Vineyard Update 2013

In 2011 we prepared a vineyard site, put up a deer fence, and planted 40 grape vines along with some raspberries, blackberries, and asparagus. Since we posted the 2012 vineyard update last year, the grapes have continued to do well for the most part. We’ve had a few that died out and had to be replaced but most of the original vines are now in their third year and bearing their first crop.

May 12, 2013
On the night of May 12 we had a late spring hard freeze (28 degrees F) after many of the buds had started growing, and right before the freeze we covered each of the 40 vines with an aluminized polyethylene tarp, clipped at the bottom and sides with clothespins:

The vines still froze pretty hard, enough to kill nearly all of the shoots that had started growing, but they quickly sprouted new shoots from the secondary buds and seem to have done okay. We think the tarps helped, and if a similar situation arises again we’ll use tarps plus drip hoses to keep a flow of water over the vines during a hard freeze.

July 21, 2013

Here’s how the vineyard looks today:

As you can see in the photos above, the mature vines (now in their third year) occupy four rows on the left, each of which holds 10 vines. The newly planted vines are on the right (more about those below). We originally planted 8 vines each of four varieties of wine grapes, plus 2 vines each of four varieties of seedless table grapes. Because this is only their third year, we thinned the flower clusters to one or two per shoot in order reduce the amount of fruit they will set. We’re aiming for 5 – 10 pounds of fruit per vine depending on how vigorous they seem; in subsequent years they should be able to handle about twice that much fruit but we want to avoid over-cropping the vines while they’re still getting established.

The Frontenac have done really well this year, and seemed to recover quite well from the late freeze. They lost all the shoots that had started to grow, but the secondary buds soon sprouted and bore vigorous shoots with lots of flower clusters that we thinned quite a bit. They have set large fruit clusters, well-filled but still fairly loose, and they seem fairly resistant to fungal diseases. We’ve had to pull a few bad grapes from each vine after early summer rains brought on some black rot fungus but overall it’s been only a minor problem.

Frontenac Gris
The gray-skinned variant of Frontenac (a white wine grape) is growing very similarly, showing good recovery from the late freeze and has set some nice-looking fruit.

The Marquette was hit the hardest by the late freeze and has been slow to recover. Because the vines were showing weak growth we thinned the flower clusters even more than the other varieties in order to help the vines recover. They seem to be coming back nicely and although the crop is small, the fruit seems to have good quality and little or no fungus problems so far. The fruit clusters are smaller than Frontenac and we tried to keep them to under 5 pounds per vine, considerably less on some vines that seemed slow to recover.

Leon Millot
Although the Leon Millot seemed to recover okay from the freeze, the vines are showing signs of stress. As you can see in the first photo below, some of the vines (note the one on the left) have yellowish leaves and we’ve continued to thin the fruit on those vines to help them recover. As the second photo shows, some of the vines are growing well and setting some nice-looking fruit clusters. The clusters are very dense, much more so than the Frontenac and Marquette, which has made it difficult to pick out any bad berries when we find them.

The first photo below shows a Leon Millot cluster with one grape at the top of the lower cluster showing the telltale brown spot of a fungus infection, most likely black rot. Early on it doesn’t look so bad, but eventually the whole berry shrivels and becomes black before releasing spores to spread the infection. We pull the berries as soon as we see any sign of brown spots and so far it’s been only a minor problem. The Leon Millot have shown about the same level of this as the other varieties. The second photo shows how dense some of the Leon Millot clusters are. Next year we may try combing the flower clusters to thin them out so the berries won’t be packed so tightly. At the lower left of the second photo you can see some aerial roots sprouting from the bottom of the cane. This is a common sign of freeze injury, showing that the canes were somewhat injured by the late freeze even though they continue to send out healthy shoots. The aerial roots don’t really cause a problem and we’ll just leave them alone, but they do give us an indication that the vines are stressed so we’ve been reducing the crop load on these vines by cutting out any clusters that don’t look healthy or that have more than a few bad berries. We’re still expecting a modest crop from the Leon Millot this year, perhaps 4 to 5 pounds per vine.

Of the four seedless varieties we planted (along with Himrod, Mars and Canadice), the Reliance grapes have done the best. Early on the grapes showed some downy mildew and we culled some entire clusters as well as quite a few individual berries, but the remaining clusters are looking pretty good. The vines got off to a slow start this year, perhaps because of the late freeze, so they didn’t set a lot of fruit but we may get a few pounds from them. More importantly, the vines are looking better now so next year we expect they will do well.

Trellis and Training System
Originally we put in a three-wire trellis with wires at 4, 5 and 6 feet above ground level. This is a little higher than is typical in our region, but getting the grapes higher off the ground makes them easier to work on and tends to get them warmer, which helps them to ripen. Some of our vines are quite vigorous, and they easily produce shoots 10 feet long or more, so keeping them off the ground on the 3-wire trellis was a challenge. This spring we installed two more wires on cross-braces, about 4 feet apart and 7 feet off the ground. This gives us places to tie up the long shoots and keeps the fruit zone more exposed so it’s easier to work on. We are continually tying up shoots with twine, which is a bit of work but it’s enjoyable and it’s better than having to step over shoots on the ground. By spreading the upper canopy over a wider area, we enable the vines to collect more sunshine which should yield healthier vines and better grapes. Plus the increased air circulation around the grapes should help them dry faster in the morning or after rains, to reduce problems with fungal diseases. So far it seems to be working, as we’ve had only minor problems with fungus and we haven’t sprayed with any kind of fungicide. The only spray we have used is Bacillus thuringiensis, a natural biological control for caterpillars that we hope will reduce the incidence of grape berry moth caterpillars. So far we haven’t found any this year but it’s still early.

Below is a view showing the vine structure and how we train them. We are using our own variation of a Kniffen pruning system, which is an old system of grape training that is very common in this part of the country. The only permanent part of the vine will be the central vertical trunk and short renewal spurs (stubs) coming off the trunk just below the wires. Each spring, the vine is cut back to four to six canes that grew the previous year, tied loosely to the wires and cut to have about 10 buds each (the number of buds isn’t crucial and we usually just cut them halfway over to the next vine). Everything else is removed, about 90 percent of the vine! The fruit is borne on the vigorous green shoots that grow from these 4 or 6 arms, and these shoots typically get anywhere from 4 to 8 feet long on our vines, and sometimes even longer. Next year, the cycle repeats and we cut off the old fruiting canes and most of the rest, retaining only the strongest 4 to 6 new canes that originated near the main trunk.

Our variation on the Kniffen system is to add 2 extra wires on cross braces similar to a Geneva Double Curtain trellis, so that we have more places to tie up the shoots as they grow. We don’t try to control them too much, as with the Vertical Shoot Positioning system; we just keep them off the ground and out of our way as we work on the fruit, and try to give them as much space as possible to grow overhead. It’s pretty much a riot of shoots going every which way up there but that’s just fine, as they will all get cut off in the spring anyway. At it’s heart it is still a Kniffen system because we’re removing the horizontal canes every year, which has the advantage of being more resistant to winter injury because they canes are renewed every year. We just spread out the canopy much more than a Kniffen system typically would, by using the extra wires on the cross braces.

New Grapes
This spring we expanded the vineyard with space for 40 more vines by adding three 12-vine rows plus extending the original 4 rows by one vine each into spaces we had originally planned for kiwi vines. So now we have space for a total of 80 grape vines, though we have a few open spaces here and there that we’ll fill in with another seedless variety next spring.

The new cultivars we planted this spring are Traminette, which is a spicy white-wine grape, St. Croix, a red wine variety that has relatively low acid and should blend well with our high-acid Frontenac, and Petite Pearl, an extremely cold-tolerant red wine variety that was recently introduced. The young vines are all doing well and we’ve started training them up stakes:

It’s not strictly necessary to train them up like this in the first year, but we prefer to because it keeps the young shoots off the ground. If they put out good growth that survives the winter well, this will become the trunk of the mature vine. If not, then we’ll cut them to the ground in the spring and train up a vigorous new shoot to become the trunk.

Vineyard Update 2012

August 11, 2012
Last spring we prepared a vineyard site, put up a deer fence, and planted 40 grape vines along with some raspberries, blackberries, and asparagus. Since then the grapes have done well, although some of them were injured by late spring frosts this year. Here’s a pair of photos showing how it looked in the spring of last year just after we had cleared and mulched it, and how it looks now:

Here’s a closer view of the four rows of grape vines, with other berries and asparagus planted in the rows between. The second photo is taken from the southeast corner looking back toward the house.

Most of the vines did very well, and the photos below show Leon Millot and Frontenac vines with canes trained along the trellis wires.

Grapes are not expected to produce a crop until their third year, and it is generally recommended to prune off all the flower clusters to keep them from setting any fruit while they are still getting established. But we did let a few of the more vigorous vines set one cluster of grapes each, just enough for a taste and not enough to unduly stress the young vines. The first photo below shows a cluster of Marquette wine grapes, and the second shows seedless Reliance grapes that will turn pink as they ripen.

Next year we can expect a moderate crop of perhaps 5 pounds per vine for those that are doing well, but less for those that are slow to establish or were injured by the spring frosts this year and are still recovering. That should be enough for a couple of 5-gallon batches of wine next year, and several times as much once the vines are mature. In the mean time we are practicing our winemaking skills using grapes of the same varieties we’re growing (Leon Millot, Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac gris) that we purchased from Taylor Ridge Vineyard, so that we’ll have some experience by the time our own grapes are ready.


Since we have room for about 40 vines, we decided to plant 8 vines each of 4 different varieties for wine, and 2 vines each of 4 different varieties of seedless table grapes. After researching what grapes would do well in our climate we settled on the following varieties:

  8 Leon Millot, a cold-hardy French hybrid wine grape   2 Canadice, a red seedless table grape
  8 Frontenac, a dark blue wine grape released by the University of Minnesota in 1996   2 Mars, a blue seedless table grape
  8 Frontenac Gris, a gray-colored sport of Frontenac for white wine   2 Himrod, a white seedless table grape, good for making raisins
  8 Marquette, a more recent (2006) introduction from the university of Minnesota   2 Reliance, a red seedless table grape

June 1, 2011
Once the vineyard preparation was done, we planted the 40 grape vines that we ordered from Miller Nurseries (now Stark Bro’s) and Burpee Gardens. The photos below show how they looked shortly after planting. We pruned them back to have just 2 or 3 buds each and we’ll select the strongest shoots to train up as the main trunk of each vine. The whole area is now mulched in wood chips to help conserve moisture, and so far they haven’t needed any supplementary water.

Vineyard Preparation

The land we cleared to the southeast of the house is a gentle south-facing slope that should work well for growing grapes and other fruit crops. Our vineyard will consist of four rows each 77 feet long with grape vines spaced 7 feet apart, giving enough space for a total of 44 vines. Grape rows are typically spaced about 8 feet apart but we spaced ours 18 feet apart to leave enough room for rows of fruiting shrubs in between. Rather than the monoculture that is typical of most vineyards, ours will be a diverse polyculture of grapes, raspberries, blackberries, currants, bush cherries, aronia, honeyberries, blueberries, asparagus etc. We’ll also grow perennial flowers among the fruiting shrubs in order to attract beneficial insect populations.

May 21, 2011
After clearing the brush and trees from the area to the southeast of the house, we began turning the area into a garden. The first step was to spread out the huge pile of wood chips that came from all the brush we cleared.

After a long day of spreading wood chips, we managed to cover the whole vineyard area and a path up through the new garden area to the south of the house. The first photo below was taken standing about 50 feet south of the house, looking southeast down toward the vineyard area. The second photo shows the whole vineyard-to-be, with the deer fence posts in the background.

May 22, 2011
Today we set the posts for the trellises that will support the grape vines. We set 24 posts in all, and the auger on the back of the tractor helped a lot. Each post is 10 feet long and set 3 feet in the ground so they’re 7 feet high. The top support wire of the trellis will be 6 feet off the ground, and we may run another wire up at the top of the posts to help hold up bird netting if the birds start harvesting our grapes for us!

The first photo below shows the view from the south of the vineyard, looking northward up the hill. The second photo shows the view from the northwest corner looking southeast back down the hill. Each trellis row runs north-south and consists of 6 posts. The pair of posts at the end of each row are only 7 feet apart so that we can place a diagonal brace between them to support the tension of the trellis wires. The other posts are 21 feet apart and will have 3 vines between each pair of posts.

Deer Fence

All the plantings in our new garden space will be for naught without some protection from deer, rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons and the like. We’re building a deer fence around the perimeter that should exclude all of these pests, perhaps not 100% of the time but enough to limit our losses. Deer can jump a 12 foot fence if they are sufficiently motivated, but a fence that tall would be very costly and a fence only 7 feet high is usually sufficient if it is difficult for the deer to judge the fence’s height visually. If jumping does become a problem, rather than extending the fence upward it will be more effective to extend it outward at the top. In addition to the fencing, which is essentially sturdy plastic-coated chicken wire, we’ll run electric wires around the outside to discourage climbing raccoons.

May 16, 2011
Our nephew Nash used the power augur on our tractor to drill all of the post holes, and set the posts around the perimeter. In the first photo below you can see a corner brace, which will have a diagonal wire tensioned to resist the pull of the fence on it. This is at the far northeast corner of the fenced area, looking west toward the house.

This is the fence along the south edge, and you can see the tensioned corner brace in the photo below. If you look closely you can also see the black wire that runs 7 feet off the ground on the outside of the posts to support the fencing at the top.

This fencing material is not placed under high tension as livestock fencing usually is. It’s fastened to the top wire with metal hog rings that crimp around the fence and the wire, and then the fence is stapled to the posts. It flares out about 6 inches at the bottom, and this flap will be anchored to the ground to discourage animals from digging underneath. A determined woodchuck or rabbit will still be able to get under it, but it should discourage them for the most part once all the sections of fence are in place.

Brush Clearing

December 13, 2010
Here are a couple of photos taken last winter, showing the scraggly trees and brush to the southeast of the house. If you look closely, especially in the first photo, you can see the tangle of brambles that made the area all but impenetrable. With few exceptions the trees are in poor shape, having grown too densely under the canopy of large trees that were logged off before we bought the property.

March 26, 2011
In the spring we began clearing the area, pushing our tractor through the dense tangles of brambles and removing trees. We hesitate to remove any trees but the majority of these were in such poor shape that it was no great loss to remove them. Once the area is cleared, much of it will be replanted with a variety of fruit trees.

April 8, 2011
By early April we had tackled most of the brambles and scrub trees. And we also dug up hundreds of pieces of old rusty fence wire that was buried just below the surface.

April 13, 2011
With the trees out of the way we were left with a field of stumps, and for the first time a view of the house from the southeast. This area slopes gently to the south, which is ideal for what we have in mind.

April 15, 2011
Jay attacked the stumps with a rented stump grinder. It took two days of grinding to grind them all down below the surface.

May 12, 2011
By early May we finished removing the trees and brush, grinding the stumps down, and scraping the remaining stubble to remove small shrubs and roots near the surface. The leaves are coming in nicely and the dogwoods have started to bloom.

May 18, 2011
All our clearing activity left us with two huge piles of brush and remains of trees, which you can just see way in the back of the photos below. Each of the two piles was about 20 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 8 feet high. We hired Absolute Tree Service, whom we used back in 2009 when we began clearing land for the house, to turn these huge piles of brush into a huge pile of wood chips that we will use to mulch the whole area.