Summer Visitors

2013-07-06 09.40.01 [640x480]     2013-07-08 16.47.16 [640x480]

We are into the second half of our most important month and a tour of the vineyard reveals that summer is still very much on. The skies are absolutely clear, there isn’t the merest hint of a cloud, it’s arguably a little hot for work (but we have already covered that) and there are insects flitting about all over the place. The return of the insects after virtually all of them disappeared in 2012 is both good and bad news for us.

I noticed what I thought was mite damage on the vines for the first time in a couple years last week on just a few of the vines (which was the case the last time that we saw it). Insects haven’t been of particular concern to the vines at this time of year before, as the judicious use of insecticides (once ever, on a legion of wasps) has encouraged a good crop of ladybirds and soldier beetles that do an excellent job of keeping the mites et al in check. The soldier beetles seem to still be a bit thin on the ground so far this year, but there are quite a few adult ladybirds about and literally thousands of their offspring munching away on the mites that we can’t see, but thankfully they can. I saw a ladybird larva eating the black fly on a weed the other day, they are absolutely savage. And presumably extremely hungry. We had an alarming hour or two the first time that we saw ladybird larva – which had appeared in shocking numbers almost overnight and look kind of evil – and were mightily relieved to discover that they were doing us a favour. Not least because the chemical store was conspicuously insecticide free at the time.

Our discovering the new mite damage coincided with a visit from the very knowledgeable chap who sells us our chemicals. I described the damage that the mites were doing and, quick as a flash, he told me that I was talking complete rubbish, that capsid bugs were eating the vines and that we should be able to see them. I was shocked. Not that I’ve been talking rubbish these years – Lucy reminds me of that on a regular basis – but that we should be able to see the bugs that are having a go at the vines. He also told us that we would have to spray to eradicate them entirely, which would also knock out the good guys. Fortunately we have a method to remove naughty and visible insects that we developed when we had a problem with moths and their ravenous caterpillar offspring, specifically applying a thumb and forefinger to them and repeating until there aren’t any left. This method is both ecologically sound and incredibly satisfying, fingers crossed that it’s as effective on the capsid bugs as it was on the moths.

It appears that some of our resident pollinators have also returned after a year off. I have probably mentioned before that vines don’t exactly have the most exciting flowers as their petals are fused and all fall off in one go when it’s time for action. This tells us that they don’t do much in the way of attracting insects and in turn have to use the wind to pollinate their uninspiring flowers. Then again, every little helps, and in previous years we have seen (and been alarmed until identifying them also) pollen beetles and soldier beetles crawling all over the flowers and generally helping the wind out. And this year, for the first time ever, we have bees too, which are presumably off to make the world’s most delicious honey. We have considered and rejected the idea of keeping bees before as we understood that they aren’t much interested in the flowers of vines. Now that we know different, I shall be taking steps to ensure that the world’s most delicious honey is attached to my toast next summer.

The return of the charmless horse files is bad news for me in particular as they are turning me into a walking buffet car as I work in the field closest to other people’s livestock. I you haven’t had the pleasure – we certainly hadn’t until we went to live la vie rustique – horse flies land on you with a almost audible thud and then painfully bury their spiky head in you for the purposes of extracting your blood, with absolutely none of the gravitas employed by the sneaky and under handed mosquito. What makes the horse files extra delightful this time of year is that we are spending at least some of our time strimming at the moment, and when the strimmer kicks up chunks of grass and weeds onto the operator, it feels almost exactly the same as a predatory horse fly landing. And leaping about like a demented person and slapping yourself every thirty seconds doesn’t exactly expedite the process of removing the weeds from beneath the vines.

And what of the worst of our insect visitors? Vespula vulgaris, the obnoxious wasp, who lies in wait for you to tend your grapes carefully all summer and then callously eat them? He is conspicuously absent. According to the people who know about these things, he’s absent because he has yet to recover from the ravages of summer 2012. Could this summer get any better? No, it could not.

Ten Years of Gin

We were sat outside having dinner the other evening after a day spent trying (and mostly failing) to avoid marching up and down hills during the hottest part of another exceedingly hot day. The grass in the vineyard and around the house is neatly cut, the vines are looking verdant and lovely and, at the time of writing, I’m surveying our handiwork safe in the knowledge that the weather is set fair for the duration of the forecast period, nursing a gin and tonic so cold that it threatens to bond with my hand each time that I take a sip. It is absolutely glorious in our little Devonian enclave, and not even the prospect of several million caravans arriving in our quiet county at the start of the school holidays is enough to take the edge off the good time summer vibes. Not least because the school holidays are likely to consist of just one long weekend in July next year when the education secretary has finished with them. It’s days like this that make the horrors of summer 2012 possible to bear.

This mostly* unexpected bit of Mediterranean weather has taken us completely off guard, and we are having quite a bit of difficulty adjusting to the continental lifestyle that the continental weather demands (other than the gin and tonic). I’m currently charging around during office hours, absolutely brimming with steaming hot coffee and wondering why I start to feel peculiar after about half an hour or so in the sunshine. But then again, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to just sit and enjoy the vineyard at the nicest part of the day if we were out bud rubbing or mowing it in the evening and watching television or sleeping or whatever it is that Spanish people do at lunch time. Needless to say, nothing short of a crowbar will get the dogs out from the shade under the children’s trampoline at the moment, so we don’t expect them to be chasing any rabbits or deer out of the vineyard any time soon.

*I claim to be the only person who saw this extended period of excellent weather coming, after hearing the finest meteorological minds announce after their conference that we would be having ten years of rain and deciding that the opposite was very likely to happen. Possibly for the next ten years. I have told Lucy that we should probably get on and remove the central heating from the house.

So things are going well in the vineyard on account of the incredible weather, right? Correct. Taking a tour of the vines (at lunch time, so that we may enjoy the best of the relentless sunshine), the first thing that one notices is how far they have come on since we last looked. We had a visit from a friend last week who has lots of experience in English vineyards who assured us that our vines would catch up after their slow start this year. And lo, after starting over five weeks late and catching up to about two weeks behind last month, I’m pretty confident that they are now just about where they should be. Closer inspection of the vines reveals that the petals on the flowers (which are fused to make what looks like a small grape) are just about ready to fall off and expose their inner workings, kicking off the business end of the season.

Without wishing to labour the point (too late, ha!), decent weather around flowering is pretty much vital for our purposes and (quick check on the Met Office site), there is still wall to wall blue skies predicted during the period that we expect the vines to be flowering in. Our delight in the weather is slightly tempered by a lower density of flowers this year (albeit on more shoots on larger vines) which is probably the result of the miserable weather this time last year. But then again, what you lose on the roundabouts, you gain on the swings: the vines should be absolutely covered in flowers next year, and if the weather is even half way decent, they should be covered in grapes too. Whatever the case next year, it looks like our pickers will have something to do other than build us a deck outside the house and put the finishing touches on the winery building this year.

When we aren’t whining about the much needed heat and wandering about in it and complaining even more, it’s standard middle of summer fare in the vineyard. And that means cutting grass, cutting down weeds and finishing off the bud rubbing. In an unprecedented display of preparedness we managed to get most of the weeds sprayed off at the start of the season and are now reaping the benefits. Which is to say that the strimmer isn’t seeing nearly as much action as it was last year. The bud rubbing is very nearly finished (as is my back) and we are nearly into bud rubbing the new vines that were planted at the start of this season. And it’s high time that we started those, as lots of them have now grown up and out of the top of their rabbit guards, so it might even be possible to prune some of them in such a way as to allow them to have some grapes next year and contribute to 2014’s vintage. Which will no doubt be enormous.

***If you read our last entry, you may now have a headache on account of the blogging software kicking it out in one, paragraph-less lump. Apologies for any inconvenience. You might also have noticed that we have moved from weekly to bi-weekly publishing(?), it’s entirely due to time constraints over summer, we’ll be inflicting a weekly update on you when things calm down a little. You can find out when the blog has been updated here, or on Facebook ( or Twitter (@huxbearvineyard). We appreciate your continued attention.***