I went two seasons without fruit from my Swenson Red grape vine. It was one of the first additions to my bonsai vineyard, and I’ve been struggling with how to prune it. Two years ago, I decided that Swenson Red needs cane pruning to bear fruit.
Canes or spurs?
Canes are just long “branches” of one year old wood with one or two dozen buds along their length. If they had just a few buds, four or so, then they would be a lot shorter and we would call them spurs. I had been spur pruning because it’s easier to take vines in and out of pots, while I trim their roots, without long fragile canes whipping about.
Letting the vine decide
Easier doesn’t get you very far if the varietal doesn’t bear fruit that way, so last year I pruned to canes. I was careful not to jostle them when I tended the vine, re-potted it, or just walked past it. Well it looks like it may have been worth the effort. I’ve noticed a few clusters on my Swenson Red and I’m looking forward to my first crop in three years!
With ten grape vines in pots, and another ten fruit trees, I’ve been doing a lot of hand watering. It’s become quite a chore, so I’ve decided to put in a drip irrigation system. This will have water coming from a garden hose, through a pressure reducing fitting, into a feeder bottle so that I can fertilize, through a half-inch hose, and out of quarter-inch drip lines that run to each pot. Instead of a seemingly endless cycle of fill the watering can – water the vines/trees, I would just be able to turn on the water and go read a book. With a timer, I might not even have to turn the water on and off.
I had an abstract idea of what a drip system was and how it worked. What I needed was some hands on knowledge – what were the various components of a drip system? what did they do? how did they fit together? For a crash course in Drip Irrigation 101, I went to three hardware stores. I struck gold at Lowes with a clerk who had been a plumber and installed many a drip system. Now I have most of the equipment I need and a much better idea of how to put that equipment to use.
Basic equipment for a drip irrigation system
- half-inch tubing – delivers low pressure water to the drip system
- quarter-inch tubing – delivers water to an individual vine or tree
- 25 PSI Pressure Regulator – keeps pressure from overwhelming the system
- 3/4″ hose to 1/2″ tubing adapter – connects the system to a garden hose or tap
- quarter-inch double barbed connectors – connects quarter inch tubing to the half inch tubing
- 50 quarter-inch hole plugs – plugs holes in the half inch tubing
Other equipment that might be needed
- anti siphon device – prevents back flow from the drip system to the water supply
- filter – keeps dirt from clogging the drip system
You can buy this equipment at a garden center as a kit or as separate pieces. I had planned to buy a kit, and use it as a learning tool, but the clerk at Lowes assembled everything I needed for the system I had in mind. If all goes well, I’ll be putting it all together into a working drip irrigation system for use this summer.
I photograph my grape vines as closeups, so the leaves and clusters are clearly visible. Here I took in the entire vine, with a devilishly handsome model to provide a sense of size and proportion 🙂 The vines in my bonsai vineyard look like this except that most of them are in 5-gallon plastic buckets. I think the terracotta pot makes the Pinot Noir more photogenic.
I took the photo on August 9, 2008, and you can see the grape clusters are still green. Now on September 1, the Siegerrebe and Leon Millot are beginning to change color, but the Pinot remains stubbornly green.
I harvested 14 oz (400 g) of the Pinot Noir on 10/13/07. That completes the harvest for 2006; here are the details:
Pinot Noir: 21 oz (600 g)
Leon Millot: 37 oz (1050 g)
Price 17 oz (480 g)
Siegerrebe: 11.5 oz (325 g)
All: 86.5 oz (2455 g)
5 lb 6 oz isn’t a lot, but it’s more than last year’s 4 lb. I had more favorable weather last year, this year we had a cold and rainy fall and a cooler summer, and this year I lost part of the crop to critters. So, all in all, not a bad year.
I was on the fence about harvesting the Leon Millot. They were ripe or nearly ripe, but I wondered if they could benefit from a little more time. That was before I saw the weather forecast. It calls for a lot of rain, starting tomorrow, so I pulled in the Leon today.
9/21/07 : 3 oz (100 g)
9/26/07 : 2 lb 2 oz (975 g)
2007 Total: 2 lb 5 oz (1075 g)
That compares with 2 lb (just over 900 g) in 2006.
I started taking some Pinot Noir as well, but changed my mind after three clusters. They’re just not ripe yet, so I’ll leave the rest to face the rain. Those three clusters weighed in at 7 oz (210 g), and will be joining the Leon (and Price and Siegerrebe) in the freezer until I complete the harvest.
Bird netting saved most of the grapes
Marsha was frantic and ran to wake me up this morning. I was still groggy, so it took me a while to figure out that all the grape vines had been knocked down. We didn’t see what happened. Nobody and nothing was about. I think it was an animal, probably a raccoon though. I have bird netting over the vines, and that did two things – one good and one bad. The good thing was protecting most of the grapes. Whatever it was only got two small clusters. The bad thing was binding all the vines to each other, so that when one was knocked down, they all went down.
As you can see in the above photo of a Pinot Noir cluster behind it’s protective bird netting, order was restored. I remember how surprised I was at just how many different kinds of bird netting there is but, as with most things, you can keep the birds out on a budget or opt for a higher end product. I opted for the affordable option.
Planning for the future: Bird netting on a frame and a temporary greenhouse?
One improvement I could make would be to string the netting on some sort of external frame, rather than draping it over the vines an I do now. As birds, raccoons, and other small animals try to get at my grapes, they would jostle the frame instead of the vines. That would make the vines much less likely to tip over. I’ve thought about building such a frame before; I could also hang plastic sheeting on it, turning it into an impromptu greenhouse, in early spring and late fall. That would extend the growing season a bit, and might allow me to experiment with grapes need a warmer climate.
Harvest time is almost here, in fact I may make a point of speeding up the harvest for the earlier varietals, and after that I’ll have all winter to think and plan.
Don’t buy the expensive equipment
I buy wine grapes through my local homebrew shop in 100 lb lots, which is enough to make five or six gallons of wine. They take customer orders, arrange to buy the grapes from growers, and provide the use of their equipment. They will do all the work, so I can just show up with two empty 5-gallon carboys and go home with two 5-gallon carboys partially filled with juice. I like making wine, though, so I usually roll up my sleeves and go to work. I lug boxes of grapes to the crusher-destemmer, turn the hand crank to crush the grapes, put the crushed grapes into the press, collect the juice, then go home with two 5-gallon carboys partially filled with juice.
Reds can be alluring, but whites are easier
Red wine is all about the skins and, unlike kits, you can ferment a must of crushed grapes (in which case you’ll be taking home a primary fermenter full of crushed grapes rather than carboys of juice). This is a great way to make red wine, but there is a problem when it comes time to press. My local homebrew shop will let you use their press, for no additional charge, but you have to bring your fermenter back to the shop to do it. That’s a hassle I’d rather avoid, so I usually buy white wine grapes.
An easy way to make it good, and a hard way to make it better
Red or white, it’s a good way for amatures to make wine from grapes. Crusher-destemmers and presses are expensive, so the use of their equipment makes this a good deal. And making wine from grapes is easy; I’ve made very good white wine by just pitching yeast into the juice, with no adjustments at all. It’s an easy process with good results, but it also reinforces my decision to grow (some of) my own. I can’t help wondering how these grapes were grown. Were they harvested at their peak or at a convenient time for the grower and retailer? How much time had passed from harvest to crush? If the wine is good, how much better could it be if I harvested the grapes at their peak, processed them, and pitched the yeast all in one morning? My bonsai vineyard may produce enough grapes this year for me to find out!
It was only six weeks ago that hoplai beetles were attacking the flowering grape clusters on my Leon Millot vines. Here is how those grape clusters look today.
The Leon Millot (above) aren’t the only vines with good looking grapes. The Pinot Noir (below) is coming along nicely.
I should be seeing verasion soon!
I wrote before that watering my bonsai vineyard can be tricky. Too much water reduces the quality of the fruit and can delay dormancy. All plant life needs water, however, and too little can harm the vine. If you’re growing grape vines in pots, none of the local knowledge about climate, soil, and irrigation apply. All the research, that growers have access to, wont help you. I had been watering once a week, and keeping an eye out for water stress. Well, yesterday I found it. The one and only cluster on my Swenson Red is shriveled, dry, and dead. Maybe I just don’t have a good eye yet, but I didn’t see any signs of trouble; the leaves and tendrils looked fine. The other vines look to be in good shape, but I took this as a warning and I now intend to water twice a week. I learned something about my bonsai orchard too.
I had been treating the fruit trees, I also grow them in pots, just like the grape vines. I’m still curious about how some viticultural techniques; like leaf pulling, cluster thinning, and withholding water during fruit maturity; might apply to other fruit that’s being grown for wine. My fruit trees haven’t been doing well on the strict watering regimen, though, so even if they can benefit from the ways of grape growers, I’ll have to be careful to give them enough water.