Mother Nature Loves a Good Test

Whenever an individual begins a new endeavor, she inevitably reaches a point where she wishes for some sort of evaluation in order to gauge her progress.  Passing or failing such an evaluation can provide invaluable insight into the individual’s mastery of the given subject matter, and it’s such a commonplace methodology that we expect it in almost every situation which requires learning and development.  I can assure you that such an evaluation exists in the world of viticulture… and it’s name is Mother Nature.

For me, last year’s test came in the form of heat and drought in the summer and extreme cold in the winter.  It just goes to show that Mother Nature enjoys to throw us Iowans a curveball whenever she has the opportunity.

After a recent walk-through of my vineyard, I can tell you: I am seeing the results of last year’s test.

The mars (a seedless red) was hit the hardest.   I have few blooms and will probably drop what few I have and let the plant try to recover.

Berry set was lacking on the Edelweiss and Fredonia, with many bunches only showing half full.  A few plants are so stressed that I will assuredly drop the fruit.

The tops of young plants that were planted last spring have died.  Most are still growing , but I feel that last year was a lost year for my new plants.  All in all, about 10% have died completely.

The Concord and Brianna made it through the best.  Some plants are stressed and the berry set is spotty but most are presenting themselves fairly well at this point.

This will be a down year for me, no doubt.  Most, if not all of my stressed plants that made it through the winter will have the fruit dropped.  The foliage is less than normal on most plants and spurs and canes are farther apart, which is another reason to reduce the berry load.   In past years I have allowed a two year old plant have a bunch of grapes but not this year. All the fruit on immature plants will be dropped.  I also have put extra fertilizer around the most stressed plants to spur extra growth and aid their recovery.

So what have I learned from Mother Nature’s test?  Well, first and foremost I’ve come to realize that my irrigation is simply inadequate.

While my existing irrigation methodology served my purposes through the previous season, it simply wasn’t good enough to prepare my plants for that harsh winter.  I can’t help but feel that those terrible cold spells only compounded the problems already existing in the plant, and in some cases the plants were simply overwhelmed and died.  Perhaps had I employed a more efficient system of irrigation last season I wouldn’t be having to drop as much fruit or replace as many plants.

This, of course, is just one of the many things you can learn from one of Mother Nature’s tests.

When I have walked through the vineyard with friends they have noticed me looking at the back of leaves, staring down a row or looking inside the canopy.  They will ask what am I looking for or what am I looking at?  There are many things to look at when you’re trying to evaluate the vineyard.  Is the row developing well, are the color of the leaves ok, are there any thin or bare areas, is the wire correct, or are the posts ok?  Is there any disease, is there any insect damage or is there any animal damage?  Is the canopy overgrown or too thin?  Is the berry set ok?  What plants are overall doing well and what plants should be replaced.   Should a variety be replaced or increased?   What plants held out well over the winter?  How can I improve the chances for less damage next winter?  Is there too much plant growth under the canopy?  Should I increase irrigation?  By looking at the vineyard and observing what has gone well and what hasn’t, I am answering questions which will help me improve the vineyard next week, next month, next year and beyond.

Mother Nature may not hand us a multiple choice quiz with our incorrect answers marked in red, but she sure knows how to teach us a few things.  You can take it from me.