Eating Local: Musing on the fruits of spring
As I drove home through Peach Valley last week, the lowering sun poured dazzling golden light over the Grand Hogback — with a skiff of snow on top — and the pretty little farms still wrapped in winter slumber. A tinge of green enlivened the scene.
Spring is in the air. This morning Ed delivered his first load of honeybees to the orchards in Grand Junction. It’s earlier than usual, but the growers expect the bloom on the apricots any day now.
Against all odds, I remembered to take cuttings from the old Concord grapes before it’s too late, before the sap starts running to the spurs.
Twenty years ago when Ed moved to Colby Farm, a double row of vigorous Concords marked the center of the long looping driveway. A handful of hardy trunks still produce tight bunches of sweet, purple grapes. Sadly, year by year the noble old Concords, the pride of the farm, have weakened, then died. Now only remnants of the vineyard thrive at either end of the long rows, with occasional feeble holdouts in between.
Early one morning a few springs ago I drove to Grand Junction for a pruning workshop at the CSU extension. I hoped, among other things, to learn the secret to reversing this relentless decline. Maybe the soil lacked some vital nutrient.
Grapes, it turns out, don’t require very nutritious soil. They do like it sandy and well-drained and don’t tolerate clay. Grapevines also can outlive generations of the mere mortals who tend them and imbibe Bacchus’ heady drink.
Two paintings from the mid-1600s housed in a museum in Graz depict an ancient grapevine on the 16th-century edifice in Slovenia where it still fastens its tendrils today. Scions taken from the Old Vine of Maribor, Slovenia, grow on every continent and throughout their homeland. The town fetes the vine in seasonal pruning and harvest festivals. The centuries-old plant produces copious fruit and good wine.
When I need gardening advice, I listen for the drone of a four-wheeler or a tractor next door, then I sidle up to the fence where I can find Eldon working. At one time, Eldon’s property and Ed’s were one. A fence split the orchard, and the property, in two. Eldon still has neatly pruned apples, but he’s replaced part of the old orchard with grapes he makes into wine in his garage.
Last fall Eldon instructed me in how to take cuttings from the grapes to renew those failing Concords. He made it sound pretty simple. I’d already cut short lengths of the woody, dormant winter vines from the most robust of the surviving trunks. The angled cuts expose a vivid green ring just under the brown outer layer, a flash of color signaling dormant life hidden inside. Each cutting includes two or three buds where leaves and shoots emerge in their season. I plunged them into water to encourage new roots to sprout instead of buds.
I showed Eldon my jar of hardwood cuttings while he repaired his fence. Over the fence, Eldon corrected my technique and told me what to expect next. Once they root, I’ll dig a trench to plant the little rooting sticks deep in loose soil that I’ll need to keep wet. It will take a year at least before the new vines are established.
Eldon gestured toward his tidy rows of grapes. Their sturdy trunks divide into cordons trained to grow horizontally and support the wild growth of the spreading vines.
“Those first two rows all came from cuttings,” he said, “and the row on the far end came from cuttings too,” salvaged from an abandoned vineyard at the other end of Peach Valley. I recalled the derelict, decimated vineyard. Eldon told me it’s what’s left of someone’s dream to launch a winemaking operation. Now the wine grapes flourish next door, where they have enough sun and Eldon to press and ferment the fruit.
Eldon assured me my Concords aren’t dying from lack of any essential nutriment. It’s old age. “Those grapes came from cuttings too, which are only supposed to last 20 or 30 years. Those Concords are probably 50 years old.”
The apple trees are even older — by Eldon’s estimate at least 70 years old, maybe close to a century.
I saw my first mountain bluebird three weeks ago. Ed, the planner at Colby Farm, pesters me to start planning my garden and avoid scheduling any spring escapes until after planting.
I’m thinking about what I’ll plant less of this year (turnips, cucumbers, peppers) and what I want lots more of (beets, carrots, basil). It’s time to order heirloom tomatoes from Sunshine Farm. I’ll purchase seedling peppers and cabbages there, too.
And I’m watching for shaggy roots to appear on those little sticks in the bucket. It’s the promise of each new spring, the miracle of rejuvenation.
Marilyn Gleason works at eating locally on her Peach Valley farm. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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