Turning old vineyards into gardens- some ideas

Published on by Pete Shield

Most of the new construction in the Aude, the lotissements that are springing up throughout villages on either side of the Castelnaudry-Carcassonne-Narbonne- Coursan/Guissan axis, are situated on old vineyards. 

These sites represent huge challenges for gardeners, even if the soil as rich before the vines where planted it certainly isn’t now. Vines need good drainage, and after 50 years of vines the land has lost most of its organic material. Vine growers usually rely on a combination of rotten must- the remains that pile up outside of the caves after the wine has been made and nitrogen based chemical fertilisers- and more the letter than the former.

At the Domaine de Montrouch we have found that old vineyards pose a number of issues we have had to overcome- although the domiane was first restored in the 1970’s by a couple of neo-ruralists who practised biodynamic horticulture (see The Biodynamic Agricultural Association) the last owner planted vines. A mere 20 years of vines has turned the soil into rocky dust, with a very acid pH level, and worm life seems to have been reduced to nothing. (see green fingers site here for how to test the pH level of your soil ).

On the three small terraces we have so far worked on our solution so far has been to first clear the planting area of large rocks, and slowly as we work over the land clear out the smaller rocks for the vegetable beds but leave them in the ground for the flower and lavender beds- life is too short frankly to do anything else but the vegetable beds.

We dug in as much organic humus- decayed horse manure and some grape must- as we could lay our hands on as well as purchased organic manure mix. We have been layering our home made compost on the surface in rotation as it becomes available. The veggy patch has been the focus of our attention and we still find that flowers need to have a base of bought planting soil twice that indicated to have a reasonable chance.

On that one an increasing number of Mairies in the Aude are offering free or very low cost composters to residents to reduce the waste to be taken away, it is worth checking with your town hall to see if they are running a similar scheme.

The first year I made the error of mulching with wood chips- we had so much waste after we had cleared the land that I bought a chipper and feed the lot through it. The first terrace of Lavender didn’t seem to mind the wood chip mulch but individual lavender plants along the drive and round the garden hated it- as did the roses. I now use more compost and manure based mulches.

After 18 months we are seeing some improvement in the soil and I am going to try some green fertilisers this February on un-planted beds and see how they do. 

We get a horrid hard baked crust on any bare soil during the summer months- by a combination of watering direct to the roots and mulch I am hoping that we can maximise the water retention of the soil and minimise the loss of water via evaporation.

It really is the start of what appears to be a long process, and suggestions or tips appreciated.

Dealing with all of this has really changed the way I look at vineyards now- before I use to see the swaying green vines and be amazed at how they survived in our hot summers- now I see more chemical monoculture deserts than picturesque panoramas. It is great to see the rise of organic vineyards as wine makers look for higher yielding (financially) niches, and of course to see the return of olive groves here in the Languedoc.

Published on Environment

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