Prioritise soil health pre planting to ensure vineyard success

As the acreage of vines continues to rise in the UK, ensuring optimum soil health at the beginning of a vineyard’s journey will pay dividends for the years that follow.

“Planting a new vineyard is your one opportunity to truly analyse and prepare your soil, as vines can crop for 30 years or so,” said consultant, Penny Meadmore.

“Although there’s nothing preventing a grower from taking action to improve the soil of an existing vineyard, it’s more difficult. Instead, growers should aim to establish vines from the best starting point possible, as both early vigour and long-term health depend on good rooting, which goes hand-in-hand with soil health.”

Penny is working alongside agronomy advice provider Agrovista, which launched a targeted soil health provision last year for all areas of its business, including vines. Within the offer, soil health is broken down into three key focus areas – chemical, physical and biological factors, all of which contribute to the yield potential of a crop.

Penny, who studied MSc Viticulture and Oenology at Plumpton College, said: “Assessing physical properties such as texture, drainage and levels of compaction should become part of considering a site’s viability prior to planting.

“Because the UK has a cooler, marginal climate, vines benefit from soil that retains and reflects heat. Although the crop is tolerant of a range of soil textures, land that drains well is also important. Measuring soil warming rate, porosity, infiltration and drainage rate will all indicate a site’s potential viability.

“No doubt exacerbated by last winter’s heavy rain, areas of compaction should be identified and managed, again before planting. This can be done through GPS compaction assessments using a soil penetrometer.”

Vital for both new and existing vineyards, chemical factors contributing to soil health include pH and the balance and application of nutrients. Conducting soil analysis prior to planting followed by vine petiole analysis once the crop is established, is essential in fine tuning fertiliser requirements.

Penny, who is BASIS and FACTS qualified, added: “Maintaining optimum nutrient levels is a fine balance. You might think a ready supply is good, but high nitrogen may result in an excessively vigorous plant with shaded fruit, whereas too much calcium limits the vine’s ability to extract iron from the soil.

“As for soil pH, this can determine how readily available particular nutrients are. High pH values may indicate that foliar, rather than soil-applied nutrition, would be most beneficial to the crop.

“pH also has implications for new vines and which rootstocks can be selected, as most scion varieties are grafted onto a rootstock. This means that once measured, the pH will affect the rootstocks that can be used at the site.”

The final element of Agrovista’s soil health offer is biological influencers, such as levels of organic matter and cover cropping. As all elements interact, increasing the level of soil organic matter can have a positive effect on the Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) – a measure of the soil’s capacity to hold nutrients.

Head of Fruit at Agrovista, Mark Davies, said: “It might seem daunting to try and get all of this right at the same time, but we are here to guide growers through it, supported by invaluable expertise from crop specialists such as Penny.

“More people are turning to grape production in the UK because it presents a really exciting opportunity to establish something new with a unique point of difference.

“Looking after the soil from day one ensures those new businesses have the best start possible for long-term success. It couldn’t be more pertinent to share this message.”

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