The head-pruned high-density saga
This growing season we face the practical challenges of farming 11 acres of newly-planted high-density head-pruned vines. In previous years, only Ruben’s Block, totaling 6,000 vines, was planted in this fashion. Throughout the winter and early spring, we added another 66,000 babies. The vines are planted at 3×2.5 foot spacing to increase root competition. Each small vine will produce only 2-3 compact clusters of intensely complex, flavorful grapes.
Now we must figure out how to weed, train, and in the coming years, harvest; these steep and narrow rows.
Since the spacing is far too narrow for tractors, we thought we’d go old-school and bring in a plow horse to drag a ripper up and down the rows. Ruben found a local farmer with “trained” horses and we negotiated a deal to use the animals whenever they weren’t needed for his crops.
I watched Ruben get dragged around the perimeter of the Mourvedre vines, clinging on while trying to guide the plow. The horse was certainly not up to the task of carefully negotiating the tiny alleyways of posts. – It was clear that we weren’t going to have horsepower, at least not this year.
Around the time of the failed horse experiment, Jessica acquired a Great Dane puppy, the Earl of Stolpman. While I threatened to make him a plow dog, it’s clear that the goofy, cuddly momma’s boy will never pull anything other than a chew toy.
All the while, the sea of tall mustard grew taller and more daunting. The crew made the first weeding pass entirely by hand, and it took weeks. If we were to get to work training and perfecting the rest of the vineyard, Ruben had to find a better solution.
We thought we found our savior in a compact, self-propelled tiller, but even this machine proved too wide for the tight rows. Our handy mechanics had to heat and bend the handle bars and change the shape of the front-end to allow it to slip through the upright posts.
Next, La Cuadrilla replaced their hoes with small, curved Machetes to allow for more maneuverability in between the vines – spaces the tiller still can’t reach. With the combined tiller and machete approach, we hope to cut our weeding time down to one week’s work.
A temporary problem
The weeds continue to grow this year because we must irrigate the newly planted cuttings to ensure they establish roots. As soon as they are strong enough, the vines will not be watered during the growing season. Dry farming not only creates dynamic, concentrated wines; but because weeds only grow with the winter rain, only one weeding pass will be necessary in the coming years.