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Minnesota teacher tends to backyard vineyard

Middleton Elementary second-grade teacher Megan Zachman has a vineyard in the backyard of her Cottage Grove, Minn., home with both table and wine grapes, which she spends much of the summer managing. (Amber Kispert-Smith/Woodbury Bulletin)

COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- For some people, a trip to California wine country is a dream vacation that is just outside their reach and pocketbooks.

But Megan Zachman, a second-grade teacher at Middleton Elementary in Woodbury, doesn’t have to go any farther than her backyard.

Zachman has her own vineyard at her Cottage Grove home.

“I just love watching something grow because it’s something to look forward to all season,” she said. “Plus, it’s just a nice change of pace from teaching because I don’t even have a window in my classroom.”

Zachman’s vineyard has six grape varieties -- both wine and table grapes -- on 36 vines. Growing in her backyard are the Prairie Star, Warden, Somerset Seedless, La Crescent, Marquette and Louise Swenson varieties.

A steep project

Zachman and her husband first planted their vineyard shortly after buying their house in 2010 as a solution to a steep weed-infested hill in their backyard.

“My brother who lives in San Francisco – pretty close to Napa Valley – was visiting and we were looking out the master bedroom window wondering what I was going to do with that hill,” she said. “And he said, ‘You should put some vines and make it a little Napa back here.’ ”

Zachman, who had visited Napa Valley, said she immediately loved the idea.

“I wasn’t really a big wine drinker,” she said, “but I’m kind of a farm girl at heart, so it was something new to try.

“Plus, when we were in Napa, it just looked really pretty – almost like corn fields, but like cooler, fancier corn fields.”

Zachman turned to an old neighbor of hers in Denmark Township who had several acres of vines for advice on planting and managing the vineyard.

“It’s such a new thing in Minnesota to try,” she said.

Growing grapes

Zachman got her first grapes last fall, since you have to wait until at least the third year to harvest grapes in order to let the roots and vines get strong.

Throughout the spring and summer, Zachman and her husband are out in the vineyard about nine hours every week pulling weeds, spraying for bugs, managing black rot, mowing grass, pruning and trimming.

“We work up there in cleats,” she said. “That’s the only way to do it to secure our footing. Otherwise we’re slipping everywhere.”

Come fall, the grapes need to be netted to protect them from birds. And then it comes time for the grapes to be picked.

Since Zachman has both table and wine grapes, she uses some just for eating, while others she uses for jelly. They even tried their hand at winemaking for the first time.

Zachman also is entering her grapes in the Minnesota State Fair’s crop competitions for the second time. She took home several ribbons at last year’s fair.

However, Zachman said she is not expecting much from this year’s grape harvest because it was such a hard winter and such a wet spring.

“The grapes look pretty sad right now,” she said. “It’s been a rough growing season.”

Zachman also uses her grapes and vines as teaching tools in her classroom during her plant unit.

“I talk about it all the time with my students,” she said. “I let them sample the grapes, too.”

Since starting her vineyard, Zachman said she has developed a greater appreciation for all of the wineries in Minnesota.

“We love going to local wineries, too, because we know what they went through,” she said. “We all have to fight the winters together, and it’s a tough fight.”

For now, Zachman said she is content managing her 36 vines, but down the road, who knows? Opening a winery might be a fun next adventure, she said.

“You can grow anything in Minnesota,” she said. “You just have to know what to do.”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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