January 1989

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Grape Pruning



John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

When the Reverend William Bostwick first began planting grapes in Hammondsport in the mid-nineteenth century, he really started something. One of the many eventual results of his work was that he changed the nature of winter outdoor activities along the shores of Keuka Lake. Once the grape industry became established there has always been grape pruning, winter after winter, every winter without fail. As far as can now be foreseen, there always will be, as long as grapes continue to be grown here.

Unlike the corn crop, which would perish without man's care, (Ever notice what happens when a whole ear of corn sprouts where it fell? No grain comes of it.) the grape does not need man. Not just to survive as a species, it doesn't. Individual vines just grow and grow until there's a vast tangle totally unmanageable by humans. But to produce fruit in a manner useful to people—that's another matter. For that, the grape does need our attention—lots of it, and at just the right times.

One most important phase of that attention is pruning. Keuka Lake has seen a system of grape pruning bearing its name develop, flourish and pass into near-oblivion between Bostwick's time and today.

The better to understand that bit of history we can look far back into dim antiquity for the origins of grape pruning as a cultural technique, and relate our findings to the present day. Human beings and grapes, we're pretty sure, have been associated since long before there was any written history. Therefore, these beginnings can only be speculated upon; there were no records made of its development at the time. It's an easy subject for speculation, though. What comes to mind is that primitive man cut down some grapevines and was impressed with what happened—the increaseed vigor of growth, the greater accessibility of the fruit and the generally improved usefulness to his purposes. By some years of trial and error and observation men arrived, in their heads even if not written, at the basic facts and principles of grape pruning.

One of the first observations made by the earliest "vine dressers", as they're called in ancient literature, must have been that the real business of producing a crop of grapes is all done on wood of the current year's growth and nowhere else. On this growth are the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs, the blossoms and eventually the clusters of grapes. In grape-growing terminology, the parts of the vine that are of this year's growth are called "shoots".

These shoots, however, arise from buds on last year's growth. Last year's growth serves to distribute and support these shoots as well to originate them in the first place. This age of vine components, being the shoots of the preceding year, are called "canes".

One more term—"spurs". Spurs are canes shortened to two or three buds only, left in pruning to provide canes for next years crop. They are the means of the vine's "renewal", and the most important thing about spurs is their placement.

Shoots, then, in sufficient number, and canes (within strict limits, as we shall see) and spurs properly placed are all important—in fact, essential. All else—all older wood—is "plumbing" and framework only, as defined by man's purposes. It serves as conduits for the sap and as a base or support for the vine, and that's all. In practice, therefore, the less of it there is, the better. It just gets in the way and dissipates the energy of the vine moving sap through it.

Basic dormant pruning principle, then, is that you control next year's growth (shoots) by leaving a limited number and length of bud-bearing canes, removing all the rest and holding wood older than canes to a constant minimum—the "trunk" or main stem of the vine and perhaps a few arms, nothing else. You limit to achieve balance.

Balance is something man probably understood in a practical way before he came to understand it in theory or could articulate it. Bear in mind that in dormant pruning you're working only with what grows above the ground—not with the roots. No matter what you do to the above-ground part, the volume of roots remains unchanged and goes on living. When you cut back a grape vine you are concentrating the energy of this whole root mass into a reduced number of above-ground buds. That is the "why" of the phenomenon man early discovered—that the more severely you cut back a vine the more vigorously it grows.

When a vine grows unpruned and undisturbed it is in perfect balance as far as nature is concerned—top and roots balance each other. When a vine in a vineyard situation has been pruned so as to produce in the current year the largest crop of good grapes it can sustain while at the same time producing enough well-matured, sound wood to do the same thing over again the following year, then it is in balance from a grape-grower's standpoint—and achieving that balance is his chief aim in winter pruning it.

That is the aim, individual vine by individual vine, of all those people you see bundled up against the chill, moving slowly with shears through the winter vineyards. They're not just mindlessly clipping away and trying to survive the cold until quitting time, though they have to do that, too. Single one out and watch him (or her) for awhile. You may get a sense of the decisions he is making as he goes along. "On this vine we'll encourage more next year's growth," you see him mentally deciding, as he accomplishes that by cutting it back more, leaving a smaller total number of buds. "This one, with its heavy growth this year, we will let carry more buds"—thus increasing its productive potential the coming season. Many other considerations are quickly processed in his mind before his shears close on wood—the selection of canes to leave, this one rather than that one, and why; the placement of spurs and much more—more than can possibly be covered here. It takes much know-how—an incompetent or inattentive pruner can do real damage in a vineyard with wrong decisions. I have great respect for what goes on and has gone on out on those wind swept slopes. Perhaps, as you observe it closely, you will, too.

You will notice that the results produced by the pruners, although varying for each vine, all follow a pattern, according to the "system" being used on that block of grapes. "System" refers to a method, a design, of shaping, training and limiting grapevines. There are a number of systems in use in the Finger Lakes region, with names like "Umbrella", "Geneva Double Curtain", and such, but that is not a subject for discussion here either.

The system earlier mentioned, though, called the Keuka High Renewal System, has passed into history, and history is what we're examining, so that one we will consider.

This system used the same sort of conventional post-and-wire trellis that is common throughout the area. From the ground up it began with a trunk, carefully trained in the vine's first few years, that came up only as far as just below the first wire, where it forked in two opposite directions. That was all the old wood maintained in this system. (The less old wood, we have noted, the better.)

From the top of this trunk, its "head", two canes were left each year and tied (later, at the proper time in spring) horizontally along the first wire. In the old days, this tying was done with willow shoots.

These canes would carry the total number of buds that the pruner's judgment decided that vine ought to have. With a very vigorous plant, where not enough buds could be left on two canes without interfering with the next vine, an additional cane might be brought up to the second wire to be tied. Renewal was provided for by leaving spurs from the first bud on each cane, nearest the head, or by shortening to spur size canes that might spring directly from the head itself.

The shoots arising from these canes in the growing season were tied vertically to each wire as they reached that height with twists of green rye straw. Somewhere on every grape farm there used to be a small patch of rye grown for this use and cut into proper lengths to supply the tyers. That meant a minimum of two shoot tyings with straw, carefully spreading the shoots out on the wires. A third final tying, though not always done, was considered even better.

This system especially well suited the Catawba variety, which represented a larger percentage of the area's grapes in days past than it does now. It went right along with the Catawba's tendency to grow shoots vertically, and the tying involved kept them from breaking off. Such breaking was a risk with this variety in other systems.

It also encouraged weaker-growing vines which were that way by reason of variety, location or culture, in that it provided maximum exposure to sunlight for the total leaf surface.

Old timers used to the Keuka system are apt to get very enthusiastic about its effect in a vineyard. They cite the neatness of the vines firmly tied to the trellis, the unimpeded passage through the rows, the unobstructed circulation of air and the uniform exposure to sunlight of all parts of the vine, clusters included. They like the ease of hand picking, the convenient positioning of the fruit. They tend to describe it as the ultimate in management for our traditional local kinds of grapes. "It is the best way," I have heard some of them say, "to grow these grapes."

But not for a moment do they suggest that the labor cost involved in the summer tying would permit the return of this system on a commercial basis. For decades now it has not been economically justifiable, and most certainly in these times, when only the utmost in cost cutting besides improved markets can give a grape grower any hope of survival, it has no place. "But in a garden," they will say, "somewhere where cost doesn't matter . . . ." You can see, they'd like to see some grapes handled that way again. It was a good method and a locally popular one, even though it now belongs to the past.

Pruning itself as a winter activity, however, belongs very much to the present, as well as to the past since Bostwick's day. Looking to the future, who can say? Experimenting is going on with mechanical pruning devices, but all the "bugs" are not worked out of such as yet. What may come out of the laboratories in the way of such things as growth regulators and genetic engineering, again, who can say? But for now and time foreseeable, nothing yet takes the place of the grape pruning person, in his or her chilly environment, coaxing the utmost out of each vine by giving it individual treatment.

© 1989, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
My thanks to James and Norma Knapp and Lee Crandall, of the Town
of Wayne, for help rounding out my information for this article. J. R.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 1986, Steuben Roots & Branches.
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