After the cold 2016 fall (-12F/-24C and little snowcover) and -41F (-41C) in January of 2017, it was no surprise that we saw a lot of winter damage. Blackberry production was down dramatically (though Marionberry came through and gave us enough berries for some wine). Numerous less-than-Alaska-hardy apple trees, pear trees and stone fruits did not flower and some barely produced any growth at all last summer. On the other hand, red, white and some black currants did wonderfully well. Again, we harvested enough to make wine . . . and then some. A real surprise was the survival of our Cascade Delight raspberries! Only the tallest canes exhibited cold damage to the tips, so we had strong production from these plants. The wasps seemed to like them, too, and we found ourselves having to share. Some red raspberry wine is in the works at the moment. We also saw production from several varieties of gooseberries. A real treat at the end of the summer.
We added some goji berry plants to our collection as a test. Some varieties grow well in southern Canada and, considering their health qualities, we thought we’d try them. We also continue to work with arctic and arguta kiwis to see if we can get anything to overwinter and produce fruit. Our cherry patch saw some expansion, as well. The Northstar cherries continue to produce a little fruit, but nothing else apparently is old enough to fruit yet. When the entire patch reaches bearing age, we expect to get gallons of tart cherries. Cherry wine, anyone?
The bulk of last summer was spent planting the 100s of plants we already had. It was a busy summer to say the least. We managed to get all but a few raspberries in the ground. That means we now have a vineyard!!!! Okay, so most of the grapevines won’t produce ripe fruit, but we do have some promising Vitis amurensis vines out there. One, which we refer to as Amur-1, budded out in mid-May and was completely dormant (lignified wood and all) by the end of September. This particular seedling is 4 years old and has suffered through quite a bit of drought stress, having survived two summers in a patch of alders (notorious for their high water consumption). Now that it is in the vineyard, we expect it to be much more vigorous. Another variety we are watching is Zilga. Preliminary pruning last weekend showed that at least half of the 18-inch 46 cm) cane had viable buds on it! The rest of the cane was likely too small in diameter to survive any amount of cold anyway. This is clearly the most growth we have seen harden off and survive a winter. This grape variety has been known to ripen fruit outdoors at 63 degrees north latitude in Finland. While we're not in Finland, nor quite that far south (almost 65 north here) there's still hope. Our plan is to train all grapevines up 7ft/215cm bamboo stakes to see which ones might harden off wood and to test the winter hardiness of Amur-1. The V. amurensis species is typically hardy to between -30 and -40F (-35 to -40C). Our goal right now is to use Amur-1 or a similar V. amurensis seedling in breeding to create ultra-ultra early ripening grapes suitable for our 750 growing degree day (GDD, base 50F)/425 growing degree day (GDD, base 10C) climate. Currently available grape cultivars are limited to climates that accumulate 1250 GDD (base 50F)/700 GDD (base 10C) or more of heat. Thus, we need grape varieties that ripen in half the heat required by currently available varieties. Is this possible? We intend to find out.
A major shift in focus occurred this past summer here on the farm. We realized that relying entirely on the sale of fruit (though local fruit is in high demand) would not support the farm in the long run. In addition, the thought of having to compost good fruit when it didn’t sell was less than appealing. The other option was to make wine instead of sell fresh fruit. We could simply freeze most of the fruit we harvest until it is time to make wine (during the winter/spring months!!). Grapes don’t quite fit this model, but we are a few years away from having to deal with that, anyway. Hence, while we have intended to start a winery for a few years, it is now imperative. This past winter we began honing our wine-making skills on several batches of fruit wines (raspberry, blackberry, serviceberry, etc.). Some are turning out quite good!
This past winter we also made our second batch of (wild) high bush cranberry wine. It turns out that high bush cranberries really like our food forest (orchard-like area with berries intermixed). It took us only 3.5 hours to pick three pounds of these berries as opposed to the 3 days required in the past. From past experience, we know that this powerful wine needs 3 years in the bottle to mellow out. However, at that point it is quite nice.
What about the peonies you ask? Well, over the last two summers the farm has seen lots of rain that has made the transportation of materials in and out very difficult. In addition, prices for cut peonies have fallen dramatically over the last several years and with the expense of required infrastructure that would have to be installed, peonies no longer appear to be a profitable crop on the farm. Moreover, their sensitivity to disease and lack of tolerance for our weather conditions (heavy rain, hail and wind) make it a risky venture at best. We will be selling our remaining roots locally over the next few years. This is really too bad, because our farm is one of just a few locations that can produce the much-sought-after coral peonies.
This spring we have purchased far fewer plants than in past years as we change from primarily a research farm to a production farm. Now that we know what grows well here and what has good potential, we will be weeding out the unproductive stuff in favor of plants that will produce fruit for high quality wines – especially those fruits that can’t be grown elsewhere in the area. And, while the construction of a winery is still a few years off, hopefully it won’t be too long before we are sharing the “fruits” of our labor with the world!