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.
Has it ever occurred to our readers, that the largest, and in nearly every respect the finest, examples of Grapes that have appeared at our Horticultural shows, have not come from those districts where the rainfall is least, but, on the contrary, from those that are generally termed wet? If this has been the rule, it has of course, like every other, not been without exception. Yet we are inclined to think that there is some force in our question; and if so, it must have a bearing more or less in showing what the most favourable conditions are to the finest development of the produce of Vines. "We do not think we are far wrong in saying that our most Eshcol-like productions have made their appearance from districts where the rainfall is above the average, and not under it. Those who can cast their eye back for the last twenty-five years, and can in memory scan our exhibition-tables, will be able to form some opinion as to the correctness of the question here raised, and from them we should be glad to have a verdict.
It is a fact that the most gigantic bunch of Grapes ever produced in Britain appeared last year at Edinburgh from one of our wettest Scottish counties. This may simply be a coincidence, and the effect of a combination of circumstances entirely apart from the one now assumed. Do not let it be supposed that we are under-estimating the skill which must necessarily exist in the production of superior Grapes. Still we have an impression, almost amounting to a settled conviction, that certain districts are immensely more favourable than others to the production of fine Grapes, independent of all the skill that can be brought to bear in assisting the process. We were first impressed with this idea some eight years ago, while out on a horticultural tour extending to some thirteen or fourteen counties. On that occasion the finest Grapes we saw were in two of the wettest and coldest counties of Scotland, and the worst in two of the warmest and driest. We are not now singling out exceptional cases, but speaking generally. Reasoniner about the matter, the conclusion was arrived at that it was not so much the want of skill, or the possession of it, that led to such results; and on this account the peculiarity of climate, and to some considerable extent soil, forced itself on our mind.
Certainly the finest Black Hamburg Grapes, for bunch, berry, colour, and weight of crop, met with on this particular occasion, was in one of the coldest and wettest spots of our midland counties; and such crops, we know, had been sustained by the same Vines for many years in succession. The soil of which the border consisted was of a very much more heavy and tenacious character than is generally considered desirable for Vine-culture. The finest Muscats were found also in a county where the rainfall is scarcely second to any in Scotland; but in this instance the climate was mild. In one of the southern counties, which registers a very low temperature and a great rainfall, were found some young Vines extraordinary for both size of bunch and berry and general vigour. In this instance the soil was a strong loam, naturally mixed with small stones. In these cases we were also struck with the singular dark green of the foliage, and the entire immunity from red-spider, although in some cases the culture might to a critical eye have been pronounced in some points careless. Passing into two of our very driest counties, we were confronted with red-spider, smaller berries, and less vigorous Vines; and this, too, while in several instances the management seemed careful even to scrupulousness.
Subsequent thought and observation, we must say, have not weakened the impressions here indicated; and since then we have found the finest Muscat Hamburgs (on its own roots) and Muscats we have ever seen in a district where the rainfall averages 50 inches of rain per annum, and under management which had no pretence to efficiency. So much for Scotland.
Have the premier Grape-growers of England made their appearance from the driest counties, such as Kent and Surrey, or from such as Lancashire, Staffordshire, and other counties where the rainfall is above the average, and the climate in other respects in no way particularly genial? This question we leave to the consideration of other observers, and should be glad to hear what their ideas are; for if there be any force in these reflections, our wish is that they should be turned to practical account. If it be a fact that the finest Vines and Grapes are to be met with in districts where the soil is not only heavy but the rainfall heavy too, then certainly the fact is contrary to much-expressed opinion, and should be of import to all interested in Vine-culture.
It is a generally recognised fact that Vines in full growth and bearing have a great capacity for water, and unless it be stagnant about their roots, that they are not easily injured with a supply of it. Efforts have been pushed to the extreme in the other direction, as many are aware, with results by no means satisfactory. In the Royal Horticultural Society, under the superintendence of Mr Hoare and Dr Lindley, pillars were built and stuffed with lime-rubbish, flints, and bones, and Vines planted in them. The effects were such as every practical horticulturist would have predicted - the Vines were simply "roasted alive." Of course such an extreme every sensible horticulturist would avoid, just the same as they would fly the other extreme of planting a Vine in a puddle, making it semi-aquatic. But that the Vine has an immense capacity for water is well known to all who have cultivated Vines, especially Vines in pots. Let a Vine growing in a 12-inch pot be 6 to 8 feet long, bearing, say, ten bunches of Grapes, have its foliage exposed to a clear summer sun with more or less of a current of air playing about it, and it may be asked what other plant will take up and make proper use of so much water with its roots? or what plant will sooner show in many ways unmistakable symptoms of distress and disaster if in this respect it be neglected for a few hours.
At the same time, a Vine will suffer with equal severity if more water is supplied to it than it can take up; that is, if water is allowed to stand about its roots.
There can be no objections to elevated and thoroughly-drained borders, for a great portion of the year they cannot be otherwise than safe. That they are without their evils we are not prepared to admit. Proof of this need not be sought for afar. We have only to look at such borders as are frequently met with in the heat and drought of summer in very dry districts, inadequately supplied with water by artificial means, and the evils attendant on such conditions are so obvious that it does not need much Vine lore to point them out. Just at the very time when the Vine is carrying on its tug of war, its commissariat runs short, and its whole structure and constitution suffers in consequence - the immediate result being an attack in front and flank by red-spider, shrivelled and shanked berries; and if this were all, it would not be so bad, but the Vine is left to enter on the campaign of next year in an enervated condition, so forcibly termed once in these pages "vegetable leanness" by our able coadjutor "The Squire's Gardener." The Vine is, in fact, placed on short rations when it ought to be in circumstances the very reverse.
Hence the reason, we apprehend, why Vines growing in districts where long steady droughts are less frequent and less severe carry finer Grapes than those carry which are subject to long summer droughts and do not receive sufficient artificial watering. Here, then, is the practical lesson of these reflections if they are correct.
Much has been written about the Vine growing on rocky terraces and hill-sides, as on the Rhine, and arguments drawn from such positions urging the avoidance of moisture about the roots of Vines. But from whence are the roots of such Vines drawing their supplies 1 We should like to know how deep down they may be, away from the effects of the scorching sun, and whether there may not be more moisture available in the crevices of such rocky positions than is taken into account. More than this, the heaviest vintages of Grape-growing countries are not got from these scorched positions, but from the alluvial plains.
Whether in many instances it would not fare much better with many Vines if they had double the amount of water they receive during their active season, is a question well worthy of consideration. Many Vines may be, and no doubt are, injured by too much wet while in a dormant condition; but it is questionable whether the other extreme, during their season of active growth, is not equally pregnant with evil, if not more so.
Perhaps the sewers at Hampton Court - if it be correct that the great Vine there has its roots in a sewer - may have more to do with its long-sustained career, of which we have heard so much, than the extension system, for we apprehend the "sin of limitation" has been long ago perpetrated on it. The nature of the soil may have as great a share in the results that can be pointed to as extraordinary. There can be nothing more surely established than that the Vine likes a real loam with some body in it, apart from mere vegetable fibre. A light gravelly soil, it is well known, will give great results while the fibre lasts and keeps on decaying, but when that process terminates the soil is poor and hungry - far too much so to sustain Vines for any length of time vigorously. In such soil their knell may be sounded generally when those in a soil with a good solid loamy body will scarcely have attained their prime.
On the 14th of May there was exhibited in the shop of Mr Dunning, fruiterer, Princes Street, Dunedin, a bunch of Black Hamburgs, which, in size at least, has not been equalled in Dunedin. Before being disencumbered of some of the damaged fruit, the cluster weighed 4| lb. They are a portion of the first year's production, large in size, and of a sweet appetising quality. They were grown in the vinery of Mr R. Gillies, Park Street, without the aid of artificial heat.