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Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains

  Pruning

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Ah winter, my favorite time of year in the vineyard.  The bones of the vines lie exposed, revealing at a glance the experience of what has come before.  There are four tasks in winter: observation and evaluation, pruning, weed and gopher control, and the enhancement of biodiversity in the vineyard.  Taking time now to prepare the vineyard for the season to come will pay off handsomely during the hot summer days when you may prefer to find some shade and watch your efforts mature.

First with the observation and evaluation.  Pick a fresh winter morning, a day with no rain and new sun.  Wear some rubber boots and fresh socks and what-ever else gives you comfort and keeps your mind on the vines. Bring some coffee or some other refreshment that inspires you (itís after 5 somewhereÖ). Start walking your vineyard. Observe how the vine is growing, the size of the dormant canes. Look to see how the canes were groomed last year. Are they all tangled together or are they separated by a few inches, each with its own space standing tall? (or hanging over like finely combed hair if you donít have VSP). What is the diameter of the canes? Observe if they are spindly and thin, or thick and robust, or in between like the size of a number 2 pencil. Check the distance between the buds. Look to see whether this distance is consistent or if some nodes are farther apart and some closer together. Look at the shape of the buds to see if there is potential below the surface.  These observations will guide you to your winter pruning decisions.

Winter pruning is the first step to setting the crop load for the following year. Some of this has already been determined based on last yearís heat and harvest and stored nutrient resources in the vine. Now is your chance to get involved with what the vine has to offer this season. First off, evaluate your pruning equipment. Clean, oil and sharpen your pruners. Or just buy new ones if the old canít be salvaged. A reliable, sharp pair of pruners will protect your hand and perform clean precise cuts the first time and sets the pace for a new year of productive and clean viticulture.

Next, start pruning. If the vines are mature, prune for fruit production. Most of our vineyards are spur pruned. Prune these vines so that the spurs are evenly spaced along on the cordon. Always be thinking about light and air. Imagine the shoots coming out of each remaining bud and watch in your minds eye where these shoots will grow. Guard against allowing shoots to grow into each other or to cross over each other. Prune out the spurs that will cross or crowd. Keep the area immediately adjacent to the trellis free from growth so that shoots do not smash into the structure while trying to elongate.  Imagine how the spray is going to penetrate through the canopy as it grows. Prune out areas that may present blockages as leaves and shoots fill in all of the empty space. Cane pruning is an option for some varieties or to promote fruitfulness on cooler sites where the basal buds have shown no fruit. 

Sometimes more is better.  The process is counter intuitive.  Severe pruning can lead to excessive growth. Minimal pruning (leave lots of spurs) will produce more bunches and reduce shoot growth. If you observed on your initial walk that the vineyard was very vigorous last year consider a lighter dormant pruning this year. Follow up with some serious shoot thinning in the spring. You may achieve more balance in growth. If the canes were spindly and unhealthy a more severe pruning may revive the vine. This may reduce tonnage this season but pay off with a healthier vine in years to come.

In new vineyards remember that you are pruning for the roots and for the future of the vineyard. A well established root structure will get you through times of severe heat and stress years down the line. It can be a trade off between a big early harvest or well established roots ready for the long run.

While pruning up and down the rows pay attention to the vineyard floor. A winter cover crop will protect the vine rows from erosion and will dry out the soil faster thus allowing easier access. If you have areas that you canít get into because they are too wet make notes to improve drainage and floor management in these spots by next winter. 

Look under the vines. Now is the time get a handle on weed growth. Knock down the weeds under the vines now so that they donít get established in the first place. There are two options for control: mechanical and chemical. It is completely possible to control the weeds with an in-row tiller or even by hand hoeing on a smaller site. Mulching is a good option. Consider using rice straw as this will not add to the seed bank in the soil. If you must spray do it in January or February while the vines are still dormant. Roundup is a systemic herbicide that will enter the tender growing weed shoots and go down into the roots of the weed and kill it completely. Do not use if there is any green growth on the vines or use with extreme caution.  This product is not effective against every weed. Stay away from herbicides that leach readily through the soil as the water table is vulnerable to contamination.  Consider options carefully especially if you plan to spray. Remember that some weeds are resistant to most chemicals. Mechanical intervention is a viable and effective control treatment that can be cost effective if the timing is right. It is essential to get the weeds knocked down now before they get a chance to establish.

Finally take a look around the vineyard and see what you can do to enhance the appearance and biodiversity of the site. There is still time to plant interesting ornamentals that will attract beneficial organisms. The intimate life of the vineyard goes far beyond the canopy and the fruit. The insects and biology that thrive there can contribute to the overall vitality of the vines by eating pests and preventing the establishment of large pest and disease populations that would require heavy sprays. Prevention is key to a vital, productive, premium vineyard. Think ahead.  Now is the time.

(Vine Talk column, January 2008)

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