. (He has since graduated and is studying ranch management, but we still see him from time to time).

The black straws mark the spots where vines will go
The black straws mark the spots where vines will go

While Bob was working on the trellis infrastructure, Nathan, who we had just met, was shooting a straw into the ground every five feet in the spaces between the trellis posts.  Vine spacing is critical to a successful vineyard, and the straws marked the spot where each vine was to be planted. (This was an effective but time-consuming method of vine spacing.  For our planting in 2012, we spray painted some long metal pipes with the proper spacing and used those to position the vines as we planted them).

Trenching for the irrigation system. You can see the deer fencing that goes around the vineyard to the right.
Trenching for the irrigation system. You can see the deer fencing that goes around the vineyard to the right.

While all that was going on, we also had a crew installing the water mains for the irrigation system around the perimeter of the vineyard.  This involved a lot of deep trenching. If you look closely at the above picture, you’ll see one of the crew members is standing in the trench, which is about shoulder deep on him.

April 3rd, 2011, we have bud break in the hay barn.
April 3rd, 2011, we have bud break in the hay barn.

And on April 3rd, we were out of time!  Despite being kept in the dark, our little vines started opening their buds.  We had wanted to get them into the ground before bud break so as not to risk damaging the delicate green shoots during planting. But as you can see below, the vineyard was not yet ready.

The vineyard on April 3rd, clearly we are not yet ready for planting.
The vineyard on April 3rd, clearly we are not yet ready for planting.

So while Bob and the crew finished the trellis work, I went up to the hay barn everyday and shuffled the trays of vines around to make sure all the open leaves had some exposure to sunlight.  Now that they were awake, they needed new energy to survive. Then, I’d close them back up in the barn overnight to keep them warm. On one very cold night, we worried the roots might freeze because they were not yet planted in the relatively warmer ground. So Bob had the idea to snake some heated hoses around the trays and run water through them to create a makeshift radiant heating system.

The morning of our first planting, April 8th, 2011.
The morning of our first planting, April 8th, 2011.

On the morning of April 8th, we were finally ready to go! All of the trellis posts, irrigation and straws were in place, and we had laid out a green plastic grow tube and a steel pencil rod for each vine. The grow tubes go around the vines after they are planted to shelter them during their first weeks in the ground, sort of like a private little green house for each vine.  The pencil rods are used after the tubes come off, to tie up the vines as they grow to keep them straight.

Nathan using a post hold digger to dig  holes for the vines.
Nathan using a post hold digger to dig holes for the vines.

We had about 8-10 people on our planting crew, depending upon the day. Nathan was there, as well as George and Brent. And on any given day, a rotating cast of local “kids” pitched in as well. Our biggest challenge as first time planters was digging the holes.  I feel silly saying it now, but it took us about four days to figure out how to do it. We started out using a post hole digger, but that takes a lot of strength and effort.  By the end of the first day, even the “young guns” said no more of that.

Plan B; The Hand Shovel.
Plan B; The Hand Shovel.

So Bob ran to the hardware store, and the next day we had a bunch of these hand shovels.  But those, too, were a lot of work.  Too many people saying “ug” and holding their backs.

Now we're talking! Gas powered augers!
Now we’re talking! Gas powered augers!

So on the third day, Bob got serious and brought out the gas-powered augers! And boy, did those dig holes easy and fast. The trouble was, though, that the friction of the auger left the bottom of the hole hard packed and glazed over.  We started to worry  the roots wouldn’t be able to break through the glaze and would grow sideways or upwards instead of downward. Roots that grow upwards can end up strangling the vine.  So as much as we loved them, the augers had to go.

The obvious solution, the hand trowel.
The obvious solution, the hand trowel.

So finally, we settled on what might seem like the obvious solution,  the hand trowel.  It doesn’t take too much strength to dig a hole with a trowel, and you can use the tip to loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole to give the roots a little head start. If you ever need to plant a small plant, or 5,000 small plants, this is the way to go. Learn from our experience and don’t over think it.  It’s just a hole.

Nathan, The Grape Cowboy, planting a vine
Nathan, The Grape Cowboy, planting a vine.

And so it went, days on our hands and knees digging holes and putting vines in the ground, one after the other, until all 5,445 vines were planted. It took us six planting days spread out over eleven days due to rain delays to finish the job.

Bob demonstrates how to thread the pencil rod through the slits in the grow tube.
Bob demonstrates how to thread the pencil rod through the slits in the grow tube.

We figured out that things went more quickly if we used a division of labor.  I was kept busy getting trays of vines out of the barn and laying them out within the rows. Then we had two people who placed a vine by each straw. The planters (who had the best job) dug the holes and put the vines in the ground. Then the clean up crew followed behind and threaded the pencil rods through the slits in the grow tubes and placed the tubes around the vines. Everyone pitched in to pick up the trays and vine pots at the end of each day.

Grow Tubes around the planted vines.
Grow Tubes around the planted vines.

Looking back on it three years later, there are two things that have stayed with me about planting vineyards. The first is that you will feel your hamstrings! No matter what job you are doing, you will knee down and stand up literally hundreds of times over the course of planting day.  On the first day or two, my legs were screaming in pain. But by the end of it, I thought wow, I’m in pretty good shape. It’s the best workout you will ever get.

DSC_0143_3_2
It’s work, but not. What better way to spend the day.

The other thing I can tell you is that there is nothing you will ever do that is quite as relaxing and satisfying and just plain wonderful as planting. True, we had our struggles. You are exhausted at the end of the day. And there is a lot on the line. But nothing beats digging around in the soil under the warm sun and the blue sky, listening to music while lost in casual conversation or in the zen of the row in front of you. Planting is a time when all things are possible. It is a new beginning. But also the payoff for all the hard work you’ve invested to get there. If you ever have the opportunity to help plant a vineyard, do it. Whether it’s your vineyard or someone else’s, you will always count yourself lucky to have been there and helped when it all began.

A peek inside the tube. You can see the little vine inside. The tubes are four feet tall. They are removed when the vine grows out of the top.
A peek inside the tube. You can see the little vine inside. The tubes are four feet tall. They are removed when the vine grows out of the top.

At the risk of being a bit too sentimental, I will close with a little poem-prayer I made up and said to each vine as I planted it.  It goes like this;

Little Vine

Please Be Fine

So We May Have

Some Very Fine Wine

Looking out over the vineyard after our second planting of eight additional acres in 2013.
Looking out over the vineyard after our second planting of eight additional acres in 2013.

I can think of little else in life that has inspired me to write a poem.

Our Hundredth Valley wine label, made from the first photograph in this post of the yet-to-be-planted vineyard.
Our Hundredth Valley wine label, made from the first photograph in this post of the yet-to-be-planted vineyard.

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