Last week, my apprenticeship took me out of the greenhouse in gorgeously sunny spring weather as Dave showed me how to prune grapevines.
His vines have a history: two of the three varieties came from his German cousin, who tended and nurtured them for decades. A number of years ago, the cousin gave Dave many cuttings, which Dave then planted in two rows south of the greenhouse on his farm. The varieties are red and white, names unknown, sweet grapes that sound like they are good for eating as well as for making juice or jelly.
The third variety, a White Catawba, had a more mundane origin and was planted on the other side of the chicken pen. But while these vines may not have the sentimental appeal of the family grapes, they have more familiarity for me since Catawba is one of the main grape varieties that has been grown in northern Ohio for many years. A well-known representative of the labrusca or “fox” grapes, something I’ve written about before, the Catawba grape has a flavor that tastes like “home” to me.
I watched carefully as Dave selected offshoots from the main vines to prune, either knowing that the branch was dead and not worth keeping or choosing a length with enough buds to be a viable cutting for starting new vines. He worked his way around each main vine with methodical care, instructing me where to tie some vines to the wires to train them for the next year.
Finally, by the time we reached the last row of grapes, he was ready for a break — and I was ready to take over the pruning. He handed me the pruners and walked away. I focused on the vines, trying to visualize their growth as he did, and pruned away the dead pieces and added more cuttings to the bucket. When he returned, he looked it over — and declared it good.
I am sure I will have many noteworthy accomplishments in my apprenticeship this year, but this easily tops anything to date. I pruned grapevines!
The bucket of cuttings, then, were handed to me. Since Dave wasn’t ready to plant more on his farm, he offered them to me, if I had a place to start my own grapevines. And I did.
My dear friend Keith comes from a “farm” a couple counties away, and though the land there hasn’t really been worked as a farm as we know it, his brother and sister-in-law (the owners now, though not in residence) are interested in adding gardens and fruit crops to the land. So I suggested to him that we plant the grapevines there, and after consulting with his sister-in-law, he showed me the slope where he had laid out the rows.
Four of us worked on the project: Keith wielded Dave’s planting tool, a long sharpened metal pole with a handle, used to poke and widen a deep hole in the ground; Peg and her friend Mary followed and stuck the cuttings into the holes, with two buds below the surface; and I came along last and backfilled the holes with sand.
We ended up with three sixty-foot rows, one per variety, and after I watered each of the cuttings, we covered the rows with a thick layer of straw for mulch. Since this slope gets full sun and is in the path of the mower, we knew we’d need to protect the vines while they settle in. Sometime yet this spring or early summer, we’ll go through and set posts and run wires for the trellising needed for the grapevines to grow.
I’m sure I’ll learn more about viticulture from Dave as the season progresses. I expect we’ll lose some of the cuttings, based on what he has told me, but I hope we’ll end up with a good healthy set of vines to provide us with tasty grapes for years to come.