Lessons of fruit from the (grape) vine

Have an area of grass? Does it get plenty of sun? Maybe it’s time to go beyond wild grasses and geraniums

Dave Quigley of Milford enjoys fruit trees and berry bushes, both for their beauty and bounty. Fifteen years ago he started planting his home acre with apple and cherry trees, much like his parents had done years ago. Now his project has turned into a showcase. “I love growing and maintaining fruit-bearing shrubs, trees and vines, so I decided why not make it into a business — King Street Vineyards.” He offers a turnkey solution for homeowners who would like to surround their homes with plants that flower in spring and can be harvested in summer and fall.

Quigley says, “I have already made all the mistakes that can ruin a harvest and I want to share how to avoid those setbacks.” He is focused on helping homeowners who don’t have the time or knowledge to get involved with planning and planting. Most suburban homes have space that could be dedicated to fruit trees and fruits of the vine. He suggests that even a small area could be planted with a veritable fruit bowl of plants, much like a nicely balanced perennial garden. 

Quigley offers everything from site selection to cultivar choice to maintenance, including pruning and pest management. Part of his property is a small nursery, while his front and back yards are stellar examples of how to design a grapevine trellis with aesthetics in mind. Grapevines surround a stone patio and a stone walk to the front door. He developed a system of trellising that didn’t need clumsy guy-wires. Four years later, grape leaves and glorious deep purple clusters of berries provide privacy and eventually a few cases of wine. Here, he answers our questions about how to turn fallow grass into fruitful production.

 A harvest that provided enough bounty to sell at the Milford farmers market

I imagine vines can be planted for aesthetics and nibbling, but how much acreage would the average homeowner need to produce several cases of wine? It’s possible to plant 18 vines in just a front yard or back yard and have enough yield. Once a grapevine has grown into maturity (which takes between four to five years), it is producing approximately four to five pounds of grapes once they’ve been harvested (including stems). To generate 24 bottles/750ml bottles or two cases of wine, a vintner will need to have access to a fall crop of 85 to 90 pounds of grapes that would be harvested from 18 or so vines. There are a number of factors that also come into play that impact plus or minus the number of vines. For example, last year I generated 30 bottles of wine from 15 vines of Leon Millot, a US hybrid cultivar that is highly resistant to disease and is well suited for cooler climates found in our state of New Hampshire.

Obviously, one needs gardening skills, but what other knowledge should the potential “vineyardist” be armed with? In many respects, a beginner vintner should possess a basic understanding of how plants grow. Most plants require a soil that meets some desired level of nutrients (per species), water retention and water drainage, proper amount of temperature (climate) and number of growing days of sunlight. A beginner should also start with a willingness to invest time and energy into the development of a plant that could provide a lifelong sustainable source of great annual anticipation and a hobby that results in a product that can shared with friends and family throughout the years.

Dave Quigley on King Street with one his fire pit designs. He couldn’t find what he wanted, so he designed one. He also sells the pits to match other hardscaping. In addition to holding fire, there is a separate liner for ice or a top to change it into an outdoor coffee table.

About what would be the initial cost after the ground is prepared? Sets or seedling? Above-ground structures? Chemicals or fertilizers? Advice? Trips to UC Irvine? Depending on the variety (called a cultivar), an individual two-year-old vine that would grow very well in the New Hampshire climate will cost anywhere between $23 to $30. Some highly sought-after vines may cost much more but may be much less suitable for New Hampshire and, in fact, not survive through their first NH winter. KSV vines arrive in individual grow bags containing the proper balance of compost, soil and nutrients. Preparing the soil prior to planting is much more important than fertilizing after planting.

Is it really difficult to grow organically? It’s not a question of being more difficult; it’s more a question of how much you want to harvest. Organically grown grapes will have a significantly higher volume of loss than grapes treated even minimally with safe, USDA-certified chemicals and pesticide treatment approaches.

How many years before one can enjoy an estate wine? A vintner can begin harvesting grapes from three-year-old vines, but there will be a noticeable increase found in years four, five and beyond for years to come. Most vines last more than 30 years.

Do you also help with winemaking skills or just getting the vines ready to harvest? This will be the first year that I’ll be running free home winemaking workshops.  Anyone interested in attending should contact me on my website and I will add them to my summer newsletter with dates and times for the Fall 2015 series.

I can imagine there is a short list of vines tried and true for New Hampshire climes. Is it worth it to experiment with new hybrids? A big part of the entire hobby is experimenting. I grow 14 cultivars; some are for table grapes, jellies and jams while others are for making wine. They all grow exceptionally well here in our state. That’s not to say that there aren’t others that also will grow well; there just aren’t that many of them. Keep in mind that I know of more than 50 varieties that would not grow well here. The key is identifying your site’s particular set of attributes (soil, temperature, grow days, available sunlight, geography, water drainage and retention, etc.) and matching them with the type or types of grapes that would make you happy each year. The real joy comes year after year of being able to take what you’ve grown and make it into whatever final product that can be used throughout the off months leading up to next year’s crop.

Beyond choosing vines, what other services do you provide?  King Street Vineyards is about passing the passion and excitement of growing your own sustainable fruit food source to other homeowners. We are a full turnkey service provider. What this means is that we offer customers a wide variety of services. They could be as simple as a fruit nursery source, where they can start their lifelong dream of growing their own grapes, berries or fruit trees, and knowing that the plants will have the greatest chance of sustainable growth in our state. Service could start with assisting the homeowner in site selection, design, site preparation, installation and maintenance. The maintenance represents annual pruning, cleanup and spraying for disease and pests.

How important is site selection? Site geography and soil composition are equal in importance to root quality (the origination and species of the plant). So yes, that’s an often-overlooked piece to the overall success of an orchard or vineyard and plays a huge role in the plants long-term and overall productivity for years to come.

Quigley and friends enjoying the fruits and fruits of his labors.

What about the aesthetics of the garden? That’s where it all began with me. I saw the beauty as well as the multi-purpose aspect of a fruit-bearing plant. It not only looks beautiful with bud and flower burst (i.e. cherry blossom). but from my perspective there’s nothing more beautiful than neatly managed rows of grapevines. And then, you get to eat as much as you want. And I can say that you’ll never taste anything more delicious than products that you grew at your home. 

Pest control? Yes, there are pests and we have a long history of winning over them, but it is not easy. [Quigley has built protective structures to keep deer from nibbling tender, new shoots in his spindle system apple tree arbor, supports for netting to protect ripe fruit from birds and serious fencing to foil possums.]

Tell us your favorite success story. My favorite story has to do with a vintner who lost more than 70 percent of his crop one season when a flock of robins descended on his small 36-vine vineyard.  That winter he ordered netting specifically to address this particular pest because he was so disappointed in the loss from the previous year’s crop. He watched and waited through the entire summer and no robins. In fact, one of his neighbors commented on the fact that he had noticed that robins hadn’t been around. And then one day after a huge summer storm ripped through the region, the new vintner noticed a robin walk by his first-floor window. He looked again and saw nothing. He continued working inside the house and then noticed another robin outside. This second siting got his attention and, even though it was still sprinkling a bit more outside, he walked around to the front section of his property. That’s when he saw a flock of robins, many poised on his neighbor’s lawn seemingly looking disinterested in the trellis grapes. That’s all he was waiting for. He immediately unpacked boxes of netting and covered his vines. By the time he finished, the flock had grown, doubling what was there when he first started. He didn’t lose any grapes to birds that year. Then the deer arrived and the story continues …

Categories: Breweries & Wineries, Features