Step two of this hole digging process is, well, digging holes. The plants we ordered would have prolific (gross understatement) root systems with 12-18 inches of growth on the topside from the previous year, according to the description. We needed holes to accommodate the depth of the roots, which we assumed would be in the neighborhood of 8-14 inches. The plants need to be at least as deep as they were in the nursery, with room for the roots to spread, and optimally with the first bud underground. There’s more than one way to stick a grape plant in the ground, and from reading and discussions, no one can agree on the perfect way. Theories abound:
- A trench can be dug the entirety of the row and plants can be placed at the desired intervals and covered up with the surrounding dirt. I’m not expert when it comes to heavy earth-moving equipment, but I couldn’t think of any way to combine our lawn mower, shovels, and little red wagon to cut a trench 133 yards long and 20 inches deep to accommodate the roots.
- A tractor with an auger typically used for post-hole digging can be used. This is how Dave has done it in the past and what our little book recommended. This allows for deep holes (up to 24 inches for us) but takes considerably more time as each hole has to be dug individually.
- A tree-setter is another method and one that we would like to explore in the future. This contraption is a bit of a combination of methods as what looks like a cart with seats and a hole in the floor is attached to a tractor, and all one in beautiful motion cuts a trench while the person in the cart sets the plant and people follow and cover with dirt.
Having access to a tractor with a post-hole digger and following advice of our resident expert, we chose number 2 from the list above. This not only added the extra time of digging each hole, but also posed new potential threats for the plants. Digging in this manner can make for a “silo” effect, depending on the soil. If it is thick mucky-like clay, the glazed walls can prove to be a formidable foe to the roots unable to penetrate and move horizontally like they need to. They will simply grow down a few inches, hit a bed of rocks, and provide lackluster grapes annually, if at all.
For this reason, we needed to dig holes in advance of planting to get a desired “weathering” effect” whereby exposing the hole to wind and rain for a few months to break down the walls and provide a lovely new home for the plants rich with all the nutrients that soil two feet below the surface is not used to receiving. This called for a very special moment in the life of our little vineyard; groundbreaking.
We started digging in February, but it would be a lie of epic proportions if I said this is also when it concluded. The tractor could dig holes at about 45 seconds each, so even under the best conditions and not including breaks and fuel runs; this was going to take no less than 13 hours, given perfect conditions and dry ground… Spoiler alert… We didn’t get perfect conditions or dry ground.
We did, however, get all kinds of help for this little adventure and had as much fun as possible when digging holes:
As I alluded to previously, here is the tractor and post-hole digger in all its glory. Oh, and it is evident in this picture that Asher is pretty good behind the wheel of a tractor, Katy can sure wield a shovel, and I still have a steady hand with the camera. Everyone has a purpose.
Now, for the really interesting stuff. Remember when I mentioned that Dave asked if we had taken a chance to dig some 2-foot holes at points around the vineyard; something we failed to do? During the “weathering” period, we finally had the chance…Reminiscing on these findings always brings Tolkien to mind and the opening line of the Hobbit:
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
If our grapes were hobbits, they would not be happy or comfortable. We soon found that we had a mix of nasty wet holes as well as dry, bare ones throughout the vineyard. On the far north side of the vineyard, on the slope, we found the ground to be thick and mostly black dirt. This is not optimal for the grapes as they need a more porous soil for the roots to spread far and wide, but it’s better than clay! Proper weather of snow, rain, and wind really broke down the walls and provided some comfort for the newly planted grapes, just like Dave said it would.
Working your way down the slope on the north side of the vineyard, the drainage comes to a bit of a halt and we get this unfortunate situation:
I like to call these golf fish ponds and the scourge of grape growing. Grapes still don’t like wet feet and not only does this lead to poor root growth, but creates a hotbed for disease. At least its not clay..
Surely you could see this one coming. Clay! This is Missouri and it would have been a miracle if we made it all the way through the vineyard without finding any of this thick, red, nasty stuff. Clay is just about the opposite of the porous, sandy soil that grapes thrive in. Fortunately, we are only dealing with this type of soil in two “fingers” that run west to east across our vineyard in the midsection and toward the south. Asher describes it as looking at the grand canyon upside down. On either side of these “fingers” we actually have sandy, black soil that drains fairly well. There are still plenty of rocks to find but unlike many plants, grapes don’t mind rocks a bit. The roots easily maneuver around them and is more evidence that grapes are a resilient life form.
If all this vineyard-building talk has your grape growing engine running, one of my first recommendations (advice we failed to heed) is to dig some holes around your planned growing area. It can be quite revealing. If you are like us and have limited options, just go for it! Grapes are simply amazing and have already proven to us that they can handle imperfect soil, crazy weather conditions, hectic planting, and competition with weeds. Every living thing has a purpose and ground that would be inhospitable to anything else can be a welcome environment to grapes.
Just another reminder that through the generations, time after time, the grass continues to grow for all the livestock and herbs to be used for the service of people, that we can bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden our hearts, oil to make our faces shine and bread to strengthen our hearts. Even in the Missouri Ozarks!