Friday, October 23, 2020

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

It's 80 degrees . . . and the grapevines still aren't growing!

Last summer was a warm one, with numerous days topping 80F (27C). It was also on the dry side. The farm received 2.88 inches of rain (73 mm) during the three month period May through July. In the past, we assumed grapevines didn't grow much during the summer here because it was too cold - both the air and ground temps. Well, this year when we saw a string of very warm days and warm nights, we were puzzled to see the grapevines not growing more than they had in past summers (rainy or not). So, we contacted a very knowledgeable grape grower in Wisconsin. He asked how wet the ground was. WHAT? I thought grapevines didn't need water in places where it rains in the summer. Wrong!!! Research revealed that each vine requires 6-10 gallons of water each week, or an inch of rain. Well, we never get that much rain before August - and then the vines are starting to shut down. So, we started pouring water on a few vines to see what would happen. Our Arthur Pinchbeck (Canadian variety) vine literally took off! In 5 weeks it grew 5 ft - compared to 1.5 ft (0.5 m) last summer. Who says grapevines won't grow in Interior Alaska? At the end of the season, it was taller than me. It still remains to be seen how much of the vine hardened off sufficiently for the winter, but we're hoping for at least 3 ft. (1 m).
  All that being said, we were not able to duplicate the results on other vines for the most part. There were several reasons for this. First, was a lack of water. We hauled in water at the rate of 1000 gallons (3800 l) per week, but with a few acres of plants to water that didn't go very far. We sacrificed some currant plants (well, not entirely as they are still alive) to pour some water on a few other grapevines. Second, we're on a hillside (as you can see from the picture). Without proper equipment, it was difficult to get the water to soak in before it just ran off. Adding to the problem was that the ground was extremely dry from a lack of rain when we began watering the vines in earnest. Even Arthur Pinchbeck took 10 days to respond to the extra water, conceivably due to the absorption of the water by the surrounding dirt. When the rains came in August - 6 inches (150 cm) in the first two weeks - the growing season was already beginning to wind down. We stopped watering the vines in late July and a natural drought (which grapevines need to adequately prepare for the winter) began the third week in August.
  We added a number of new cultivars to our trials this past summer, including ES M-1-27 (a very early variety bred by the late Elmer Swenson). Vandal Cliche, and Marquette. We also were able to add Baltica back into our collection after losing it two years ago before we could get it planted in the vineyard.
 We also reorganized the existing vineyard (now at about 135 plants on 1/8 acre or 0.05 ha). When we did this a few new lessons were learned. Every vine that we dug up, with the exception of Sipaska and Louise Swenson, had really no new root development since being planted between 1 and 3 years ago. None, nada, zilch. That was disappointing. And, in cases where the crown of the vine was planted 12 inches (30 cm) deep (most were planted only 3-5 inches (<15 cm) deep), all older roots above about 8 inches (20 cm) were dead. There were a few white new ones in that zone, but no older roots. Why? Good question. Perhaps a lack of water. Perhaps winter cold (though we have documented that the ground doesn't drop much below freezing in this zone, which should not be a problem for our hardier vines). In the case of Sipaska and Louise Swenson, they both had older roots extending 12 inches (30 cm) or more down into the ground. Nice, healthy looking roots at that. And Louise Swenson is supposed to be particularly prone to drought stress! Now that the vineyard is reorganized with all vines planted at least 8 inches (20 cm) deep, we hope for better growth in the future. The obvious lack of a root mass on each vine also contributed to the poor summer growth on vines.
  One thing that reorganization did not solve, was the way we were planning on trellising the vines. Reading the literature, it is suggested that vines be planted in rows that run north-south and up and down the hillside (where appropriate). Well, since our land slopes downhill to the south, we were planning on trellising them up/down the slope. That would improve the stability of the trellis, too, since all stress would be pulling parallel to the row alignment and we could counterbalance that with a ground auger on the uphill side of the trellis. However, we realized that orienting the trellis this way meant that the fruiting zones in each row (based on a low-cordon training system with vertical shoot positioning or VSP) would be shaded until almost 11 am and again after about 5 pm each day. Remember that at 65 degrees north latitude, the sun doesn't rise all that far above the horizon for much of the summer. Our original layout was based on rows running east-west (across the slope rather than down it). Putting a trellis up for that system would mean that the freeze-thaw cycles in the ground would allow the trellises to slowly lean over downhill (that is what the pilings are doing under the cabin at the moment). An east-west alignment would greatly reduce shading, but would not allow full sun exposure of the north-facing side of the clusters. Turns out that this problem would not be solved using north-south rows, unless we spaced the rows out significantly more than our current 6 ft (2 m) row spacing. The jury is still out on the best orientation. We will probably run a trial using both orientations for the same variety (probably Alpenglow, since that is a readily available variety that hardens off significant wood for the winter) and see what happens.
  Another discovery this past summer was the importance of leaf pulling in the far north for more than fruit exposure. Typically, "northern" vineyards (but still well south of our vineyard) practice pulling leaves in the fruiting zone once veraison has begun to get more sunlight on the fruit and encourage the ripening process (adds heat and direct sunlight on the berries). Well, as our serendipitous experiments usually turn out, we learned a valuable lesson in "leaf pulling" due to the very dry summer and abundant sunshine. The bottom 3 ft (1 m) of our Arthur Pinchbeck vine had all leaves facing north. Odd, I know, but that is how it grew. Above that, the leaves oriented in all directions. Our theory (based on fairly sound science) was that the leaves were trying to avoid the sunlight to reduce water loss and oriented themselves as far "out of the sun" as possible. This is a common strategy used by plants that are water stressed. By turning the top of the leaf (most photosynthetically active surface) away from direct sunlight, photosynthesis is reduced. In addition the leaf temperature is reduced, stomatal opening is reduced, and water loss decreases. Uh, that's all well and good, but why was that important this year. Turns out that here, the hardening off of grapevine shoots in the fall (and subsequent survival and budding out in the spring) is very dependent on sunlight exposure during the latter half of the summer. From our observations, shoots need more than 4 weeks of direct sunlight on them in order to adequately mature the shoot and begin forming periderm. We saw periderm formation on Arthur Pinchbeck and Alpenglow by mid-July this year - compared to mid- to late- August in other years. Once we started pulling leaves on other varieties, we saw significantly more periderm formation on them than in past years. The most noticeable variety was ES 80. This Elmer Swenson variety (one of his first) has turned yellow and  dropped its leaves in the fall every year in the past. However, it has never formed periderm. This year, with its basal leaves pulled beginning in late July, it developed periderm over most of its shoot and looked really good going into the winter. It has fairly large leaves that tend to shade the shoot. Remove the leaves later in the season and viola! it forms periderm. Leaf pulling did not affect all vines equally and our largely V. labrusca derived vines were the least affected. Those with more V. riparian or V. amurensis responded more strongly.
  Speaking of V. amurensis, we also ran an experiment with grow tubes this summer and found that this species requires substantially more water than our other species/varieties. Even in the middle of the heat and dryness, there was moisture condensing inside the grow tube on Amur-1 (one of two remaining seedlings from several years ago). This species comes from northeasern China/Russia where the summers are hot and very humid and winters are cold and very dry. So, summer droughts are not its specialty - winter droughts, on the other hand, it handles with ease. We will have to really water that one well next summer to see if it will grow better. As usual, this vine was completely dormant 123 days after budswell (May 13-September 13). Now if it will produce fruit and ripen it in that time, we're onto something.
  Understand that when we say "serendipitous experiment", these experiments arose entirely on their own. We just observed the results. A well documented serendipitous experiment here on the farm was the discovery that covering trailing blackberries with row cover over the winter improved winter survival. We were too busy one winter to remove the row cover we were using to help ripen blackberries in the fall and the next spring we found live canes under the row cover and dead canes beyond the cover. We now (almost always) cover our most productive blackberry plants with row cover for the winter. More on that ongoing experiment in a future post.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The 2018 Growing Season

  This summer was cooler and wetter than average (if anything is average anymore). We saw near freezing temperatures into late May, again for 4 days in mid-June and around 40F (5C) in mid-July. Overall, heat accumulation was 643 growing degree days (base 50F; 357 growing degree days, base 10C). This was below the average of 750-800 GDD (50F). However, at the end of the summer we installed a series of soil temperature sensors and an air temperature sensor in the vineyard (more on that later). What we have found is that the thermometer that we have relied on since moving into the cabin in 1999, typically reads 2-4 degrees fahrenheit (1-2 degrees C) lower than the actual air temperature out in the open. Other thermometers that we have put back there tend to agree with that one, so it is likely that the thermometer is fairly accurate, but due to its location behind the house, it reads too cold when compared to the actual air temperature out in the fields. This is important for determining if grapes will ripen here. If the actual air temperature in the vineyard is 2-3 degrees higher on average, then our growing degree days for the season increase by 250-400. Now, instead of averaging 750-800 GDD (base 50F), that number is closer to 1000-1100 (555-610 GDD, base 10C). Baltica, which we are growing, requires about 1100 (610) growing degree days minimum to ripen to workable wine levels. With the addition of black weed block under the rows, that value can likely be increased somewhat. Since we added the new sensors this fall, we will need to track temperatures next summer to see what the actual numbers turn out to be. A few other varieties we have or hope to get (Zarya Severa, Dalniewostoznyd, ES M-1-27) require a little more heat than that, but may still be useful for rose-style wines.
  Regardless, this was a cooler than normal summer and it showed in the ripening of several cultivars. As has been the case recently, Wild Treasure blackberries ripened fully before the first frost. However, Marion blackberries struggled to ripen as fully as they have in previous years. None of our other blackberry varieties ripened this summer. Currants were also affected by the cool summer. Only two varieties of black currants managed to produce a full crop: Minaj Smyirou and Blackdown. These two cultivars actually ripened fully in early September, showing that they are two good candidates for the farm. On the other hand, neither is reliably hardy below around -28F (-34C), so there is usually dieback unless they are completely covered in snow. Ben Lomond ripened almost fully by the end of September, while Titania and Risager needed more time. Our White Currant 1301 from Sweden didn't disappoint either. It was dead ripe in late August, just about typical for that variety. Our other whites, Primus and White Imperial mostly, didn't ripen fully this year. The red currants were still too tart at the end of September to harvest, but we did pick some Wilder and Red Lakes for wine. Gooseberries were a little delayed, but we were so busy with other things, that we missed most of them when they were ripe and the critters got them.
  Serviceberries and honeyberries were a little late this year. In fact, with the help of a newly purchased refractometer, we determined that our honeyberries weren't ripe until late September, a full 6 weeks later than those in the lowlands around Fairbanks. From past experience, we think this is pretty typical for the farm, though. They ripen much more slowly. That can be a good thing, as it allows better flavors to develop and yields better wine. Still, we only found 13 brix in our Blue Belles - the highest of any honeyberry on the farm. Granted, they are in part shade. We plan to move them next summer to a more sunny location.
  The raspberries had mixed responses to the cool summer. Our Cascade Gold yellow raspberries (which ripened very poorly last year) did fantastic this year, yielding 12 pounds from a relatively small plot. Our Cascade Delight red raspberries were a little later in ripening. We didn't pick very many - but not because they weren't ripe. We were just too busy with other things.
 As far as tree fruit goes, the cherries were very late and the Parkland apples were picked the night before the first frost. Both still were respectable. Most of our other trees are still not to bearing age yet.
  As for the vineyard, this was a busy year. We managed to clear another 2 acres with a dozer, so we can expand the vineyard and put in some rows of honeyberries. This year we planted a few dozen new vines. Most of these varieties we have trialed in the past, but they had to reside in pots. Now we have about 75 vines planted in the ground, with about 60 varieties represented there and in pots. We'll be adding several dozen more vines next year. That will bring the vineyard to about 1/4 acre. None are tall enough yet to require trellising and most die back substantially in the fall/winter, so there may not be much of a need until we can breed our own grape varieties. We still have two V. amurensis seedlings we sprouted five years ago. Both are recovering from spending four years in pots and should really start growing in a year or two. While many in warmer regions complain about V. amurensis for their tendency to bud out prematurely, these two generally wait until the last frost threat is gone before waking up here. One surprise this year was the adaptability of MN 78 (an old numbered variety bred by the University of Minnesota). It was used by Elmer Swenson to create his cold-hardy hybrid varieties. While his varieties don't do that well here (we have some 5-year-old Sabrevois that are very slowly settling in), MN 78 grew surprisingly well and more importantly hardened off 4-9 inches of cane - and this was all from cuttings we received last spring. That is better than pretty much anything else growing here on the farm, with the exception of Zilga. Speaking of Zilga (a Latvian grape), it was confused by the cold in June and July and didn't grow all that much. However, what did grow hardened off quite well. It is also hardy to near -40F/C, so we have high hopes for it. We have also been watching our Amur-1 and Amur-2 (the two amurensis seedlings mentioned above) vines, as well as C-16 (a vinifera/riparia/amurensis cross from Canada). The latter did very well at hardening off new growth in the fall of 2017 - a gradual cooling that year, but not so well this year. This year we hit the low 60s (F; 15C) the first few days of October. That is extremely unusual. Then the weather turned cold within a few days and we hit a low of 12F on October 8th. There was much damage to C-16, but apparently very little to Zilga or the amurensis seedlings (the latter of which had been fully dormant since late September).
  In late October we went to visit family in California and got to visit the Vitis germ plasm at UC Davis outside of Sacramento. We brought back some V. amurensis seeds and are excited to see what comes of them. Currently we are planning a few grapevine orders to reacquire some varieties that we lost before getting them into the ground. We are also looking at some potted vines we brought in for the winter. They are not really liking the warm house and lack of sun. It will be good to get them outside come May.
  We have a number of other fruits that we are trialing, but have not fruited yet, like arena, goji berries, mulberries and kiwi.
  It was early November when we installed the soil temperature probes. We set them at 5, 10, 20, and 40 cm depth. So far, none have dropped below freezing (it has been a relatively mild fall). We will be watching how the soil responds to the air temperature and snow cover. What prompted this study was the burial of a thermometer in the vineyard early this last summer, when we attempted to duplicate a study conducted in Finland. We thought our thermometer was broken in mid-August when it read in the high 50s (Fahrenheit) at about 15 cm. Yes, the soil can get that warm even in Alaska. It is not clear what happens during the winter. Most years when we have overwintered pots in trenches, it appears that the ground freezes down quite deeply. However, last winter (2017-2018) it did not freeze at all. We wonder what impact that has on the survivability and earliness of bud break on our different varieties.
  With all this talk of fruit, you are probably wondering what we plan to do with it.  Why, make wine, of course! We made 50 gallons of mostly fruit wine last winter and are about to bottle the remaining 35 or so gallons soon. There is more fruit in the freezer upstairs waiting to be made into wine. We are going to compare our Cascade Gold yellow raspberry wine to some Honeyqueen yellow raspberry wine we made last winter (fruit harvested at a local farm). The Honeyqueen wine turned out spectacular, so our Cascade Gold will have some stiff competition. The two raspberries have different flavor profiles when eaten fresh and we hope that translates into differences in the wines.
  Big changes are in store for 2019 aside from the farm. We are breaking away from the 8-6 day job we've had for a number of years to pursue ventures that will hopefully give us more flexibility to manage the farm and accumulate the funds needed to build a winery over the next five years.

Here's to the New Year!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fall 2018 Farm Tour

Our fall farm tour recorded yesterday. Some lessons from a cooler than normal, wetter than normal summer and some surprises in the vineyard.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Solitude Springs Farm & Vineyard Fall 2017 Tour

Just realized we didn't share our Fall Farm Tour from last year. Here it is:

2017 Growing Season and Our New Direction

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!