We have a grapevine that runs along one of our garden walls. It’s a good ten paces long, not including the long droopy vines that hang three or four feet from the support wire to the ground. It was here when we moved here, and as I know that part of the garden was planted at least forty years ago, I’m assuming the vine is at least that old. I found, wired to its base, an ancient and barely legible label that read ‘Muscadet’.
I am neither a constant nor a patient gardener. Every year, our neighbor from the farm next door comes by during the growing season and tries to re-educate me on the finer points of trimming this grapevine. He usually misses my autumn pruning because I do it late, I do it stealthily, and he only sees the pitiful results once the damage has been done.
Four generations of his family, including his father, were gardeners for local aristocracy while they still lived in the small château up the road. His own large family garden has long stone walls, each heavily trellised with numerous grapevines. Every year, my neighbor wags his head and the occasional finger at my lassitude. I don’t know why I can’t remember the rules. The only real pruning rule I seem to keep in my head is the one passed along to me by my grandmother, who grew up on a farm herself in Washington State: Cut it all down, don’t be shy, cut it down as far as you dare.
I dare a little more each year, but my hand is always restrained by two considerations. First, what if I cut too much? I don’t want to kill the vine or any of the other old trees and plants in the garden. The garden was a wildness of wanton planting and careless attention when we got here, so I clearly fit in with the gardeners who have gone before me.
Second, and more importantly, I love the tangle of the vine. Its untamed strands weave and loop back upon themselves. They grow in the most impossible formations, they curl most helpfully around the support wires, they reach up or down at will.
So, today I did my usual ‘two steps forward-one step back’ type of pruning, and I know I will get a friendly lecture from my neighbor once he sees it.
Here’s the rub: The vine bears impossibly perfect grapes, every year. Fat, sweet, dark ruby, thick with scents from the apple and plum trees, the lavender, the sage all around. Not only that, no matter how I mistreat it, it never fails to bear 20-30 kilos (40-60 lbs.) of flawless grapes, far too much for us, our friends and even the greedy birds to eat during the harvest season.
Next door, my neighbor’s vines have been suffering over the past few years. Some kind of blight that sucks the life from the grapes, leaving them withered, pea-sized and ruined by August. Come the heat of late summer, he always asks me how my vine, abused as it is, has weathered the most recent attack that affects his vines and those of most of his friends.
I respond by bringing over a basket or two of the bounty. It’s a cheeky answer, because I don’t deserve any of the credit, and we both know it. It is pure luck that the vine is in a happy location, that it is isolated from other infected vines, that it survives each year of failed pruning at my hands.
I am merely an appreciative audience. The vine is an artist of itself.