Industrial Strength Pruning

It’s raining – quelle surprise – and I’m stood looking at our hedgerow after a day’s winter pruning. I should really be stood looking at one of the vines and hacking bits off it, but the enormous hedgerow/line of overgrown trees that runs between our land and the lane is offering a not inconsiderable amount of shelter from the gale that threatens to blow me off the side of our hill. From my vantage point on the lane, which is below the level of the land, it’s easy to see quite how overgrown it has become in the time since someone last took one of those tractor flail trimming jobs to it. We do clear the bits of our hedgerow that grow into and obstruct the lane*, but it hadn’t been looked at for a long time when we bought the land in 2007. By now the hail is coming in sideways and the recycling is making its own way to the recycling centre, so I will hide for a bit longer. That is, investigate the hedgerow more thoroughly.

*We deduced that, as much of the hedgerow on our way up to the vineyard appears never to have been attended to, it might be the responsibility of the landowners to keep it in check. This is in fact the case. Besides which, we have a vested interest to keep on top of our bit of hedgerow as our poor old car has enough abuse thrown at it rumbling up and down our home made driveway on a daily basis to have the further indignity of doing battle with trees on the lane. (Lucy is already on first name terms with the employees at Kwik Fit who have replaced pretty much every single part of it.)

Having the responsibility of the stewardship of the land has taught us that ignoring problems almost never causes them to go away (I have also been trying this with Simon Cowell for many years, and the problem appears to be getting worse). For this reason, we decided that it was time to take this particular problem in hand and do battle with the hedgerow before it became a problem that necessitated professional help to remedy (alert readers will have noticed that we avoid this at all costs). It was time for action.

And it was this sequence of events that lead to me being stood in the garden last week awaiting our friend and unpaid employee for the day who is a veritable expert on all things tree shaped. Specifically, he has a bit of a wood of his own and owns a chainsaw. I was especially excited about the chainsaw as I have chopped down exactly two largish trees in my life, with an axe and, having discovered that chainsaws were invented for a very good reason, was not keen to repeat my ordeal.

During our exciting day’s work of hacking away at the undergrowth and cutting back the trees so far that it would save us from having to attend to it again for years to come, I made a number of observations. Firstly I noted that chainsaws are incredibly efficient. We were knocking trees down at such a rate that it was a full time job for one of us to clear the lane as the trees were deposited onto it, while the other operated the saw and checked that we weren’t endangering the existence of man or machine below. I was in fact that impressed with the machine that we bought one this very morning, and I shall be having a bash with it the moment that I can think of a suitable excuse to down secateurs and play truant from the winter pruning again.

The second observation that I made came to mind about half way through the day and is sort of associated with the first. Do you know what the flip side of efficient machines is? They do things quickly. And do you know how long it takes to make the mother of all messes with a chainsaw? Not very long. I had absolutely no idea that a smallish line of trees could make such a mess. In retrospect this should have been obvious, as when compared to the sky in which the visible bits of trees mostly live, they are going to look fairly small in comparison. When one compares those same trees to our driveway, they are very large. Thankfully I now have a chainsaw, some matches to light a fire to burn the small bits and, provided that I don’t kill myself with either, we should be well on the way to making the all-new instant hedgerow along the driveway disappear in short order (assuming it ever stops raining!).

The final observation (that doesn’t involve lots of profanity and us dropping a tree in front of the car of a man who was in fact surveying the lane for overgrow trees in what was nearly the mother of all ironic accidents) was just how much mess people leave behind them in the countryside. I honestly can’t understand the thought process that gets you to: “This is nice empty countryside, the only thing that could improve this vista is a MacDonald’s packet and an empty can of Coke”. We found the most amazing things in our hoover of hedgerow, including some his and hers underwear and a pair of socks. A leap of faith got me as far as the pants, but socks?

Felling Liabilities

This week Ben is assaulting the hedgerow along the lane with a chainsaw and shall return next week. Doubtless clutching an enormous bill after dropping a tree onto someone’s car. Have a lovely weekend.

Rain Pours on Lesser Spotted Winter

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A quick look out of the window reveals that it appears to be raining again. Quelle surprise! It was while I was watching the rain rolling down the windows thinking of excuses not to go out that it occurred to me what a good idea it was to dig that drainage channel last week. I dread to think of what state the bathroom floor would have been in had we continued to ignore the belching shower. No matter, having procured some drainage pipe, I have been attacking a problematic spot at the very bottom of the furthermost vineyard. And was really enjoying my work; right up to the point where we ran out of pipe and places to drain and I was forced to start doing proper jobs and stop pretending that I was a civil engineer, heroically saving whole communities (rabbits, vines, etc.) from filthy flood water and start winter pruning again.

It’s just possible that in reality digging trenches might not actually be that fun. There certainly aren’t scores of young people clamouring to do drainage studies at university and, if I’m being completely honest, I had to think long and hard before offering my hand for the septic tank emptying chap to shake the last time that he was here. I suspect that the problem might just have something to do with not wanting to climb back onto the winter pruning treadmill. When you think about it, the fact that I am currently only about a third of the way through the winter pruning is all the fault of the England cricket team. Not content with causing all media outlets to have smug Australians with extremely short memories on them, they contrived to play cricket so badly that it is impossible to listen to it happen.

I had big plans for December. I was going to stride out into the fields and wait for the repeat of the previous night’s commentary to keep me company through the bleak winter days. I would power through the pruning as England romped to glory and, in a whirlwind of unprecedented contrition, the Australians would admit that they are terrible at all sports and that their wine is appalling, and promise to stop doing both with immediate effect. In reality, after the first test, I’d get out of bed and check the internet with ever increasing horror the first thing in the morning and leave the radio at home. Even if I had the staying power to listen to our team being relentlessly hammered, they spent such a short amount of time being hammered it wouldn’t have been an awful lot of use anyway.

No matter, having saved the entirety of Devon from drowning, I have pulled myself together, bolted on a can do attitude and ventured into the wild winter weather for a spot of pruning. I’m sure that I can’t be the only person who is spending more time than is healthy staring up at the sky and imploring it to produce something other than wind and rain. Magically, this actually happened last weekend. This may or may not be related to my appeals, but whatever the cause, the sun came out last Sunday and it felt like we were in the middle of April as opposed to January. This did us and the children the power of good – I even saw one of the chickens having a wander around outside for the first time in a couple of weeks. While we aren’t starting to panic about them yet, I don’t believe that the clement weather is helping the vines over much.

An explanation requires the briefest of biological explanations of the anatomy of a vine. I’ll keep it brief, as I am extremely attentive to your needs and don’t wish to bore you, and not because I have reached an age where one is obliged to boot some information out if one wishes to force some more into one’s head and I have sacrificed vine anatomy for something equally important. Probably some “Facts” from Facebook or something. Whatever the cause, in general terms, at the end of the season the sap in the vine carries much of the goodness generated by the vine in the previous growing season. When it gets cold, much of that sap goes to hide underground in the vine’s roots, where it lies in wait for spring. When the temperatures reach a certain point, the sap goes into over-drive and fuels the initial growth of the vine’s shoots until they are able to start making their own sugar. This is why vine growing types get a little twitchy around spring as cold then warm then cold weather can cause the vine to misfire right into the frosty, unpleasant weather that vine’s shoots simply can’t abide. Or continue to live through.

We experienced something very similar to this last year. Having spent most of the winter not turning the heating on (just about my favourite pastime) and not wearing gloves, someone suggested that this might be a problem for the vines, suggesting that they might wake up at any time. I hadn’t heard that it was possible for vines to start growing in the middle of the winter, but wasn’t I at that very moment stood in a field wearing no gloves and just a single pair of socks? The evidence was compelling!

It was also misleading, as an embarrassingly small amount of deduction would have shown. You might recall that we have been attempting to garner information from the hedgerow that would allow us to better predict the best time for harvesting the grapes. If not, the sloes in the hedgerow turn black about a month before the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay does, and they do that six weeks before we harvest them. This gives us another month of planning for harvest. It’s not exactly an enormous intuitive leap to assume that the same thing might happen at the start of the year. And lo, the blackthorn started flowering a full month before the vines started growing at the start of spring. Although spring didn’t actually get going until quite late on last year, which caused us a bit of fun in the growing season. Let’s hope that we can’t also deduce that this weirdly balmy winter means that the same thing is going to happen this year…

Noah’s Very Own Vineyard

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Back when we planted the vineyard, it was our intention to build a house here the following summer. This seemed entirely feasible as we had a planning application in at the time with the clock ticking on it, so we took the plunge and moved out of our comfortable rented flat and into a two berth caravan. We felt that we would just about be able to live in a single room without killing one another for the balance of the application process (6 weeks) plus as long as it took us to cobble together a wooden house. We were granted permission to live here just two years later, which wasn’t much good for us or the caravan (aged caravans don’t like people living in them full time and Lucy doesn’t like living in caravans at all). A fringe benefit was that I was allowed to have a go at doing most things on our cut priced home – it was literally falling to pieces by the time that we moved out so there was lots of practice to be had. By the time that we were ready to build a house, we were pretty advanced DIYers and Lucy was feeling relatively sanguine about having a go at building the house ourselves.

One thing lead to another and before we knew what was going on, the off grid electricity was hooked up to a wired and waterproofed house and I was helping the chap who we bought the land from guide an enormous septic tank into the world’s largest hole. And why am I treating you to self indulgent retrospectives? It is in part because the installation of the septic tank was just about the last big job we had to do, marking the end of the mother of all winters. It also marked the first time that we had the use of a proper bathroom at home in two years. Never, ever take your normal person’s bathroom for granted. Ever. I am also telling you to emphasise just how alarming it was this week to wander into the back garden and see a house type problem that neither of us had even the slightest idea how to rectify.

The news had been promising some more storms of Old Testament strength, and, sure enough, the wind picked up and blew everything around again. Then it started raining. It has been absolutely relentless, and it has been falling on land that has been completely saturated for weeks. This wasn’t so bad until we noticed that the shower was sort of farting when we flushed the toilet and that there was a foot or so of water above the access hatch for the septic tank. If the consequences of having a septic tank under water are not immediately obvious, if it is flooded, there is nowhere for the sewage to go from the house and one is obliged to dig one’s own toilet with a shovel. This is why news people do frowny faces and tell you that even though flood water looks like awesome, kayaking down the high street fun, it is in fact a not at all fun, disease spreading stinky nightmare.

As luck would have it, the engineering brains trust was once again in residence for the new year celebrations. In concert we were able to work our way through Newton’s Law of Gravitation to conclude that as we are somewhere near the top of the hill, it was technically possible to make the (still mercifully clean) water that was collecting on top of the tank go somewhere other than our soil pipe, allowing us to flush the lavatory with impunity.

The brain’s trust kept us company on New Year’s Eve while we performed the ritual sitting around and drinking too much new year type stuff while we watched it go dark and stop raining. The rainwater was disappearing nicely, along with the pond on top of the septic tank, so I made a mental note to get on and stick this drainage job on to the bottom of the long list of home improvements. To be completed when absolutely essential. Or never. Whichever came first.

We were past the point of no return (other euphemisms for “Extremely drunk” are available on request) when karma took a peek at my mental note and turned the taps back on with enthusiasm, just in time to rain on our new year cigars. Once we had staggered out of bed in the morning, we discovered it was still raining, the pond had become a lake and the only person who wasn’t hung over was citing being pregnant as an excellent reason not to be sent out into the fields with a shovel.

Now, I don’t know what Jeeves used to put into those concoctions that he fed to Bertie Wooster to revive him after an evenings excess, but I’ll bet that it wasn’t as effective as digging trenches. Once I had finished my first hour in the freezing rain, my head was as clear as a bell and there was water gushing along my drainage channel and the septic tank had its head back above water. In fact, I was so chipper, that got a bit carried away and started digging in the garden and have big plans for a couple of spots that need help in the vineyard. If only winter pruning was as addictive as drainage, then we’d be set for next season already.

Happy New Year!

Happy new year!

Packing up the car in readiness for a trip for a period away is usually a fairly emotional experience for both of us. This is because it marks the start of a period away from the vineyard and home to which we have both become emotionally (and occasionally literally) attached. There are positive and negative reasons for our uneasiness at leaving. On the one hand we love being here and, having invested so much emotional capital into our venture, can’t imagine living anywhere else. Admittedly, not being able to imagine living anywhere else may have more than a little to do with my increasing unease at the concept of neighbours (and other people in general) that I am generally willing to admit. Whatever the case, I’m fairly sure that anyone, except perhaps the most hardened urbanite, would appreciate the many and various charms of our little chunk of Devon and be less than thrilled at the idea of leaving it behind for somewhere more populated.

On the other hand, leaving also means leaving the house to elements with nary a nosy busybody to peer through their net curtain and phone the police if the house explodes or a pack of feral children break into the house for our valuables. Needless to say, we don’t actually have any valuables, and if I could think of a mechanism by which the house might explode, I’d be off taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t rather than hammering away at a keyboard; but that isn’t how irrational thought works. This time, in spite of all of these well reasoned and not at all bonkers reasons for not wanting to leave, we both jumped into the car with some gusto, having reasoned that it would be an excellent plan to get out of the Huxbear Swamp and onto some tarmacked roads and paved driveways to see some normal people who live in normal houses with their normal neighbours. Who may or may not have been peering around their normal net curtains, checking us for ill fitting jeans and baseball caps.

On our return to Devon, it was immediately obvious that it had been a little wild while we were away. There were largish bits of tree scattered along our little lane and even more of what passes for tarmac on the lane had been washed away in the general direction of the river. The saint who had been taking care of the chickens while we were away had also forewarned us that it had been a bit lively: the roof had blown off the chicken coop, leaving them to the appalling elements. Sure enough, when we arrived home it was still squidgy underfoot, everything had been blown around the garden a bit and the chickens were both favouring me with absolutely filthy looks. One pleasant surprise was that the battery bank was absolutely brim full from the efforts of our freshly installed wind turbine, and I was even more delighted to note that it hadn’t been blown over after I had noticed the batteries.

As for the vines themselves, things were looking pretty good in the field that we live in. There didn’t appear to be any more broken posts and the few vine guards that were scattered about the land had come not from the vines, but from the world’s most pathetic hedgerow that surrounds our garden. So far, so good. It was while I was approaching the second field that I started to smell a rat. The incredible and frankly much too large and top heavy box that I had made for the electric fence gubbins was on its roof, and it had vomited the solar panels from its roof across the field in the process of its acrobatics. At this point I was giving serious thought to making my way back to the relative calm of the house to prepare myself a stiff drink, but decided to soldier on manfully.

As luck would have it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought that it might be. It appears that the far field had borne the brunt of the storm which had swept in from the South West, causing the wind to run along the rows of the first field and hit the rows of the second amidships. The bulk of the vines, which are the established ones enjoying the benefit of the support of trellising were perfectly okay – although the wheelbarrow that I am collecting the prunings in appears to have performed the same stunt as the electric fence box – but the newly planted vines seem to have taken a bit of a battering. And this brings us right up to date, as I spent this very morning putting them all back together and cursing the ridiculous Christmas storm. But what of the storm of new year’s day (that appeared on 1st January and was helpfully billed as the first storm of the year by all news agencies), didn’t that cause you massive problems too? Well, um, yes, so I’m off to do civil engineering now and I’ll let you know how I get on next week.