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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
Please Be Fine
So We May Have
Some Very Fine Wine
I can think of little else in life that has inspired me to write a poem.