This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", 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.
In my paper of last month I called attention to a set of circumstances which I think unfavourable to the prolonged fruitfulness of the Vine, and I believe they are such as have come under the observation of many of my readers. That Vines make relatively fewer roots in rich borders than in such as are not so rich, and that they get across the border much quicker in the former than the latter case, will readily be admitted; and when they do so, it is, in nine cases out of ten, to enter some material that is not suitable for them. I indicated that I considered the present system of preparing young Vines for planting had a good deal to do with the early declension of the fruitfulness of the Vine, and I now proceed to give a sketch of the method I adopted in the spring of last year for preparing something like 1500 young Vines, half of which were intended for my own planting. On the 7 th of last February I placed a layer of very fibry turf over the pavement of a Pine-pit, under which were pipes for giving bottom-heat. On this turf I laid 4 inches of fine turfy loam; made small holes in it at about 6 inches apart - these were filled with white sand - and a Vine eye was placed in each, so as to be just covered.
They started in the usual way, and grew rapidly, throwing out strong roots from the eye. When these roots had begun to interlace each other, and the Vines were from 6 inches to 9 inches high, they were cut round by a strong knife, so that each Vine was isolated on its own piece of turf. The points of their rcots being cut, they flagged for a few days, but soon threw out scores of small active roots from every large one that was cut. When this had taken place, a small trowel was run under each square, and the plants lifted and placed on a similar bed of turf, but this time from 9 inches to 12 inches apart, and filled in round about with soil of same character as at first, avoiding manure of any sort. Here they soon began to grow rapidly again; and when they had attained the height of 3 feet, and the borders were ready for them, they were cut round as in the first instance, and allowed to stand till a fresh set of young roots were just started, when they were raised on a spade, with ball quite entire, and placed in their new borders.
This operation was easily performed, and they received not the smallest check, but grew rapidly at once; and when cut back - some to 10 feet and others to 3 feet - just eleven months from the day the eyes were placed in the sand, their average girth is from 2 to 3 inches; and they are ripe, close-jointed, and solid as hazel-sticks to the apex of the houses - some 22 feet. Those that were not required for planting were potted; and for this purpose I can as strongly recommend the system as for planting. When Vines prepared thus come to be turned out of their pots in the process of planting, there is no occasion for breaking up the ball, for there are no coiled roots in it to disentangle - they are more like those of a Box or Privet bush than a Vine, as usually seen; and when planted, they begin by taking their work before them, instead of running away out of the border.
So much for the Vines. And now as to what may be done with a view to retaining this tendency to a multiplication of small active roots right across the border. Just make up 3 feet of it inside and 3 feet outside the house the first year. In April or May of the second year, fork down 1 or 2 inches of the face of this bank of soil, both inside and outside the house; and against the roots that will there be found, some of them taking the lead, place a section of sharp river or pit sand, or gravel, at least 4 inches thick. As soon as the roots enter this poor sharp material, they will branch into a thousand small active roots, and enter the layer of new soil that has been subsequently laid against this sand or gravel. This may be repeated at every addition to the border, and the result will be that, instead of a few long, straight, naked roots, the whole border will be full of a class of active woody roots, that survive the cold and wet of winter infinitely better than those great snake-like ones formed in rich soil. These perpendicular sections of sand or gravel have the additional advantage of acting as drains to draw off superfluous water.
I am glad Mr Wm. Thomson has again brought the subject of Vines and Vine-borders under the notice of the readers of the 'Gardener.' I agree with him that there is yet much to be said on the subject of border-making and the after-management of Vines.
In reference to that part of his paper which treats of the usual mode of raising young Vines, it cannot be doubted that the system he describes is opposed to the future welldoing of the Vines.
Growing Vines during the earlier stages of their existence in rich soil, with the addition of bottom-heat, is a practice that cannot be too soon done away with. Then, as stated by Mr Thomson, the crowding of the canes during the growing season precludes the possibility of their acquiring the conditions necessary to constitute "strong planting canes".
That Vines grown under such circumstances are made to assume, through a liberal application of fire-heat, the appearance of being ripe, I admit. But are they so? or in a condition to fulfil the end in view? are questions I answer in the negative.
Nurserymen have recourse to this mode of treatment that they may produce in the shortest possible time canes that in point of thickness will satisfy their customer. But, other conditions being wanting, the strength of a cane is no test whatever of its fitness to become a thriving permanent Vine. However, I would not reject a cane on account of its strength, providing it possessed what I consider other essential qualities; that is, a number (the more the better) of well-ripened roots. The roots require ripening as much as the canes. When they are not ripened the result will be as described by Mr Thomson; nine-tenths of them, unless specially protected, will perish during the winter. Eyes should be plump and large in proportion to the strength of the canes; the latter thoroughly ripened, short-jointed, and exhibiting a small proportion of pith. When these conditions are present, be the thickness of the cane what it may, it presents to the cultivator a sound subject to begin with.
I will now give a short account of a set of twelve Vines which I planted some years since, nine of which were raised as follows: The first week in January the eyes were put into a box filled with a compost similar to that used for striking Geraniums and other soft-wooded plants, and placed on a shelf near the glass in the propagating-pit. When they had made roots 2 inches long they were carefully transferred without injury to the roots into 9-inch pots, the pots being carefully drained and filled with a compost consisting of one-half road-scrapings and one-half chopped turf that had lain for about eight months in a heap. No manure of any description was used. They were kept in the propagating-pit for eight days, when they were removed to the front stage of a light span-roofed compartment, where the temperature averaged about 60°. Here they remained until they had finished their growth; no stopping of either leading shoots or laterals was resorted to, there being a sufficiency of room for them to develop themselves in.
At the end of the season they had made leaders from 7 to 9 feet long, and ripe to almost the very points, with fine plump eyes; but the thickest portion of any of the canes did not measure over ¾ of an inch in circumference.
The following spring, to make up the required number, three Vines were ordered from a first-class nursery. On their arrival our home growth looked small indeed by the side of the new-comers.
The border, etc, being in readiness to receive the plants, they were turned out of the pots and the soil washed from their roots. This operation gave us the best possible means of seeing the difference between the roots of the respective canes. Those of the new-comers were few in number, but of considerable length, free from fibres, they having disappeared in the process of washing.
The home-grown canes exhibited a mass of small fibrous roots hard in texture, and few of them over 3 feet in length. Now for results. All received exactly the same treatment. The purchased canes, so far as looks were concerned, had the advantage for the first two months after planting, but from that time it ceased, and for the next five years, - the time I had charge of them, - the small, well-rooted canes exhibited their superiority by a more vigorous growth, the wood less pithy and easier ripened, the bunches generally compacter and shorter in the foot-stalks. Now here was an instance showing the importance of having thoroughly-ripened, well-rooted canes to begin with. Had all of them been of the same description as those which only partially succeeded, the failure would in all probability have been attributed to some fault in the materials of which the border was made.