Break Some Rules

Heirloom Gardener’s Editor-in-Chief, Hank Will, revisits breaking some rules with the help of his childhood vineyard.

| Spring 2018

  • grape vineyard
    I fondly remember, as a 12-year-old with my own cash, telling my folks that I was installing a vineyard in the backyard.
    Photo by Getty Images/neverest

  • grape vineyard

When I was a budding young gardener, my folks allowed me to find my own way. They let me try things they were sure would fail, rather than force me into a preconceived set of rules. I fondly remember, as a 12-year-old with my own cash, telling my folks that I was installing a vineyard in the backyard. My dad warned me to choose old, cold-hardy cultivars and recommended a family-owned nursery in upstate New York.

I found an ad for Millers in an issue of Organic Gardening and Farming. I composed a pencil-written note requesting a catalog. I then purchased posts, 9-gauge wire, and staples for the trellises from the local lumberyard. My folks and the neighbors were skeptical because of our clay soil and Zone 3 winters.

Turns out, the grapes I thought were the coolest were all Zone 4 cultivars. Undaunted, I dug larger holes and amended more than recommended. When the vines arrived, I soaked their roots and placed them in the soil with anticipation. Well, those grapes not only survived, they thrived! Twelve years later, while working on my Ph.D., my folks were moving and wondered if I wanted any of my grapes. A few weeks later, mid-growing season, I dug and transplanted a representative cross section of those cultivars along a chain-link fence at my Chicago apartment. When I moved five years later, I left them. I occasionally heard from the landlord, and as of 10 years ago, the vines were still alive.

By today’s standards, those ‘Steuben,’ ‘Fredonia,’ ‘Delaware,’ and ‘Himrod’ grapes aren’t terribly refined, but I’ll forever remember their heady, grapey scent and the juice and syrup we’d make from them. Had I followed the rules, I wouldn’t have experienced them at all. If you have any fun rule-breaking stories about gardening successes or failures, I’d love to hear about them. Please send your story and any related photos to



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