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.
The culture of the Vine still appears to be a great mystery, and the more the subject is discussed the more mysterious it becomes, at any rate the wider do opinions differ. On the one hand we are told that Grapes, even Muscats, have been grown during the past year in the open air in England quite equal to hothouse Grapes, not to speak of those grown in that tempting marvel, the ground-vinery, or in orchard-houses. On the other hand, we read of elaborate architectural appliances being necessary for the purpose - drains for air and water, chambers for pipes and hot air; indeed, a whole series of tunnels under the borders, to tempt the roots downwards, which again must be concreted to prevent the roots getting down. Then the superstructure of the vinery and its adjuncts are only limited in design and magnitude by the purse, ingenuity, or fancy of the architect. It appears that the humblest may grow Grapes with the simplest means, while the richest cannot always succeed with unbounded facilities. The culture of the Vine is like the cure of souls; while the humblest and most rustic of sinners secures heaven in obscure and simple humility, ground-vinery fashion, others miss the goal even with the help of whole epics of architecture and holy machinery.
Now the whole system, in both cases, is capable of defence. We will not quarrel with any of its parts, the whole is good; various circumstances demand various appliances to attain an end in itself simple. We often hear reference made to the culture of the Vine as practised abroad, and we are sometimes directed to look to France, Germany, or Italy for lessons as to soil and pruning; and it would be easy for the votary of any one mode of culture to pick out instances in support of that system from the modes adopted on the Continent, but it must be borne in mind that even those systems are artificial, and adapted to suit' circumstances of soil and climate; none of them are suggestions from nature.
The Vine seems cosmopolitan in the temperate zone; it turns up in odd places from Bury St Edmunds and Asia Minor to the forests of North America and the antipodes; the line of perfection hovering about the 39th degree of north latitude, if we take the quality of the juice as the criterion for the quality of the fruit. Bearing this in mind, we have a strong suspicion of English-made wine, pure and unadulterated, although we never tasted any. A little more southward, and we reach the range of the rascally vin ordinaire, so cheap about Paris as the northern limit to wine production, of course with fluctuation as to locality, as in the instance of the thin but sparkling Rhenish wines. Southwards to Bordeaux, and improved climate and claret appear; then over the Pyrenees to the land of sherry and port, until the climax of quality is reached in the home of D on Quixote.
We hear of the Vines on the Rhine being low bushes planted on the brashy hill-sides, which is necessary to get every advantage of the sun's rays in that northern limit; but that does not prove that Vines should always be planted in brashy soil. The roots must be exposed to much wet and cold in winter, and altogether their vitality must be low. Step a few degrees farther south to Lombardy, where we were lately told of the Vines being allowed to run high on poles, and planted on the flat land little removed from bog; indeed, the soil is often raised to keep the crops above the water-level, it being impossible to quite drain the low flat lands, reminding us of a peat-bog or the fens of Lincolnshire. But then the Vine enjoys a much higher degree of heat than on the Rhine, and being a thirsty plant under those circumstances, it has unlimited moisture at the root and a deep soil.
We hear also of the Vine growing to an enormous size on the low flat country lying between the Black Sea and the Caspian, a country of crooked rivers and inland lakes, which geologists say was once ducked under the sea, and barely lifted out again in the days of Noah, and has been in a draggled state ever since; too moist for corn, but the home of the Vine, where the heat and moisture are excessive in summer, the winter equalling our own in severity.
It is clear that the Vine luxuriates in a deep rich soil with abundance of moisture, and when in such condition can enjoy a very high temperature with abundant circulation in the air. It appears also that the Vine, growing in a temperate climate in a deep moist soil, does not suggest a very high degree of heat at the root at any time, until, at least, the ripening process commences, when the ground may be supposed to be becoming exhausted of much of its moisture. Indeed, it appears the Vine will stand just as much cold at the root as any deciduous tree, and rain as well. Stagnant wet will injure it, just as it will injure the roots of a Beech-tree; the many aged Vines found throughout the country prove this. The one great want seems to be a higher and drier temperature in autumn to ripen the wood of the Vine under culture in this country, but with a constant undiminished supply of food at the root. Shallow dry borders are accompanied with red-spider, or even a very porous light border on gravel, though it may be deep; and red-spider means poverty in the plant. But to turn round and look at the subject through the medium of practice and its suggestions, what has all this got to do with the forcing of Grapes'? it may be asked. Well, it has got everything to do with it.
And it occurs to us, in the first instance, that it tends to show that the dry heat from hot-water pipes below a Vine-border is not just a rational, a natural, or necessary application. Looking at the Vine in its natural state, the roots do not appear to be decoyed downwards by ' earth-heat, but upwards by sun-heat to the surface, to be benefited by nature's annual top-dressing of fallen leaves.
We have forced the same vinery for eight years, and cut Grapes annually in April, sometimes on the first day of the month. The roots are, both out and inside, about equal, and no heat is applied, except what the surface of the border inside absorbs from the atmosphere of the house, - if we except also that the pipes are close to the surface of the border. No spade or fork has touched the borders for years, but an annual top-dressing is given in the autumn before forcing, the outside border simply covered with a foot of litter, and wooden shutters over all; and the results prove that no further underground heating is necessary. The inside border is so full of roots that it cannot be overdone with water when the Vines are full of foliage. We must, however, plead guilty to another house with the border entirely surrounded with pipes, though not underneath, and uncon-fined except on one side - the heat reaching the border in a lateral direction. We do not see much advantage from the arrangement, but indeed a greater tax on our attention in the matter of watering.