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.
When four months since we called attention to the fact that some of the finest Grapes ever exhibited were produced in districts where the rainfall is very much above the average, and put the question, "Have the premier Grape-growers of England appeared from the driest counties, such as Kent and Surrey, or from counties where the rainfall is above the average, etc.?" we scarcely expected such a reply as that furnished by the magnificent exhibition of Muscats and other tender Grapes by the Messrs Lane of Berkhampstead at London on 4th October, which, according to the 'Gardeners' Chronicle,' were produced by Vines growing in a border "close to and almost on a level with perpetually-running water, which must necessarily percolate among their roots and keep them constantly damp." Whether this constant percolation of water about the roots of the Vines in question is an absolute fact, or merely a deduction of our contemporary from the proximity of water to the roots or border, does not appear to us very clear.
An absolute fact, beyond all doubt, it ought certainly to be, before issuing it to the horticultural world, to add another storey to the already huge and conflicting Babel of theories propounded about Grape-growing. It need not now be a matter of surprise to hear that the large Vine at Hampton Court owes its long-sustained energy and productiveness to its roots having - instead of merely drawing supplies from a sewer or two - carried on a spirited competition with the Lilies for possession of the running water close by; or that the still more gigantic Vine at Cumberland Lodge owes its success to its having sent its roots three-quarters of a mile to Virginia water, there to prove that great Vine-growing is dependent on something like hydraulic action.
If the running stream has the power of sending its waters to constantly percolate among the roots of the Vines at Berkhampstead, it would certainly be interesting to know if the cultivator has the means to check or entirely cut off the irrigation at intervals of time, such as during autumn and winter, when of course the stream will sometimes, if not always, run at a higher level, and when the Vines are at rest, and perhaps Grapes required to hang on them throughout the autumn and winter. Confident as we are that the Vine at intervals and certain stages of its annual growth has an immense capacity for water in conjunction with thorough drainage, we are certain that our readers will agree with us that the particulars referred to above are due to the public, after propounding what must appear a theory the most extreme in connection with a branch of horticulture now more than ever and increasingly important, from the numbers who are groping their way through a maze of the most conflicting statements to success in Grape-growing.
Some years ago, very superior examples of Muscats were exhibited in London from the Denbies Gardens, Surrey, and the success in their case was attributed by our contemporary to the borders being chambered and heated; and thenceforth heated dry borders were the necessary conditions to the production of large golden samples of Muscat Grapes. Now we have circumstances the opposite chronicled as productive of the same results - a constant percolation of running water, and, as a necessary accompaniment, coldness; for we are concluding that the stream at Berkhampstead is not from a boiling spring: and in the interests of Grape-growing we most respectfully suggest to our venerable contemporary that it would be most interesting to us, and a great multitude of men engaged in Grape-growing, to have more particulars of the conditions which it has so briefly referred to in the case of the Muscats in question.
Our ideas of the conditions, so far as soil and water are concerned, necessary to the most certain production of good Muscats, would lead us to take every possible precaution against water, from whatever source, finding its way constantly into the border and about the roots; and if compelled to make a Vine-border near to a stream, we should do all that could be done to protect the border and the roots against its constant inroads, just because our experience of constant water in cultivated soil is that it soon reduces it to a pasty puddle, in which nothing but semi-aquatic plants can possibly exist; and Muscat Vines can scarcely be placed in such a category. We believe that ninety-nine out of every hundred men who have had experience in Grapegrowing will coincide with us when we say that the most likely conditions to produce fine Muscat Grapes are, - As a base, a rather strong loam, so thoroughly drained that all rains and artificially-applied water can pass freely from it and leave the soil in its normal condition.
During the season of growth and dry warm weather, copious waterings to be applied, and their moistening effects to be as long preserved as possible by mulching the surface of the border, bearing in mind that too frequent waterings and rapid evaporation are also evils to be avoided as well as a dearth of water. When the Grapes have arrived at the ripening stage, and the foliage and wood are consolidated, and making less demand on the roots for moisture and nutriment, we would cover the border, to protect it from the cold autumn and winter rains in localities where these were heavy; and anything like water constantly playing in the border and about the roots then would be regarded as an evil.
Where is the Grape-grower, whose observation and experience are anything long or extensive, who has not witnessed the evil effects of puddle borders in the shape of mildew and other maladies? And if such be the case, it cannot fail to be a matter of very considerable interest to have more particulars regarding the Vines now in question.
In Grape-growing, as in everything else, "extremes are dangerous." There have been some very forcible examples of this - from those Vines which have been literally destroyed from the effects of carrion-borders, in which for a very short time at first the Vines make a vigorous but delusive appearance, and eventually fall into a condition of atrophy, speedily ending in all but literal extinction to those eases where the other extreme of elevated, light, shallow borders maintain the Vine - a plant which requires substantial but simple fare - in a state of perpetual starvation. The most outrageous extreme of the former sort we ever came across was in Middlesex, in one of the worst cholera years, where we were shown, by lifting a trap-door, a ditch running parallel with the front of the Vine-border kept constantly full of blood and offal by contract with a city butcher. The stench was sickening; and the idea was that of feeding Vines, which, on examining them, were found suffering the most miserable death by literal poisoning that can be imagined. This was avoiding destruction by starvation, but rushing on death in the opposite extreme.
And so it appears to us that while the Grape-Vine very frequently suffers from borders that are allowed to get too dry, and perhaps too much heated by artificial means, there is imminent danger in rushing to the other extreme of having water from a stream constantly percolating about their roots, which must reduce the border to a puddle, and keep its temperature at a minimum. The middle course we have all confidence in recommending. Make borders 3 feet deep, and drain them so that no water can ever remain long about the roots or soil, to cool and paralyse the one, and render the other unfit as a nourishing source.
Whence came those magnificent examples of Muscat Grapes, backed by 200 similar bunches, exhibited before the London Fruit Committee last month by Mr Johnstone, Glamis Castle? From borders faultlessly drained and traversed by air-drains, where a constant flow of water from any source is carefully guarded against, but where periodical waterings and mulchings are as carefully attended to. The very same conditions apply to the production of those splendid examples of Muscat and other tender Grapes so frequently shown by Mr Fowler, Castle Kennedy. He is most careful on the drainage point, but equally careful as to watering and mulchings, and such we are not far wrong in saying are two of the chief points in all Grape-growing that has been continuously successful.
Referring to pot-grown Grapes, we have seen crops ruined by standing the pots in pans of water, while the best crops we have ever seen were with the pots standing on a bare stone or wooden bench, so that the water could drain entirely away every time the plants were watered. Of course a bountiful supply of water was one of the chief conditions of success, but to allow of its standing about the roots or soil was regarded as an evil to be scrupulously avoided.