Of Hurricanes and Early Frosts

November 21, 2012 | By | 5 Replies More

One of the lessons we’ve learned from this first year of vineyard management is that it can be very difficult to maintain vines from a distance.  In the best of circumstances, it’s hard for us to be at a property that’s just over two hours from our residence any more often than once a week, and we rarely find ourselves in the best of circumstances.  So we do the best we can, using our time as efficiently as possible to make sure the vineyard is well maintained, and that we keep to a reasonable spraying schedule.

A vine leaning in the vineyard

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we found a number of vines had been blown over, and were now leaning down almost to the ground. Not good.

Two weekends ago, after a longer than usual absence, we arrived in Nelson Country to survey damage from Hurricane Sandy and prepare for the freezing weather that had been predicted for that weekend.  My apologies for taking so long to get this post up, but sometimes life gets in the way.  And what with my surgery and a heavy worload back at the office on my day job, Project Sunlight has been a bit neglected.  But I promise to rectify that, starting with this post, which covers Mother Nature at her worst — a hurricane, followed by early frost.

I’ll start with Sandy.  We felt lucky, especially considering the devastation in New York and New Jersey, to have escaped with so little damage.  I once lived on the New Jersey shore, and worked in both Jersey and New York city, and I felt deeply for the people there who suffered so much.  For us, in both Fairfax and Nelson counties, the most visible sign that a storm had passed through were the fallen limbs and branches that will likely provide a whole winter’s worthy of kindling.  But that’s not to say we escaped scot-free.  As we walked through the vineyard, we saw a number of vines leaning sideways, in some cases almost to the ground.  And no, that’s not a good thing.

On closer inspection, it became clear that the vines that were worst off were those that had not made it to the fruiting wire.  And as I thought about those vines, I had a sudden realization of where we had gone wrong. 

Sandy damage

A bamboo stake used like an egg beater by Sandy

One of the little tricks we hadn’t learned at the time we planted our vines was to employ little clips to secure the bamboo support stake to the first wire.  When I stumbled across that technique later in the summer, I didn’t give it much thought – the vines were in the ground, the stakes were supporting them, and all seemed right with the world.  Now, though, inspecting the damage, I realized that securing the stakes to the wire would have given them some stability, strength enough perhaps to stand up to high winds.  Without them, they were easy targets for Sandy’s wrath.Looking at each individual vine made it clear how strong the winds had been.  A number of the stakes were sitting in cone shaped holes, the kind of shape you might get if you whipped the bamboo pole around in a circular motion.  I’m going to hazard a guess that it would take a pretty strong wind to do that.

In any event, I found myself going through the vineyard on my hands and knees, inspecting the vines individually and repairing the damage one vine at a time.  The majority of the vines were okay.  No damage at all.  Some of the repairs were simple.  If the stake was standing in a cone-shaped hole, but still erect, it was a simple matter of compacting some dirt around the stake to fill in the hole.

Exposed roots

Here both the stake and the root are laid bare in this cone shaped hole. We hope the root is okay, but we won’t know until the spring.

In the more difficult cases, the stakes had been lifted out of the earth, and were holding the vines prone to the ground.  That required some delicate surgery.   To avoid damaging the vine, I removed the ties and cut the tendrils that had wrapped themselves around the pole.  Once the pole was free, I pressed it back into the ground, and reattached the trunk of the vine with the ties.  And I used an extra tie to secure the top of the pole to the first wire.  If we have another storm, I want the pole to be secure!However, in some cases, the root itself was sitting in an open hole, and that caused me some concern.  I filled the hole with dirt, and tamped it down, as I had done with the stakes that were similarly sitting in open holes, but I worried that the exposure of the root to the air for an extended period might have caused some damage.  I suppose I won’t know until next spring.

We had one total disaster.  I found one vine that was clearly dead.  Since it was close to a vine that had succumbed to a disease (and which we had pulled out of the ground and removed from the vineyard), we thought at first that the disease had spread.  On closer examination, it became apparent that the vine’s trunk had been severed about a foot above the ground.  That was pretty good news.  The graft union was intact, so we are very hopeful that it will begin growing again next spring, taking advantage of the root system that developed this summer.

As it happened, that was only half the battle.  With the weather forecasters calling for an overnight freeze, we wanted to “hill over” the vines.   Hilling over (or hilling up, or mounding over – I hear all three terms used interchangably) involves building up a mound of dirt around the base of the vine, thereby creating a small hill that extends an inch or so above the graft union.  The dirt forms a protective layer that protects the root up to the graft union from killing freezes.

What’s a killing freeze?  I’ve never been through one, but everything I read tells me that for the vines we’ve planted, it’s about 15 degrees below zero.  That’s well below yearly averages, but as Chris Hill, one of the Commonwealths’s most noted viticulturists would say, it’s not the averages that kill you, it’s the records.  The averages can bump along for years comfortably above the level that would do serious damage to the vines, and then on one night, the temperature can hit a low that destroys the vineyard.

By hilling over, you still might run the risk of damage to that year’s crop, but if the roots and the graft union are protected, a new vine can emerge in the spring.  Better to lose a season’s harvest than an entire vineyard. 

A couple of hilled up vines

Here’s some vines after being hilled over. The mounds require a lot of soil. It’s easier to see the hills if you open this picture.

Commercial vineyards mechanize the process, using an implement that scrapes up dirt along the row and pushes it to the vine.  Our vineyard is way too small to justify buying an implement like that for my tractor, so I resorted to the low-tech solution of digging with a shovel and depositing the dirt around the bottom of the vine.  For a variety of reasons, we planted so that the graft union would be four inches above ground, and that meant digging a lot of dirt.  Remember, you’re creating a small hill, so the base of that mound gets much bigger as the hill gets higher.  Think pyramids.

By the way, that’s a whoe lot of digging.  Half-way through the job, part of me was wishing I had a vineyard large enough to justify the purchase of a plow that would push the dirt onto the vines.

The downside of hilling over is that it creates conditions for soil erosion, especially if your site is on a hill, as ours is.  Virginia Tech’s Tony Wolf would say that if you are getting freezes on a regular basis sufficiently severe to warrant hilling up, then maybe you picked a bad site for vines.  It’s hard to disagree with him.

But in my own defense, I would say that ours is a hobby vineyard, and as I’ve said before, the hobbyist works with what he or she has.  If we were commercial growers, micro-climate would have been a primary consideration, and I suspect we would have looked for a site with an appropriate elevation to ensure reasonable safety from winter freezes.

Of course, we weren’t dealing two weekends ago with the prospect of a killing freeze.  We were looking at temperatures just a degree or two below freezing.  So, why did we take that forecast as a reason to hill over?   Well, we tend to be very conservative, and I can’t bear the thought of losing a year of work on a project that will not yield wine any sooner than four years from its initiation.  These vines are young, and we felt they deserve every advantage we can confer on them.  And when you commute to your vineyard on an irregular basis, you take have to use the time you have.  That weekend’s weather might not have hurt the vines, but in another week or another month, who knows?  My personal philosophy is to expect the worst, and prepare for it early.

Oh, and hope that someday I’ll be living within a few minutes of my vineyard.

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Category: All Posts, Viticulture

Comments (5)

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  1. Richard deTriquet says:

    Thanks for the post Bob. I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. Please continue as you present alot of solid, practical info for the hobbyist. I have played with wine grapes over the years at home and am planning to plant a small vineyard in Central Virginia next Spring. Thanks again! Rick

    • Bob Garsson says:

      Thanks for the note, Rick, and good luck with the vineyard! What grapes are you planning to plant? Do you know yet where you are going to order them? There’s been a lot of chatter about shortages at vineyard nurseries, and we got a note from one of the nurseries we’ve purchased from in the past saying they were no longer taking no orders. I’m pretty confident we’ll be able to get the small number of vines we need for the spring, but it does make you worry a bit, especially if you are pretty definite about the clone and rootstock you want.

  2. Richard deTriquet says:

    Hi Bob:

    I have always had good luck buying vines from Double A vineyards in Upstate New York. I like their 1X grade vines and have experiemented with different varieties over the past 4 years or so. My land is in the Central Piedmont of Prince Edward County and marked by clay soil. The parcel is high in relation to surrounding areas and is well drained. My now deceased Dad picked out that land about 20 years ago with the intention of doing what he knew as a young man, growing grapes. He was an avid organic horticulturalist long before it became stylish. My plan is to try as best I can to adhere to organic principles with primarily hybrids such as Landot 4511, Oberlin Noir both old French varieties, and Noiret which was developed out of Cornell. The one vinifera variety I will try is Tannat which has done well in my limited tests out there and grows in similar soil conditions in SW France. But this is just a hobby of mine as I’m still fully engaged with the “daily grind” here in Northern Va.
    I very much enjoy your blog. You present so much sound practical information and it’s obvious that this is something that, like me, you derive great pleasure from doing. It appears that things so far have gone well and your vines look great after year one. I’ll be interested in following how things progress in year two. As a fellow wine grower might I suggest a website I stumbled across that you might find interesting. http://www.wineterroirs.com

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


    • Bob Garsson says:

      Rick, very interesting choice in vines! I hope they do well for you. Like you, we live in Northern Virginia, still engaged in commuting and long days in D.C. (a major reason I fell so far behind on my blog), and looking forward to the day when I can spend much more time with the vines and with winemaking.

      I’ve ordered from four different vineyards, small orders in each case, which probably doesn’t give me much clout with any of them, and Double A was probably the most user friendly of the group. We ordered Cab Franc on 101-14, planted half in Fairfax, half in Nelson County, and used them to get some experience before we made the big order (a whopping 150 vines!!). Nice people to deal with, very flexible and the vines were just fine. We decided to go with ENTAV vines for the main vineyard, and as I recall, we couldn’t get them from Double A.

      Took a look at the web site your suggested, and it looks terrific. Do you read WIneMaker magazine? Great resource for hobbyists like us.

      Thanks for the holiday wishes, hope you and your family also have a wonderful Thanksgiving!


  3. Richard deTriquet says:

    oh I forgot to answer your other question. The Tannat and Noiret will be grafted on 101-14 rootstock. The remainder are on their own roots. One of the key threats I face is with black rot and all except Tannat have shown at least decent resistance in the literature.

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