Frey Vineyards Native Plant Garden
By Carolyn Brown, Lead Gardener at Frey Vineyards
Some of the most engaging aspects of gardens are the visiting butterflies, birds, and other wildlife they attract. About ten years ago our friend and neighbor, Cathy Monroe, inspired and educated us about the importance of gardening for monarch butterflies with her California Naturalists capstone project. Katrina Frey has been an adamant supporter of establishing native milkweed plantings and providing habitat for these regal fluttering beauties and we have planted out several small pilot project gardens in the Frey vineyards. In the winter of 2020 and ‘21 we built a greenhouse and shade house and began propagating California native trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and bunch grasses for our one-acre butterfly and pollinator garden.
The garden is located at our new winery on a 12’ tall berm. In addition to providing wildlife habitat, trees and woodland shrubs, it will provide a living privacy screen for our neighbors and the chaparral plantings on the sunny southern side will create a seasonally changing landscape for the winery. The garden has plantings of three of the four species of milkweed that are native to Mendocino county. Milkweeds are the sole food of monarch butterfly caterpillars. As the successive generations of monarch butterflies make their annual northern migration they rely on finding stands of milkweed to rear the next round of caterpillars. In addition to milkweeds, the adult monarch butterflies need a seasonal supply of floral nectar and pollen to fuel their long journeys.
Our garden has a wide variety of drought-tolerant California native plants that bloom throughout the season. The garden also provides habitat and forage for native bee species and other beneficial insects. Many species of these insects are, in turn, foraged by birds such as swallows, chickadees, and bluebirds who rear their young in the dozens of vineyard nesting boxes. A few years ago, Nathaniel Frey began building and hanging birdhouses in the vineyards and hundreds of birds have successfully fledged in them. Both of these projects exemplify the Frey family’s commitment to fostering biodiversity in their vineyards. Farming in ways that support biodiversity is a foundational premise of both Biodynamic and organic farming. Biodiversity creates a complex web of microorganisms, insects, and animals which contribute to a fertile and resilient farm ecosystem. Biodiverse farms are better able to withstand environmental stressors, pests, and diseases than conventionally farmed mono-cropped systems. Also, they are so much more fun to visit and work in!
In 2015 the National Wildlife Federation launched The Mayors’ Monarch Pledge, a national campaign asking mayors and heads of local governments to commit their cities to specific actions that support habitat for monarch butterflies and other wildlife. At the program’s inception, Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said, “If we all work together — individuals, communities, farmers, land managers, mayors and local, state, and federal agencies — we can reverse the monarch decline and ensure every American child has a chance to experience amazing monarchs in their communities.” Ukiah’s former mayor, Juan Orozco, signed the Mayors’ Monarch Pledge in 2021. Frey Vineyards has donated many of our plants to several local monarch garden projects. When you come out to our new winery, plan on taking some time to walk through and enjoy our butterfly and pollinator garden. You may even get some ideas for creating your own monarch sanctuary at home.
Mayors and other heads of local and tribal government are taking action to help save the monarch butterfly, an iconic species whose eastern populations have declined by 90% and western populations by 99% in recent years. Through the National Wildlife Federation's Mayors' Monarch Pledge, U.S. cities, municipalities, and other communities are committing to create habitat for the monarch butterfly and pollinators, and to educate residents about how they can make a difference at home and in their community.
Andrew, Carolyn, Monet and Jessica – Gardeners extraordinaire at Frey Vineyards!
A central focus of Bio Dynamic Farming is to keep in or restore to at least 10% of a farm’s native vegetation. This provides habitat for wildlife and insect species that together create a healthy and resilient ecosystem. In turn, the presence of these animals, insects, plants and microorganisms help protect the crops from harmful predators, parasites and diseases. Frey Vineyards is working to reestablish native vegetation on a large berm at the new winery. The berm will be part of a nature trail where visitors can enjoy the beauty of our vineyard nestled in the surrounding oak woodland, learn about key plant communities and the wildlife that they support.
The plants chosen for this project will provide habitat and forage for pollinators and birds; create a landscaped backdrop for the winery; and provide privacy and a shield for our neighbors. These plants are being propagated and grown out in a shade house and hoop house at the new winery site. Last fall, acorns were collected from favorite heritage oaks growing at the original winery site and were planted on the berm with the first rains. This summer these pioneering trees are now a few inches tall. They will be the backbone of the new plantings on the berm. Oaks are the superfood of the plant kingdom. “A mature oak supports thousands of caterpillars, making it a foraging heaven for birds and other animals. In 87% of U.S. counties, oaks feed more moth and butterfly caterpillars than any other type of plant.” (From “The Chickadee’s Guide to Gardening“ by Doug Tallamy).
Native flowering shrubs are being grown out in 1-gallon pots and are ready to be field planted with the coming fall rains. The plants selected are those that will provide an extended period of bloom throughout the growing season, giving our insect visitors an abundant and varied source of nectar and pollen. We are also growing out three species of milkweed native to Mendocino County. Milkweed is the only host plant of Monarch butterfly larvae and it is also a favorite nectar and pollen plant for many insects. This fall we will seed flats of perennial bunch grasses native to Mendocino County. The grasses will be interplanted with native wildflowers to create meadow areas. Together, the grasses and wildflowers will provide displays of color and visual interest throughout the seasons. The grasses will help stabilize the bank and protect it from wind and water erosion and they also provide overwintering shelter for many species of bees, bumble bees, other insects, as well as nesting materials for birds.
When we talk about protecting pollinators and butterflies, perhaps the first species that come to mind are the European honeybee and the Monarch Butterfly. These two beloved species have seen devastating losses over the past several decades; however, California has over 16,000 identified species of bees and over 1,177 species of moths and butterflies. Many of these fragile creatures are suffering from the same environmental threats as the honeybees and Monarch butterflies. The European honeybee is essential for the pollination of many of our food crops, especially those grown in large monocrop systems, because the hives can be moved into a crop during flowering and fruit set and moved on to another crop after the bloom has passed. The pollination services of the European honeybee in large agricultural systems are necessary because the native pollinators are unable to survive in these mono cropped systems. There is not an ongoing source of nectar and pollen in weed free mono crops environments to support and sustain their populations and the pesticides used are as toxic to beneficial insects as they are to the target pest. However, our reliance on the European honeybee has caused significant stress to these essential creatures. Bees, like us, need a balanced and varied diet. When they are moved from crop to crop, they are getting mostly one type of food at a time which leads to nutrient deficiencies. Also, there may be toxic pesticide residues on the crop, in field irrigation water that the bees drink, or in adjacent fields that the bees fly to. These toxins can be fatal on contact, diminishing the population of foraging bees. Sub-lethal doses are brought back to the colony where they may build up in the wax honeycomb, in much the same way as they build up in the fatty tissues of mammals. The accumulation of these toxins cause ongoing stress to the colony. The bees also go through a stressful period of reorientation each time they are moved to a new field throughout the pollination season. They need to learn where the flowers and water sources are and must slowly reorient themselves to the new landscape so they can find their way home. Also, some foraging bees are often left behind with each move, diminishing the foraging workers. Finally, colonies of bees are transported into crops for pollination services from great distances and diseases and parasites can spread rapidly between colonies during these concentrated situations.
In the same way that our attention has focused on the plight of the honeybee, so too have we focused on the loss of our exquisite Monarch butterflies. These remarkable creatures make up two groups. The Western Monarchs migrate from the coast of central California throughout states west of the Rocky Mountains. The Eastern Monarchs migrate from central Mexico up to the northern plains of the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Loss of habitat, loss of milkweed species, climate change, pesticides and diseases, have all contributed to the devasting decline of these magnificent butterflies.
How can we farm and garden in ways that protect and nurture these essential pollinators? At Frey Vineyards we strive to create healthy, viable ecosystems on the farm. For example, many bird species rely on insects to feed their young, so over 100 bird nest boxes are distributed throughout our vineyards. Blue Birds, Tree Swallows, Ash Throated Flycatchers, among other species, use the boxes and they help keep insect pest populations down. Planting local, native plant species also helps to foster healthy farm and garden ecosystems. Insects have evolved with specific plant communities, using a variety of plants that are native to one’s region and choosing a selection of plants that provide a continual bloom throughout the growing season will provide the best food source to attract and sustain these beneficial creatures. Making a commitment to not use pesticides or using only the least toxic methods possible at only the most vulnerable stages of a pest’s lifecycle is also essential. At Frey Vineyards, farming practices follow the strict USDA Organic Farming and Demeter Biodynamic Farming standards. Regulations governing pesticide use in both organizations prohibit the use of any synthetic compound and best practice guidelines further require that judicious monitoring take place before any control measures are taken. If it is determined that there is a significant threat to the crop then the least toxic and least broad spectrum measures available to organic growers are used to control a pest.
U. C. Davis has an informative website to help you make the decisions about these least toxic pest control options. Provide safe, undisturbed habitat for these insects. Many bees and bumble bees build their nests in the ground. Leave bare patches of soil, in areas that drain well, for them to nest in. Some bees lay their eggs and provide a nest for the developing larvae in the hollow stems of plants. Leave these plants standing over the winter and cut them back later, during the following year. This will give the developing larvae time to mature and emerge as adult bees. Provide a year-round source of drinking water. Place stones in a shallow basin so the insects can safely drink without falling in and keep their water fresh and clean. Learn which species you have in your area and focus on providing habitat and food sources for them. There are many excellent websites to help you learn about plants and pollinators native to your area.
The California Native Plant Society has information on plants and their respective communities and the wildlife that they support.
The Xerces Society has a wealth of information on gardening practices that support butterflies and pollinators.
Butterflies and Moths of North America is a data base that has photos to help you identify moths and butterflies in your area as well as helpful information on host plants you can plant for each species.
We look forward to having you visit when we are once again open to the public. Until then, happy bee and butterfly gardening!
Lead Gardener, Frey Vineyards Ltd.
Carolyn Brown, Lead Gardener, Frey Vineyards
Plants in the nursery next to the BioFiltro water purification plant.
California native plants in the Frey Vineyards nursery.
Carolyn Brown on the berm.
Young native oak tree, one year after acorn!
Yoki Frey and Carolyn Brown trimming olive trees in the vineyard.
Over the years we’ve shared lots of details on the ins and outs of growing grapes and the seasonal flow of work in the vineyards. This drought year is moving things ahead in the vineyard in full force. Pruning is wrapping up this week and cultivation and frost protection are ongoing. But this time around I’d like to share about more than just grapes.
Long before Frey Vineyards was the busy enterprise that it is today, many dwellers of the Frey Ranch were deeply involved in gardens and farming of their own. When my grandparents Paul and Beba bought the ranch in 1962 they were following an impulse to be more self-sufficient and have plenty of fresh air for their large and growing gang of kids. The home ranch used to be a sheep farm, as was much of Mendocino County.
The grapes sort of arrived by default. In the late 1960s local agencies were searching for a site for a large reservoir and there was speculation that it might be built in the little valley here at the bottom of Tomki Road, at the headwaters of the Russian River. That never came to pass but the grapes were planted to increase property value in the event that the land would be acquired by imminent domain. The project did move forward a little southeast, and today Lake Mendocino (low as ever!) covers what used to be several homesteads in Coyote Valley.
Here on the ranch the first vines were planted in the early 70s. At the same time there was a lot of work towards getting gardens and orchards going. Paul, Beba and the kids raised hogs and chickens, peacocks and many fruit trees were planted. Starting in the 1970s the Frey siblings and their partners grew many amazing gardens. My earliest memories revolve around the stone foundation of the greenhouse my dad built, just a stone’s throw from the winery; the garden was rich and fertile with mulberries, filberts, pears and apples. My mom’s garden is still there, although only the foundation of the greenhouse remains. I was given my very own garden bed to plant what I chose: peas, cockscomb amaranth, cucumber and daisies. My mom Katrina and her best friend had a small perennial nursery, following in the footsteps of my great grandfather Johnny who ran a nursery in Vermont.
Jonathan Frei, my uncle, started some of the earliest plantings of crops besides grapes, establishing Peach Tree Lane, the first olive orchard, and has experimented with medicinal herbs, blueberries and a plethora of native and drought tolerant shrubs and trees. My younger brother Johnny Frey Jr latter added even more olive trees along the vineyards. My other Uncle Luke Frey and his family also have cultivated beautiful biodynamic gardens and fruit trees.
Over the years as the family has branched and grown, several beautiful gardens and orchards have arisen, and the ranch is a great place to share produce. Now, with the wine business and vineyards humming along and relatively stable, the enterprise is working with a little diversity to break up the monotony and monoculture of grape growing.
The help of Carolyn Brown, deeply experienced garden teacher, beekeeper and plant lover has been wonderful. Carolyn has installed an orchard in the riparian zone of a seasonal stream at the Road I ranch where figs, plums, peaches and nuts are thriving at 4 years old; olives line the fence and entry road. She’s also designed and will install beautiful native and edible landscaping around the new winery.
And while we continue vineyard care and development, each new planting is accompanied by an area for other crops, native and habitat plantings. Winemaker Paul has mastered the art of using baby vine irrigation for summer crops of winter squash, melons and veggies and we’re excited about the prospect of future plantings of cork oak, hazelnut, walnut and prune plum, hedge rows and sunflowers.
Grapes are wonderful after all, but humankind cannot survive on wine and raisins alone. Happy Spring Everyone!
This Spring we've got baby goats, baby cows, baby lambs, baby chicks, baby bunnies, and a baby kitten in the mix at the Frey farm. Our neighbors have some adorable baby pigs too that I have visited several times. It makes sense that this time of year when fresh, wild greens are at their lushest, it’s also when new life is coming forth to eat and forage. Everybody is happy frolicking through the green pastures and meadows. Every Spring when the grapes bud with new growth, we take the animals out of the vineyards and bring them to their summer foraging spots. I also enjoy preparing my garden beds throughout the Spring and giving the excess weeds, grasses, prunings, volunteers, and other edible plants, to the animals.
We keep the goats grazing along trails throughout the wilder parts of the property, to maintain road access. And every place where the animals are allowed to graze (and pee and poo) soil fertility increases. Instead of leaving animals in the same place all the time, we rotate them through different areas. This maximizes natural cycles of grazing while minimizing impact. Anytime you leave animals in the same spot all the time, that space becomes a kind of dead zone because of the hyperaccumulation of waste products and foot traffic, along with compacted soil. Most industrial animals are unfortunately raised in such conditions.
But there are many farms attempting to make holistic rotation methods the norm. Some use "holistic management" practices by grazing large herd animals, then follow up with a poultry flock that distributes and breaks down the poo from the herd when foraging for bugs, and finally to give the land a rest so the added nutrition can be integrated for a year.
We're still experimenting with rotation patterns, and as northern California becomes dry from June onward, we're looking at ways to create as synergistic an experience for the land and animals as possible. The goat herd, which I tend to, will happily eat the wildest greens (blackberries and tree leaves are favorites) well into the Fall when acorns (perhaps their favorite foods) become available. After the grapes are harvested, the goats will return to the vineyards where they enjoy grape "seconds" as well as various leaves from the hedgerows we have planted.
A freshly laid chicken egg!
Goats and lambs in the vineyard.
I never set out to be a goat herder. When I first moved to the Frey Ranch over a dozen years ago there was a herd of goats that needed caring as their owner was about to go out into the world. I even shared the same due date with the pregnant goat mamas; the day after I delivered my son at home I walked out to the barn and saw a goat in labor. “I recognize that look,” I remember distinctly stating as I cradled my newborn in my arms to watch Rosemary, the Nubian goat mother, deliver twins. In a special way that first goat herd and I were linked by our shared journey into motherhood.
Fast forward many years to early 2020 when I was finally able to return to living on the Frey Ranch. After several years contending with displacement by fire, I made my way back to this land that I love. Before I had even moved my stuff out here, a friend asked if I knew anybody that might want to take care of her Alpine dairy goats while she travelled. My son enthusiastically replied that we wanted to take on the goats. By and by, I returned to my pre-fire rhythm of walking through the vineyards with a herd of goats in my wake. For the past several months the goats have been on the fire break team, helping to munch down pathways in the woods. As soon as the grapes are harvested this fall, we’ll be back in the vineyards, grazing between the rows with this new herd. In addition to the goat crew, there’s a mixed flock of a dozen sheep. They’re a blend of Merinos, Navajo Churros, and Cheviots. Additionally, we have a Jersey cow named Nutmeg and her daughter, a Scottish Highlander and Angus mix.
A few months after I had landed another friend offered a few dwarf goats that she had been looking to rehome. Apricot and her grown daughter Peanut came to live with us, too. Then, out of some caprine serendipity, my neighbor happened to acquire a dwarf buck named “Little Jimmy Dickens” around the same time I came into the two dwarf goat mamas. Little Jimmy got dropped off for a play date and romanced the dwarf ladies for several weeks. I’ve never met such a polite and well mannered buck before, and appreciated both Jimmy’s calm demeanor and gentle way of attending to the small dwarf herd during his visit. The mamas are due this November and I’m sure that we could all use some extra sweetness in the form of baby goats next month. Sometimes you seek out your vocation, and sometimes goats come scampering into your life, time and time again.
Eliza Frey with wild mustard in Frey biodynamic Cabernet vineyard.
After weeks of rain and the chill of the polar vortexes, spring is arriving in Mendocino County. One of my favorite spring pastimes is taking to the fields and gathering wild spring greens, or edible weeds – a tonic to the body and the spirit. With their beautiful shapes, shades of green and wide array of flavors, they make a wonderful addition to springtime cuisine. Wild edibles spice up any salad or sandwich, add layers of flavor and texture to stir fries, deepen the flavors of soup or provide a unique garnish for any dish.
Wild edible plants connect us back to the abundance of Mother Nature, and to our ancestors, who relied on foraging for survival. Wild plants don’t need humans to help them grow, and there is something beautiful and complete about their ability to get what they need and thrive on their own. Gathering wild greens is easy and fun as long as you follow some common sense guidelines.
Make sure you know what you are eating! Never eat any plant without first knowing that it is edible. Many wild edibles have close look-alikes, so make sure you are well informed before ingesting any new plant. The information below does not include identification details for the listed plants. A great way to make sure you’re being safe is to find a friend or neighbor who is knowledgeable and invite to come forage with you. Local foraging classes and groups are popping up all over the nation. There are countless websites and books about gathering wild plants, and a quick internet search can connect you with plenty of resources.
Edible weeds are only healthful when harvested from areas free of chemicals and pollutants. Avoid harvesting from chemically maintained lawns, near motor roadways, non-organic farms or in areas where there may be high dog traffic. After harvesting wild greens, make sure to wash them thoroughly.
Never harvest an entire stand of wild plants. A general rule of thumb is to leave at least 2/3 of any given patch untouched, allowing the species to complete its life cycle and reproduce, and ensuring that there is plenty for wildlife.
The abundance and variety of wild edibles varies greatly among different climates and regions. While the varieties listed below are available and abundant for Mendocino County, California, in spring, your location will ultimately dictate what you have access to and when.
Here are a handful of my favorite green treats to gather on the Frey Ranch in late winter and early spring:
Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)
Miner's lettuce, an annual flowering plant, is also known as Indian lettuce, spring beauty, and winter purslane. Native to the west coast of North America, it prefers cool wet areas, and in inland Mendocino County it is available from Late January to April. Fleshy stems lead to rounded rosette leaves that cup the morning dew. White or pink flowers develop on a slender stem that grows out of the center of the leaf. It is abundant at the edges of our vineyards, in shady areas at the forest’s edge.
It is best picked when fresh and green, before flowering. The stems are crisp and juicy, and the leaves are tender with a mild watery flavor, well suited as the base of a salad, or used as a substitute for lettuce in any context.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is a low growing annual that reseeds yearly and emerges in late winter, as rainfall and warmer temperatures allow germination. Its tiny leaves climb wispy mats of stems in semi shaded edge areas and sunny fields. As it matures tiny white flowers form at each leaf node.
It has a pleasant, mild flavor and is a great substitute for sprouts on sandwiches and in wraps. It is also lovely in salad. It gets slimy when cooked so try enjoying it raw. For larger, leggy plants, you may want to use only the leaves, as the stems can be a bit fibrous. Chickweed doesn’t store well, and is best eaten within a few hours of harvest.
Common Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale subsp. vulgare)
This is the most common variety of dandelion, although there are thousands. Dandelion is a perennial plant native to Europe. In California jagged leaves re-sprout from taproots in the late winter. In wetter climates the greens can be harvested throughout the growing season. A thick, fleshy stem develops and forms bright yellow, multi-petaled flowers that eventually turn into globes of fluff that scatter on the wind with our wishes. Dandelion’s nutritional value eclipses most of the fruits and vegetables you can buy in the grocery store. It is recognized as a tonic to the liver, kidneys, blood and digestion.
Dandelion has an intense bitter flavor that is somewhat of an acquired taste. The entire plant, including the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots, is edible and nutritious, packed with vitamin C, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, thiamin, riboflavin, beta-carotene and fiber. Due to their intense flavor, greens are often cooked, and are delicious with a bright lemony dressing. The flowers of dandelion are also beautiful and pungent before they start to form seed heads, great as a garnish or sautéed with garlic. Dried and roasted roots can be ground and brewed as dandelion coffee, and are an ingredient in traditional root beer.
Wild Mustard (Brassica Spp.)
Wild Mustard is found all over the world and mustard and its cousins radish and turnip have been grown since ancient times. Here in Mendocino County the spring brings an explosion of color as the bright yellow flowers fill the vineyards, delighting bees and foragers alike. Mature plants can be up to 4 feet tall, but they are tastiest when harvested young.
The mustard flower is a beautiful garnish on salads, with a rich pollen-like flavor and gentle heat. The greens need to be harvested young, as they get spiny as the plant reaches maturity. They are a wonderful addition to any stir fry, chopped fresh in potato salad, or served wilted with a vinaigrette dressing.
As flowers drop and the plant forms seed-pods, the tender green pods can be harvested and pickled. As the plant finishes its life cycle the mature seeds can be harvested and ground into mustard.
Sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella)
Sheep's sorrel is a low growing perennial herb in the buckwheat family is native to North America. It makes its home in disturbed soils and spreads from seeds and fleshy, horizontal roots. Clumps of green arrow shaped leaves form at the base of the plant, which redden as the plant grows and forms upright flower stalks for tiny reddish-brown flowers and seed pods.
Tender green leaves have an intensely tart lemon flavor that is a great accent in salads and soups, and adds pop to pesto. Its seeds are also edible and can be eaten raw or cooked.
Winter Pea Shoots (Pisum sativum)
While winter peas are not wild in our vineyards, they are part of our annual cover crop mix. Peas are legumes that fix nitrogen into the soil. They grow tendrils that help them climb amid ryegrass and bell beans and have fleshy silvery leaves that form in whorls along the rigid stem, and they form beautiful edible pink flowers as temperatures rise.
Harvest the top 2-4 inches of the pea shoots to enjoy their distinctly sweet and nutty flavor that is wonderful raw or cooked. Try them sautéed with garlic and olive oil or in place of spinach in your favorite soup. The flowers are tender and mild and gorgeous as a garnish or salad ingredient. Consider adding them to a winter cover crop for a delicious supply of late winter greens!
The Wild Wisdom of Weeds by Katrina Blair
Wild Edibles by Sergei Boutenko
Native plant Societies – connect with your state or local group.
Foragesf.com – offering foraging classes in the San Francisco Bay Area
(Written by Carolyn Brown, landscaper and gardener at Frey Vineyards.)
In 1924 Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Bio Dynamic Agriculture, discussed in his Agriculture Lectures how we must view the soil as being alive and full of life-giving forces. Also, how a living soil is akin to a plant and how plants themselves are an extension of the soil. This vitality is passed on to us through the energy contained in foods grown from healthy, living soils. That wellspring of life energy is not to be found in soils that have plant nutrients applied in a synthetic, chemical form. Steiner also stressed the importance of making a farm so self contained that it becomes self sustaining; its soil’s fertility is generated, conserved and recycled and the farm becomes its own entity. Creating and applying compost made from spent plants, cover crops and animal manure produced on site is the best way to realize this. The farm’s soil fertility becomes individualized to the land. How different this is from relying on importing soil amendments from different regions or even from different countries.
Current scientific research is discovering how very complex the living soil is. There is a complex relationship between soil mycorrhizae – bacteria and fungi – and the plant kingdom. Plants produce sugars through photosynthesis. These sugars are exuded from plants’ roots into the surrounding soil, which feeds the soil fungi and bacteria. In turn, these soil borne microorganisms help dissolve minerals and nutrients essential for plant growth and make them available in a form that plants can use. The end result is that we get food which is much richer in vitamins and minerals than vegetables grown with synthetic fertilizers. These microorganisms also allow plants to communicate with one and another! Mycorrhizae form a giant underground web connecting plants together. Plants that are being attacked by harmful insect pests pass the word on to other plants, which may protect themselves by making bad tasting chemicals, or chemicals that mimic predatory insect pheromones. These pheromones draw the plant allies into the farm or garden and they keep the bad bugs in check. What a great system! Bio Dynamics means “life engenders life” and healthy living soil creats vibrant, healthy ecosystems and people – a wonderful testimony to this way of farming.
The 2015 North Coast winegrape harvest began earlier than ever. At Frey Vineyards we began crushing grapes on August 24th. The early ripening varieties including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc all matured rapidly and came in quick. Yields of these varieties were also lower than average, leading to worry that the entire 2015 crop would be shorter than expected. Most California wineries can rely on bulk finished wine to compensate for light crop yields. At Frey Vineyards we are limited in our ability to source bulk wines since additive-free wines are not available on the open market.
Organic Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.
As we transitioned into harvesting mid-season reds some fields helped make up the difference, with good crops on Merlot, Petite Sirah and some Zinfandel. It became clear early on that the overall quality of the 2015 vintage had potential to be exceptional. With no problem achieving adequate sugars for proper fermentation, late red varieties were allowed ample hang time to become physiologically mature. Not only were the sugars high enough but the grape seeds tasted nutty and the skins shed their bitterness. Meanwhile, seasonable autumn weather preserved optimal acidity for overall balanced fruit flavors.
An inch of rain in early September knocked the dust down and gave the vines a drink to help stall what would otherwise have been a rushed harvest. The rains then held off for another month avoiding any issues with rot and maintaining easy access into the vineyards for harvest equipment.
While we were working to wrap up the earliest harvest on record, my wife Eliza and I also welcomed our second child, Iris Ann Dahlen, into the world. Born on October 12th, in the heat of the last week of harvest, we all felt a sense of relief as the 2015 crush was nearing the end. The final load of grapes, on October 17th, came out of the 50 year-old Easterbrook Cabernet Sauvignon Vineyard on our home ranch in Redwood Valley, and it was as perfect as its ever been.
Post-harvest organic vineyards in the mist.
Cover crop seeding and fall compost spreading soon followed and went smoothly. We finished in time to take advantage of early November rains. The rains gave the cover crop seed good germination and helped incorporate the compost into the soils. These practices help to feed the soil microorganisms that are the foundation of organic agriculture.
As we put the vines to rest for another winter we can reflect on the previous year. So many things went so well, yet there is always room for improvement. Every trip around the sun we learn from our previous mistakes and inevitably new challenges arise. The only universal constant is change and it is our task to adapt to whatever changes may arise.
Healthy soils, hearty vines, honest wines, happy people! Long live organic wines and family farms!
As the season turns to Fall, we have a lovely abundance of fruits and vegetables coming through the garden. For the cold months to come we’re making applesauce, sun dried tomatoes, frozen pears, and even some acorns – all part of the Autumn harvest ritual. The grapes are in full swing, and once they've been harvested from the home ranch, the domestic animals from the farm get to forage in the vineyards once again. Grass is great, but goats have a definite sweet tooth when it comes to munching leftover grapes on the vine!
Grapevine in fall colors after light rain.
Along with the bounty of fresh, ripe produce, the herbs which will grace our dishes for the year to come are in full profusion at present, and it's a lovely and lively time to harvest our spice mixes before the rains and cold take their toll.
We are hoping for a flourish of good, long soaks. We had our first major rain already, and we're all wondering what the weather will bring for the near future! Each morning a cool coastal overcast blankets the sky, so we can harvest comfortably on the early side before the heat sinks in. Little sprouts are popping up in the fields, and the land is thirsty for consecutive downpours. Even that little taste of the wet weather got us all excited about the down time of a farmer's lifestyle: while rains let loose all around outside, we get to curl up with some herbal tea by the stove and read books, plan out next year's garden, and rejoice in the past year's foods in the form of homegrown sourdough wheat breads and warming squash soups.
Canada geese take flight at Frey Vineyards.
At the end of summer one of our cows gave birth to a beautiful heifer calf. The newborn playfully explores the barnyard, getting into mischief that only such a huge baby can! The milking pails are filled to brimming each morning with the new mama in milk, and so we've been working with new cow cheeses in the kitchen. Also, our farm interns just made their first batch of goat milk soap, and are letting it cure in the outdoor kitchen.
Spiderweb in oak tree at edge of vineyard.
Goats grazing in Frey organic vineyard.
Spring on the Frey farm has come early this year. The sun shine and rainfall has made a lush and lively winter. Baby lambs frolick in the meadows. Pregnant goat moms are heavy with kids as they take their daily walks to browse and fertilize the vineyards. Our duck and chicken friends have recovered from the cold weather with lots of deep orange egg yolks from their free-ranging escapades. The days on the farm are spent managing the farm animals, lettiing them eat the rich green grasses.
My husband and I tend the herd of goats. We milk and walk the goats each day, and bring them special treats like raspberry and blackberry leaves to prepare them herbally for the kidding season ahead. I try to notice which of the does is "bagging up" in the udder, which indicate she’s pregnant. During this month I'll make several trips to the barn to check if anybody is showing other signs of babies on the way. Fresh straw is spread out, and we partition off parts of the barn as the “delivery rooms.” This year, three goats are expecting: Sophia, Cardamom, and Lhasa. I like to be the midwife, helping along any births, and giving the mother a post-partum tonic of molasses, wheat bran, and ivy (a recipe that I got from Juliette Barclay Levi's fantastic work "The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable").
As the sun warms everything up and the days get longer, we’ve been making Biodynamic preparations. They are made at the farm with ingredients from the farm, and stored in ceramic vessels. We apply the "500" preparation in the spring to bring renewed strength and nourishment to the soil. My father-in-law, Luke Frey, has been studying these Biodynamic formulas for over a decade. The preparations foster vitality in the soil and to the farm as a whole. Biodynamics were brought forth by Rudolph Steiner in 1924, and treat the farm as one large self-sustaining organism. We add these "preps" to hand-swirled water vortices, acting as homeopathic medicinal blessings of fertility and creativity for the farmer, the farm, and the planet. Biodynamics goes beyond organic, connecting the soul to the soil. Click here for more information about Biodynamic agriculture.
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