Category Archives: Frost Control

Concrete and Suckers and Stairs, Oh My!

The soon-to-be Wine Sipping Porch getting its first batch of concrete.
The soon-to-be Wine Sipping Porch.

I apologize for the extended radio silence of late. For a while there, there wasn’t much going on (translation, it wouldn’t stop raining) and so there wasn’t much to blog about.  And then, all of a sudden, everything was happening all at once (translation, it finally stopped raining) and I didn’t have time to write. A sorry excuse, I know. But it’s hard to sit inside in front of the computer when you’re seeing the sun for the first time since Christmas.

The Frost Curtain billowing outside of the vineyard fence in a warm breeze.
The Frost Curtain billowing outside of the vineyard fence in a warm breeze. With the frost worries behind us, it has since been taken down.

Hopefully you will find this blog post was worth the wait because I have three huge updates to report.  First, there is now a staircase to the top of The Tower. Also, the concrete work is underway on the new Wine Sipping Porch. And, perhaps best of all, the vineyard has made it through the spring frost season without any damage to the new green shoots!

Bob on the landing between the first and second flight of stairs.
Bob on the second flight of stairs.

I’ll start with everyone’s favorite subject, The Tower. Bob has engineered a three-flight staircase to the top that actually is a pretty easy climb (as long as you don’t look down too much).  The first flight begins in the cow pasture behind the Donkey Barn and goes up about a dozen steps to the bottom of the corrugated steel on the barn roof.  The second flight takes a sharp turn to the left and scrambles up the steel roof to its peak. And the third flight takes a sharp turn back to the right and goes all the way to the top of the silo. You can see all three flights, as they appears from the ground up, in the title photo of this post.

Nick takes in the view from the landing between the second and third flight of stairs.
Nick takes in the view from the landing between the second and third flight of stairs.

There are no railings on the stairs just yet, so it’s still a scary climb to the top. The first two flights aren’t bad, but on the third one, I kind of had to crawl up them on my hands and knees rather than walk. As you can see from the picture of Nick on the landing, it’s way up there!

The completed Observation Deck/Sound Tower.  The speakers are powerful enough to fill the entire vineyard with music.
The completed Observation Deck/Sound Tower. The speakers are powerful enough to fill the entire vineyard with music.

Once at the top of the stairs, it’s an easy hop onto the Observation Deck. The concrete work is complete so there is a nice flat surface to stand on, and as you can see, Bob moved a couple of P.A. speakers up there to turn the silo into a Sound Tower.  On this particular day, it was blasting Pearl Jam loud enough for the crew working in the vineyard to hear it. They had asked Bob to borrow a Boom Box.  Bob put this together instead. (As I sit here typing, I can hear Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Voodoo Child rockin’ the farm from the top of The Tower. I think Stevie, and Jimi, would approve).

Spin Master Bob Rockin' The Vineyard from atop his tower.
Spin Master Bob Rockin’ The Vineyard from atop his tower.
Oh, you want to go back down? Better watch your step.
Oh, you want to go back down? Better watch your step.

Since I don’t recommend sipping wine on top of The Tower, I am glad to report that Bob and the crew are also making good progress on The Wine Sipping Porch.  Bob dug up the old porch and most of the front lawn with it back in February. Then, it started raining and the whole yard turned into a sea of mud.  As much fun as that’s been, it’s nice to finally get some concrete in front of the house!

Bob digging up the front porch in February, thereby guaranteeing three months of endless rain.
Bob digging up the front porch in February, thereby guaranteeing three months of endless rain.

They’re pouring the new porch in sections, and so far, five of the ten sections are in (told you we’ve been busy).  To get the concrete to the porch area, Bob made a chute out of a piece of plastic sewer pipe and then he welded a disc onto the end of a steel pipe to make a ram rod to ram the concrete down the chute.

Blue supervises the concrete crew, George on the shovel, Bob on the ran rod, and Nick is operating the mixer attached to the Bobcat.
Blue supervises the concrete crew, George on the shovel, Bob on the ram rod, and Nick is operating the mixer attached to the Bobcat.

Bob invented another tool to smooth the wet concrete after it’s poured. And for lack of better words to describe it, it’s a giant vibrator. He took a skill saw minus the blade and mounted it to a board. When he turns on the saw, the motor on it that would ordinarily turn the saw blade vibrates, and the vibrations move through the board to smooth out the concrete.

Another of Bob's inventions. The saw motor mounted to the board causes it to vibrate, and the vibrations smooth the concrete.
Another of Bob’s inventions. The saw motor mounted to the board causes it to vibrate, and the vibrations smooth the concrete.

You can see the effect of the tool in the photo below. Behind the board is the concrete that has already been smoothed and in front of the board is what the concrete looks like before the vibrating board travels over it. Bob and Nick guide the board as it vibrates and it takes a couple of passes to get everything smoothed out.

The smooth concrete is behind the board and the lumpy aggregate is in front.
The smooth concrete is behind the board and the lumpy aggregate is in front.

If this were an ordinary porch, that would be it, just smooth out the concrete and let it dry. But this isn’t an ordinary porch. It’s a Wine Sipping Porch. So to make it a little bit special, Bob is tinting the concrete and stamping it with texture.

Bob's shadow as he sprinkles the tint powder onto the concrete.
Bob’s shadow as he sprinkles the tint powder onto the concrete.

The tint is created by sprinkling colored powders over the wet concrete.  The first powder is sort of buff-yellow-orange in color, and the other is more of a buff-orangy-orange.  Together, when dry, they look a little like the red clay of our soil accented with sandstone.

Bob and Nick center the stamp in an area of concrete.
Bob and Nick center the stamp in an area of concrete.

After the powder is on, the texture is added with a giant rubber stamp that imprints the concrete with the texture of natural stone slate.

Nick hurries to tamp down the stamp with a heavy weight while Bob and George cover the new pour with plastic. Because, of course, it is starting to rain.
Nick hurries to tamp down the stamp with a heavy weight while Bob and George cover the new pour with plastic. Because, of course, it is starting to rain.
The stamp, after it has been peeled up from the concrete. You can sort of see the texture on the stamp. It's subtle, and is meant to make the concrete look like a slate floor.
The stamp, after it has been peeled up from the concrete. You can sort of see the texture on the stamp. It’s subtle, and is meant to make the concrete look like a slate floor.

I don’t have any good pictures yet of the result because all of the finished sections of concrete are being kept covered so they aren’t damaged by work on the remaining sections. But if our good weather holds, I should be able to post some pics of the finished concrete later this week. Better yet, we’ll be able to sit out there and sip a little wine!

Healthy vines reaching skyward in the vineyard. The shoot in the foreground is almost a foot long.
Healthy vines reaching skyward in the vineyard. The shoot in the foreground is almost a foot long.

Which brings us to the vineyard, where for the most part, the vines are thriving. Mother’s Day is, unofficially, the official end of the spring frost season in our part of Oregon, so we seem to have made it through with only one night of burning stumps.

Blue helping out in the vineyard to identify suckers on the vines that need to be removed.
Blue helping out in the vineyard by identifying suckers on the vines that need to be removed.

With the frost worries behind us, the frost curtain has come down from the vineyard fence and our attention is now turning to the suckers.  Suckers are unwanted shoots that grow low on the trunks of the vines. They’re called suckers because they’re not going to produce any usable fruit for us, so they’re just sucking energy away from the vine that could go towards producing and ripening grapes.

A member of the vineyard crew out suckering vines.
A member of the vineyard crew out suckering vines.

Suckering is easy, if you don’t mind bending over or crouching down all day long. All you need to do is snap the suckers off of the vines with your fingers. Anyone can do it. And the good news is, it goes on all summer long. Because no matter how well you sucker, more suckers grow back. So when people stop by and want to help out in the vineyard, we can always send them out to do some suckering. (Some people might feel like a sucker if sent out to sucker. But no need. Suckering can be a very Zen. There is no beginning and no end. You just keep on suckering).

Look Mom, no more suckers!
Look Mom, no more suckers!

Despite our stretch of warm weather, and even getting into the 80s for a few days, I am very sad to report that many of the vines in the low part of the vineyard are still without leaves. And at this stage of the growing season, we have to assume that any vine without leaves  is dead. I did a count the other day and came up with 227 dead vines and at least that many more that are struggling to get by with just a leaf or two.  I doubt very many of those vines will make it in the long run. So we could be looking at 500-600 dead vines, or about a half-acre total across the affected area.

A section of dead and dying vines, with just one leaf visible.
A section of dead and dying vines, with just one leaf the second row back.

This is a heartbreaking loss. We have invested so much time and love and care into those vines it hurts to lose even one of them. The most likely explanation for The Dead Zone (as I now call it) remains Winter Bud Kill during our week-long cold snap in December. There wasn’t much we could have done about it then, and very little we can do now, other than decide whether to abandon the ground or re-plant. We’re going to watch how the living vines develop and likely decide what to do when we see what we have left in this section of the vineyard next spring.

Waiting for the inflorescence, or little grape cluster, to flower.
Waiting for the inflorescence, or little grape cluster, to flower.

But, the good news is, the lost vines are just a fraction of the other 13,000 or so vines that are reaching evermore skyward to soak up the sun. We’re watching closely now for flowering. That’s when the inflorescence, or the little clusters on the shoots drop their caps to reveal tiny, white flowers.

Another look at the inflorescence with The Donkey Barn in the background.
Another look at the inflorescence with The Donkey Barn in the background.

Flowering is an important time in the vineyard. The flowers, once open, are self-pollinating. Once pollinated, each little flower will turn into a grape. And every 100 or so grapes, or every good-sized cluster, is a future glass of wine! (Sing with me; “One Hundred Clusters of Wine on the Vines, One Hundred Clusters of Wine….”)

A look at The Tower and its new staircase from across the vineyard.
A look at The Tower and its new staircase from across the vineyard.

So, that’s what’s been happening here on the farm for the past few weeks. Right now, the sun is shining, the music is playing, and I am sure there are plenty of new suckers to be suckered. So I’m going to quit blogging now and round up the dogs and head outside.

A current view of the vineyard from the top of The Tower.
A current view of the vineyard from the top of The Tower.

We should be in the mid 80s by Wednesday, so I plan a full week of horse washing and dog baths and I might even try to give Luigi and Jenny D. their summer haircuts. I’ll be sure to get pictures if I do because you haven’t really experienced life on the farm until you’ve tried to shave a miniature donkey.

Luigi, one overgrown donkey in need of a haircut.
Luigi, one overgrown donkey in need of a haircut.

Happy Mother’s Day everyone, and most especially to my Mom, Eileen, who became a Mom when she gave birth to me on Mother’s Day back in 19-something-and-something.  Thank you for bringing me into such a great life! I love you!

Dodger and Brutus are very pleased with the progress in the vineyard.
Dodger and Brutus are very pleased with the progress in the vineyard.

 

 

Victory (For Now)

A picture of the first bonfire of the season in the vineyard, taken by Bob with his cell phone.
A picture of the first bonfire of the season in the vineyard, taken by Bob with his cell phone early Friday morning.

While I was on the 5:30am flight out of Eugene, Oregon Friday morning, Bob and Nathan were in the vineyard stoking our first Frost Fire of the season. I had known when I left for the airport a few hours earlier that it was going to be a frosty morning and I hoped the guys would be ready to do battle and that all of our preparations would pay off.

The frost curtain going up while Nick (foreground) and Nathan (background) mow the vineyard. Sunny, clear days like this one are usually followed by a clear, cold night and the potential for frost.
The Frost curtain going up while Nick (foreground) and Nathan (background) mow the vineyard.

Thursday had been devoted to frost preps. Bob hung the plastic curtain on the deer fence along the upper perimeter of the vineyard while Nathan and Nick mowed down the grass within the fence, all thirteen acres of it. We cut the grass to maximize as much as possible the distance between any frost that would form on the ground and the green shoots on the vines. It’s a proven strategy for minimizing frost damage in vineyards.

DSC_0035
Bob hanging the frost curtain along the fence to create a barrier to hold warmer air within the vineyard.

The plastic curtain is an experiment, an idea Bob had to prevent the warmer air we circulate through the vines by burning fires and running a fan from escaping out of the vineyard. The vines in the ten or so rows along the fence are furthest from the fires and have suffered frost damage in past years, even on nights when we were up burning.

The Remains of The Burn: charred, smouldering stumps from the season's first fire.
The Remains of The Burn, charred, smouldering stumps from the season’s first fire.

I am very excited to report that based on the results Friday morning, the frost curtain appears to be working! Bob and Nathan started the stump fire and the fan at 4:30am, about the time I was going through security at the airport. The outside temperature was down to 34F and had been dropping by about one degree per hour throughout the night. By dawn, it was just 30F outside of the curtain. But on the other side of the curtain in the vineyard, the temperature never dipped below 32F. And in the warmer parts of the vineyard, closer to the fire and fan, the temperature held at 34F.

Happy vines within the protection of the frost curtain, where temps were two degrees warmer during the frost than on the other side of the curtain.
Happy vines within the protection of the frost curtain, where temps were two degrees warmer during the frost than on the other side of the curtain.

This is the first empirical evidence we have that our frost fighting strategies are making a difference! The fire and the fan are definitely warming the air not just in the immediate vicinity of the fire, but throughout the vineyard. And the frost curtain is holding that warmer air in the vineyard to protect the vines.

On this shoot, you can see the inflorescence, or flower pod, emerging from its tip.
On this shoot, you can see the inflorescence, or flower pod, emerging from its tip.

This is a tremendous relief as our vines continue to leaf out. If you look closely at the above photo, you will see a bumpy nub starting to emerge from the top of the shoot. That’s the inflorescence, or flower pod that will produce the grapes. In the coming weeks the inflorescence will swell, and then little white flowers will appear. When the flowers fall off, little green berries will grow in their place to create a grape cluster. So there it is already in the tip of that shoot, our 2014 harvest and wine. That is, unless we let it freeze.

Ground Fog rolling into the vineyard this morning.
Ground Fog rolling into the vineyard this morning.

Of course, the best protection against frost in the vineyard is fog. When an overnight fog rolls in, it forms an insulating blanket over the entire vineyard that slows the temperature drop from the daytime highs.  The past two mornings have been foggy and haven’t dropped below 34F, so no fires since Friday. But as I sit here now, the sun is out and there’s not a cloud in the sky. So we’ll be getting up throughout the night tonight to check the temperatures and look for fog.

We could warm up to 75F today, which means it could be a chilly night.
The Great Wall of Plastic as seen from the horse pasture. We could warm up to 75F today, which means it could be a chilly night.

Meantime, the dogs say it’s a beautiful day for a romp in the vineyard. And, I have horses to groom. But not until after this DET STL hockey game. If St. Louis loses, and it looks like they will, The Colorado Avalanche will finish the season as the top team in the Central Division! Woot!! (Little known fact, the five blocks of vines in the vineyard are named for the five former Avalanche players whose numbers have been retired. It was an idea we had while planting, as an homage to the team we had to leave behind in Denver).

Blue gnawing on a pruned cane with the frost curtain behind her.
Blue gnawing on a pruned cane with the frost curtain behind her.

 

 

Scary Morning!

Look what we awoke to this morning. Frost. In the vineyard!

This caught us completely off guard. Every forecast we look at, and there are many, predicted an overnight low of 40F. But at 7am, our vineyard thermometer said 31F. Yikes.

April 10th, 2014, daybreak over the frosty vineyard.
April 10th, 2014, daybreak over the frosty vineyard.

Nathan and I have toured the vineyard, and it looks like we dodged the bullet.  There was frost on the ground before daybreak, but none on the vines. This tells me it was below freezing ever so briefly in the darkest moments before dawn, and so wasn’t cold enough for long enough to hurt the vines. Whew. It was a very close call.

What's at stake, a leafed-out fine yesterday afternoon.
What’s at stake, our little green shoots as they appeared just yesterday.

We are in the same weather pattern through at least Tuesday, which means we could get early morning frost over the next several days.  Bob is heading out to unfurl the frost curtain along the vineyard fence and Nathan is going to mow the grass in the rows between the vines. The shorter the grass, the greater the distance between the frost on the ground and the leaves on our vines. It might not seem like much, but every inch counts when trying to buy a degree or two in the battle against frost.

The stump fire and fan in action last spring.
The stump fire and fan in action last spring.

The guys will be on standby overnight for the next several nights to deploy the fan and fires if it gets this cold again in the wee hours of the morning. I won’t be here to see what happens tonight/tomorrow because I have to leave for the airport at 3:30 tomorrow morning for a quick, overnight trip. But I will fill you in on what happens, if anything, when I get back to the farm on Saturday. And lucky (sarcasm), we will have several nights of frost worries for me to document for the blog after that.

The fire as seen from across the vineyard.
The fire as seen from across the vineyard.

For now, fingers crossed.

 

 

 

 

Chilly With a Touch of Fog, But No Frost!

For those of you who may have worried through the night like we did that we’d get frost in the vineyard, I am happy and relieved to report that we did not. Temperatures were actually quite mild throughout most of the night, hovering around 40F.  But at daybreak, they dropped a bit. The warmest part of the vineyard dipped to 37F, and the coldest rows went down to 34F. That’s dangerously close to frost, but still in the safe zone.

You can see the start of leaf separation in this bud, which is the first bud in the whole vineyard to take this brave step.
You can see the start of leaf separation in this bud, which is the first bud in the whole vineyard to take this brave step.

Meantime, the little buds are awake, but they seem unwilling to open their leaves until the sun comes out.  The dogs and I found just one lone bud in the entire vineyard this morning that is starting to separate its leaves. Is this bud brave or foolish? Time will tell. I am further intrigued by this bud because it is in a part of the vineyard that is shaded at times by some nearby trees. I thought this would have delayed the opening of the buds there, but I guess sun exposure doesn’t mean very much on an overcast day.

The brave bud grows at the end of the row to the left, in the shade of the oak tree.
The brave bud grows at the end of the row just left of center, in the shade of the oak tree.

According to the forecast, today is supposed to be warm and sunny.  So far, it is not. We’re also supposed to be free of frost worries for the next week or so. Yet looking at all those reluctant buds, I have to wonder if they know more about forecasting the weather than we do.

Another bud from the shady spot in the vineyard that is very close to leaf separation.
This little bud, also in the shady part of the vineyard, is toying with the idea of leaf separation, but isn’t willing to go for it just yet.

 

 

 

A Mighty Wind (Machine)

The Mother of All Fans.
The Mother of All Fans. Dodger inserted himself into the photo so you can appreciate its large size. The fan sounds like a small prop plane when it starts up.

There stands in our vineyard a powerful fan that most people assume is there for cooling.  It’s not.  It’s there for warming.

Should we get an overnight frost now that our buds have broken open, our strategy is to build a huge bonfire out of the piles of stumps we’ve accumulated in the vineyard and power up the fan to mix the warm air from the fire with the cold night air to hopefully boost the temperature enough to prevent the vines from freezing.  A thirteen acre vineyard is a lot of ground to cover with just one bonfire and one fan, but our hope is it will be enough to keep the temperature from dropping to 29F, the point at which green tissue can be damaged.

Bob fans the flames with a leaf blower.
Bob fans the flames of the stump fire with a leaf blower.

We had to deploy our “stumps and fan” strategy twice last spring, on the nights of April 30th and May 1st. We were at least three weeks past bud break by that point and our vines were fully leafed out. We knew the forecast was calling for freezing temperatures overnight, so we set our alarm to go off every hour on the hour so we could check the weather.  At 2am on both  nights, the thermometer said 33, and we were out the door. The dogs had a blast.  They thought we were camping! But for us humans, these were very tense nights. The temperature dropped by a full degree or more per hour!  We knew we’d get dangerously close to the dreaded 29 degrees.

Nathan at dawn, taking the temperature in the vineyard.  But you can tell by looking at the ground that we didn't stop the frost.
A disheartened Nathan at dawn, taking the temperature in the top rows of the vineyard. As you can see. we didn’t stop the frost.

We took turns throughout the night driving the rows of the vineyard with a thermometer in hand to check the air temperature.  The upper ten rows of the vines consistently were the coldest by two to three degrees.  You always hear that it is darkest before dawn but in our vineyard I can tell you it’s always coldest right after dawn.  As the sun came up we literally watched the frost form on the ground and spread like an oil spill through the coldest rows of vines.

The affect of frostbite on the vines.  You can see the tips of the shoots are turning grey and dying.  This is very troubling because the shoots grow from the tip up.  If the tip gets damaged, the whole shoot will die.
The affect of frostbite on the vines. You can see the tips of the shoots are turning grey and dying. This is very troubling because the shoots grow from the tip up. If the tip gets damaged, the whole shoot will die.

It took two or three days for the damage to the vines to become apparent.  And when it did, it was heartbreaking.  The tips of all of our green shoots in the affected rows turned from green to grey and finally to black. Once the tip of a green shoot is damaged like that, the shoot can’t grow anymore and it will die along with the grapes it would have produced for our wine.  About 15% of our vines suffered damage during those two frost nights last spring.  But the rest of the vineyard did not frost.  We like to believe it’s because we were up all night burning those stumps.

Our stump piles at the ready.  We will light them one at a time.
Our stump piles at the ready. We will light them one at a time.

There are other strategies for fighting frost in the vineyard.   Some grape growers use smudge pots that burn heating oil.  They spread them throughout the vineyard and burn them like we do our bonfire to heat the night air.  The advantage is there are lots of them, so you can spread them out.  The disadvantage is there are lots of them, so you have to spread them out.  And, we don’t like the idea of pots of heating oil possibly tipping over and getting into our soil.  So we’re not doing that.

Nick and Bob lay out the plastic curtain we will hang along the vineyard fence if its frosts.
Nick and Bob demonstrate how the plastic frost curtain will hang along the vineyard fence. The horse pasture is across the road to the right and the vineyard is inside the fence to the left.

Some vineyards have an overhead sprinkler system for irrigation that can be turned on in cold weather to protect the vines by encasing them in ice.  I know that sounds crazy, but if you think about it, water freezes at 32F and vines are damaged at 29F.  So if the vines are inside a layer of ice, they are actually insulated from the colder air.  Our irrigation system is a drip system that is low to the ground, so that won’t work for us.

Right now, the curtain is on the ground so that it doesn't artificially warm the vineyard.  We will hang it if we think a frost is coming.
This is the reverse view with the vineyard on the right and the pasture on the left. Right now, the curtain is on the ground so that it doesn’t artificially warm the vineyard. We will hang it if we think a frost is coming.

But we do have one more trick we plan to try this year to protect the top rows in the vineyard.  We noticed on those frosty mornings last year that the frost would creep into the vineyard from the higher ground of the horse pasture across the farm road from the vineyard fence and down into the vines. That showed us that the air flow pattern on our farm goes from the high ground to the low ground.  So Bob had the idea to hang a plastic curtain along the vineyard fence when it frosts to stop the airflow.  The idea is to block the cold air from the horse pasture from spilling into the vineyard to hopefully save the top ten rows from frostbite.

Nathan and Bob warming themselves at daybreak.  Notice the bale of hay in the buggy.  We started tossing hay on the fire when we were running out of stumps to burn.
Nathan and Bob warming themselves at daybreak last spring. Notice the bale of hay in the buggy. We started tossing hay on the fire when we were running out of stumps to burn.

We don’t know if anyone has ever tried this before or if it will work but we could find out as soon as Tuesday night.  The forecast calls for 33F overnight, and that’s cold enough for us to light the fire, crank up the fan and hang the curtain. Then, we’ll all spend a long cold, night around the bonfire, taking turns stoking the flames and driving the rows to check temperatures.  We’ll also toast a few marshmallows and look at the stars. And I will spend at least some of the night in a huge dog pile on the ground with all of my dogs. Fighting frost is cold, exhausting work, but it’s also kind of fun. And it’s something fun to think about the next time you open a bottle of wine.

A bit of the magic, the sunrise is spectacular on a frosty, smoky morning in the vineyard.
A bit of the magic, the sunrise is spectacular on a frosty, smoky morning in the vineyard.