Grape expectations

Lee with his grape T-trellis.

With a bit over two acres of land to play around with, I could have a woodlot. But I don’t. (I do harvest a lot of sunlight, though.) Still, because this is what I call a farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm), trees, aside from fruit trees, have to fit into the picture: to wit, four sugar maples planted in 1997 as a sugarbush for tapping in another 20 years and my locust mini-grove.

Locust – black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia, that is – is a tree of many qualities. For starters, the roots can garner nitrogen from the air and put it into a form that the tree can use, eventually putting it in the soil. Black locust also laughs off heat, drought, air pollution and road salt. The tree’s craggy branches and deeply furrowed bark are fondly reminiscent of those trees that hugged Dorothy on the yellow brick road to Oz. Toward the end of next month, chains of pale lavender blossoms will be dangling from the branches. More than just pretty, these flowers fill the air with a sweet aroma that carries far.

What more could one ask from a tree? Wood! – some of which I was harvesting from my locust mini-grove last week. The grove is a stand of locusts of various ages popping up in a swath about 15 feet wide by about 60 feet long. Forsythia shares that space as understory, new plants developing wherever canes arch to the ground to root. The locust grove formed naturally from a long-gone nearby grove on a neighbor’s property, felled by chainsaws, the new plants arising from dropped seeds as well as from root suckers.

Locust is one of the best woods for burning, but cutting trees from my mini-grove for firewood would hardly be worth it. One week in winter would decimate the small patch.

The locust that I cut is destined for posts. Locust is one of the most rot-resistant woods, putting even cedar to shame. It can outlast pressure-treated wood, offering a nice rustic look to boot. Spring, before the leaves come out, is a perfect time for cutting locust for posts, because that’s when the bark peels off easily in long strips.

The locust posts are for a new grape trellis. My grapes started out being trained to the traditional four-arm Kniffen system, on two wires, one at six feet and the other at three feet from the ground. Two canes, originating near a central trunk, are trained horizontally in either direction along each wire to give a total of four canes, each shortened to about ten buds long. (A “cane” is a one-year-old stem.)

The four-arm Kniffen system has its limitations in terms of exposing the vine to maximum light, which translates into better-tasting grapes, and keeping foliage and berries dry, which translates into less disease.

So a few years ago, I morphed the vines to the high-wire cordon system. A trunk about six feet high branched into two permanent arms (cordons) that traveled in opposite directions along a wire at trunk height. In this case, instead of being left with four long canes after pruning, the vine is left with many short canes drooping downwards, right off the cordons.

We bag some of the grape bunches to foil the birds and the bees, as well as other pests. Bagging also lets fruits hang on the vine longer without damage, and so develop sweetness and aromatics that make for finest flavor. The problem with the four-arm Kniffen and high-wire cordon systems of training are that the fruiting shoots droop downwards, which makes bagging difficult and puts the bags at an angle that defies gravity: not a good thing – which is why my grapes have morphed again, this time to a five-wire trellis system.

The latest incarnation of grape support consists, then, of sturdy T-trellises spaced ten feet apart. Running perpendicularly to the cross-arms of the T are five wires, the middle one to support two cordons growing off horizontally in opposite directions atop each vine’s seven-foot-high trunk. The other wires will support the fruiting shoots that grow from short canes along the cordon perpendicularly to the outrigging wires. The more horizontal growth of the fruiting shoots should make bagging easier.

So it’s locust wood from my mini-grove that will deserve some thanks for luscious grapes.

Not everyone is as enamored with black locust as I am. Many classify it as an invasive plant; here in New York, I’ve seen it classified as a native invasive plant. It originated in the southeastern US, but now ranges far and wide because of its fecundity and its tolerance for a wide range of conditions below and aboveground. The tree’s beauty and utility have also contributed to its spread, by humans.

My only beef with black locust is with its thorns. Still, I like my black locusts and I like my grapes.

Gardeners, mark your calendars for May 4. The Hudson Valley Garden Association has announced the start of advance ticket sales and preregistration for the Garden Fair, a one-day festival and celebration of gardening in the Hudson Valley taking place on Saturday, May 4 at the Orange County Arboretum in Montgomery. Featuring local and specialty plant vendors, nonprofit garden groups, a lecture program, free demonstrations and guided arboretum tours, the Garden Fair is destined to become a regional garden tradition that inspires and excites gardeners of all experience levels, from beginner to expert. For more information, advance tickets or to register for lectures, visit https://www.hvgardenfair.com.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at https://www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

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