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hand weeding

Wheelbarrow Races

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Wheelbarrow Races

This year has been characterized with a huge focus on hand weeding but I was still floored to learn that we had spent over 400 hours at it this season, and that we aren’t finished. That’s an incredible amount of effort for such a small vineyard. Most of it occurred in the new plantings, particularly the cabernet sauvignon, undoubtedly a result of our disturbing the soils. We dealt with thistles, sorrel, kikuyu, bracken fern, and were absolutely hammered with nightshade, but there was also a smattering of an insidiously clever weed Emex australis, an immigrant from South Africa. I took bins and bins of it to the tip.

It goes by various names-- double g, goathead, cathead, three cornered jack. It’s a low growing annual that sends prostrate stems bearing clusters of spiny fruit. These burrs are three-spined and designed for maximum dispersion, constructed in such a way to inevitably imbed itself in anything that touches it. I’ve run barefoot in the field and been categorically stopped in my tracks like a tank in a tank trap. These babies know how to penetrate and they hurt.

So once the weeds had been pulled, making vast piles at the edges of the vineyard, I decided to reduce the possibility of future proliferation, by deploying six semi loads of ground up tree mulch. I couldn’t have picked a hotter dustier day for this work!

We spread it by hand, of course, wheel barrowing the mulch, section by section, utilizing forks, and rakes and gloves. We were sweating.

And that’s where the double g caught us. That insidious little bugger was waiting to puncture our wheels. Four of us spread mulch for three days and I ended up changing six tires and and four inner tubes before I finally found some industrial strength tires as replacements… If I had started with those tires in place, though, I wouldn’t be as proficient as I am now in wrenching the wheels off the wheelbarrow, popping tire off the rim, yanking the inner tube, replacing a fresh one, pumping it up and ratcheting it back on.  In the Indy 500 of wheel barrowing, I’m king of the pit crew.

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And you thought growing grapes was easy

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And you thought growing grapes was easy

Since the harvest the rains have been abundant, resulting in the establishment of a dense mat of weeds. Without chemicals or machinery it will require a massive effort to remove them. Our thick mulch will help somewhat with the broadleaves and the plain grasses, but the presence of kikuyu, Pennisetum clandestinum, a virile runner grass, will necessitate considerable hand labor.

Kikuyu grass is fiercely aggressive and persistent. It invades new territory by sending out stolons (runners), which climb over all obstacles, including other plants, and everywhere it goes, it develops dense networks of rhizomes (roots), which monopolize all available soil nutrients. This strategy enables it to establish itself very rapidly, outcompeting virtually all other plants. It grows so densely that it chokes out all challengers, plus it also produces its very own toxic herbicide, which further discourages any rivals, even if they are already established.

Some neighbors have burned it with flamethrowers. Most kill it with roundup. It can also be scraped up with earthmoving equipment (along with all the topsoil). But if even the smallest piece is left in the ground, it will start another plant. To remove it without damaging our soil involves meticulous hand weeding. But that is an arduous and very costly process. We will have to dig up and remove every particle of each individual plant, and carry it far away from the vines. If even the smallest piece snaps off, it can establish a new plant!

Such a tremendous expenditure of effort and resources may not be entirely efficacious. So I’m walking around in the night wondering if there is any other way to deal with it. One idea is to move some chickens in and feed them in the vines. Perhaps they will be able to scratch up the kikuyu. But once the buds pop we risk the entire crop, and our low cordon means that the buds will be in reach. We will have at least another month of winter, so it might be worth the risk…

And you thought grape growing was easy!

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