Viticulture

Planning Your Vineyard Site

So you’ve found the perfect vineyard site and now you have no idea what to do. If you’re anything like my husband and me, we were were a bit lost too. Well, let me tell you…don’t worry. It can seem like an overwhelming task, especially if you’re a vineyard virgin.

Probably the first step is to read and do a little research on your own. I began by looking up books on planting a vineyard and it’s surprising just how much information is out there. However, there is a lot of it. The book I ended up purchasing was The Organic Backyard Vineyard by Tom Powers. I found it approachable and not too overwhelming with great diagrams and pictures. This book definitely got us started.

After buying the book I decided that I needed to speak with someone. Person to person, vineyard owner to vineyard virgin…So I headed to our local vineyard supply store. Needless, to say, a young mother with four screaming kids in tow, was definitely not what they were used to! I definitely wasn’t welcomed with open arms and was probably the butt of most of their jokes that afternoon! However, I did manage to connect with the only other woman in the place, Cindy, who had a degree in horticulture and was really intrigued with our ‘backyard vineyard’ adventure. Through Cindy, I managed to get an idea of what to do and when to come back and see her. Initially, she recommended a soil test because that would determine the pH levels and we could go from there. She warned me that vineyard supplies were not cheap…that was an understatement!

Basically, my next job was get some soil sent back to Cindy for a pH assessment and then to map out our vineyard area in order to determine the placement of each vine. I set out using Power’s book and focused on pages 70-71 which detailed how many vines could be planted depending upon various spacing options. My husband and decided that as we had a small area, we wanted to maximize the number of vines we could plant. After having measured the area, we decided to go with 4 x 6 foot spacing, which is basically, 4 feet between each vine and 6 feet between each row. Room for each end post had to be allocated. Looking back on this plan, we made a few mistakes. We should have agreed upon wider rows because a small tractor would struggle getting down a 6 foot wide row. Additionally, we forgot to leave a gap wide enough at each end for the tractor to turn. BIG MISTAKE!!! This meant that our vineyard had to be sprayed by hand, as opposed to using a tractor.

After deciding upon the vine spacing, I received word that the soil assessment was ready and that our soil was showing signs of being slightly acidic. Basically, Cindy recommended that we continue with our plant to transplant the vines, but during the autumn, we would need to add lime to the soil in order to lower the acidity. The lime needs to be watered into the soil, or else it just sits there and is ineffective. The best time of year is during the autumn and early spring when it’s raining. So we added this to our autumn to-do list!

Meanwhile, we had to buy all the supplies. So I went back to the vineyard supply store and purchased enough wooden endposts, bamboo sticks, wires, gripples, metal post drivers…you name it…I bought it!! Cindy also highly recommended that I create an irrigation system because we were transplanting the vines during the summer months and they required water…a steady drip-drop of it!

So my next stop was the irrigation shop. I didn’t even know one even existed, but I do now! After quite a lengthy discussion with the owner, who was extremely patient and very helpful, I managed to purchase enough tubing, drippers, connectors and valves to sink a battleship! He highly recommended getting a knee pad, as I would be on my knees for quite a while! That was quite possibly the best recommendation I received!

Now, we had all the stuff. We just had to put it together once the vines were planted. We first set out all the bamboo sticks to mark where each vine would go. This was critical because if the spacing was off, the vines wouldn’t grow properly as they eventually needed to be trained along the trellising.

Once we planted the vines, I immediately had to get going on the irrigation system. It was like playing with Tinker toys…just on a much larger scale! I actually enjoyed creating the irrigation system the most. It was a lot of work but really rewarding once it was turned on and drips of water came out. We made another mistake during this process. I should have punched the holes for each vine on the tubing at night or when it was cooler out. As plastic expands during the heat, the irrigation drippers moved a bit too when it got hot. So, not all of them were lined up just right. Oh well…another lesson learned!

Finally, the thing we should have done first and foremost was install deer fencing. We ended up doing this last because we had no idea how much the deer loved grapevines. Basically, they savage them!!! We discovered this when we first planted a few of the vines. To temporarily remedy this problem, we purchased an organic deer repellant spray that we applied regularly until we managed to get the fencing up. However, it wasn’t the most effective on the outer rows. The deer would sneak a nibble here and there when they could.

Another area that caught us by surprise is the spraying of the vines. Even if you decide to use organic or biodynamic viticulture methods, you still need to spray your vines. This is a costly endeavor, especially when you’re a small scale operation. Most vineyards buy in bulk quantities and as a result, the chemicals come in large containers and are VERY expensive. Additionally, if you don’t use a tractor to spray the vines, then you need a motorized backpack sprayer that creates a mist, rather than a direct spray. The mist enables the chemicals to surround the fruit and leaves, rather than simply sitting on one side. This is very important, or else powdery mildew will destroy your grapes!

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to planning a vineyard. Personally, I don’t recommend it on a smaller scale like our vineyard. It’s really impractical, unless you have a lot of time, energy, money and vineyard knowledge behind you. When we realized all of this, our vineyard dream soon turned to dread. It really was quite the money pit! I’m glad to have had the experience but I don’t think I’ll try it again.