While most garden and field crops are soaking up whatever moisture they can get to survive and grow in the Kansas summer heat, Bob Dixson of Greensburg has to be careful not to water his "Vacant Lot Vines" too much. More is not always better when growing grapes.
"Right now the clusters are just starting to show some color," said Dixson. "I don't want to water them too much or the moisture goes to the berries and they start splitting and scarring."
Dixson, who also serves as mayor of Greensburg, said growing grapes is a hobby he enjoys. He and his wife, Ann, own two lots planted with several hundred grape vines, which he has been caring for since 2004.
"I've been enamored with the process for some time," Dixson said. "When the tornado came in 2007, it took out all the trellis, posts and plants."
At that time Dixson only had one lot of grape vines in production, but after the tornado his neighbor to the north moved and sold him his land.
"He told me in passing as he was leaving, 'I'd like to see grapes growing there,' so I planted grapes there, too," Dixson said.
The vines Dixson grows are called French-American hybrids, and though they are shipped in from upstate New York, they are suited well for growing in Kansas.
"Before the prohibition era, Kansas was ranked third in states from grape production," Dixson said. "We actually have a very good climate and soil suitable here for these vines. If the ground will grow wheat, it will grow grapes."
One of the reasons Dixson enjoys growing grapes is because there is something different each year. He enjoys doing the research behind production methods and proper care, such as putting into practice his theory of doing things as natural as possible.
"We don't use a lot of chemicals or sprays to combat disease or bugs," he said. "I don't want to put on anything unnecessary that might affect the flavor of the grapes."
Over watering can cause one of the worst flavor taints, that of powdery mold, so Dixson is careful to monitor his drip-irrigation system closely.
"I make sure they are watered good in the spring while they are growing, and then up until June," he said. "Once the berries start appearing we really don't want to water much at all."
The grapes set on in June and then are normally ripe in September and October, but Dixon said just because they may look ripe, they might not be ready to pick.
"Harvest depends more on the sugar content than on the color," he said. "The longer you leave them on the vine the sweeter they are. We don't like to harvest them until they are at the 25 percent sugar level."
He uses a tool called a refractometer to check the sugar concentration in the weeks and days leading up to harvest. Then when the grapes are just right, he picks them and processes them for making wine.
"I have three red varieties that we crush, de-stem and allow to ferment in the skins before we press them," he said. "That is where the flavor and all the medicinal values come from, in the skin."
Dixson also grows white grapes, which he crushes and presses the same day because they do not have value in their skins. Table grapes are another variety picked when ripe for family and household enjoyment.
"We are not licensed so we do not sell any grapes or wine," he said. "I just do it for my own enjoyment and to make wine to give to family members."
Dixson said the most difficult part of growing grape vines in Kansas is dealing with cold weather, like last fall when he lost 15 vines during the early cold snap.
"There was still sap in there and they froze, split the trunks," he said. "I've learned to time my pruning so that doesn't happen much, but after that freeze I knew this would not be a very productive year."
Even so, Dixson doesn't consider it a great loss when he losses vines or production to some calamity.
"It's just a hobby," he said. "We are all called to care for what we have been blessed with and I enjoy researching better ways to do it."
So when the temperature climbs over 100 and the heat waves bounce off nearby streets, Dixson is not worried about what will happen to his grape vines.
"Just like watermelons, the grapes will be sweeter if it is drier," he said. "The sugars get more concentrated and that makes the best wine."