Bandits in the Vineyard

August is the month to be diligent about a certain four-legged masked bandit.  Our friend, the raccoon, is making his rounds in the vineyard and is plotting how he will destroy your nets and steal your grapes and spoil your fun.

Obviously, raccoons can be a real big problem.  Even one, acting alone, can wreak havoc and cause mayhem.  Diligence and planning is key to eliminating, or at least reducing, the destruction these guys can cause.

First, check around the vineyard for trails or paths that are used by animals.  You can usually find them by end posts or through a surrounding fence.  Buy a cage trap, the kind that catches animals without hurting them, and make sure it is big enough for one or more raccoons.  I have caught as many as three at a time in these traps.

Place the trap close to the trail.   If you can’t find a trail then set it near an end post that is closest to a fence line, road, pond or ditch.   Set the trap and leave a five foot trail of dog food to the trap.  Make sure to put plenty of food in the trap as a tempting reward for the buggers.

Check the trap each morning.  If you don’t catch anything for two or three days then move the trap to a new location.  When you catch the neighbor’s cat (this is almost a certainty) you can let it go, but when you finally catch a raccoon you can dispose of him as regulations allow.  When you stop catching anything, move to a new location and keep this up until harvest is complete.  The ripe grapes will entice raccoons from miles around so you have to keep catching them.   Unfortunately, you’ll need to keep check on it every day, and there is the possibility that you also may catch something you would rather not – like a skunk.

Another way to keep raccoons out of the vineyard is to have an electric fence.  It should be at least two wires.  One about four inches off the ground so that they can’t get under it and another about twelve inches off the ground.  If you use the wide fencing, it will be easier for the raccoons to see and stay away.  Of course, you’ll have to spend time keeping the fence operational, which takes time.  Vegetation will need to be cut or spayed so the fence can keep working correctly.

There are other options as well, including noise makers, cannons, scarecrows, and dogs which can help deter these bandits.  Keep in mind that raccoons are very intelligent and will figure out quickly if something will hurt them.  Once they figure it out, they’ll keep clear or attempt something else.

I absolutely do not condone using poison.  If the raccoon dies where another animal can eat it, the poison can be easily passed on, and you won’t be able to control what other animals may eat the poison, like the neighbor’s cat or dog.

It is very important to keep these varmints out of the vineyard.  They can rip up netting, damage plants, and spoil grapes, which can cause birds or insects to start feeding on the spoilage.  Be sure to follow trapping laws and regulations.  Contact your local DNR for further suggestions.

Of course, if you feel up to the task, you can always sit out in the vineyard at night with Old Yeller.

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.

Favorite Grape: Is it Possible to Have One?

People have asked me, “What is your favorite grape?”

This is not an easy question to answer, so I generally have to pose a question right back at them.

“Are you asking for my favorite red, white, American or Old World, or are you asking what I prefer above all others?”

You see, there are countless varietals out there.  In Italy alone there are over 350 grapes listed with ‘authorized’ status for wine production, and over 500 documented varietals in circulation.  Choosing a grape from the hundreds and thousands of different grapes and placing it at the top of the tier as my favorite is a daunting task.  Luckily, of the small fraction of grape varietals I’ve had the good fortune of tasting and working with, a couple come to mind right away.

Out of the white varietals common to the Midwest, Brianna and Edelweiss are at the top of my list.   They share many characteristics and can even be mistaken for each other depending on the experience of the taster and the method in which they have been prepared.

Both are good producers, can withstand cold temperatures, and both are a bit susceptible to diseases such as anthracnose.

The best part about these grapes is that you can do just about anything with them.  They can make great wines, which can either be sweet or dry.  They are also very good table grapes when fully ripe.  The juice is fantastic and incredibly flavorful, and can be used for jelly, or simply as it is at the breakfast table.  The flavors are rich and buttery with an almost sweet apple finish.  And one of my favorite parts is that the juice tastes as if it were sweetened with honey.

If you fancy a cool weather drink, the juice is fantastic when served warm, much like you would serve warm cider.  Give it to an unsuspecting guest and you are guaranteed to raise eyebrows.  They’ll likely ask where you got the honey-sweetened cider.

I was always told by other vineyard managers to pick these grapes at about 15% sugar.  It was said that if they were allowed to ripen to 20% sugar then the wines would have a labrusca (or foxiness) quality.   But since I never once came across that issue, I have changed my methods and pick at around 20% sugar.  The result is a higher quality and strength of the fruit flavors.

All in all, these grapes provide versatility.  Not only do they make good wine, they make for good eating, good jelly making, and good drinking in general – very useful grapes, indeed.

If you have a chance to taste these varietals, I’m sure you will enjoy them.

And if you have any interest in hearing about some of the other grapes I have an interest in, stay tuned for my next article.  I won’t be able to tell you my favorite, though – the world of grape varietals is incredible diverse.  How can I choose one when so many have great attributes?  It’s certainly a struggle.


Where’s the Pied Piper when you need him?

Watch out!  This is the time of year to keep a good look out for ground squirrels.  These four inch rodents can do such terrible damage that they can kill vines.

Watch for mounds and loose dirt around the base of your vines.   If your vineyard is less vigorous or your vines are wilting it may be a sign that the animals are digging around down there.   These varmints are prolific so getting ahead of the problem is important.

Stay on top of these ground squirrels, because if you don’t you may have other animals trying to do it for you.  That can be almost as bad as the rodents themselves.  Foxes, dogs or other predators will try to dig them out and that can kill a vine or render it useless with mounds of dirt and holes in the vineyard.

If you have just a few varmints, an easy way to control them is to use a rat trap (like a big mousetrap).  Bait the trap with peanut butter.  Come back thirty minutes later and take the dead squirrel out and re-bait the trap.

You may have to drill a hole in the trap and secure it to a post with a wire because a hungry fox or hawk may take the squirrel along with the trap before you get a chance to remove him.

If you have a large infestation you may consider using a device that puts propane into the holes.  When you light the propane.  Kaboom.  No more ground squirrels.  You won’t have to bury them either since they are already in the ground.

Of course, be careful with this method.  Play with fire at your own risk.

I don’t care for poisoned bait since I don’t know for sure that another animal won’t eat it.  I have heard of people putting the exhaust of a motor into the holes.  I haven’t done this myself so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of this technique.

You’ll have to make the final decision how you want to deal with the varmints, in the end.  Unfortunately the Pied Piper doesn’t live around these parts so you’ll have to get your hands dirty.

Staying ahead of the little buggers is the main thing.  They can multiply rapidly and take out several plants before you know it.  Keep your eyes peeled.

Good luck.

Trellis Questions

It’s not uncommon for people ask me what I believe the best type of trellising method happens to be.  Specifically, people like to know the best way to securely anchor the ends of the trellis.

The best answer I can give in a nutshell: it depends.

I have made a trellis that has the familiar H posts at both ends, and I have made a trellis with single end post held by a guy wire to an anchor.  Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, and in the end it’ll be up to you (the viticulturist) to choose the best method for your vineyard.

The ‘guy wire’ is called a ‘trip wire’ by some as it can be easily caught by equipment and broken or stretched.  But, this potential inconvenience is almost made up for by the fact that you only need one end post and one anchor.  I find that an anchor is easier to screw in the ground then digging a hole or driving a post in the ground.  An anchor also costs less than an end post.  With a guy wire end, there is no horizontal brace to install making installation faster and cheaper.

With an H frame end post system, there are four components.  The two posts, the brace and the brace wire.  There are also two holes to dig, compared to one for the anchor system.  One of the biggest problems I find with the H post system is that raccoons will sit on the brace between the end posts   and use it as a seat to eat grapes and tear up the netting.  Of course, one of the major advantages of this method is that it is incredibly strong and durable (assuming the installation was done properly).

With a guy wire anchored system, there is a bit of wasted space between the end post and the anchor.  If you’re creative, however, this should not be a problem.  I use this space to plant rose bushes or rhubarb.

I have put in both types of systems for my trellis ends but the one I prefer in my vineyard is the anchor system.  It expedites the process of vineyard expansion, and keeps costs low.  But perhaps this method isn’t for you.  If you have a plentiful supply of posts and no raccoons to speak of, then maybe the H system may be best for you.

Wire Tension

While you are working in the vineyard this spring you may like to measure the tension of your trellis wire. An easy to do this is to buy a fish scale, the kind you would use to measure that trophy fish. They are inexpensive and easy to carry.

Take a 6 inch by 42 inch board and draw a line to divide the board in half lengthwise. Measure in from each end 1 inch and put a nail in. These nails should be 40 inches apart. Next draw a line to divide the lengthwise line in half. Put in a nail ½ inch below the crossing point. This nail is in the middle between the outer nails. Your device is now finished.

Hold the board so that the trellis wires are above the outer nails. Connect the spring scale in the center of the wire and pull down until you touch the center nail. Read the scale and multiply the number by 20. This will be the tension of the wire. If the scale reads 10 pounds then the tension is 200 pounds.

tension illustration2-01


As most of you familiar with grape-growing will know, birds can be a terrible problem for a vineyard.  In fact, they can be downright devastating.  But it may surprise you to know that there are several birds I like having around.

First is the bluebird.  This stylish creature is worth its weight in gold when it has a brood to feed.  It can pick off bugs and larvae that you can hardly see.  The only time I saw a bluebird this past summer was with a worm in its beak.  And since it can have more than one brood, the benefits of having this bird stick around continue through most of the summer.

If you want bluebirds to come around your vineyard, now is the time to get those new houses up and the old ones cleaned and repaired.  The male bluebird will scout out a home as early as February.  Bluebirds like open spaces such as a vineyard’s turning ends.  Try to place houses in a spot that will not receive spray.  On top of a steel post or on a post with a protective cover around it so critters can’t crawl up is the best place.  Place houses at least 50 feet apart.

Owls are another bird that I like having around because they help by getting those mice, gophers and rabbits.  You can make an owl box and place it well up in a tree.  Owls can hatch out a brood in February so get a house up early.  If an owl has enough food it will stay most of the year.

Hawks are another bird of prey that will stay around most of the year and may use the owl box that you put out.  Hawks are useful to keep other birds away from the grapes during the daytime.  They’re a pretty intimidating presence and will scare birds off whenever they fly overhead.

Go to the North American Bluebird Society for plans for a bluebird house and for additional information about bluebirds:

Go to the Missouri Conservation Website for good plans and information on building an Owl box:

You can find a large amount of information from many sources on the Web.  It is a nice change for creatures to help in a vineyard instead of being a problem.  All it may take is a little time to make a welcoming home.

Deer Control

Deer have long been a pest in the vineyard.  Unfortunately, there is no permanent way to keep these critters out.  All methods are simply deterrents.  Some work better than others.

A fence works pretty well but it must be high enough that they are unable to leap over it, and it should be fastened down so that they’ll be unable to push their way underneath.  Deer would much rather crawl under a fence than jump it, but a fence of at least 10 feet high should be used.  Unfortunately, as with many things, cost is an issue.

An electric fence may work well but needs to have constant attention since it can be easily torn down by a deer running through it.  If you can’t use the wide electric fence conductor, tie some marking tape every few feet.  The deer can easily see the tape… and so can you.  From a distance you’ll be able to tell if it is still up.  Deer are by nature curious and will go up to the tape.  They’ll be shocked when they get too close.  An easy way to teach them to stay clear.

Another way to get deer used to an electric fence is to put peanut butter on some aluminum foil about 4 inches square and fold the foil over the wire.  The deer will smell and see the foil and be curious enough to get close and get a shock.  Use fiber glass posts to prop the foil in place since the foil will move down the wire in the wind and short out the fence to a metal post.

There are other deterrents, of course.

I have cut out the side of a plastic milk jug and put a tablespoon of bloodmeal  with some water in the jug.  I then post them several feet apart in the vineyard.  I have tied dryer sheets by young plants.  The strong smell seems to help keep the pesky deer away.  A dog is a good deterrent, definitely, but it would prove difficult to keep one in the vineyard.  Dogs are social creatures, as we know, and would not take kindly to being banished to the lonely vineyard.  I have tried scarecrows but without success.  The deer only seemed to want to get a closer look.  I have tried planting rye around the vineyard since the deer don’t seem to like to eat it.  I don’t think it was worth the effort.

Try not to plant near a wooded area – although in our area, a high deer population seems to come with any territory.  Sometimes, if you find that one side of the vineyard is getting hit harder than another, a double fence will help.  I have made a cheap fence by hanging hay bale wrap from a wire.  This seems to confuse them.  Deer like to walk on a trail or in a mowed area rather than high grass.  If you are able to block their open routes, this can help.

I used to raise Christmas trees and the deer were a terrible problem.  Finally, I had to leave a field just for the deer to browse and used deterrents to protect the rest of the trees.  I hung smelly soap like a Christmas ornament from the trees but, unfortunately, it attracted mice.  A planting away from the vineyard just for the deer may help.

Remember, everything you will try is only going to be a deterrent.  Even deer season is a temporary solution.  Since deer have a large range, even if you eliminated all of them in one given area, more will take their place in a short amount of time.

Of course, everyone seems to have their own favorite deterrent.  Some will prove more effective than others depending on the deer population in your given area during a particular time of year.  If you have a way to keep deer from being a problem don’t be afraid to share.

I, for one, would be glad to try it out.

You Can Make Wine!

Have you ever wondered if you could make wine?  It might be easier than you think.

It’s possible that you know someone who has tried to make their own wine.  I’ve met plenty of folks whose Grandfather made wine in the basement – and a good majority of them wished it had stayed there.  But with a few basic tools you should be able to make a very respectable wine that you can be proud to call your own.

First, I would recommend that you read several books on wine-making at home.   This will give you a good solid understanding of the process, then you’ll be ready to get into the knitty-gritty.

You can start with as little as two, one gallon jars, airlocks for the jars, some juice and sugar.  You’ll have to purchase some yeast and I would recommend getting a hydrometer (a device to measure the amount of sugar in the juice), to determine the correct sugar level in the juice.   The last thing you’ll need is a piece of clear 3/8ths hose to transfer the juice from one container to another (in wine-making terminology, this is called racking) and you’re in business.

There are two things to remember about making wine.  The first is sanitation.  Always keep everything sparkling clean.  Never use chlorine but some other cleanser.  The second is to keep the outside air from touching the wine.  Always use airlocks on all your vessels, and make sure they are filled as close to the brim as possible.  This will eliminate the danger of oxidation.

When I began making my own wine, I didn’t need to spend too much money.  I started out with a primary fermenter which was a food grade 5 gallon bucket.  I had 2 carboys (large glass jars) and 2 airlocks.  I used a floating hydrometer and some used wine bottles.  I bought some corks and an inexpensive corker.  I purchased yeast at the local liquor store which handled wine-making equipment and supplies.  I placed my equipment on a two shelf cart which could be moved with little effort.  The first wine I ever made was a superb cherry wine.  It didn’t take much effort and it had surprising complexity for a fruit-forward wine.  I followed that up with a rhubarb wine which wasn’t too bad.

After that, I was hooked.  I have tried many grape varieties and juices.  Some were good and some were used to clean the drain.  But I have had fun experimenting with mixtures and flavors that you will never be able to find at your wine retailer or even at a local winery.

If you’re looking for juice, ask around and try to find a vineyard in your area and see if you can buy a few gallons.  Most will have a few grapes or juice that you can try and usually they’re more than willing to talk to you and lend a bit of advice.  And, of course, bringing them a bottle of your finished product should help put you in their good graces so you’ll be first on the list to purchase juice for next year.  Let them know several weeks (or even months) before harvest that you are interested.  Some vineyards may even let you pick some of your own grapes.

Here are some books that I recommend to get you started.

Micro-Vinification – A Practical Guide to Small-Scale Wine Production by Murli Dharmadhikari and Karl Wilker, Missouri State University.

Wine Making by Stanley Anderson, Dorothy Anderson, Harcourt Brace

Home Winemaking by Jon Iverson, Stonemark Publishing

Of course, there are a number of great resources on the internet as well.  And if you’re looking for a local vendor for supplies, there are a number of wine making stores and grocery stores now carrying basic supplies for the hobbyist.

It is incredible to be able to craft your own delectable drink.  If done correctly – with love and attention – it will always taste better when you make it yourself.  And unlike those folks whose horror stories we hear all too often about Grampa’s basement wine – you’ll have something to be proud of.

DIY Twine Bucket


I like to use baling twine to tie up my grapes.  Twine is cheap, easy to obtain, easy to use, and biodegradable.

But, it’s not that convenient to carry a roll or a handful of twine to the vineyard.  One false move and suddenly you’re getting tripped up in a tangled mess.

An easy way to handle this is to take a five gallon bucket and drill a 3/8ths hole in the side, a few inches from the top of the rim.  Put your bale of twine in the bucket, fish the twine from the inside of the bale through the hole in the bucket and put a lid on the bucket.  Now you’ll be able to pull out as much twine and you need without opening the bucket.  This method will keep the twine from tangling and keep it safe and dry.

Put the bucket in a convenient place in the vineyard and the supply of twine will always be handy.

Lift the bucket once in a while to make sure there is enough twine to use the next time you may need it.  You can also place a knife or shears in the bucket just in case you’re forgetful – it can save a lot of frustration if you don’t happen to pocket your small tools when you head out to the vineyard.  It can easily hold some wire fasteners and pliers as well.

One thing you’ll have to keep in mind is that the hole you drill should not be large enough for a mouse to squeeze through.  The last thing you want is a critter taking up residence in your vineyard.  Another tip: if the bucket is placed in the shade it will last longer.  The more sunlight it is exposed to the more brittle it becomes.  All told, the bucket should be good for several years.