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An Explosive Summer

Well, summer started with a couple of bangs. Great big mighty literal bangs. The last time that we met, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and we were starting to think about what implications that might have for flowering – our most important time of the year. Flowering (in this country at least) is cleverly performed by vines just before the children break up for school, so it usually happens in lovely weather; right before the holidaymakers flock to our part of the world with their freshly liberated children, are rained on for a fortnight and vow to go to Spain next year. The industrial strength weather asserted itself a little early this year. Your correspondent was busy minding his own business, knocking the unwanted buds and shoots from the vines, took one look at what was making its way across the the Dartmoor hills and made his way – at great speed – into his wooden house. When one has developed a knack for wandering out into the fields in entirely unsuitable clothing, it's a very good idea to also develop a knack for spotting apocalyptic storms that are planning to reposition part of the Atlantic Ocean on your unprotected head. I appreciate that weather forecasts are produced at great expense to prevent the need for either, but I have successfully convinced myself that spotting questionable weather five minutes before it happens is some sort of essential life skill. On arrival at our home that doesn't conduct electricity, the view from the window was absolutely spectacular. The sky went black, the temperature dropped sharply and the dog hid under the table as the pylon in the middle of the field we live in was smashed repeatedly by lightning, and the world in general was smashed by earth shattering bangs. This awesome display of nature did have a little collateral damage in Chudleigh (our nearest town), the lightning smashed the occasional roof tile and set a bus on fire, which melted the road a bit. On reflection, that's probably only exciting if you aren't actually on the bus (no casualties, in case you were wondering). On further reflection, all towns should probably be made out of wood and have 200ft lightning conductors in them. And why am I telling you about whopping great lightning storms in rural Devon? Well, did you know that lightning means free fertiliser? And who doesn't want free stuff? Well, me for a start, more on this later. A very short chemistry lesson is required to explain this. As the lightning is formed in the storm by some sort of magic (I promised chemistry, not meteorology), it goes looking for earth (or a bus) and zaps it with one billion volts of electricity. On its way to the innocent bus, it also zaps nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere, which is brutally separated from its happy union with another nitrogen atom, making it able to form nitrogen compounds that are theoretically useful to plants. These are then deposited on the ground in the rain, making them actually useful to plants. As any keen gardener knows, nitrogen fertiliser is the one that you use when you want plants to really grow quickly, so you can have a massive marrow and be in the local paper or something before realising that you have no idea what you are going to do with your massive marrow. What is good for marrows isn't necessarily good for vines. Opinions vary on whether you should put any nitrogen at all on vines, but this one is mine: if you put nitrogen on vines they will take over your life and probably strangle unattended pets given half the chance. Also, weeds are big fans of nitrogen. I think that we have covered this in the past, but it bears repeating. While vines are exceptionally good at producing easily the best beverage known* to man in the right hands, they are fairly pathetic. As the mighty oak springs from the minute acorn and becomes a tremendous, strong and independent tree, the vine springs from the humble pip, goes looking for that oak tree, uses it as a trellis and pinches all of its sunlight. Eagle eyed vineyard visitors will have noticed that the trellising in those vineyards is quite a bit smaller than a large tree. *And let's be honest, it's better than as yet uninvented beverages too, I'm looking at you, inventors of weird coloured alcopops. While vines do need to be kept healthy with a balanced diet, liberal amounts of nitrogen – from the air or from the chemical supplier – is just asking for trouble. This is why our French growing comrades have historically grown vines in soils so marginal that they are indistinguishable from a bag of gravel. While stony, the terroir at Chateaux Huxbear does include some soil, so thanks to the free nitrogen, your correspondent has spent quite a lot of time assaulting his vines with a hedge trimmer and his weeds with a strimmer this year.


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