Carolyn Singer: Versatile & vigorous vines | TheUnion.com

Carolyn Singer: Versatile & vigorous vines

Carolyn Singer
Columnist

It's almost time for the hops harvest. While it varies from year to year, Labor Day weekend is often when the Sonntag hops growing near my edible garden reach their fragrant peak with beautiful fruit.

This is an unusual cultivar, which proved difficult to identify. Many years ago, a Sacramento hops collector visiting my nursery tried. Eventually I spent some time tracing the hops back to the region in Germany that was once home to the Sonntags. I concluded it must be one of the five "Noble hops," possibly "Hallertau."

While there is no doubt the fruit of the Sonntag hops provided an essential ingredient for brewing beer in the late 1800s, the vine itself was valuable for its quick growth in spring, providing dense summer shade for a structure on the old homestead that served as a cooler for butter and eggs. I had the good fortune to hear about its history from one of the Chicago Park Sonntags, a granddaughter of the original homesteaders.

I have shared the vine with organic gardeners and farmers in the area. Rambling over the deer fencing protecting my edible garden, this handsome and historical vine provides a wonderful quick-growing screen. All new growth for this season comes from the base, and it is not unusual for growth of a single powerful shoot to reach 40 feet, climbing through the dried remnants of past seasons.

Traditionally, hops growers in California provided support systems to twenty feet or more. In Sonoma County, where I grew up, I have strong memories of this agricultural crop long before grapes dominated the rural landscape.

A vine providing a screen along my driveway is the California native grape (Vitis californica), its strong tendrils grasping at any potential support along its path, including a nearby native oak. You may have observed this vigorous vine established in stands of native trees, where it climbs and drapes its long cordons over natural support systems.

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Tending to the vines

The native grape begins each season anew from the woody growth of summers past. I do very little pruning since the tendrils hold the vine in place all year. I prune only to redirect the growth when it climbs into the oak.

Large leaves are a soft green and when backlit by the sun in a wild canyon, seem to make the entire wooded area glow. Along the north fence where the native grape grows in my landscape, I enjoy the sun playing through the leaves even though the overall effect is not the same as where Vitis californica grows in the wild.

Streaks of red in October color the beautiful large leaves. During the winter, the exposed cordons are an appealing red-brown with some peeling bark on the older wood.

Occasionally I will get a few grapes from the native grape, perhaps because I leave it unpruned during dormant season. Having the fruit is not my goal. It's the water-efficient screen I desire.

My 15-year-old "Flame Seedless" grape has been trained on six sections of cattle fencing attached horizontally to a wood frame. Each year I prune for another delicious harvest of grapes in the coming August. I postpone this pruning usually until mid to late March to avoid late winter frost or wind damage to emerging blossoms.

Three permanent cordons are maintained, each at eight feet in length. Along the cordon, last season's growth is shortened or eliminated. Spurs are created for the coming season, each with one to two buds. Growth under pencil-size is shortened to the bud that remains at its base.

Now that the vine is of a respectable maturity, during the early summer it readily covers the support system, providing welcome summer shade and delicious grapes to the area beneath. The wild grape could also be trained in this manner, quickly shading an area for a picnic table in summer. Because no dormant pruning would be required, the total area shaded would be covered in late spring as the native leafed out.

I have fond childhood memories of a great aunt's Victorian garden in Santa Rosa where the fragrance of the "Concord" grapes ripening under the trellis lingers with me even today.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning "The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom," and two volumes of "Deer in My Garden" (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to carolynfsinger@gmail.com. Check out her website at carolynsingergardens.com.