Everyone in the Central Okanagan probably knows a little about Summerhill Pyramid Winery, and I’m sure many have enjoyed their world-class organic wines and ate at their wonderful bistro while enjoying the beautiful lake view.
When Stephen Cipes first visited the Okanagan in 1986, the New York developer believed he’d found unique conditions to produce “intensely flavoured small grapes”–the perfect base for sparkling wine. Cipes brought grape clones from France and “personally planted them on my hands and knees.”
Summerhill follows organic growing practices. No herbicides or pesticides “keeps the lake clean and our grapes don’t taste from the chemicals.” – Stephen Cipes – Proprietor
Gabe is the owner of Summerhill Organic & Wildcrafts Ltd, which has been contracted to work on several projects on the winery land, including growing a Forest Garden, Wetland Restoration and Companion Gardening.
Here is a little bit about their projects and goals.
Vineyard Companion Gardening
Using permaculture / biodynamic methods, the 5 year vineyard companion gardening project is all about making better use of the land, using the space between grapevines to produce healthy produce. Each row is 230 feet long, and even though tractors routinely travel up and down, the middle space where the tractor tires never pack down the soil is a great space to grow.
Many years of vine prunings have helped to create a very fertile growing medium, along with the wood chips that are inoculated with woodland mushrooms.
Indigenous plants like Showy milkweed, Showy aster, Monkey flower and Silky lupin have been planted in between the grape vines along with a few others more sparsely, to bring in beneficial insects . This also helps the cross-pollination of the grape vines, producing sweeter grapes.
Gabe has also identified all the natural ‘weeds’, such as Mullein, Plantain, Chicory, Dandelion, Comfrey, Alfalfa, Clover and Catnip, which are medicinal and beneficial, to grow and be harvested. Weeds like Wild Amaranth (pigweed) or Wild Quinoa (lambs quarter) are usually pulled, but some have been left to harvest and cook.
There are also a lot of herbs that they are letting naturalize, such as Oregano, Holy basil, Chives, Garlic, Lemon Bergamot, Peppermint, Sage, Fennel, Thyme, Blue Hyssop, Skullcap, Blue Vervain, Anise Hyssop, Echinacea, Cilantro, Borage, Chamomile, Lovage and Valerian. Also in the shadier sections in the furrows between the vines, wood chips are inoculated with King Stradivarius, Almond Agaricus, Shaggy manes and White oyster elm mushrooms. Squash and melon are planted on the sunnier sides of the mushrooms for additional shade.
Five of the fifteen rows of vineyard directly below the restaurants observation deck will be utilized for experimental companion crops. They will be using drip irrigation and planting medicinal flowers, grains, and herbs down the center of the rows and amidst the vines. SRED (Scientific Research & Economic Development) research will be conducted on how the companion crops affect the yield of the vineyard.
Regenerative Wetland Restoration
All good organic growers tend to have a certain amount of their land left natural (if they have enough land to accomplish this) In Summerhill’s case, one of their main projects is to restore a historical wetland area.
Indigenous herbs and berries important to supporting human and animal life will be regenerated in their proper meso climates in appropriate guilds of companion plants increasing biodiversity and animal habitat.
In the wetlands, Gabe harvests Nettle, Horsetail, Poplar, Epilobium Parviflorum, Watercress, Mint, Burdock, Galium, Rose, and Cattail. Other wild plants he will be attempting to establish this year are: Hazlenut, Saskatoon, Hawthorn, Gooseberry, Soap berry, Ocean spray and Raspberry. They have also seeded an assortment of indigenous wildflowers including Blanket flower, Brown eyed susan, Arnica, Columbine, Daisies, Yarrow, Lupin, Showy Aster, Prairie Aster. Sorrel, Fireweed, Blue flax, Showy milk weed and Monkey flower.
Food Forest / Garden
Forest Gardens are diverse food producing perennial ecosystems. This consists of indigenous berries, herbs, legumes, flowers and fruit Trees, companioned with symbiotic drought tolerant fruit trees, vines, berries, herbs, tubers, bulbs and legumes.
The system will be set up with overhead for the first year or two with the long-term goal to be fed by swales and need no watering. Swales are ground water harvesting ditches dug on contour to catch and store water to passively irrigate the forest garden. In the event of a torrential rain or heavy snow melt the 2ft deep and 2ft wide swales fill with water and plume underground to effect the root structures down slope.
The initial area is approximately 280 x 40-50 ft. The 20 year vision will be to see paths through 3 different over stories of trees some reaching 40ft high, along with multiple under stories of vegetative growth and food forage.
In the Forest Garden there is Wild Grape, Red Current, Rose, Cherry, Elder, Hazelnut, mulberry and Choke cherry trees. This year Gabe planted Plum, Italian Plum, Quince, Elder, Hazelnut, Chestnut and Pawpaw. Apricot trees. Gabe also guilded the trees with Black Gooseberry, Black Current, Black Berry and Boison Berry. Before planting trees they sowed Barley, Rye, Field peas, Radish and Oats. Sea buckthorn is another berry he has been planting in the forest garden. These are an amazing drought and frost tolerant medicinal berry, which are considered a super-food.
All Nine Biodynamic Preparations are being used for compost, foliar feed and mildew control on the vines and vegetable gardens. The Stella Natura and Northern Hemisphere astral calendars are observed for planting, earth moving, composting, foliar feeding and harvesting. All Biodiversity is recognized as part of the whole farm ecosystem.
Beyond growing food for their own use, Jaclyn and Gabe also want to pass along what they are learning, both to individuals who want to learn for themselves, and to those who are learning to begin farming in a forward-thinking method. As Gabe says when asked his definition of local Food Security: “Diversity is resilience and abundance. The more plants that do well in our local testing, the more people we can teach to use these methods.”
While they have done a lot of research into plants that will do well without a lot of watering in our climate, the best learning they have done is actual experimenting with plants. They feel that with the quickly growing consumer demand for safer, healthier foods, the bio-dynamic / organic sector will grow rapidly, and they want to be there to help make it easier for those interested. They feel that the incidence of cancer, depression and other ailments will greatly reduce as more people turn to a healthier diet and lifestyle.
To help pass this knowledge, Jaclyn has already been teaching Permaculture methods through Okanagan College, along with Haruko Kagami . One of her greatest joys is teaching experienced gardeners a ‘new’ way of thinking. She uses the example of teaching a lady with 30 years gardening experience, who was very excited to learn about a different way to work with nature.
Future projects will include: teaching courses on their farm and giving demo tours of self-sustaining food producing eco-systems. She wants to “teach the teachers”, so will eventually offer the full Permaculture certificate course, and will work together with local farmers, seeds savers and others who are open to passing along their own knowledge. This will include field trips to see other farms first hand.
Jaclyn has also taken over management of the winerys culinary garden, and along with her fellow gardener Sasha, grows most of the produce for their bistro. She gets great satisfaction in seeing the chefs come out to the garden for fresh herbs, flowers and heirloom vegetables, and loves it when they create recipes to use the variety of produce. This year there were over 1,000 tomato plants alone!
Beyond the garden, Jaclyn and Sasha wildcraft (harvest naturally growing plants) from around their land for eating flowers etc. As well, this year they will be growing some winter crops, such as Kale, as many of the restaurant patrons really enjoy the idea of eating from the land.
The bistro garden is full of self-seeded flowers and ‘weeds’, which attract pollinators. Jaclyn says some days she stays away from garden because of the amount of bees enjoying the pollen! You won’t see a tiller or a weed wacker in this garden though. She feels that keeping the soil intact, while continually adding natural nutrients from compost, leaves, cuttings, weeds (chop and drop in walkways to go back to soil ) etc., is the best way build the healthiest soil.
Whether with their wine, or with food grown on the farm / vineyard, everything they do is important in terms of consumers having trust in their products. Organic Certification is probably most important when shipping their products outside of Okanagan, as the customers may never have seen how they care about the way they farm.
Perhaps though, their most important reason to do things right is for future generations that will make their life on the family land.