We decided a year ago, after planting a small, educational vineyard (i.e., seven vines, planted for the sole purpose of getting some hands-on experience with viticulture) to forego the use of grow tubes. That was a tough choice. Almost every vineyard we’ve visited nurtures young vines in grow tubes, and there’s probably good reason to use them in large commercial undertakings.
But we decided against them for our small hobby vineyard for reasons that we think make sense. Most of the research we’ve looked at suggests that vines raised without grow tubes do better in the long run than those that spend their formative months inside protective shelters. We happened to speak to a vintner from South Africa over the weekend, and he echoed our views, noting that he had not even seen a grow tube before arriving in the United States. He still believes, he said, that the vines are better off without them.
But, of course, everything comes with a price. And this weekend, we got a real taste of the price you pay for growing vines without protective shelters.
The main reason vineyards love grow tubes is because it makes cultivation easy. You can spray herbicides such as Round Up around the vine to kill off the weeds without having to worry that your Cab Franc will die with them. Okay, I know that’s not a controversy-free statement. Advocates of organic wine, natural wine, biodynamic farming and so on will object right off the bat to the use of herbicides, however easy they make the task of maintaining a vineyard. And my heart is mostly with them, for a variety of reasons I’ll explore in future posts. But the fact is, keeping the weeds down without Round Up can be just plain drudgery.
Trust me, I have the aching muscles to prove it.
Now, it’s true that our vineyard is small. Right now we have only 150 vines, and the space they take up wouldn’t fill a small corner of even the smallest of the Commonwealth’s commercial vineyards. So we thought we could afford a few luxuries when it came to maintaining the vineyard. But it turns out that pulling weeds by hand is work – really, really, really hard work.
We started off a few weeks ago with nothing more than a hoe and our own hands. And by “we,” I mean my wife, the Vineyard Goddess, as I was still recovering from surgery on my cervical spine (Level 4 ACDF for those of you who know or care about these things). I was there in spirit, but it was the Vineyard Goddess who was working the soil with a hoe, and then kneeling down to pull the weeds by hand. I wasn’t actually there, but I have no doubt that it was slow, painful work.
And I know that, because we talked about it. I might have been unable to do physical labor, but I was still available as a consultant, and it occurred to me that there might be mechanical devices to help with this chore. Sure enough, there are. My preference would have been a small, gas-powered cultivator, but with our very steep slopes, we were concerned that we wouldn’t be able to control it well enough to avoid damage to the vines.
We looked at the somewhat smaller electrical tillers, both corded and battery-powered, and settled on the latter. The corded ones are probably perfect for a garden located next to the house, but our vineyard is a significant hike from the house. And the furthest rows are, as they say, “a fur piece.”
So we went with a battery-powered cultivator, and ordered an extra battery with it. How well did it work? Let me start with the cons.
The battery life was way less than we expected. I didn’t actually time it, but there were days when it seemed like we were getting no more than 15 minutes from a single batter, and I’m probably being generous. The batteries take a good six hours to charge, so this isn’t a small issue. (And walking up the hill from the vineyard to our house is no small issue either.) Because of the limited battery life, I (yes, me; by last week, I was back in action) decided to cultivate the area immediately around each vine, rather than all of the space within the row, trying to give myself a radius of 12 inches that would allow us to put fertilizer down. I was able to get maybe 18 vines, and probably less than that, off one battery.
However, I have to say, it did a great job before the battery died. In the ten to 15 minutes I spent cultivating, I was able to turn the soil to the point where it was almost effortless to pull the weeds out. In fact, some just pulled out with the cultivator. And it’s so much nicer to do the job standing up than kneeling in front of the vine. Sure, eventually you have to get down close to the ground and pull most of the weeds by hand, but it’s much easier after you’ve chewed through the soil with the mechanical cultivator.
So, we managed over the course of four days to finish the job of cleaning out the rows. And, oh, my God, was it ever hot this past week. If you haven’t spent a couple of hours working in a vineyard when the temperature has cleared 100 with a few degrees to spare, you just haven’t lived.
Was it worth it? Doing the labor by hand (yes, with the help of an electric cultivator)? Yeah, I think it was. I believe our vines will do better without grow tubes, and I think the little ecosystem that surrounds and includes our vineyard will be so much better off without herbicides. I’m not saying that to be critical of vineyards that use Round Up to control weeds. We have the luxury of managing a very tiny vineyard and we can do some things by hand that would be impossible for a vineyard that measures its size in acres.
Oh, and of course, the experience of cultivating by hand gave us the added benefits of sunburn, heat exhaustion, physical exhaustion and just plain sore muscles from bending and lifting in every conceivable direction. Could life be any better?