In the Garden with Andy
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmingly grateful during spring. Flowers are in full bloom, the weather makes everything feel alive, and the growing season is kicking off with bud break. You can practically feel the earth breathing. It’s exciting to be a farmer in spring, to really feel your relationship with the Earth and how it adds to your life.
A lot of people forget that growing grapes and making wine is really just farming. My dad Fred and I definitely consider ourselves farmers, as do most growers in Napa. The land is our livelihood. We work with the Earth day-in and day-out and we depend on it for income, stability, and freedom, as well as happiness, fulfillment, and family. But the connection runs deeper than grapes and wine. If you look closely when you visit for a tasting, you’ll probably spot our vegetable plots tucked away in the vineyard. In the spirit of Earth Day, Mother’s Day, and springtime, I wrote down some of my fond gardening memories, a few pearls of farmer wisdom, and my favorite things about growing food alongside our family vineyard.
I’ve always been surrounded by fruit and vegetable gardens. My grandfather had a small orchard on his property, and growing up we always had fruits and vegetables growing. I’ve tried farming at my house down in St. Helena but the soil is too tightly compressed for most crops, other than tomatoes. However, at Schweiger Vineyards, the dirt knows a thing or two about growing.
Up at the winery, our vineyard crew has several small plots where they grow onions, cacti, corn (for masa), and peppers. The guys planted tomatillos there a while back and during my first years gardening at the vineyard, I was combatting wild tomatillos popping up like weeds. I’d select the healthiest looking tomatillo vines and maintain them for salsa verde.
Compared to our vineyard guys’ spots, my garden plot in the vineyard was the least fertile. It was a super rocky section. To make it more fertile I needed to add more organic components back into the soil. So, I started composting a portion of the grape skins and stems from the previous year’s harvest and then working them into the garden soil. Now, the guys are jealous of my plot. Over three years, the soil went from tightly compact — my corn stalks could only grow 2’ tall — to loose, nicely aerated earth with a healthy earthworm population. The corn now grows over 9’ tall. That transformation in the garden from using compost from wine production was really eye-opening. It felt very full-circle.
Garden Go-Rounds, Grilling, and Giants
My garden is pretty small, only about 20 x 25 feet. I typically start seeds at home and then transplant them up to the plot after frosts are past and the seedlings have hardened. I like to spend time in the garden after work – a few days a week for just an hour here and there. Aside from having homegrown food, I love gardening because it’s a nice way to wind down, get some fresh air, and enjoy the view across the vineyard.
I’ve really enjoyed growing corn, tomatoes, green beans, sweet peppers, and lettuce. With a fear of potential food shortages in 2020 due to Covid, I tried my hand at some potatoes over the leach field at my parents house. I was also partially inspired by “The Martian,” where the lead character grows potatoes on Mars using astronaut waste… my potatoes did not grow as well as they did in the movie.
When it comes to actually eating from the garden, I like to keep the vegetables very simple. We often grill them up with a little olive oil, perfect as any side. Grilled corn on the cob, my ribs recipe, and our 2016 Malbec is a fool-proof summer night meal. Grilled tomatoes and peppers with balsamic and mozzarella cheese, if you have it, is another easy favorite from the garden.
In 2020 I planted some sunflowers in the garden, just for fun. They ended up growing more than 10’ tall and were gorgeous. We weren’t planning to harvest the seeds, but the heads were so massive and full, we realized there were probably 10 lbs of seeds just sitting there. Unfortunately, the peak time to harvest them was smack dab in the middle of the Glass Fire, and by the time the smoke cleared all the seeds had fallen out. My 2021 garden will be very interesting to watch. I’m keeping the plot fallow this year because I’m having both hips replaced, and gardening would be a bit of a challenge. Instead of vegetables, I might have a field of mighty sunflower volunteers this summer!
Simple and Small
Gardening has been a hot topic recently. 2020 was my family’s largest planting year in the garden, and also a year of small grocery bills. It was nice in a year of crop shortages and at a time when you really didn’t want to be in a store. It’s great to hear more people are interested in growing their own food, even if it’s just a few pots on a patio.
My advice for first-time gardeners or families who want to plant is start simple, start small. A lot of people jump in too fast and wind up spending a LOT of money to end up growing just a few vegetables. Start with a few boxes or rows one year, really pay attention to those plants. You’ll learn a lot. Then next season, add a few more.
I often use tomatoes as an analogy for growing grapes. Both crops LOVE getting lots of water, fertilizer, and sunshine. But if you overdo it, you wind up with large, watery tomatoes with no flavor. Same holds true for grapes. You need moderate water and nutrient stress…in this way, tomatoes, grapes, and children are much the same: Give them what they need, not what they want.
We hope you enjoy the rest of this humbling, beautiful season, visit us for a tasting if you can, and plant some tomatoes or a few corn stalks if you have the time. Cheers, Happy Earth Day, and an early Happy Mother’s Day!