This section is from the book "The Gardener V1", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
Some 45 miles south of Paris, on the Paris and Marseilles Railway, the train lands the traveller at the secluded little station of Thomery, lying on the skirts of the great forest of Fontainebleau, and only a few miles beyond Fontainebleau itself, with its palace and gardens and fine scenery, so that the traveller may visit both on the same day if he chooses. There is nothing about the little wayside station of Thomery, with its single porter, to lead one to suppose it is the centre of any important industry, though we are assured that it despatches twenty or thirty thousand pounds weight of Grapes daily to Paris during the autumn" months. French railway stations are, as a rule, mean-looking structures compared to those in England, and their sanitary arrangements and other conveniences are simply detestable, and this applies to the large stations in Paris as well, - at least to the older ones. St Lazare Station is clean and pretty, and is decorated with flowers like a drawing-room, and the Station du Nord, where English travellers are always arriving or departing, is fitted up more in accordance with English ideas, but the less said about some others the better.
An Englishman in France, if he wishes to judge the people charitably, in some things, had better keep the motto "Honi soit qui mal ypense" continually before his mind; but do as he may, he is apt to think that French civilisation is very much made up of "tops and bottoms." This, however, is by the way.
The village of Thomery lies about a mile and a half from the station, and a very good bit of the forest is traversed between the two - the trees, oak chiefly, standing thickly together like seedlings in a hotbed. Almost as soon as one emerges from the dense shade of the wood, he finds the road bordered on one side by Vine walls, and on the other by a rough fence, over which the field Vines scramble in a semi-wild state, like Blackberry bushes, and down in the valley below lies the village surrounded on all sides by Vineyards - some small, and some large, and all enclosed and sub divided by low mud-built walls, on which the Chesseles de Fontainebleau Grapes are grown, the fields being cropped with the commoner wine producing sorts, upon which comparatively little pains are bestowed. Far out of the village the walls are clothed with Vines and Pear trees, trained in the most perfect and methodical fashion, and bearing heavy crops of fruit. The Grapes were not ripe at the time of our visit, early in August, but the Pears were; some sorts had indeed been gathered.
The trees were not protected in any way, though the fruit was hanging temptingly ripe within arm's-length of the highway; and the border in which the roots of both Vines and Pears grew was only about 2 feet wide, and was supported by a dry stone wall built along the roadside. A group of whitewashed buildings, a little way from the road, looks very much like a Scotch farm-steading; but a peep within the enclosure shows that the arrangements and appliances are of a different order, and relate exclusively to the culture of the Vine. The walls of the court, the dwelling house, and sheds, etc, are all covered with the Chesseles de Fontainebleau (Royal Muscadine) Grape, and at a glance one can see that every shoot, and almost every leaf, is trained in its allotted space, and all the laterals stopped and pinched as if they had been newly gone over. It is the same in the village. Every wall appears as if it had just been newly white-washed, and every cottage on south, east, and west exposures, is covered with a mantle of green Vine foliage, under which the bunches hang in profusion, literally touching each other in some places.
Every bit of available space is utilised, and not an inch more growth is permitted than is necessary to the successful fruition of the plant, which is cropped as heavily as it will bear. An English gardener is rather disconcerted at the appearance of the "Vine borders" in front of the houses - the border is the street, and is paved with large boulders right up to stems of the Vines. Yet both wood and foliage are remarkably good and clean - scarcely any trace of spiders or mildew to be seen, - and the leaves large and leathery, and of a substance never seen on an English Vinery. Of course, the thrifty cottagers simply utilise their walls in this way, and attend to the training and general culture of their Vines in the evenings; just as the English cottager looks after his Potato plot and garden when his day's work is done.
In the Vineyards proper, devoted to the culture of dessert Grapes, Vines are trained to low walls from 6 feet to 10 feet high, and coped with brick tiles, the parallel strips of ground between the walls being devoted to the production of common wine-producing Grapes chiefly; some of the better sorts are also trained on espaliers on the open ground. M. Rose Charmeux, is one of the principal cultivators in the district, and his handsome residence, something like a gentleman farmer's in England, is a prominent feature in the village. The proprietor himself was in Paris acting as a juror at one of the fortnightly shows in connection with the Exhibition, at the time of our visit, but his foreman, whom we found engaged trimming in some beds of Coleus and Begonias growing rampant in front of his employer's house, courteously showed us all that was worth seeing in the establishment. There is nothing in the culture of the Vine at Thomery that particularly arrests the English Grape-grower's attention, unless it be the skill and method displayed in the training of the Vines, so as to get the greatest amount of fruit from a given space, combined with the cheap and simple, not to say primitive, but perfectly effective appliances employed to meet the end in view.
There can be no doubt, we think, that the French excel us in making the most of means and appliances. Where we spend money they spend extra labour and attention, and with better and more constant results. This fact forces itself upon the stranger at once.
The winter of the north of France is more severe than in this country, as is indicated by the single fact that the Auracaria imbricata is not hardy there, and consequently not planted as an ornamental tree, and the spring frosts are also severe, yet we are assured that the Vine crops at Thomery seldom or never fail although the protective appliances - old-fashioned copings and sheets - are much the same as those used in this country fifty years ago or more. Expensive patent glass copings and suchlike are unheard of. Brick, deal, and plaited-straw copings, 9 inches or 1 foot wide, were shown at the Paris Exhibition, but no glass ones, by French makers at least. Our settled conviction is that there is nothing to hinder dessert Grapes from being grown in the south of England just as successfully as at Thomery, and with the same means, if the cultivator would take the same amount of pains in their culture. Crops would undoubtedly be a little later in England, but not much, and it is perfectly possible to ripen Grapes after the autumn frosts set in.
The Muscadine ripens in August and September at Thomery, and on espaliers later; but behind M. R. Charmeux's house there is an archway or covered walk, planted entirely with Black Hamburgs, or Frankenthal, as it is called there, which we were informed ripened a crop in October. Under this archway the bunches seemed to hang as thick as leaves, and were all hand-thinned. The spur system of training, in some form or other, is generally adopted. When the Vines are trained vertically, they are planted 16 inches apart and the shoots are mostly trained from one spur, 8 or 9 inches apart, and as often as otherwise the shoots bear two bunches each, about half a pound in weight. It may therefore be guessed how heavy the crops are. We have heard of 40 lb. to 20 feet rods in this country, the canes being trained 4 feet apart, but the Thomery growers exceed this in some instances, as regards the Vine rod, and generally we should say as regards space. On one young Vine of Foster's Seedling, which is becoming a favourite for wall-culture, we counted 18 bunches on a rod about 5 feet long, and we estimated the bunches at a pound weight apiece; some of them would be 2 lb. Indeed we never saw much finer bunches of that variety.
In flavour it is not so good as the Muscadine, but its cropping qualities are a recommendation. The Vine that bore the above number of bunches had just a strip of wall 16 inches wide allotted to it like the others. No doubt the hardier constitution acquired by the Vines, both in leaf and bunch, enables them to bear such heavy crops. The wood of the Vines was brown and ripe to the ends of the shoots when we saw them, and a portion of the leaves had been picked off to allow the sunshine to get to the fruit to hasten its maturity. After the fruit begins to turn, this practice is not considered to be injurious in any way to the health of the Vines. The soil of the Vineyards is a brown flinty-looking compost, and varies in depth from 18 inches to several feet, and the surface where the roots of the Vines are, is mulched with decayed manure or litter. After the Grapes have been thinned, early in the summer, the after-culture consists almost wholly in training the shoots and pinching the laterals, the last being done by women who nip the shoots off with their fingers.
The espaliers and bushes in the open quarters are not so particularly looked after apparently, but on the walls the laterals appear to be pinched as fast as they push, after the first stopping, little or no growth being permitted beyond the fruit, the exigencies of space demanding that every shoot be kept strictly within bounds. As to the quality of the Chesseles de Fontainebleau Grapes, they are certainly superior to the same kind grown under glass at home, being well coloured, sweet, and of good flavour, very much superior to the foreign Grapes usually sold in this country during the autumn and winter.
We may state in conclusion that we enjoyed our visit to Thomery very much, and were well rewarded by what we saw, and we think no gardener should leave Paris without visiting these famous Vineyards; it will at least be a new experience to him as it was to us, and in the pleasant little Vine-clad village of Thomery, with its well-appointed but old-fashioned French country inn and quaint church, and its general surroundings, he will find much to interest him besides Grape-growing. J. S. W.