Published Winter 2010 in United Plant Savers
Plants for Life: Balancing Vineyard Ecosystems with Native Meadows and Endangered Medicinal Plants
New organic garden research may help commercial grape growers with a model for being good environmental stewards of the land.
Many vineyards and wineries have been the target of environmental concerns (eg, bug sprays, water runoff, monoculture issues). Many rural home garden neighbors and local farms fear vineyards and wineries lack biodiversity and simply make more pesticide problems.
A productive method for cultivating native grass meadows and endangered plants designed as part of a vineyard landscape is described .The experimental prototype is inspired by a small organic farms efforts to change the environmental perception and also benefit grape growers, their neighbors and the medical world.
She was angry and shook her head as she drove past the rich green vineyards. Lyric Merryman was a committed environmentalist, and she often felt commercial grape growers were contributing to the ecological destruction of her region and neighboring farmland. She had worked for years to clean up the Russian River wine area. Making it a more sustainable land and permaculture that supports endangered medicinal herbs and the food plants that her ancestors relied on to nourish healthy living. And right now she thought, "They just don't get it." She had never felt the need more strongly and passionately to join with others in support of the loss of biodiversity as when she saw her family gardens smack up against the beautiful country vineyards she was passing through.
Grape growing has become big business in Northern California's wine growing region. For the past decade, more and more of the hills and valleys of both Napa and Sonoma Counties have gone into grape production. Neat rows of the 101-14 Wente Chardonnay vine and the Burgundy Pinot Noir vine have filled the pristine countryside.
Although farmland can still be seen, vineyards have become an iconic part of the region's commerce and culture. Recently some of the larger wineries and vineyards have sought a new trend of seeking ways to make their agricultural presence more positive and less intrusive on the land. Monoculture grape growers and neighboring home owners are concerned with the use of toxic pesticides that spread by wind and can cause soil and water contamination to neighboring land. This and other problems such as over use of water,and contamination of local water sources are leading a few of the grape growers to consider more integrative and sustainable practices. They seek more natural methods and products that can be used as alternatives to commonly used chemicals.
Northern California growers in Sonoma's Rusian River Wine Appelation area have a rich viticulture and terroir (terroir is land from which the grapes are grown that imparts a unique quality specific to that region) but must also satisfy a rural community that is extremely eco-conscious. By doing so, grape growers may become more responsible stewards of the land and help towards a sustainable future.
The Russian River Appellation is smack in the middle of the agricultural environment of Sonoma County,and is one of the expanding farm lands and rural home areas. Commercial grape growing here continues to prosper as many of the Sonoma and Napa wines have consistently fetched staggeringly high prices and increasingly high wine ratings.
What could have been considered an onerous lack of stewardship by the vineyards has instead been viewed as an opportunity for a plant conservation experiment that began just a few years ago at a small nearby Sonoma farm that now hosts both an organic garden and vineyard.
The aim of the vineyard's design is to create a prototype where the vineyard landscaping supports a variety of native meadow grasses (i.e., graminoids) and endangered medicinal plants. This combination of plants provides significant ecological function through integration and ongoing renewal of endangered medicinal plants with the growth of native grasses that thrive easily and require little maintenance.
The project has begun to show the potentially positive impact of this vineyard landscape design on grape growing as cohabitation is supported and soil requirements appear to be met. In addition, preliminary results suggest that the native meadows could reduce the use of high-maintenance foreign grass turfs that are typical in vineyard landscapes. Such intergration of native meadows can work to restore biodiversity and transition the ecology of plant conservation.
A preliminary literature review and a demographic study of native and medicinal plants recently identified as endangered by work done in cooperation with the Botanical Gardens at the William Brown Center at the University of Missouri and by the Sacred Seeds Project, and the United Plant Savers, along with other international organizations have inspired the attempt to show that these plants can be grown as permaculture within commercial vineyard landscapes.
Seeds procured from Horrizon Herbs of Oregon were introduced into the landscape of this vineyard and organic farm in the spring of 2005. The seeds include (a.) Echinacea (Echinacea spp), (b.) Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), and (c.) Ashwagandha (Withania somniferia). This vineyard plant conservation project shows that the incorporation of native meadows and endangered plants into commercial vineyard landscapes may offer one way to nurture environmental stewardship and responsible commerce.
The experiment seeks to present another benefit that the conservation of endangered plants is potentially one of the antidotes to the heavy commercial harvesting of medicinal plants that systematically depletes the overall density and high yields of medicinal herbs. These helpful plants once grew in abundance throughout much of North America's public lands. Because mass harvesting of herbal plants is difficult to regulate, agricultural business has an opportunity to demonstrate a capacity to avert specific plant endangerment. Specifically, vineyards can become a sanctuary for endangered plants species, thus working towards their renewal. The repopulating of native meadows and endangered plant permaculture within vineyards also aims to reduce both water use and negative environmental impact of commercial grapes and vineyards.
Long Term Vision
(1) Develop a design prototype for native meadows and medicinal plant integration that provides attractive and practical landscape around vineyards
(2) Become a source for seeds and seedlings of endangered medicinal plants and native sedge plugs for commercial farms and vineyards.
The desired outcome of demonstrating a responsible capacity to restore native sod and avert further plant endangerment is to create an environmental community that is more encouraging of sustainable agricultural business practices. This experimental conservation effort can be a practical model for developing sustainable commercial vineyard landscapes within and outside the Napa and Sonoma Counties of Northern California's premium grape growing region.
With the native grasses of sedge and rush meadows and medicinal plant conservation in the vineyard, Lyric Merryman may soon be able to appreciate vineyards for their positive ecological contributions. It was one of the challenges she wanted to help make as important to her families protecting heirloom seeds, significant life plants; as well the encouragement of growing great grapes for extra ordinary great wines!
Phillip Knowlton Biography:
Phillip Knowlton is involved in endangered plant conservation and managing natural growing environments for high quality chardonnay wines. He farms a small sustainable apple and mixed stone fruit orchard, and works to support a multi use wildlife habitat, and utilizes non-polluting sources of energy in the San Francisco Bay Area. His vineyard provides organic grapes to one of the Russian River Wine Country's most outstanding wine makers, Virginia Marie Lambrix of VML Winery.