A Small Vineyard

Around nine years ago, I got an inkling to grow grapes.  I do not know exactly what piqued my interested in the subject of growing grapes.  I was not, and still am not much a oenophile.   I will have a glass here and there, and will always be keen for a Malbec or Foch if offered.

We were living in the Duluth, MN, area at the time, and we had limited planting space in our modest quarter-acre yard.   A space maybe four feet wide by thirty feet long; it certainly would not be able to house enough vines to produce enough grapes to make a carboy-worth of wine, it would at least be an experiment.

In late winter, I placed an orderfor a half-dozen Frontenac vines from a place in Iowa.  Frontenac seemed like an interesting varietal.  It had its origins in Minnesota and seemed to have hardiness

that might work in the Duluth area (USDA Zone 3b).  And that was about all I put into which varietal to get.  Nothing

really about the potential type of wine or even consumable juice would be produced.   I really did not care whether it

was white or red, foxy tasty, or any of a host of other characteristics one might want.

The vines arrived, and with the help of a friend, we got them planted.  And we waited.  Over the time we remained in the Duluth area (until May 2012, when we moved), the vines ebbed and flowed with the seasons, dying back to the ground after a particularly harsh winter.  The vines did produce a few clusters of grapes, but nothing more.

…and we moved.

Here in St. Paul, MN, up until last year, we had only planted a few juice/jelly grapes – mostly the varietal Beta With none of these vines producing grapes, yet.  Last year, however, the inkling to plant a small vineyard came back.

In late spring of last year, we cleared a stand of buckthorn and mulberry trees on the north side of our property – behind our house – it’s roughly an area of 1,200 square feet.  The area has a decent amount of sun exposure in the summer from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.  We tilled the soil – mostly to remove the grass, and loosen things up.  Tilling was also useful to loosen the many buckthorn stumps.

In late winter of the previous year, prior to clearing the stand of buckthorns and mulberries, we decided we would grow the varietal Maréchal Foch.  I had recently tried a bottle from a local vineyard, and, as with Ogdan Nash’s poem, Termiteand how the termite tasted it, and found it good [in relation to wood], I tasted the Foch from St. Croix Vineyards, and found it good.

In January of last year, with a bit searching, I located a nursery and vineyard that sells Foch – Aberfoyle Vineyard & Nursery, which happens to be in Minnesota.  I placed an order for 25 potted Foch vines.  More waiting – mostly because it was winter.

With the trees removed, the ground turned over, and most of the stumps gone, we put a relatively simple fence around the space; we have hounds, and hounds are curious critters, and I could see them wandering off with neat bunches of grapes in your mouth.

The potted vines arrived in April of last year, and with the help of my wife and her sister, we got all 25 vines planted, and we waited.

Winter passed, and all the vines survived.  Once the vines had a bit of growth, we put wood stakes in place and loosely tied each vine up.  As an aside, if we were doing this on a larger scale, I would certainly be using grow tubes to train the growth.  On the topic of larger grow operations, the spacing we chose for the grapes would be generally be considered too close.  It would be too narrow for any machinery to be driven down, but with a row length of around 35 feet, I do not intend to drive anything down the rows.  We will have to keep an eye out for issues with air circulation, too, with the rows being somewhat narrow.

With the vines staked, and with a considered amount of growth having occurred since we staked the grapes, it was time to get the posts and wire trellis installed.  Using a two-stroke, single person post hole auger, I set to work on getting postholes made.

We used 12 gauge, stainless steel orchard wire, as well as using one-way wire anchor vises – which, I have to say, are probably the damn coolest device I’ve come across in a while.   We decided upon using a top cordon trellis system, so, there is just one wire, 66″ above the ground.  Generally, two vines from each trunk is brought up (trained) to the top wire, and then it simply grows down the wire.

Time will tell if we are able to produce enough grapes to make a bit of wine.

Rooting

Cutting
Cutting

It is late January and that means it is cold outside. Single digits below zero fahrenheit (in the -20s C) are the norm. Today we are a bit on the warm side – low 20s above zero fahrenheit (-6 C). Even with chilly outside, inside, we are starting to get moving on spring plans. The ground is rock-solid and frozen with several feet of frost, but garden and yard layout can still be imagined with something as simple as pencil and paper. For now, though, I am attempting to root a grape vine.

We have two basset hound puppies that for all practical purposes, are like nematodes with legs. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but more a physiological sense: nematodes have a strong digestive tract with openings on each end.

We did (past tense) have a lovely, four year old riverbank grape vine growing up the side of our shed. This was until the youngest nematode, err, puppy, discovered it was a large "stitch". The lovely vine was reduced to a stump. I did manage to save a length of vine. Wrapped in wet paper towel and placed in the refrigerator, the length rested.

Rooting Powder
Rooting Powder

Rooting a clipping or piece of stem is the process where you help or force roots to develop; basically it is a simple form of cloning. I am by no means a rooting expert. But, you will basically need:

  • A dormant, vine cutting with a few bud-points
  • Root powder/hormone
  • A heat mat
  • Potting soil mixed with a little sand
  • A pot
  • Stiff wire
  • A sheet of heavy, clear plastic

Start by trimming both ends; identify which way the buds are pointing, pointing up – that is your top (bottom is the opposite end if you were wondering). Cut the top at an angle and the bottom straight. Between the top and bottom, you will want several bud-points and little leaf scarring.

Plastic Tent
Plastic Tent

Prepare your potting soil mix by mixing in a little bit of sand. The sand helps to lessen the moisture slightly and, in theory, helps to lessen bad molds. Whether this is true or not, I am not sure. It sounds sensible, though.

Dampen the bottom end and dip into the rooting powder/hormone. Tap off any excess. Push the cutting, bottom first, into the soil closer to the pot’s edge than the middle. With two pieces of wire make a hoop-cage that goes up and over the cutting. Drape your clear plastic over after having watered a bit. Rubber band around the pot, and set the whole thing on a heat mat. And now wait. You will want to water the pot now and again if the soil is looking dry, but do not over water.

Are You Guys Native?

bean poles

Our neighbor had been wondering about the poles in the garden and why we were apparently making two small teepees; he asked if we were native.

The long and the short answers to that question are the same: no, we are not native. Both my wife and I have heritages that hail from northern and north-central Europe – not the Americas.

We put a new vegetable garden in this year – eight feet by eight feet. It takes up a small section of the yard that the grass never really grew in and the hounds really were never encouraging to the grass that attempted to grow there. In this new garden, we are mainly growing vine-crops: pole beans, bush beans, and cucumbers; in the non-vine arena, there are red cabbage & parsnips and lavender for a border.

The garden has a couple interesting (at least to me) characteristics that led me to "teepee" the poles for the beans, which then led our neighbor to ask if we were native. The ultimate, underlying (literally) factor is the natural gas pipe that comes our house – it is directly beneath the garden – roughly twelve inches below the surface. We could not till the garden and I am slightly nervous even to use a shovel or pitchfork in this area. A lasagna garden seemed like an ideal choice. Cardboard was put over the existing weeds and grass, roughly a cubic yard of compost was spread over this and then another cubic yard of soil was mixed into the compost. With the gas line underneath and the cardboard above, teepeeing the bean poles was the option where I did not have to pound them into the soil – thus avoiding the gas line.

All the gardens are popping now; while the rest of Minnesota has been experiences abnormally high temperatures, those of us in the Duluth area have been experiencing pleasant temperatures in the low 70s. Cooler night temperatures have been causing dew to form on the plants – giving them a nice drink. The beans in the teepee garden are sprouting, as are the carrots, radishes, potatoes, cabbage, peas, lavender, cone flowers, cucumbers, tomatoes (which were started indoors before the snow left) and parsnips. The Haralson apple tree, that we purchased just this spring, is showing signs that it will bear fruit this season. The bilberry and currant bushes are showing nice, green fruit; the strawberry plants are brimming with flowers – the same goes for the raspberry bushes. The newly planted asparagus crowns have shot up thin spears already, too. The Georgian garlic plants are pushing twenty-inches tall. The only things that looks questionable are the Frontenac grape vines. It appears that nearly all of the vines did not make it through the winter. The roots survived, and are pushing out new vines, but it sets us back a couple years for decent grape production.

carniolans

On the bee-front, things are progressing well. The Carniolans are showing their strength in building out wax comb as well as fast brood production. The Minnesota Hygienic Italians are, compared to the Carniolans, much slower at both activities. I consolidated the frames back into one brood super and now have eight frames (out of eight) with at least one side of drawn comb. I am hoping this will allow for a more speedily path to more brood, and more brood will eventually mean more workers for building comb and gathering nectar and pollen.

Sam Bradley – friend, co-worker and business partner, stopped by on the 28th of May. He brought his camera and was eager (as eager as Sam gets) to get the bee suit on and get into the bee yard. A video of the adventure can be found here.

On the technology & blog front, I am implementing a podcast management framework within imgf.us. It will allow for a straightforward way to setup and upload video and audio podcasts as well as allow for publishing via iTunes.

Bee Corral

alex, bee wrangler

It would appear another weekend has slipped by into the past. Much was accomplished this weekend. Saturday was cold and overcast, but we were out in the yard, none the less. The goal for the weekend was to get the Bee Corral built. It is less (and not intended to) keep the bees in place, but more to keep the hounds out of where the bees are to be. Located on the north side of our shed; morning sun, late-morning sun, and sun the rest of the day — the bees should like the location.

The spot has been neglected since putting up the shed three years ago; the dogs use it as a dumping ground during the winter, and I have used it to store rocks and bricks. The Canadian bull thistle found it quite agreeable, too. I did manage to pull most of it out; the those suckers have huge tap-roots!

On Saturday, we got posts in the ground and two section of fencing installed. It was cold out, but as long as I kept moving, I was warm in just a long sleeve t-shirt (the shirt was courtesy of UMD’s 2010 Tech Fest held on Friday). By mid-afternoon, it started to rain. We cleaned up the tools from the yard, and headed inside.

Sunday turned out to be a gorgeous day. A bit on the cool side, with a breeze, it was great to be outside. Melissa was not feeling well, so, I soloed it with the exception of a bit of help with the concrete for the corner post. With a run to Menards for more lumber, gate hinges, and leg screws for attaching the corral/fence panels to the shed and corner post.

In addition to getting the anti-hound corral built, I cleaned out the grapevine beds of all the straw which had been used for keeping away the cold on the vines during the winter. With the beds cleaned out, I edged the dead grass (cutting my hand on a hidden piece of wire), and finally, I re-fenced the vine area. The hounds had destroyed the hog-wire fencing during the winter. The heavy snow received over Christmas, followed by the rain made for the perfect substrate for hounds to run on. The fencing stuck up out of the snowpack just high enough for them to trample.

While I had the huge mess of straw in the yard, I cleaned out the gooseberry patch. The gooseberry bushes appear to have little tiny buds on them.