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Reclaiming an overgrown vineyard

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peterseng

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So I have been given an opportunity to tend mature vines on 2 of my in-law's properties, and make wine from the fruit. These are small, backyard vineyards with probably about 20-30 vines in each. The problem (aside from the fact that both properties are about an hour and a half from home) is that the vines have grown wild (no pruning, tending or harvest of any kind) for about 20 years. I am told (by my son-in-law who has only the vaguest memories of his grandfather making wine when he was little) that there are two kinds of grapes - white and "pinkish" and that they are Concords brought over from Germany about a hundred years ago. Obviously there is so much wrong with that statement that I really have no good idea what kind they are - but hey, they've made wine in the past so why not?

I have never done anything like this before, and I am sure it will likely be challenging to reclaim an overgrown vineyard like this. Do any of you have any experience doing something like this? Do you have any words of wisdom for this newbie? I have read quite a bit about pruning in general, and watched a bunch of videos as well, but the more information I have going into this, the more confident I'll feel. I have uploaded some pictures I took of one of the properties, in case that is helpful. Thanks in advance for whatever guidance or suggestions you all can give!
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salcoco

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well other than the obvious I would assume you will continue with a high cordon trellis. I would cane prune to about 30 buds-40 buds if they have any Concord ancestry. Pick a plant and the canes you want to keep and then prune every thing else out of the way. I would suggest you consider a stake for each plant. A 6 or 8 ft "T" post would work. Fertilize with any standard 10-10-10 or 13-13-13 fertilizer in spring just a bud break. about a cup per plant. another fertilizer application post harvest will also be required. establish a spray program as soon as possible for mildew , and fungus. not sure where located but black rot may also need to be taken care of. Good luck it look daunting but just jump in a do a little each day and before you know it you will be harvesting grapes.
 

wxtrendsguy

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I was tempted to say good luck with that mess...but here are a few pointers to get you started. Remember fruit is only produced off new shoots that originate from last years new growth. The problem in the mess you got there is determining what is last year and what is the last 10 years.
In this situation I'd probably start from the ground up, first clean up your trunks, removes any shoots that originate on the trunk well below the fruiting wire. Try to find the head of the vine, which is basically at the top of the trunk near the fruiting wire, its likely you have stuff growing all over the place all along the wire but you want to try and find canes that originate closer to the head area of the vine. If you can find 4 or 5 canes that originate in the head area and that are approximately 3/8" - 3/4" in diameter and maybe a few feet long keep them. If you have them then cutoff all the rest of the brush beyond where those canes connect to the head of the vine.
The goal this year will be to renew your cordon using 2 of those 4 canes, the other 2 keep until you lay down the others, basically an insurance policy in case the other break as you position them. Now I cannot tell have far apart each vine is but if its American grapes they might be as much as 8 feet between vines which means you need 4 foot long cordons to fill your trellis space. However, don't try to grow a 4 ft cordon in year 1. Lay your new cordons down and trim to 24" long, next year take the end shoot at the end of the cordon and bend it to the wire to finish off the 4 ft cordon. Now you may be lucky and get fruit this year from new shoots originating on the new cordon but you might not. Next year you can begin to establish spurs using this years new shoots, the canes that grow off those spurs will be very fruitful next year.
 

BigH

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I have never tried to tackle a mess like that, but here is how I would approach it. First and foremost, you need to know the difference between 1 year old wood and older wood. 1 year old wood is smooth, light tan in color, and usually 3/8" thick or less. Older wood is dark brown, rough looking, gnarly and thicker. You also need to have a handle on these terms:

  • Trunk : part of the vine that runs from the ground to the trellis wire. Probably older wood
  • Cordon: kind of like a horizontal trunk. Part of the vine that attaches to the trunk and runs along the trellis wire. Often older wood, but might be smooth 1 year old wood.
  • Cane: the entire length of a 1 year old shoot
  • Spur: What you have if you cut a cane down to a few buds. You might be able to identify old spurs. they should look like 1 or 2, or a mess of canes emanating from the old cordon.
  • Sucker: cane emanating from the ground or trunk well below the fruiting wire.
  • Head: the area where the trunk and cordon meet.
  • Spur pruned vine : Vine that consists of a cordon formed from old wood that has spurs every 6 inches or so.
  • Cane pruned vine: Vine that has been pruned to have a cane laid down along the wire.
  • Node: Nodes are kind of like highway intersections where interesting things happens on the vine. All buds are located at nodes. If you trace a cane back to where it began, that is a node. There is usually a node every 4-8 inches of vine.
  • Internode : Straight runs of vine between nodes.
Ok, so here is my approach (reminder, I have never done this).

Step 1: Trunk analysis
I would walk up to each vine and analyze the state of the trunk. Do you have one or two good trunks worth keeping? Is is relatively straight and disease free all the way to the fruiting wire? If it is less than perfect, then is it good enough for one year? Is there some wood that you can contort into a suitable trunk for a year? Do you have too many trunks?
  • Trunk is in good shape for the long term : Cut off all suckers emanating from the trunk that are more than a foot from the fruiting wire (suckers below the head area). We won't need them. Suckers close to the fruiting wire might still be useful, so keep them around for now. Proceed to step 2.
  • Too many trunks, none all that great: Pick one or two sections of vine that you can turn into a decent trunk for one year. Prune away all competing trunks at the ground and remove the tangled mess. Proceed to the bullet below.
  • Trunk isn't so great, but you can make something work for a year: Straighten the trunk as best you can. Pick one sucker close to the ground and prune it to 2 buds. Use it to grow a new trunk this year. Prune off the rest of the suckers below the head (like in the first bullet) and proceed to step 2. Keep suckers/canes close to the head in case we need them yet
  • Trunkwise, this vine is a total disaster: Find a sucker that would be good place to start growing a new trunk and prune it to that pont. You can prune 2 suckers this way if you want double trunks. If the vine is fairly weak looking, cut off everything else at the ground and move on to the next vine. If the vine is a healthy vigorous mess, then.... umm... take a picture and get back to us (this merits a deeper discussion)
Step 2: Cordon analysis
If you get this far, then you have some kind of usable trunk that runs from the ground to the fruiting wire. Next, decide whether you have some kind of usable cordon for a spur pruned system. This will look like a good run of old wood running down the fruiting wire with smooth canes shooting out from it all over the place. You might not have a good cordon, or you might have what looks to be a good cordon, but you only see old wood emanating from it for the first 8 inches or so. Note that you might have vine that has a good cordon running in one direction, and nothing useable in the other. In that case, prune each half independently of the other.
  • Good cordon with lots of canes shooting out from within 6 inches of it : Prune every node of the cordon down to a single spur consisting of 2-4 buds. That node probably had multiple canes shooting out from it. Remove all but one to create the spur.
  • No good cordon : Pick 2 healthy canes emanating from the head area that you can turn into new cordons this year. Cut off everything else. Lay those canes down on the wire, one running in each direction.
Step 3: Bud count
When you are done, you want to retain a certain number of buds on the vine. The exact number depends on the variety, but as a general guideline, you should retain around 5 buds per foot of cordon, with a total bud count in the range of 30-60. Since the vines are a tangled mess, you will probably start on the high side and need to work down.

Tips:

  • Assuming you have a good trunk, then you pretty much know that you are going to keep short spurs or a couple of canes emanating from the head. If the vine is a gnarly mess, you can start whacking at it to get a better picture. Keep the two healthiest canes coming out of the head. You might use them, you might not. Cut all other canes down to 5 buds to remove the mess, then re-assess where the vine is at.
  • It is wise to keep two canes from the head until you know you don't need them. When you are done pruning spurs, you might think "this cordon kind of sucks now that I look at it". If you kept those canes handy, you can remove the cordon and lay the canes down to make a new one.
  • You don't want vines overlapping each other on the trellis. While obeying the proper bud count, chop of cordons that overlap.

Good luck
H
 
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peterseng

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Thank you all for weighing in so quickly. I know that I may have bit off more than I can chew here, but as I don't have much room in my yard to plant vines (though I do plan to do so with what room I have) the opportunity to work these vines is one I couldn't pass up. I think the experience will be invaluable!
I plan to start working on them this weekend. I'll take pics and share them here and try to keep this thread updated with my progress. I'd much appreciate any further words of wisdom anyone here has to offer, both now, and as I proceed with trying to tame this beast...
 

CabEnthusiast

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Thank you all for weighing in so quickly. I know that I may have bit off more than I can chew here, but as I don't have much room in my yard to plant vines (though I do plan to do so with what room I have) the opportunity to work these vines is one I couldn't pass up. I think the experience will be invaluable!
I plan to start working on them this weekend. I'll take pics and share them here and try to keep this thread updated with my progress. I'd much appreciate any further words of wisdom anyone here has to offer, both now, and as I proceed with trying to tame this beast...
If you have a chance take some time to use UC Davis's Grapevine dna testing its cheap in the long run and will tell you what they are. I feel its worth it if you want to know for a fact what they are! you might be blown away with what varietals you find.
 

peterseng

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I visited one of the two properties this past weekend. Thankfully, I started with the smaller of the two, because I ended up spending the day there and didn't get to do any work on the other property yet.
The single biggest challenge at this little vineyard was finding the trunks of the vines. I started by just trying to clear out some of the tangle of growth. Many of the canes I pruned out of the way extended from one end of the little vineyard to the other and back (some easily as long as 40-50 feet) - all the while weaving their way through a dozen or more of their siblings along the way. When I finally cleared enough growth to find the trunks, they were not straight trunks leading up to the training wire with cordons branching off (or even remotely close). Rather, they looked like some sort of surrealist artwork styling them as random, overgrown corkscrews! Not only has this vineyard not been pruned in years, the vines do not appear to have been trained at all... Thankfully I didn't see any signs of disease or rot (so far as my limited knowledge was able to discern anyway).
For most of these vines I proceeded to choose a cane/sucker, or two, beginning near the bottom of the corkscrew and left it long enough to reach the top wire in the hopes of establishing a new trunk, while removing nearly everything else=. Some vines had a bit of what appeared to be one year-old growth close enough to the trunk to also tie off to a wire in the hopes that they might produce some grapes this year. Most, however, will likely not. My main goal has become establishing and training these as though they are new vines and hope they are ready to produce next year. I also took longer, healthy looking canes from some vines and attempted to root them where it seemed that vines should have been but were merely an open space (I had been told that some of the vines died and were removed some years back and presumed that these spaces were where they had once been). I will post pics below of where I am at with these, and will try to come back from time to time through the growing season to keep this thread up to date.
I did stop by the other property to take a look at the trellis system there (ran into issues at the first property with that - had to improvise to get it somewhat decent - and wanted to see how much wire I was going to need to bring along on my next trip). The good news is that at this second property, while the trunks are still somewhat cork-screw shaped, they do seem to extend up into the area of the trellis. That area, however, is pretty overgrown. I won't know what I'm really dealing with there until I get back out (next weekend) and start chopping away the excess so I can try to find cordons.
Wish me luck!
 

peterseng

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This shot was taken after clearing enough of the tangle to determine that the trunk looked nothing like a trunk. This was the point at which I stopped, scratched my head and said "now what?" and then decided to try to re-create the trunk.
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Here is what was left after pruning - one shoot that will (hopefully) become a trunk, and another older branch leading to the right where I rooted some of it to fill in a gap.
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This one had the best potential for a new trunk and cordons. I believe some of this may also be last year's growth so I may get some grapes here this year.
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This was the end of the branch from the second pic, where I am hoping to root it and create a new vine
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Here I had a few strong shoots growing from the base of the "trunk" with which I could potentially establish a new trunk. I figured I'd leave them all attached for now and cut back the two weakest later in the season
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peterseng

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If you have a chance take some time to use UC Davis's Grapevine dna testing its cheap in the long run and will tell you what they are. I feel its worth it if you want to know for a fact what they are! you might be blown away with what varietals you find.
I will definitely check into that dna testing. If I can't identify them with certainty based on what sprouts, it would be a good option. Thanks!
 

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