Monthly Archives: May 2012

Sharing a Vineyard

Jed and I have tried to do our homework in conjunction with this vineyard project.  We’ve talked to the local wineries and vineyards, met with the local agricultural extension guy, gone to industry trade shows and seminars, bought books and manuals, read online treatises, talked to vendors, and joined associations.  They all have been valuable in one way or another, but the most valuable homework has come in the form of being able to apprentice at a local vineyard.  Like with any internship, the labor may be free, but there is a cost in terms of sharing your knowledge and your time, and your valuable vines. So we’re particularly grateful to Steve Brown who has been letting us work in his vineyard this year.  Steve has a couple of acres of pinot grigio and so far he’s shown us the winter pruning,  how to tie up vines, and how to thin new shoots.

Pinot Grigio vines before bud break.

There is a cool little gizmo (French, of course) that you use to tie up the vines that both twists up the vine tape and cuts it off in one squeeze.  You have to get the hang of threading the tape properly and it takes a while to gauge the right amount of tape so that you have enough to get the job done without wasting it, but once you get going it flies along pretty quickly.  Some days I listened to birds and breeze and the distant whine of a tractor; other days I had earbuds in and made a fool of myself dancing along the rows to Hank Williams, Adele, or the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  It was enjoyable work – and a relief to confirm that I enjoyed it given that we had already placed the order for our own vines.

This month the task has been thinning out the shoots after “bud break’ so that each vine has just the right amount at just the right intervals.  New Jersey had a one night of frost that was past what is supposed to be our last ‘frost date’, and it ruined the tips of shoots all over south Jersey.  Steve decided to delay his thinning by a week to see if any of the shoots would recover, and some have, but then the deer decided it was time for a bit of snack and have grazed off the tops of other shoots.  That has made shoot thinning a little more problematic this year since there is often not a clear winner.  So this work goes more slowly as you try to pick the right shoot to keep and get rid of everything else.  When the shoots are young and green they pop right off with a finger, but with each passing day they all get a little bigger making the task harder.  You’re in a bit of a race against time to get the thinning done so that you don’t have to stop and actually cut the shoots off with a pruner.  Happily, I’m enjoying this task as well – now that I’ve realized that I can’t stop to agonize over every decision but just make the choice and keep moving.  The vines are incredibly vigorous at this stage, and already some of the shoots sport tiny clusters of grapes.  It’s exciting to see this burst of life hidden away under the leaves, and it’s satisfying to finish a row, leaving it looking neat and tidy and organized, instead of bushy and tangled.

Best of all, there is the occasional surprise among the shoots, and it is a sweet reminder that vineyards are shared by more than just vineyard owners and apprentices.  See who else was sharing the vineyard this spring:

Birds nest among the vines.

Categories: The Vineyard Today, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Sisyphus

Sisyphus must have sensed the moment we planted the last vine in the vineyard.  As we were celebrating that night, Jed and I started to muze about what we should do with the last bit of acreage now that we had decided to plant just 1200 vines instead of 1500 (or 3000 but that was when we were still out of our minds.)

“What about lavender?” I knew it was a Mediterranean plant that did well in rocky soil, and liked hot weather.  I also knew that deer didn’t like its smell or taste which could help act as a deterrent.

“Hmmm,”  came the response from Jed.

“We could plant roses.  They act as an early warning system for grape diseases.”


“We could just plant grass and keep a goat or two out there.”

“What about table grapes?”

“Really?  More grapes?”

The next morning I could hear Jed in the office on the phone with our nursery asking about table grapes, and the next thing I knew he was proudly announcing that another shipment of grapevines would be arriving in a few days:  21 vines each of three varietals of red seedless grapes, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter.  “They ripen at different times so we won’t be inundated with more grapes than we can handle.” (Of course, we’ll be inundated!  We have 1200 merlot vines too!)  Mostly I think he just liked the names, fan that he is of the night sky.

Venus grape vine with roots stretching almost to the ground.

Anyway,  it’s a good thing Jed still had the augur on the tractor.  He got right to work drilling another 63 holes.  The shipment came on Wednesday and in all honesty I couldn’t bear to open the familiar looking box knowing I would see more grape vines.  So it sat on the side porch for a couple of days while we finished raking out the rows of merlot.  Finally, on Friday we realized we should get going and cracked open the box.

Yikes!  Sisyphus really knew how to stretch this planting out.  These vines were what I had imagined the wine grapes to be like:  long tangles of roots at one end with long tangles of vines at the other.  Because we were getting these so late in the planting season many had already sent out new green shoots, and separating the vines without knocking off the shoots was nearly impossible.  Because the roots were so long none of them would fit in our holes without being trimmed, and only 10 or so would fit in a bucket for transport to the field.

But finally we got to work and were soon back down on our knees planting what turned out to be the most difficult row of the entire field.  The soil was a miserable mix of clay and stone.  We soon had small rubble piles by each hole, and as the clay that had been drilled up from the hole dried out it turned rock hard poking at your knees and elbows as you worked around the hole.  Even mixing in peat moss wasn’t enough.  Fortunately, Jed had a big pile of good soil from scraping down the aisles on the other side of the vineyard, so he scooped that up and we used it to form the peat mix that we put back into the holes with the vines.  It took two people to plant each hole because the vines were so unwieldy.  By the end of the day Friday we felt like we had traveled to Jupiter.  We had, but we still had to get through Mars and Venus to get back home.

Becca planting Mars vines.

Saturday dawned bright and sunny and hot.  Horrible planting weather.  Just to be vindictive Sisyphus added some wind, insuring that we all got peat moss in our eyes, nostrils, ears, and mouths.  By noon we all needed to get out of the sun.  The value of a noon siesta started to make a lot of sense.

Jed hit the hammock after lunch, and Becca was waiting for her friend Jay to arrive for a visit.  I was restless to do something, soI headed over to our friend Steve’s vineyard to do a little shoot thinning which is much less strenuous.     When I got back around 4:30, the three of them  had already finished planting Mars.

Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny again so we decided that we would work a little in the morning and wait until the evening to finish up.  Jay’s dad owns a farm and Jay has done any number of tasks over the years.  So he was a pro with a shovel, and knew how to work up the dirt to perfection.  We had forgotten that the other end of the field was much less rocky, and with Jay helping out  the planting went quickly.  By noon we had finished Venus and headed back to the house for lunch, and a celebratory beer.

Becca and Jay working on Venus.

This last row of grape vines fits in nicely with the rest of the vineyard. Only the small markers on the grow tubes identify these vines as table grapes.

Jed has designated this as a sacrifice row:  if the vines thrive despite the soil they will be deer snacks…or turkey snacks.  Maybe we won’t be inundated at harvest time after all.

So, Sisyphus didn’t win after all.

The planting was prolonged, but now instead of scanning the night sky for Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, we can enjoy them whenever we want just by looking out at the vineyard.

Categories: The Vineyard Today, Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment


The last grapevine went into the ground on Saturday night.  I had hidden a small ‘Finish Line’ in the final hole which got planted by Becca and TJ.  It was sunny on Saturday,  and one of the few hot days we encountered during our month long planting period.  We were all tired, with peat moss in our eyes and ears, and very glad to finally be at the end of a row, and a vineyard.

TJ and Becca holding our ‘Finish Line”.

Some of you might have been wondering if those little sticks you were covering with dirt out in the field at Raccoon Creek would ever really turn into a vineyard.  The sticks had a touch of Frankenstein about them;  a lifeless looking creature with spindly legs stuck onto a trunk that ended with a grafted  knobby thingy on top.  I understand. Nothing green or inviting.  No lovely scent.  No pleasing texture in the hand.

But behold Igor!     It’s alive!!   Also known as: The first grape leaves have finally appeared!

   The first grape leaves .

About a third of the vineyard now have leaves about this big, and most of the rest have smaller leaves or at least a green bud pushing through.  We ended up with just four extra plants that are sitting in pots in case we need them.  Jed has started hauling the box spreader through the aisles of the vineyard, smoothing out the high spots, pulling out weeds, and generally lowering the level of the aisles compared to the rows of grapes.  It looks much tidier now, with just a few weeds that will need to be pulled – and the rains today will make that an easy chore tomorrow.  After that, grass seed gets sown in the aisles.

And then we can rest.  Well that was the plan, except our friend Steve Brown called to say that he had bud break at his vineyard and that we should get over there to learn about culling the shoots.

Yep, mwaaaaaahhh – they’re alive!

Categories: The Vineyard Today | Leave a comment

Friends in All the Vine Places

One of the great things about getting older (yes you read that correctly) is that by the time you hit your sixties you have accumulated a long list of friends and acquaintances.  You can tell the difference.  I’m OK with the fact that not everyone  I’ve met over the years has become a friend.  But, I’ve also come to really value friendship at this stage of my life.

Some of my friends go back all the way to high school.  Some are friends from various jobs I’ve held over the years.  Some are friends because of common interests, like raising kids, or liking music, travel, food, or wine.  Some friends I’ve met because of where I’ve lived.

Planting Party Friends

Jed and I had joked about the idea of roping our friends into helping us plant grapevines almost from the moment that we bought our farm.  As the time to plant got closer, we developed some trepidation about the wisdom of a planting party.  How would our various friends respond to an invite to do hard work like planting grapevines?  Various people had already visited the farm, and even driven the tractor, or helped us haul rocks from the field. Many, when we would mention the idea that we planned to have a planting party, replied ‘Great idea!  Count me in!”  We found ourselves wondering if they really meant it.  This kind of work would really be a test of friendship. We didn’t want people to feel pressure to say yes. Finally we agreed that the only way to find out was to send out an invite.

When over 30 people said they were willing to help us with a planting party we were astounded – and we counted our lucky stars to have so many cool folk in our circle of friends.  Not only did everyone agree to come, but many brought food or wine to celebrate the day.  Some friends volunteered to handle all the kitchen prep and clean up – no small task with a group of 30+ to feed.  The day was a lot of fun as well as productive, and we were humbled and grateful to all these people who are truly friends when it was over.

We knew we wouldn’t plant the whole vineyard that day.  We tried to get a bit of a jump start with hired help before people came.  We wanted everyone to see what planted vines in the field were supposed to look like.  But we knew we’d have to finish the planting job by ourselves.  After all, the vineyard was our idea (well actually mine as Jed is fond of reminding me on occasion) and so the planting was our responsibility.

Walking Buddies, Now Planting Buddies

The week after the party  my friend Karen texted to ask if we were still planting and did we want help?  My first reaction was that she was surely kidding.  After all, she had not only showed up herself, but had roped both her daughters, Emily and Beth, her friend Mark, and a visiting friend of Beth’s into planting.   That’s a lot of help!  Amazingly she was serious.

Karen falls into multiple categories of friend for me:  she is a former neighbor with four kids.  She seems to know everyone in Haddonfield, probably because she has had half the kids in town go through one of her pre-school classes at the Presbyterian Church.  She’s friendly, always upbeat, and easy to talk to.  Karen’s hand touched most of our neighborhood events, from summer block parties to Christmas luminaria.  Her house hosted dozens of get-togethers: people moving into the neighborhood; people moving away; gatherings before weddings, and after funerals.  We’ve  shared food after raking leaves and after shoveling snow, and sometimes just because we were around and starting to BBQ at the same time.  Sometimes kids were there, and sometimes only adults, but there was always good cheer and a no fuss sensibility about last minute arrangements.  Karen is the glue that helped hold our neighborhood together.

But besides being a great neighbor, Karen has been my morning walking buddy for over three years.  Every weekday (alright, not every) we would meet in my driveway promptly at 7AM and walk for almost an hour through the streets of Haddonfield.  We’d head up the hill to Tavistock Country Club, and down the hill toward Crows Woods, then past the softball fields and up the hill toward the middle school, and down Washington Avenue back towards our neighborhood.  We walked in hot humid weather and in winter snow – only rain kept us indoors.

One year we followed the walk with an exercise class in town.  Another year we enrolled in Weight Watchers.  Our goal was to lose weight, get fit, and be healthy.  Our morning conversation frequently included comments about our weight, or more accurately our frustration about not losing more weight.  We talked about other exercises we were trying, or healthy recipes, or what we had eaten that we shouldn’t have .  We talked about clothes that didn’t fit, muscles that ached, things we saw along the way, books we were reading, movies we saw, and of course our families.

We shared our worries and our joys.  We offered advice with no expectation that it should be taken.  We marveled about being lonely when kids grow up and move out while at the same time enjoying the freedom.  We shared whatever was stressing us out, from the insignificant to the life-altering. I have several friends who have walked with the same people for years, and initially I wondered how they could possibly keep it up.  But now I get it.  This time is about mental health and not just physical health.  It’s the time in which friendships become golden, and irreplaceable.

Then we moved away from Haddonfield.  It wasn’t unexpected, after all Karen had spent many hours with me pouring over the plans for the new house, offering suggestions and considering options for patio stones, stuccos, paint colors.  Plus the neighborhood was clearly changing.  Older neighbors had died, or moved to assisted living. Younger neighbors sought out other young parents for play dates and baby sitters.  Many of us ‘old-timers’ talked about how high the taxes had gotten, and where we might move once we retired.

Karen, my walking buddy, with Mark, planting buddies

The day came when I was part of the group that “used to live in Haddonfield”.  I was excited about the country, but I missed my old neighborhood and my friends there. I know I was surprised by the enormity of the hole that was left by not having the companionship of a daily morning walk.  Phone calls aren’t really the same; they seem to need a purpose.  The beauty of the conversation in a morning walk is that it doesn’t have a purpose; it is just there, comfortable, and friendly.

Karen and I spent still got together regularly for lunch after I moved, and then we realized we’d be smarter to substitute a walk for that glass of wine.  We can no longer manage walks on most mornings, but we do manage most weeks.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friend and walking buddy would go the extra mile to help make sure that my dream of a vineyard would really happen.  She and Mark not only put in another five hours of planting but they brought along lunch.  It was a nasty row we tackled that day:  full of rocks, some as big as the shovel Mark used to dig them out.  Some holes had so much clay that we needed shovelful after shovelful of peat moss to bring them into balance. Because it was so muddy raking the planted vine bed took extra effort and extra time.  Each hole took three times as long as in other parts of the vineyard, but we still got to the end of the row, including the blue grow tubes.  Of course we had fun, teasing each other about who was going too fast or too slow, and having the same conversations we would have had if we had been on a morning walk.  It was great.

Maybe I should buy more acres and more vines so we can do it again.  Just kidding Karen!  See you on the next walk.  Thanks to you and Mark for a wonderful day.  Thanks to all our friends who are affirming their friendship simply by driving all the way out to the country now to see us, and sometimes to plant vines.

Categories: Pam's Perambulations, The Vineyard Today | Leave a comment


As my friend and former neighbor Karen can confirm, Jed and I had a love/hate relationship with the bamboo hedge in the backyard of our Haddonfield house.  On the plus side, it made for a lovely green fence that grew to nearly 20 feet tall and made for great privacy while still letting the breeze through.  The bamboo in our driveway was the backdrop for countless photos, and was home to any number of birds, bunnies, and even the occasional preying mantis.  We cut the canes and used them as stakes for the tomato plants, and as trellises for the pole beans.  We realized that when bamboo reaches a certain size it makes for the perfect fishing rod, with a sturdiness at one end that is balanced by a nice whippiness at the other. The sound of the wind rustling through the leaves was soothing when we sat outside, and one winter bamboo leaves formed the hair on one of Becca’s more creative snowmen.

Becca in front of bamboo, 2007

But, on the minus side, well let’s just say that it became known as the ‘evil bamboo’ in our household.

Horticulturists characterize bamboo as ‘invasive’, but until you’ve had to dig up bamboo roots you don’t really get what that implies. Our bamboo had been planted over 40 years ago, so it was well established, and had clearly resisted efforts to be confined to a narrow band around the back yard.  We spent most weekends the first summer after we bought the house  trying to restore the bamboo border to just a border.  We soon found that small clippers were no match for the stalks, and that there was to be no simple pulling up of the roots.  We went through multiple kinds of clippers,shears hacksaws, axes, and scythes. It was hard work that left us dirty and exhausted, but at that point we still liked the bamboo. We laughed about the three trash bins full of beer cans that were the ‘bonus’ find in the hedge.  Later we learned that we had moved into what had been known as a ‘party’ house, and that many teenagers in the neighborhood had discovered the valuable properties of bamboo for hiding illicit beer. But never mind that now, we were proud of our big back yard and it’s big green fence that was back where it belonged.

That was the first year.

By the end of the next summer we came to realize that our big back yard was actually a battlefield, and a bloody one at that. Bamboo leaves are sharp; they cut your skin whenever you come in contact with an edge, which is whenever you’re working around it.  Your arms and legs are left with a patchwork of thin cuts that are quite painful.  (The cuts are pretty weird looking prompting  timid questions of the sort that leave you wondering if the questioner thinks you are into S&M. Well, owning bamboo is sort of masochistic. ) Bamboo can grow many inches in a single day.  It’s surreptitious, creeping along under ground until suddenly a new shoot appears many feet away from where it’s supposed to be.  It has the feel of an invading army, with coordinated attacks in multiple places at the same time, all waiting to see if you have the courage to take it on.  Cut a cane down to the ground and it doesn’t die, a new shoot grows from  just below the cut .  We tried spraying it with RoundUp – no effect. We were too afraid to try Agent Orange.  So, we were back to digging it up by the roots with a (very) sturdy shovel, and the occasional pick ax.

The next year we were ready to get rid of the bamboo altogether.  We hired a landscaper to work up a new design with a place for a deck, and a vegetable garden, and a play area, but no place for bamboo.  We learned that because it was not possible to get a bulldozer (!) into our backyard, the bamboo would have to be dug out by hand, which basically meant that we could either have a deck, and a vegetable garden, and a play area or we could have a bare back yard with no bamboo.  But our landscaper said not to worry!  Bamboo can be contained just by putting metal sheathing into the ground to keep it in its place.  Ah!  That’s the step we didn’t do.  Ok, the bamboo can stay.

Stay it did, laughing at the notion that a mere metal sheath would keep it in its place.  I AM BAMBOO!  I can leap mere sheathing in a single bound!   Actually the sheathing did slow it down, but not until years later did we realize that we needed to replace the flimsy metal the landscaper used with sturdier stuff that was bigger and dug in 18 inch sheets with some left sticking above ground for the intrepid shoots that wanted to climb skyward.   We finally reached a truce in the bamboo wars.  But it was an uneasy truce that still required twice a year trimming (in a long sleeved shirt and long pants) and by then we were just tired of the effort.

Happily, we moved to the country to a property with no bamboo.

And then the grape vines arrived….along with their grow tubes…….and 1200 bamboo stakes.   I think they’re dead though.  They look dead.  I don’t see any green on them, and no roots. I hope they’re dead. But I sometimes dream that instead of a vineyard we end up with a field of BamBoo!      ARGHHHHH!

Categories: Pam's Perambulations | 2 Comments

Jed has a new paperweight

Planting 1200 vines is a big job, and every vine needs a hole drilled in the soil.  Wine grapes like to grow in rocky soil, and we have (very) rocky soil.  The first 20 or so practice holes we drilled out in the field were a breeze – fast, easy, fun.  The next 20 holes we drilled to plant a forsythia and juniper hedge also went fast.

Then we started drilling the holes for the vineyard.  Now things got a little trickier.  First, there’s this business of staying in a straight line, and aiming for the yellow mark in the soil.  After a while your neck starts to ache from looking over your shoulder at the augur.  But still, we were clipping along at about three minutes per hole.  After about 500 holes we started to notice that it just seemed to be taking a lot longer to drill a hole.  Was the soil getting rockier?  Maybe we need new drill bits?  Off Jed goes to the local farmer’s supply store to get a new set of ‘teeth’ for the edge of the augur.  That seemed to help.

But still the holes were taking longer and longer to drill.  Finally, it took two people, one to hold the augur in place, and the second to drive it from the tractor.  Was it was because the rain was making things muddy?  Finally, Jed realized that you could change the tip of the augur.  When he came home with the new one we put them side by side.

Yep, we have some pretty rocky soil.  And Jed has a new paperweight.  But we’re back to three minutes a hole, and have 1025 vines planted.

Old augur tip and new augur tip

Categories: Pam's Perambulations | 1 Comment

Create a free website or blog at