Man Who Loved Grapes
Organic Viticulturist Shares His Secrets
2004, Acres U.S.A.
Lon Rombough is a self-taught student of grapes
and a graduate of Oregon State. He has a masters degree from
the University of California, Davis. His self-taught degree was
earned in the field starting at age 13, when he grew his first grapes.
As a graduate, he found employment in grape growing, but this occupation
was less rewarding than that of his wife, a teacher. It was then
that Lon Rombough got serious about what he had learned in school.
If anything, what his father, a naturopath, had taught him trumped
parts of his formal horticultural schooling. Breeding grapes became
an avocation, then a profession.
When I left school, the only jobs I could
get in genetics were in places where I didnt want to live,
Rombough told Acres U.S.A. He stayed put in Aurora, Oregon. There
he started developing the first of approximately 200 varieties of
He is now coordinator of Fruit and Nut Interest
Groups, which consists of members who specialize, absorb new information,
and pass it on. As coordinator, Rombough is in contact with growers
in all states and many foreign countries. His book, The Grape Grower,
recently won the 2003 award for Best Talent in Writing
from the Garden Writers Association.
There was a man named George Mitsch who
lived across town. He was growing and selling grapes. He had the
biggest collection around. He passed away in 1963, the same year
I planted my first grapes. . . .
Our interview with Lon Rombough picks up there.
U.S.A. There seems to be a wine industry and some level of grape
industry in every state in the Union. What is the common denominator
for growing grapes?
LON ROMBOUGH. I think its picking the right grape for
the right site, and it also depends on how much effort the particular
grower wants to put into them. For example, you can grow relatively
cold, tender grapes up in Minnesota if youre willing to bury
them in the winter to keep them from freezing down, or you could
grow varieties that are very cold-hardy and not have to do that.
You can grow grapes in high-disease areas if youre willing
to spend a lot of time with disease control, or you can plant varieties
that have high disease resistance and thus do a lot less disease
control, maybe none, depending on the situation.
ACRES U.S.A. How much is disease resistance dependent upon
the quality of the soil?
ROMBOUGH. In some cases its genetic, because you can
find wild species that grow with absolutely no care they
wont have any disease on them even though the disease is rampant
in domestic grapes in the area. But soil is definitely an important
factor. If you plant grapes in low, wet soil, youre asking
for more problems than if you plant them in good, well-drained soil
and of course soil includes all the soil microflora and so
forth. If you give the vines really good care, with mycorrhizal
fungi, compost and organic matter in the soil, youre going
to make a big difference. Its all important not just
the kind of soil, but how you handle it, as well.
ACRES U.S.A. But it is a crop that requires the mycorrhizae?
ROMBOUGH. Well, itll get something of its own no matter
what people have been growing grapes for a long time without
using mycorrhizal fungi, but Im finding that improving the
soil for grapes makes a big difference, no matter what.
ACRES U.S.A. How would you find out what grape varieties work
best for the area in which you live?
ROMBOUGH. There are many factors involved. One is what you
want to grow it for. For example, down in the Deep South, if you
want to grow stuff thats completely disease free or at least
is unlikely to need much work, the first thing youd probably
look at would be something like muscadine grapes, which are native
to the area. But they arent particularly high-quality wine
grapes, at least by regular standards, although Ive had some
very pleasant sweet wines from them. The point is that the first
thing to look at is where you are, whether youve got a lot
of high disease pressure or whether you can grow a variety that
might be considered relatively susceptible. You have to start putting
a lot of factors together in order to know the right variety for
your area. Another thing, of course, is that if youre growing
commercially, you have to be aware of whos going to buy the
grapes. Sometimes youre kind of hemmed into what you can grow
by what youre going to be able to sell. I know varieties that
can be grown in a lot of areas that make exceptionally nice wines;
theyre healthy; theyre cold-hearty; theyre disease
resistant, but the quality of the fruit for commercial wine-making
isnt that great. So whats the point of planting them
if you cant sell them?
ACRES U.S.A. You have written a book called The Grape Grower.
How much of this do you cover in your book?
ROMBOUGH. I try to cover all of it, actually. I wrote the
book because I had never seen one that puts together all of the
hands-on information. There are books like General Viticulture that
have a lot of good theory in them, that have a lot of information,
but theres always a lot of stuff that doesnt get into
a book like that. Thats a textbook, and it covers more of
the theory than the actual hands-on practice. There are quite a
few other books like that, written with a lot of theory but not
much hands-on stuff, or if they do have hands-on, theyre written
for one restricted area. For instance, in many states you can find
universities that have put out bulletins on growing grapes, but
thats only for one area, and it doesnt take in a lot
of the possibilities. So I was attempting to put together a book
that had as much about hands-on grape growing as I could put together.
Additionally, while it does cover wine grapes, my aim was to put
an emphasis on table grapes, because nobody has written much of
anything about table grapes in a very long time. The last book I
could find that covered table grapes in the same way my book covers
them was written about 1926. So I figured that after nearly 80 years,
it was about time for a new one!
ACRES U.S.A. Where does an aspiring grape grower start?
ROMBOUGH. The first thing you have to do is pick your site.
If you pick a bad site, youre going to be fighting problems
forever after. As I mention in the book, there was a fellow in one
of the New England states who had two different areas: a low, comparatively
poorly drained area not necessarily wet soil, but it had
poor air drainage and he had a higher slope. He planted Concord
grapes in both areas. With the one up on the slope that had good
air drainage and good air circulation and so forth that didnt
have heavy, wet air sitting around the vines all the time
he could usually go without much disease control a lot of years.
But with the ones down in the low area, where wet, heavy air tended
to accumulate, he oftentimes had to deal with disease control many
times each season he was using spray especially in
bad years. He didnt have very many years in which he didnt
have to deal with disease on those vines because the site was a
ACRES U.S.A. So the rule of the orchard seems to apply here
as well dont get wet feet.
ROMBOUGH. Dont get wet feet, have good air drainage
in other words, if you can put them someplace where they
have good air circulation but arent going to get blown out
of the ground, thats exceptionally good. Ive got two
different vineyards on my place. I have one bunch that I planted
early on, running north and south, and one bunch that runs east
and west. Well, the prevailing wind is from the west here, or the
southwest, so the vines that run east and west, if they get rained
on, the wind goes right down the rows, and it tends to dry them
off pretty quickly. On the other rows, where its against the
wind, they dont dry off as much, and I have a few varieties,
for example, that are susceptible to cracking if they get rained
on much. I get a lot less cracking and subsequent bunch rot in the
rows that run east to west than in the ones that run north to south,
and I have some of the same varieties in each.
ACRES U.S.A. What kind of varieties do you have?
ROMBOUGH. As I say, my preference is table grapes, but I
probably have about 200 varieties in my collection. I started collecting
grapes when I got through with school because I couldnt find
a job in grape breeding anyplace where I wanted to live, so I decided
to start collecting varieties and doing it on my own, right where
I live. I collected as many different things as I thought would
work well for a grape-breeding program, and as it turned out, the
climate here is a little too good, there isnt enough harsh
cold or severe disease to really select the grapes, because thats
one of the things you want to do when youre breeding
grow them in an area where nature selects out the weaklings. As
a result, I didnt really have a situation where I was in the
best site for doing breeding myself. However, people started contacting
me looking for unusual grapes that they couldnt find in other
places, since Id collected a lot of odd things, and I began
to sell the grape cuttings. As far as the breeding, I didnt
have to quit that, its just that I dont grow the plants
out myself anymore. Ill make crosses and send the seed to
other people in other parts of the country, and then they plant
them and grow them out in their conditions and pick out the strong
ACRES U.S.A. Do they grow them from seed or from cuttings?
ROMBOUGH. When youre breeding new varieties, you grow
from seed. Every seedling is like a different child of a parent
theyll all be different. You might take, for instance,
one variety that has susceptibility to downy mildew but good resistance
to black rot, then cross it with something that may not be real
strong in black rot resistance, but has good resistance to downy
mildew and other diseases that the first one has a problem with.
Then you hope that some of the offspring will combine the best fruit
quality and have the resistance inherited from both parents, without
ACRES U.S.A. So they take the seed and plant them in little
pots to get them to sprout out? How is it done, exactly?
ROMBOUGH. The basic process is quite simple. You take the
seed out of the grape and clean it, which is described in my book,
but you can do it as simply as eating the grape and spitting the
seeds out, if you want to, and put them in something like moist
peat moss and then put them in the refrigerator to stratify, that
is, out in the wild the seed would be exposed to cold, moist conditions,
and thats what helps it break dormancy, so that in the spring,
it will be able to germinate and start to grow. Youre just
doing the same thing, except that by putting them in the refrigerator
theyre less likely to get eaten by mice or other creatures.
Then you plant them in the spring, usually in flats or pots, and
they wont all grow, and theres a lot of variation in
how they grow, but the point is that you get these seedlings and
plant them out in a nursery row, just putting them out in your garden
if you want to. They only have to be about 6 inches apart.
ACRES U.S.A. You could do it in a greenhouse, too.
ROMBOUGH. You can start them in a greenhouse, yeah, but once
the seedlings are up to about six leaves or so you want to put them
outdoors. Then the selection process starts, because right away
youll see seedlings that have disease on them, and youll
see some that have poor growth, maybe theyre runts or stunted
or something, and you begin to weed them out.
ACRES U.S.A. So you do it like the old corn grower
you pick the best and replant that.
ROMBOUGH. Right. In other words, after that first season,
youve probably already weeded out a third to half of them,
and then you take them out and plant them in an actual test row.
You still dont need a lot of room because you can plant them
as close as 2 feet apart. Then you grow them up for a period
it varies on the grape, Ive seen them come into bearing a
year after the seedlings were planted out and trained up, and Ive
seen some of them take seven or eight years to come into bearing.
ACRES U.S.A. So if youre a newfound farmer, lets
say youve been downsized out of work as a computer operator,
and you want to grow grapes, you really wouldnt want to start
from seed, youd want some cuttings, wouldnt you?
ROMBOUGH. Right. Cuttings are the way you reproduce a variety
true to the parent. The seedlings are the way you find new varieties,
and that has advantages if you have the time and the place to work
with them because it may give you a means to develop a variety thats
just exactly suited to your conditions. So, that method has its
place, but if you want to put in a commercial vineyard right away,
yes, you should start from cuttings.
ACRES U.S.A. Lets take it from there. Lets say
someone is planting cuttings somebody has contacted you,
and since you have these 200 varieties, you probably could supply
somebody with a variety that would be suitable for their general
vicinity whats the next thing?
ROMBOUGH. Well, first you have to prepare your land, and
that means going through and remove things like perennial weeds,
you dont want tree seedlings in the vineyard, you dont
want things like, as in our case here in Oregon, we have this introduced
Himalayan blackberry, which is a horrendous pest, and youve
got to get all of that stuff out of the land first. If you can prepare
it in such a way that you need a minimal amount of cultivation,
then youll keep your soil life and soil structure intact,
but in most cases youre going to have to do some cultivating,
if nothing else to help level the land a little bit and break up
the rough spots or whatever it depends on the situation.
There are places out here where youd have to go through and
pull stumps first. The point is that you get the land ready in advance.
You can plant rooted plants, or you can plant cuttings. I dont
recommend that people plant cuttings directly in the vineyard. They
should be prepared first.
ACRES U.S.A. Do you make available cuttings or rooted plants?
ROMBOUGH. I only have cuttings. I tried rooted plants at
one time, but I wasnt able to keep up with the demand for
some things and the lack of demand for others. With that many varieties,
it just doesnt work.
ACRES U.S.A. So the cuttings how should they be prepared
ROMBOUGH. To start a cutting is a simple matter of giving
them the conditions they need to form roots. In most cases all you
have to do is keep them warm and reasonably moist. It doesnt
have to be in a dark place there are various ways to do it.
For a very small number of cuttings, Ive had people put them
on the back of the refrigerator, because the heat comes up from
the back of the condenser and helps keep them warm that way, you
just put them in a plastic bag with some moist paper or something.
ACRES U.S.A. You dont use the old classroom demonstration
method of putting a sweet potato in water, do you?
ROMBOUGH. Well, Ive seen some people root cuttings
in water, but for the average person its not very good because
they have a tendency to rot if they just sit in water. Its
better to get them to form some root callus, just a little white
tissue around the cut area.
ACRES U.S.A. So if you wrapped the cutting in toweling or
something like that and kept it damp.
ROMBOUGH. And keep it at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
ACRES U.S.A. Would it help to put a little seaweed extract
or something on the toweling?
ROMBOUGH. You could try it. I have found, though, that that
sort of thing doesnt make a lot of difference until the roots
are actually out. Ive used mycorrhizal fungi, and in some
varieties that will actually help speed the rooting a little bit,
while in others it doesnt seem to do a thing. Most of the
time I get my best results after the roots have actually started.
Once the roots are there, then they can take up all these different
things and it will make much more of a dramatic impact on the plant.
ACRES U.S.A. Putting that plant out into the field now
what kind of spacing do you recommend?
ROMBOUGH. The spacing is variable according to what kind
of growing conditions you have and how youre going to do it,
but an average spacing can be 8 by 8 or 8 by 10, in other words,
the vines 8 feet apart in the row, and the rows maybe 8 or 10 feet
apart. The differences come with things like, for example, wine
grapes in northern conditions, where they may plant them quite a
bit closer, maybe as close as 2 feet, and then train them vertically,
that is to say, train them almost to whats called a vertical
curtain. The Germans do this quite a bit in order to take
advantage of catching as much sunlight as they can in their northern
climate. So there are a lot of different ways to do it. With table
grapes, for example, you want to spread them out a little bit so
that theyre supported and so that the weight of the fruit
doesnt pull the canes out of alignment.
ACRES U.S.A. Are these rows to be in line with the sweep
of the sun?
ROMBOUGH. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to do it is
to line them up parallel to the prevailing wind. Thats because
if you have rain on them or heavy dew or things like that, the vines
will dry off much faster, and fungal diseases will be less likely
to get started. Also, if you have them parallel to the prevailing
wind, it reduces the likelihood of shoot breakage, if youve
got a particularly windy area or if you dont have a good windbreak
ACRES U.S.A. What kind of support system do you like best?
ROMBOUGH. Again, thats something thats almost
as individual as each grower. I use a basic system of two wires.
The wires are horizontal, with one above the other. There are variations
on that such as a cross-arm on the trellis, which provides some
extra wires to support the shoots. You can grow grapes in almost
as many configurations as there are grapes in the world. Ive
seen them trained up the sides of buildings, they grow well on arbors,
and you can put them on almost any form that gives them proper spacing
between the fruit and supports the shoots. Thats practically
all you need, as long as youre pruning them correctly, and
by that I mean regulating the shape of the vine and preventing overcropping.
ACRES U.S.A. We realize that pruning is an art, but why dont
you describe that art as best you can?
ROMBOUGH. Grapes are quite flexible. Basically, with grapes
its a matter of removing as much as 95 to 98 percent of the
previous seasons growth the reason being that all that
new growth, every bud on that new growth has the potential of having
fruit in it. If you cut a bud open and dissect it, you can actually
find the little undeveloped clusters in it. If you left all of those
shoots, youd have much more fruit than the vine could carry,
and the quality of the fruit would be lousy because the vine wouldnt
be able to produce enough food for it, and at the same time it would
be so overloaded that it wouldnt produce enough food to harden
off its own new growth well. It would be susceptible to cold damage
and so forth. So pruning is partly a matter of keeping the vine
where you want it, because otherwise it can just keep on growing
and expanding, and partly a matter of regulating the crop so that
you have the same amount of crop or at least approximately the same
from year to year, which keeps the quality up as good as it can
ACRES U.S.A. So you trim back to where it was the previous
year kind of a ruthless pruning, wouldnt you say?
ROMBOUGH. A little bit there are two main systems
for pruning grapes. One is spurs, in which you have a permanent
trunk and maybe arms off the trunk, and that is where all of the
shoots come theyre spurs, just like it sounds, like
little short extensions. They can have from one to four buds on
them, and each one will grow a shoot. At the end of the season,
or the next year, when you go to prune, you remove most of those,
and usually you will pick one of those shoots thats in the
right place on the spur and cut it back, and it becomes the new
spur. With canes, the only difference is that instead of having
a lot of spurs, you have only three to five spurs near the trunk
of the vine, and instead of leaving just a short spur you leave
a long cane, the shoot that grew the season before, because thats
the one thats fruitful. I put that in the book in pictures
to make it a little clearer. But those are the two basic differences
in pruning you prune some vines to spurs and some to canes,
according to what suits them best. Theres a lot of variation
in varieties without listing them one by one, but the Eastern U.S.
Concord, for example, is usually trained to canes. They usually
leave four canes on the vine, and each cane has about 10 to 15 buds
on it. Thats a lot of fruit if you stop and think about it,
because each bud can produce at least two clusters, so were
talking about 60 buds on that vine, with each of them producing
two clusters, youre getting maybe 120 clusters of fruit from
a good mature vine. Thats a lot of fruit! That can be anywhere,
depending on the variety, from 20 to sometimes 40 or more pounds
per vine. Ill let you do the math as to how much per acre
that comes to!
ACRES U.S.A. Do you do any grafting?
ROMBOUGH. Not very often because I dont need to here,
but grafting has value for many of reasons. For example, many varieties
have susceptibility to certain root pests like phylloxera, an aphid-like
insect, and the standard method of dealing with that is to use a
root stock that has resistance to phylloxera and graft onto that.
Sometimes you use root stocks for other things for instance,
there are areas where the soil may be quite alkaline, and the variety
itself wouldnt do well on its own roots, but if you graft
it onto a root stock that has the ability to tolerate the alkaline
soil, then youve got a vine that will take the conditions
without having to drive yourself crazy for years correcting the
soil. Of course, you can improve the soil as you go along, but Im
saying this is the way to deal with it on a major level while youre
fine-tuning it down the way. Root stock can also increase the hardiness
of a variety. There are a lot of root stocks or a fair number,
anyway that have the ability to make a variety harden off
a little faster and a little earlier in such a way that it probably
ripens earlier, and it will also be more cold-hardy. You can add
as much as 10 degrees of cold-hardiness on a variety with the right
root stock. That can make quite a bit of difference in a marginal
area. Theres a lot of value to root stocks, and they havent
really been fully explored.
ACRES U.S.A. Are root stocks commercially available?
ROMBOUGH. Oh yes, theyre sold commercially in many
areas, although most root stocks are used by commercial growers.
If you go to buy a vine for home use, chances are your average garden
center or nursery is going to be selling vines that are on their
own roots, partly because its expensive to graft it
takes extra time and labor, and you dont get 100 percent success
with any given batch and partly because we have enough varieties
that do well on their own roots that, for the average home grower,
if they look around a little bit, they can find something that will
do alright without them having to graft it.
ACRES U.S.A. And theres a time factor, isnt there?
ROMBOUGH. Yes, there can be a time factor, but not necessarily,
because if youre buying them pre-graft, then the nursery has
done all the work. You can do it yourself, for that matter
it doesnt necessarily have to take more time if you do it
right, but it will take more labor and a little more care, at least
at first once the vines grafted and established its
not a problem.
ACRES U.S.A. In terms of common denominator, what is your
approach to fertility?
ROMBOUGH. In my particular spot, Im fortunate because
we have some exceptionally nice soil here, without rocks and good
characteristics all the way around. But in general, the things I
would tell a new grower to do: first of all is not to cultivate,
in other words, dont keep breaking up the soil because youre
going to keep disturbing the soil structure and the soil life that
youre trying to establish. I think one of the best examples
of the overall system I would espouse is being done by a grower
in this area. First of all, he mulches under the rows, that is,
right under the vines themselves, he mulches with wood chips
I dont mean the average stuff, he gets the chipped-up material
from tree trimmers.
ACRES U.S.A. From indigenous trees he doesnt
buy cedar from outside his environment?
ROMBOUGH. No, the people who trim trees in the area prune
them and chip up the stuff theyve pruned he gets that
ACRES U.S.A. Thats what he mulches underneath the vines.
ROMBOUGH. Right. Now the advantage of that, first of all,
is that when you get that material theres enough twigs and
small material that has nitrogen in it, you dont really have
to add nitrogen. The other is that the majority of the chips are
large enough that they dont break down rapidly, they break
down slowly enough so that it doesnt take anything out of
the soil to do it it feeds the soil life instead, it feeds
the fungi and everything else as it breaks down. If a little extra
fertility is needed, one of the things I like to use that works
well for a lot of people is fish pellets and were lucky
in that weve got a good producer of them here in Oregon, theres
a place on the coast called Bio-Oregon they have a website
ACRES U.S.A. There are a lot of very good products on the
market that would give an assist in that direction.
ROMBOUGH. There are I mention that one because Im
very fond of their fish pellets and the fact that they dont
go harvesting the wild stuff. They get all their material from processors
of farmed fish, so theyre depleting things a little less that
way. But anyway, I like fish because it has enough nitrogen to help
the vines along and its balanced, its got all the other
trace minerals and things with it. At the same time, it doesnt
give them too much of a jolt, so to speak, because you can give
a grape vine too much nitrogen. If you overfeed them, then they
wont set. The mulch, the fish, and avoiding anything other
than perhaps mowing the vineyard. This fellow I mentioned
he is actually getting his vineyard developed to the point where
he expects to be able to take care of it without ever having anything
more in the vineyard than perhaps a vehicle to carry out the fruit.
Hes hoping to get it to where he wont even have to use
a mower any more. The way hes doing that is to have his vines
trained up high, and then hes introducing short-legged sheep
to go in and keep the grass eaten down. Their manure is not only
good fertilizer and it wouldnt be applied at a level
that would overload the vines but it also happens to have
very high potassium content, and here in Oregon potassium tends
to be a little low because the rain leaches it out of the soil.
So hes worked out a system that looks pretty good. How well
does it work? Well, usually you figure that a vine will have reached
its maximum production by the seventh year. He has been keeping
records on his vines, and finds that even in the eleventh year he
was still getting a small but measurable increase every year in
production. So hes actually continuing to build the production
of his vines by this method. In the winter his land is almost like
walking on a sponge, its so springy because the soil structure
has never been disturbed, and hes feeding the soil life and
taking care of it the way it should be.
ACRES U.S.A. So were really talking about a no-till
approach, arent we?
ROMBOUGH. Essentially thats what hes working
towards, yeah. It doesnt work the same for every system because
there are some cases where youre going to have to do some
tilling. For instance in the East, there are a number of insect
pests that will require you to do some tilling because a lot of
them will over-winter in the soil within a few inches of the surface,
and if you go through at the right time and till, you can destroy
all of them.
ACRES U.S.A. Freeze them out.
ROMBOUGH. Well, not freeze them out, but just kill them by
rototilling or churning them up. In most cases you dont have
to till real deep, its just a matter of a few inches to do
the job. Its something you have to tailor to each situation
according to what you have to deal with.
ACRES U.S.A. What about the phosphate connection?
ROMBOUGH. Phosphorus is not a problem here, and one of the
reasons I encourage people to use mycorrhizal fungi is because several
years ago I went and saw the work of Dr. Robert Linderman with the
USDA and who works at Oregon State University, and then I got to
know Dr. Elaine Ingham. In both cases, one of the things I found
out was that plants that have good mycorrhizal fungi dont
have a problem with phosphorus. The fungi makes the stuff available
to them even in low-phosphorus situations. Theyve found that
plants in low-phosphorus soils with mycorrhizal fungi would actually
do better than plants with normal amounts of phosphorus but without
the fungi on their roots.
ACRES U.S.A. You mention Elaine Ingham and mycorrhizae, and
of course she takes the position that the forest crop is quite different
from the field crop, such as corn. So your emphasis on mycorrhizal
fungi would put the grape in the category of being more of a forest
ROMBOUGH. Yes, in the sense that its a perennial, as
opposed to corn, especially because a lot of the fungi need a perennial
host to keep going, and also because there seems to be a sort of
succession in the soil with many of these things.
ACRES U.S.A. You mentioned that there are a lot of books
on philosophy and generalizations and so on, but this manual you
have written, The Grape Grower, is really a step-by-step, hands-on,
ROMBOUGH. Thats what I tried to make it. I tried to
include as many of the things that Ive learned over the years,
things that, as I say, dont get into the regular books. For
example, when I was doing my graduate work at the University of
California at Davis, when I tried viticulture classes there, I learned
more things from the field crew, as far as the practical care of
the vines, than I learned from the professors, because the field
crew had been out there and knew all of the little tricks and the
things that were necessary to work with the vines and make it easier,
while the professors never put that in the book they just
discussed the theory, but they didnt tell you how to apply
it. That was one of the things I was trying to do to put
all these little bits and pieces together so the average person
could see them and understand what to do and why to do it, but not
just a theory and then let them try to figure it out based on whatever
the theory was.
ACRES U.S.A. So the field crew in effect helped you to prevail
over the elusive erudition of the professors?
ROMBOUGH. Thats one way to put it! One thing they showed
me out in the vineyard that wasnt covered in the classroom
was the simple idea that you prune a grape vine the reverse of how
you would a fruit tree, that is to say, when you have an apple tree
with a weak shoot on it, you leave it unpruned to try to encourage
the tree to put more energy into that shoot. With a grape vine,
its just the other way around if youve got a
shoot thats weak, you prune it real short. The reason is that
if its weak, you dont want it to carry a lot of crop,
which would weaken it further, so you cut it down to one bud, and
then it puts all or most of its energy into the shoot from that
bud instead of trying to take care of a lot of fruit that would
have come out of several buds. You do it that way, and the next
season youll find that youve got a nice, big, much stronger
shoot there in that location to work with. That doesnt sound
like anything earth-shaking, but its the kind of little thing
. . .
ACRES U.S.A. That you get from the field hands, and the professor
doesnt have it!
ROMBOUGH. Right! Theres a million and one little things
like that that crop up, and as I say I tried to include as many
of them as I could in the book, plus adding things that people commonly
ACRES U.S.A. Your book is well illustrated with line drawings
as well as photographs. Who did the artwork?
ROMBOUGH. I did the sketches, and they were put into finished
drawings by a staff artist at the publisher.
ACRES U.S.A. Why dont you walk us through your book
quickly, sort of a summary, a precis?
ROMBOUGH. Some of the things weve already mentioned.
The first thing is the structure of the vine giving the names
to all the parts of the vine and how they work and whats going
on when you tell them what to do. The second part is getting started,
the site, the soil and planting in other words, choosing
the right place to plant, or if you have a limited number of places
to choose from, how to compensate for some of the weaknesses. Pruning
and training weve talked about thats the one
people have the most trouble with. Then I discuss growing grapes
organically again, that gives you a lot of things you have
to consider according to your own situation.
ACRES U.S.A. The first order of organic growing is to have
a proper level of organic matter, isnt it?
ROMBOUGH. Thats certainly a very important step, although
grapes are one of the few plants that will grow in surprisingly
poor soils. Its not a matter of having a fertile, rich, deep
soil, as long as you can supply them with what they need, even in
relatively poor soil.
ACRES U.S.A. In Italy at the Villa Banfi vineyards, one of
the growers showed us where the grape vines were etching nutrients
out of what appeared to be solid rock it would just start
eating its way into the rock.
ROMBOUGH. Im sure it probably would, and Ill
bet that if you could examine the plant youd find that it
had some pretty good mycorrhizal fungi with it.
ACRES U.S.A. Even though we were up in the mountains, everywhere
they had done some tilling or planted posts, they turned up seashells,
so that ground was under the sea at one time.
ROMBOUGH. Yeah, theyve got plenty of trace minerals
in the soil there.
ACRES U.S.A. All the 90-plus trace minerals that are available
in ocean water.
ROMBOUGH. Ive tried fertilizing plants with diluted
seawater from time to time, too, and it works if you have access
to seawater. Of course, when you have table grapes, you want to
get nice, big, juicy attractive looking fruit, and they will take
a little more nutrition. On the other hand, wine grapes want to
struggle a little bit. I dont mean that they have to be undernourished,
but you dont want to give them the most water, for example,
you want to have grapes that are more concentrated and a little
more intense in their flavor and character. Not necessarily big,
ACRES U.S.A. Lets get back to the walk-through of your
ROMBOUGH. Yes I also discuss the diseases of grapes,
with a kind of an encyclopedic list of the kind of things you might
run into. The same thing with insects of grapes. With diseases and
insects, one fortunate thing is that youre not going to get
the same collection everywhere. You wont have all of them
hit you all at once. You usually only have to deal with just a few
of each. I discuss animals and bird pests, too. Thats what
everybody has to deal with in one way or another. It comes down
to deer, rabbits, things that eat the vines and things that eat
the fruit. Next is propagation, starting your own vines, grafting.
ACRES U.S.A. So you pretty much have a full package here.
ROMBOUGH. Yes, theres a chapter discussing root stocks
we were talking about what root stocks can do. I also went
through and listed a collection of varieties, mostly table grapes,
but a fair number of good wine grapes, and what their characteristics
are, their ripening times, their quality and so forth, and what
you might expect out of them, to give you some kind of idea of what
to try in your area. I also treat grape species. Thats a little
esoteric for the average person, but there are a lot of wild grape
species in America, in fact we have more wild grape species than
any other part of the world. A lot of them have hidden talents that
have never been explored. There are varieties with tremendous cold-hardiness,
like Vitus riparia there are forms of it that can take -70
to -80 F. There are species and varieties that will grow down in
central Florida in places where the humidity and the climate will
absolutely eat alive any other grape that isnt adapted to
ACRES U.S.A. So the bottom line is that youre not going
to get anywhere being a dilettante in this field. You have to really
study your material and know where youre going. Is that a
ROMBOUGH. Well, that could be said, but at the same time
it depends on what youre willing to do and what youre
willing to settle for. If youre going into it commercially,
then yes, you better know your stuff. If youre a home grower
you can get by with a surprisingly limited range of information,
if youre only growing one or two varieties and youre
willing to work at it a little bit. But it helps to know your stuff,
just as with any endeavor.
Lon Rombaugh can be contacted at P.O. Box 365,
Aurora Oregon 97002-0365, phone (503) 678-1410, e-mail <email@example.com>,
Grape Grower is now available from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.