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October 4, 2012
Composting at the Bell Mountain Ranch
Augustin, our Vineyard Manager, heads up our Medlock Ames winery composting program
Though not always the most exciting, composting is one of the most important elements of sustainability here at the ranch. Not only does composting help minimize the amount of waste that leaves our property, it also helps keep our soils fertile for long-term farming. At Medlock Ames, our compost production is led by two important team members: Agustin, our Vineyard Foreman and Anton, our Director of Gardens.

At Bell Mountain Ranch, our 320 acres is filled with organic matter to maintain. We limit our vineyards to just 56 acres, but have planted extensive gardens and groves of olive trees. As a result, we always have a wide array of fresh clippings to contribute to our compost. In addition, each year after we harvest and crush our grapes we end up with a large quantity of pomace (the leftovers from pressing), comprised of mostly grape skins and seeds.

Unlike home composting, because we have such extensive sources of compostable materials we end-up with up-to a dozen different compost piles at any given time. You may wonder: why don’t we just maintain one pile? We are careful to avoid mixing elements that will break down at different rates. For example, grapevine clippings will potentially take twice as long as pomace to convert to soil, so we compost them separately to maintain the highest levels of efficiency.

One critical ingredient that helps aid the breakdown process of other compost elements is manure. Manure helps heat up the compost to temperatures up-to130?F, catalyzing breakdown and killing the many seeds in pomace and other compost materials so they won’t sprout in our vineyard. Though we are not able to maintain a herd of animals on site, we are able to acquire manure from a neighbor’s horse ranch.

The other essential elements for effective compost breakdown are air, water, and sun, (just like a plant.!) So, during the hot season we occasionally water our compost piles as they dry out, and once a month we turn each compost pile for air circulation to encourage even composting.

One of the biggest challenges we face is to create balanced compost that is not too acidic or heavy in one nutrient. We maintain a careful balance by utilizing cuttings from our gardens and mulch from vine and tree prunings in addition to pomace and manure mentioned above. Even the algae and azola that we skim from the ranch’s ponds go a long way towards helping to create balanced compost just right for adding back to the vineyards and gardens.

We spread compost in our vineyard blocks just a couple times each year---once in the early spring to charge the soil just before the vines come out of dormancy, next, right after harvest to replenish the soils. We make a diluted, “compost tea” that is less potent than straight compost and can be added often to garden soil throughout the growing season.

Overall, composting is quite a process, but we feel it’s worth the time and effort to create quality nutrients for our soil and to maintain our goal to be a truly sustainable business. Hopefully anyone who’s tried our wines or fresh veggies will agree the result it worth the effort!

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