Mud Room Chronicles

It’s always easy to guess what time of year it is just by looking at the collection of irrigation parts, seed packets and clothing piles in our back porch, or “mud room”. Last Saturday there were 2 pair of muddy boots outside the back porch on a step stool, and 2 pair of flip-flops, (the weather’s warming). Inside, one pair of muddy socks (serious leaks and irrigation repair) and one pair with green foxtails in the tops (a sure sign that the days are warming and the grasses are dying between the vine rows).
In the old tin bucket in the sink, dust rags and old towels filled with muddy hand prints and dog hair (new plantings in the garden and dog washing days) and some rags heavy with blue PVC pipe glue from irrigation fixes (see muddy boots and socks above) wait their turn for a bleach load in the washing machine. On the counter, the ripped and wrinkled tops of several seed packets,  pieces of green tie tape too short to use, broken PVC parts, dirty garden gloves and a muddy chart of which melon was planted in which mound confirms that the ground has warmed enough to start planting seeds for our summer garden.

Like a kid in a candy store, we purchased hundreds of dollars of heirloom varieties grown by locals at Forni Brown Nursery and spent days rototilling, composting the soil and planting our “Mortgage Lifter” and “Pineapple Stripe” tomatoes. But we get some of the tastiest (most loved and expensive) tomatoes on the planet!

Pushed onto the back of the counter are sacks of sugar, stacks of canning jars and baskets of citrus (Meyer lemons, Blood oranges, Mandarins and Mexican limes), recently picked from the trees and now patiently waiting to become marmalade . . . suddenly they’ve taken a back seat to the garden and emergency irrigation, or a farmer’s life of “making hay while the sun shines!” Perhaps next weekend they’ll become jam . . . or better yet a cocktail!

Like everyone across the country, the Napa Valley had a mild winter with days in the 60’s and 70’s with little rain, teasing us into believing that it might be a dry spring with an early bud break. But March and April turned cold and wet, and gratefully prolonged the dormant vine’s shoots from forming until after the killing frosts had done their damage. Suddenly (and I know it’s a cliché, but it actually happens!) “as if before our very eyes”, in the course of a week the weather warmed, the spring showers stopped and the gnarled vines turned their tiny pink buds into 6 inch shoots of new growth with baby grapes!

Our next big chore, coming soon, will be “thinning” the crop. Unlike fruit trees, where we pull off individual peaches or apples to control the amount of fruit hanging on each branch, on a grape vine we look for a naturally balanced number of grape bunches on each side of the trunk, and snip off the entire shoot (grapes and all) if the shoot is too small to form a larger cane for next years’ crop, if it’s badly positioned or if it doesn’t have any grape bunches at all. After days of selective thinning, the once bushy vines look like they’ve had their summer crew cut, and the vines now focus on sending all that teenage energy into just a fraction of the shoots and buds.

It’s a fantastic beginning of another cycle of grape growing; muddy boots, dirty dogs, blue glue and all!