A seed of an idea
When Jessica and I returned from our world travels in late 2011, we stayed for a short while in San Diego, with Jessica’s parents, while we regrouped and planned our next move. During our stay, we talked a lot about some of the different agricultural and horticultural practices we experienced at the various farms and homesteads where we worked and lived. Of note, our stay on a farmstead in the Extremadura region in Spain, where we spent many hours hiding from the hot sun under the shade of a mature grapevine hanging over the owner’s poolside patio. This romantic mediterranean image of grapes hanging off the vine, ready for the picking, captured the imagination of Jessica’s mother, who decided to plant grapevines in halved wine barrels, and run them up the posts of her wooden patio cover.
This was all in early 2012. Little thought had been given to whether or not these vines would actually yield much fruit. We had figured that sure, a few bunches of grapes would sprout up a couple times during the summer, but surely these vines wouldn’t be major fruit bearers. The main purpose of these vines was to provide southern-facing shade for the patio during the summer, which would die off in the winter, allowing for additional sun exposure during the cooler winter months. Our permaculture-motivated minds were pleased, thinking we had developed an elegant solution to creating more shade for Jessica’s parents’ patio.
All vines grow up
Fast forward five years to 2017: the grapevines have matured, and have taken over the entire patio cover. Shade abound, yes, but who knew a few simple grapevines could yield so many grapes? And who knew how difficult grapes would be to clean off patio furniture and concrete once they fell, or how smelly they could be as they began to ferment in place? And who knew how poisonous just a few grapes could be to the five dogs in residence at the house? Our elegant shade solution wound up creating more problems than it solved. It was time to take action. It was time to harvest the grapes!
So harvest we did, this past weekend at the Wohlander house. After 8 man-hours of grape picking off the patio cover, we wound up with over 40 gallons of ripe grapes. To protect the house dogs, we pruned back the vines pretty extensively, and removed any and all grapes on the vine, but I have a sneaking suspicion we’re going to have a fresh new crop, and have to start the harvest all over again, in a month or so.
A garbage bin full of grapes
What do you do with 40 gallons of ripe grapes? The obvious answer (obvious to us anyway) is you make wine, or at least you start by making grape concentrate so that you can make wine in the near future. Once you have a garbage can full of ripe grapes, quickly fermenting in the hot sun, you’re under a quick deadline to make sure they’re used before they rot. We spent the remainder of the weekend separating the good from the bad, and the grapes from the stems, and hand-juicing our yield. After another 8 hours of work, we juiced our 40 gallons of harvested grapes down into 10 gallons of useable grape concentrate, which we’ve stored in our spare freezer, where it sits, ready to be turned into wine when we’re ready.
We’ve learned many lessons from these grapevines. In retrospect, the patio shade problem could have just as easily been remedied with a vine that didn’t bear fruit. This would have required much less summer labor, and been less hazardous to the dogs of the house. If dogs are not part of the equation, then grapes are a great option, provided you remain vigilant in harvesting them, to prevent your patio and patio furniture from getting sticky and smelly. Make sure your patio cover has thick enough gaps between beams to fit your hand through to harvest the grapes once they’re ripe. The gaps between beams here are only about 1 or 2” wide, which was just barely enough to get our hands through, but scraped our hands up pretty well. And make sure your patio cover can support the weight of a full yield of grapes. Once ripe, a mature vine full of grapes in the summer can weigh significantly more than it does the rest of the year. Make sure you have a plan for all those grapes once you harvest too. You can make them into jam, grape juice, or even wine if you have the right equipment.
And finally, we learned that homegrown grapes are a truly delicious and refreshing summer treat!