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Winter Pruning: Or, Jed Gets His Way…..Mostly

By February I was tired of talking about pruning, so at the end of the month, on a relatively warm Friday morning, we hit the vineyard along with our friend Carlos who was more experienced than we were with pruning grape vines.  This year, because the vines are in their third year, we were able to leave two budded spurs, that will aid the canes in heading up the trellis.Image

 

 We thought we had plenty of pruning shears, but when we hauled out our stash we realized that while Jed and I each had a good Felco pruner, all the others were basically junk.  We had learned the hard way during the whole planting process that crummy equipment can really slow you down.  So Jed headed off to a nearby farm supply store to remedy the situation.

 

I consider myself a reasonably experienced pruner of vines by now, but I am careful and take my time, particularly if I’m dealing with a single trunk and want to start a second one.  I study, and I step back, I count buds, and I weigh my options.  For Carlos, the whole process is very intuitive, and he zips along, doing two rows for every one of mine.    Jed returned with more pruners and joined the crew, quickly becoming as fast, but not as good, as Carlos.

 

 

Each time we repeat a task in the vineyard we find some small improvement in the way to do things.  This time, our friend Bob Cassidy, (founder of Salem Oak Vineyard & Winery) made the suggestion that speeded things up.  “Toss all your clippings into piles as you go.  That way you’ll have fewer stops when you go to clear out all your clippings.”  We were two rows in before he stopped by, and we felt a little foolish that we hadn’t just figured that one out on our own.  But at least we got with the program for the bulk of the vine pruning.

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It took us just three days to finish the winter pruning.  Carlos brought his brother on Sunday, to help with tying up loose cordon vines.  Of course, no project can go from start to finish without Jed and I disagreeing over something.  This time, Jed had brought home a box of small white twist ties from the office.  

Jed:  Look at what I found in the basement at the office!  We can use them up in tying up the cordon vines.

Pam:  They’re too short, and they’re made of paper so they’re not suitable for use outdoors.

Jed:  Oh you worry too much.  They’ll work just fine.

Pam:  Jed, we have two perfectly good gizmos for tying up vines, and we have rolls of the tape made specifically for this task.

Jed:  Yeah, but I want to use up these twist thingies and I can’t think of anything at the office.

Pam:  Well, I have my belt with the pruners and the ties we bought all ready to go.

Jed:  That’s fine.  I’ll just give these extras to Carlos and his brother.  It works out great.

 

So by the end of the day Sunday, all was pruned, and little white twists had replaced many of the nearly invisible green or brown twist ties imported from France.  (My sense of aesthetics was offended, but I knew that it would not be long before I would surreptitiously be replacing them.)  We had enjoyed this first chance to be back in the vineyard. and were feeling ready for spring. All that was left was to gather all the clippings up.

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Monday it snowed, reminding me at least that we were doing this winter pruning in the middle of winter. But the snow was gone by the following weekend, so Jed drove the pick-up out to the vineyard, and Becca and I walked behind tossing the clippings into the truck. It didn’t take long before the truck bed was overflowing, so Jed drove to the back of the barn with Becca and I riding on the tailgate to help unload.

 

Jed:  Where should we drop these?  There will be at least four more loads, so there will be quite a pile.

Me:  Should we save some of them for wreaths?

Becca:  Let’s have a bonfire?

Jed:  I’m not making wreaths.  I think we should just burn them.

Becca:  Bonfire!  Bonfire! Bonfire!

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Bonfire it was.  We hauled out the cut vines to a place away from the barn, and away from the woods. After four more trips, we had a pile of clippings that was pretty impressive.  Becca and I were happy it was done, and Becca thought that burning the fire during a LARP (Live Action Role Playing) even that was scheduled in a few weeks would be the perfect time to burn the vines.  We all agreed.

 

Here are some pix of the LARPers and the bonfire.  Pretty good fire.  Pretty good ending to the story.  

 

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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.

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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.”

“Hmmm.”

“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.

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Raccoon Creek VineCam is Now Live

Jed has rigged up a camera on our utility pole that faces the vineyard.  So for those of you who can’t be with us for the big planting party, you can watch the festivities live on the Official Raccoon Creek Vineyard VineCam.  Here is the link:  http://camera2.digimerge.net:81/index1.html  Click ‘surveillance; the UserName is “Ken” and Password is “ken”.

For those of you who are planting tomorrow, and want to track the progress of the vines, we’ll have VineCam going all summer.

It was a great day of planting today – we now have 700 vines in the ground.  We are past the halfway point and looking forward to a beautiful weekend for being outside.

 

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Perfect Days Planting Grapevines

Last Saturday we got a lot of vines planted with the help of two sweet neighbor boys, T.J. and Michael.  By the end of the day we had three rows done and the field was slowly starting its transformation into a vineyard.

Planting Row #3

But Sunday brought a heavy rain, and Monday more of the same leaving the field pretty muddy.  Tuesday and Wednesday were sunny, but two days are not enough to dry things out as new ruts from Jed’s try at drilling new holes Wednesday afternoon proved.  I even got stuck in the riding mower mowing what we refer to as ‘the grass’.

Thursday we had three workers supplied by our landscaper friend Troy. The forecast was for rain, though less than an inch,  so I fished out rain gear purchased for a camping trip 15 years ago and never worn since.  A few sprinkles early in the day, and that was it.  The air was cool, in the 50’s and the sky was overcast all day.  In short, it turned out to be the perfect day to be outside planting grapes.  By the end of the day we had completed 4 more rows, 240 vines.  With 180 vine in the ground already, we were getting to the bottom of the first box of vines.

Then the second box of vines arrived.  But that’s a good thing, since another crew is coming today, and our planting party is less than 24 hours away.  We now know that different people can approach the various steps in different ways, so whether people team up or work solo it all comes out in the end.

 

 

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Directions to Raccoon Creek Vineyard

Raccoon Creek Vineyard
517 Fislerville Rd.
South Harrison Township, NJ 08062

From Haddonfield:

  • Interstate 295 South to 42 freeway
  • 42 east toward Atlantic City to Hwy 55 south toward Glassboro
  • 55 south to Route 322.  Take the first exit, exit 50B toward Richwood/Mullica Hill
  • At the second traffic light make a ‘soft’ left. The sign will say ‘Barnsboro Rd” which goes to the right.  You will be by a CVS on the right, and the sign will say county road 618 right after you make the turn.
  • Stay on 618 until it also becomes Fislerville Road.  You will go past Clem’s Run, then past the Bridgeton Pike (Route 77).
  • We are on the right hand side of the road – and we have a sign!
  • If you hit Commissioner’s Pike (the road ends) you’ve gone too far, just turn around and come back about half a mile.
  • Parking behind the barn.

From Philadelphia:

  • Come across the Walt Whitman Bridge to the 42 freeway.
  • Follow the directions from Haddonfield.

From Delaware:

  • Come across the Commodore Barry Bridge to 295 north
  • Exit at route 322.
  • Take route 322 toward Mullica Hill.
  • Turn right in Mullica Hill onto Route 45/Route 77 (Bridgeton Pike). Stay  on Route 77, to the left when they split.
  • Turn right on 618 /Fislerville Rd just outside of Mullica Hill.
  • We are on the right hand side of the road.
  •  If you hit Commissioner’s Pike (the road ends) you’ve gone too far, just turn around and come back about half a mile.
  • Parking behind the barn.
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Our New Logo

Thank you to Marietta Gordon who worked with us on creating a new logo for the vineyard.

Raccoon – check.

Creek – check.

Grapes – check.

We like it.  Hope you like it too!

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