Grape Thoughts from my Backyard

Young man pruning the grapevines Micah 4:3

In early March I pruned my grapes. Winter and I had been in a stand-off: I was waiting for the first warm-enough-day before the sap started flowing, but windy days and frosty nights prevailed. By the time I ventured out, I’d been bamboozled: the dead-looking branches were quietly sapping on the down low.. However, based on last year’s bounty, I predict the vines will recover from my bad timing and flourish anyway.  They seem invincible.

We inherited a munificent fence full of grapes when we found this house; so abundant, in fact, that even after inviting the entire church and dozens of neighbours to bring their own buckets and partake (which they did, for weeks), we still had bucketsful to spare. I froze 40+ pounds for smoothies and wine-making, and even so, bunches of grapes withered untasted on the vine. If this year’s crop yields half as much, we’ll be fine.

I don’t know the first thing about pruning grapes, except that it’s very Biblical and essential.  At our previous house, we had a monster grape vine that grew 20 feet tall every summer and produced, at best, a few bunches of hilariously tiny sour grapes. Although I’d hack the whole thing back to a stump in the fall and in spring pruned the rogue shoots weekly, by midsummer the grape jungle ruled far above my reach. After several summers of Vine Wars, I gave up.

Our new grapes, however, are sweet and abundant and worth fighting for. As summer ended, I asked two neighbours about the previous (deceased) owner’s vine-tending. Todd, who lives across the road from the grapes on one angle, told me they were absolutely pruned every year. Ian, who lives across from the grapes on another angle and watches the street like a hawk, was equally sure the owner never touched them. Though it was tempting to go with Ian’s report, I went with aesthetics – they looked like hell – and bought myself some pro-sized clippers.

Then I went online. Most sites advised me that pruning grapes is best left to the professionals, who alone understand the intricate art and science of vineyard-keeping. I considered hiring a pro, but that would knock the ‘free’ out of our freely-shared crop. Eventually I found a site that gave detailed step-by-steps, but concluded “you really can’t go wrong with pruning. Whatever doesn’t grow this year will grow the next”. Bingo! I had a winner.

As I set out to bring order from chaos, I was well-aware of the Biblical precedents on vine-dressing. Jesus is the true vine, and the Father is the gardener. Every branch that bears no fruit is cut off; those that are fruitful need clean trimming to become even more fruitful. Looking at the gnarly, brown entanglement of small, medium, and large branches made me ponder the Father’s wisdom. How could a greenie like me tell which sticks had borne fruit and which hadn’t? And what’s the difference between ‘cutting off’ and ‘clean trimming’?  One thing was clear: I needed to hack away at the dead leaves, rotten grapes, and spindly creepers before I could hope to identify the true vine and proceed from there.

90 minutes later, I discovered that we actually have two large grape plants with many hardy vines, and I was again blown away by the ridiculous abundance of last year’s crop. Whoever planted these vines had done well, by chance or by choice. This led me to ponder the Lord’s vineyard, in Isaiah 5, planted carefully with the choicest vines and tended lovingly, only to yield bad fruit. “Judge between me and my vineyard”, declares the planter. “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” I wondered: how many things in my life could I say that about – that I have done everything possible, that I have cared enough, persevered enough, and prayed enough to speak those words with a clear conscience? How often do I back away or give up early? How often does God plant a dream in my heart, quickening my pulse, only for me to decide it just isn’t going to happen? Despite the sunshine, my heart took a dip as I pondered my shortcomings.

I started looking more carefully at the branches, hoping a funnel of wisdom would guide my pruning shears. Some were obviously bone-dry dead. Clip, clip, and good riddance to you! Now I could see the fence, and the shape of the healthy vines. A few more clips, and yes, the sap was coming back. Yikes. Better hurry. Now I followed the website’s advice: cut every good branch back to two or three buds at most. That must be the ‘clean trimming’ that Jesus talked about. I silently apologized to each branch in case I was overdoing it, probably an unbiblical and oversentimental step, but that’s just me. Two hours later, with far more shrubbery on the ground than on the fence, I stepped back to view the damage results.

My vines looked tame – in a good way. And shapely, in a natural, vegetative way. And possibly a bit over-shorn, in a zealous-spring-haircut sort of way. But nothing that a few good days of growing can’t fix.

What remained was a LOT of raking and disposing – an aspect glossed over in the instructions that, in fact, took longer than the pruning. There was also a lot of debris hidden in the precut vines –candy wrappers, cigarette butts, newspapers, beer cans — blown into the hedge since who knows when. Dead things hiding dead things. Raking it all clean was hugely satisfying.

But not as satisfying as watching the grape vines green into life – any day now. They’re still a bit shell-shocked, as one ought to feel after a good, life-changing pruning. And it’s still chilly, so no wonder they’re biding their time. Still:  a clean trim. We all need one of those from time to time.

Clipped and clean, my grapevines know that I love them. I can say I’ve done my greenie best. And the rest is up to God.

6 replies »

  1. I don’t work in the yard, garden….or keep house plants. The idea of it – especially gardening…growing vegetables and herbs…is always with me. When time allows, I believe I will learn. Until then, I see my parables in the walks I take and the hills I climb. Being outdoors more often has healed/changed me more than anything else these last years. Really enjoyed reading this!

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    • I do a LOT more walking, running and hiking in nature than I do gardening. But gardening seems to gather my thoughts, whereas when I’m out enjoying nature, it’s more like meditation and my mind floats and clears. I think both are excellent for balance! Thanks for your comments, Adrienne.

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  2. Reading this was like eating clusters of grapes…and drooling the overflow! I loved this sooo much, I hauled my hubs over to read it. He has the same exquisite grasp for writing that you do… As I expected, he savored it…deeply.

    Lovely. Please write more…this is wonderful.

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    • I appreciate your compliments! The grapes seem to have survived my amateurism and are starting to bud… I went for a walk along Teasdale and compared the vineyard grapevines with mine. Reassured!

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