Grapes growing isn’t what it used to be. No more do voluptuous bacchantes run madly through the forests of Greece to celebrate the fruits of the vine. No more do the village lads and maidens of the French countryside roll up their pantaloons and hitch up their petticoats to tromp on the newly picked grapes.
The tales told of modern grape culture have to do with calculating how many buds to leave on the vines and interpreting pruning diagrams complex enough to drive anyone back to peas and petunias. Even in our scientific age, however, grape growing is not that difficult especially if you choose the right kind of grapes for your region.
And to my eye grapes are among the most beautiful of plants; the vines, the broad leaves, the tendrils, the ripe bunches of fruit. Furthermore, your grape harvest can give you so many jams and jellies, juice grapes for fresh eating, and even wine if you are adventurous. Grapes grow on immensely vigorous and sturdy plants which, if you plant them correctly and give them good basic care, will probably outlive you.
The most famous wine regions of the world are warm, sunny places with long growing seasons, but there are grapes native to cold, short-season areas as well. After all, when Leif Eriksson landed in North America, he named the new continent “Vineland” because of the abundance of wild grapes he found growing there.
These were native species such as fox grapes (Vitis Labrusca), gapes whose skins slipped off the flesh easily, quite different from the grapes brought over in colonial times, and hybrids, of the European species V. Vinifera. The European imports failed to thrive in the New World but were eventually crossed with American grapes to produce the fine hybrids such as “Concord” that we grow today.
In return, American grapes have been bred with those growing in Europe to impart resistance to grape phylloxera, so most grapes now grown have some parentage on both sides of the Atlantic. The predominantly American types are the best for cooler climates, but the European types are grown very successfully in California.
Gardeners in the southeastern and Gulf States can grow hybrids of the native muscadine grapes (v.rotundifolia), which are tasty and grow on extremely vigorous, heavy-bearing vines. Well, most grapes are self-pollinating. For those that are not, you must plant a suitable variety should advise you here. Since grapes are pollinated by wind, not by bees, the two varieties should be no further than 50 feet apart.
Select a Site for Grapes
Where you grow your grapes depends partly on what you are growing them for. Two vigorous vines are perhaps ample for the table grape consumption of most households since each can produce up to 15 pounds of grapes. Vines grown for table grapes can be made part of you’re landscaping plan.
They might be trained against an existing wooden fence, along a garage wall, or even across the top half of a window so that the grapes dangle down and are visible from indoors. You might also grow a vine or two on a sturdy arbor over a terrace or grassy area, forming a canopy that you can sit under in summertime when it’s hot, watching the clusters of grapes ripen as summer progresses.
You should be aware, though, that grapes grown on an overhead arbor are difficult to take care of, and if your goal is strictly grape production, not decoration, you had the best use of a trellising system closer to the ground. If you are making a lot of juice or if you just want to try a lot of different varieties, you’ll also want more vines than you can put on an arbor unless it is an extended pergola, and you’ll probably want to create a small vineyard. This means finding a cleared area with plenty of space.
Grapes need full sun to ripen, so the best spot for them is a gentle slope that faces south, southeast, or southwest. Sometimes grapes are planted on a north slope so as to delay spring growth and thus forestall damage from late frosts.
The site should also have good air circulation. Air circulation is very important for grapes and can often mean the difference between a disease-ridden and a healthy crop. You should also protect vines from strong, cold winds. Having the rows run in the direction of the prevailing winds will cut down on their impact and will allow the winds to blow down between the rows to circulate the air freely.
Select a Soil for Grapes
In several parts of the world, grapes can be seen growing in perfectly dreadful soil, dry and gravelly. Their long, deep roots do wallow grapes to adapt relatively well to conditions such as these, but for you’re own grapes you’ll probably want to do a bit better. The soil on the sandy side that warms up well in spring is preferable it will also give grapes the good drainage that they require.
But it must be deep, and if possible, well supplied with organic matter to retain the moisture the vines need when they are getting established. In general grapes like fertile soil, but too much richness can weaken the vines and make them more vulnerable to disease. The ideal pH is 6.0 to 6.5 but 5.5 to 8.0 is also acceptable. The soil must be well prepared, preferably starting in the fall before spring planting.
Since grapes are permanent crops, be sure to remove rocks and any perennial weeds that will compete with the vines and be difficult to remove after the grapes start growing. And prepare the soil with organic matter dug in throughout the planting area, not just in the spots where individual vines will be planted. The roots will soon spread out in a radius of at least eight feet from each plant.
How to Plant Grapes?
Buy first-grade, one-year-old stock (older plants will not produce grapes faster) and plant them while they’re fully dormant in early spring, as soon as the ground is workable. Fall planting is done only in areas where there’s no danger of winter injury. The root system should be healthy and fibrous and should be cut back to six to eight inches long.
The top of the plant should be cut back so that only two nodes are left on the stem. Even though you’re vines will be quite small the first year or two and will need fairly minimal support, it is a good idea to figure out at the beginning how you are going to support the mature vines and set up the appropriate structure than, so you don’t have to disturb the plants and they’re roots with future construction.
There are many ways to train and support grapes. The four-arm Kniffin system is probably the support used almost universally for grapes as a food crop and the easiest for you to start with. At each end of the row, set a stout 4 by 4-inch post at least 2 ½ feet into the ground. Brace these end posts with a diagonal piece of wood, or even set them in concrete, especially if you cannot sink them very deeply.
Then set posts in a row between the end posts, spaced 24 feet apart. You’ll need 24 feet to grow two grape vines, so if two are all you are planning to grow, you’ll only need the two end posts, spaced 24 feet apart. The posts set in between need not be buried more than two feet, but all the posts should extend about six feet above the ground.
Then string two strands of heavy wire at least 10 gauge tightly along your row of posts, stapling it securely at the end s and running it through screw eyes attached to the row posts. Put the first strand 2 ½ feet, and the second 5 feet, above the ground. You can install a turnbuckle on each wire near an end post so that wires can be tightened as needed in years to come. If you are planting more than one row, make the rows at least 10 feet apart.
Now you’re ready to plant. Space vines 8 feet apart: this gives you room for two vines between posts, (less vigorous varieties might go as close as 6 feet; highly vigorous ones as far as 12; muscadines need about 20 feet for each vine). Dig a hole a foot deep and a foot wide, adding some well-seasoned compost or moistened peat to the hole. Place a 2 by 2-inch stake about 4 feet tall in the hole as temporary support for the young vine if the vine grows upright it will produce better laterals.
(An alternative method of encouraging upright growth is to tie a string from the young plant to the first wire). Then spread out the roots in the planting hole and fill it with soil, watering when the hole is half full and setting the vine at the same depth at which it originally grew, or an inch or so deeper.
Then you may spread some compost, rotted manure, or fertilizer on top of the soil in a circle about a foot from the plant’s stem. If rabbits are a problem in your area either fence the whole planting or use the guards described in this article. Then mulch the whole planting with organic material like straw, salt hay, or shredded bark to keep weeds down and conserve moisture.
How to Grow Grapes?
While the grape vines are growing they will not need much feeding or watering. You may find that good mulch takes care of you’re watering needs, though if you need to warm up the soil early in spring to promote growth you may want to pull the mulch aside at that time and replace it in early summer. Although some growers never feed their grapes at all, grapes do in fact like some nitrogen.
Moreover top dress the soil with well-rotted manure or fertilizer in early spring, gradually widening the dressed circle to about eight feet for a mature vine. I can’t give an exact formula for feeding, not knowing you’re soil or which grapes you are growing, but try working in up to one bushel of manure and perhaps a pound or two of granite dust or half a pound of 10-10-10 for each mature plant, increasing the amount only if the foliage lacks a good green color or the vines are not growing as vigorously as they should be.
The most important things to do for your grapes are the initial training and after that, annual pruning. Grapes that are left untrained and unpruned turn into a mass of tangled vines that are mostly old and unproductive wood. You’ll get a much better crop if you prune regularly; even a vine grown on an arbor for ornament will be healthier and more attractive and will put less strain on its support structure if it’s pruned each year.
Pruning is always done while the plants are dormant; if you do it after the buds start to swell you may break off the buds. In warm areas, prune any time the plants are dormant; in cold ones, you must wait till after the dormant vines are no longer frozen and hence breakable late winter or early spring. Spring pruning will also let you see wood that has been winter-killed so you can remove it.
Essentially in pruning a grapevine you maintain a sturdy main stem, called the “trunk” from which new lateral fruiting canes are allowed to develop each season. Since the grapes crop will be borne on these canes the second year, you need both a supply of bearing canes, trained along horizontal wires and some renewal canes coming along for next years.
The initial training is done in the winter following the first summer’s growth. That little stick you planted will have grown canes from those two nodes and probably some other side shoots as well. Pinch off all but the strongest cane this will be your trunk and tie it loosely to the supporting stake. When the trunk is tall enough to reach the first wire, let two good canes (with at least four nodes each) develop at the height of the wire.
(If the trunk doesn’t get as high as the wire the first season, prune it back to two or three nodes the following spring and let it start over.) When it’s time for the first spring pruning, remove everything but those two horizontal canes and the central trunk, which will continue to climb upward. Tie the two canes or “arms” to the wire, one to the left, and one to the right. During the next spring, pruning cut each arm back to three nodes.
When the trunk reaches the second wire possibly not till after the second growing season, select another pair of good canes and train them to left and right the same way. Then cut off the top of the trunk just above them. All other canes coming off the trunk at this point, and any suckers coming up from the base should be removed during spring pruning.
During the second growing season, it is best to remove flower clusters so the vine will put its energy into growth, letting the lateral branches produce a number of long canes. During the third spring leave one long cane from each side of the trunk for both the top wire and lower wire four in all. These will become the first “fruiting arms” and should be cut back so each has about ten nodes.
Also, leave four more canes close to the trunk. These, which are pruned back to two nodes, are you’re renewal spurs; they will produce fruiting arms for the following year. During the third growing season, you can let the arms produce clusters of grapes from shoots that form at the nodes, and the renewal spurs will grow to form a nice long cane for next year’s crop.
In future years all you need to do each spring is remove each old cane that has borne fruit and cut the new ones back to about ten nodes, although you can leave the canes longer if the vine is a vigorous one. A few years of experimental pruning with each variety you grow should set you on the right track.
Pets and Diseases to Grapes
If you give your grapes good air circulation, keep them well pruned, clean up all pruning’s fallen leaves and fallen fruit, and don’t overfeed them, it’s quite likely that you won’t have any disease problems at all. Nevertheless, you might encounter some of the following troublemakers.
The black rot fungus turns the fruits hard, black, and shriveled. It can be a problem in warm, moist areas and is best fought by good air circulation. They’re also rot-resistant grape varieties available. Anthracnose which produces spots on the fruit can occur in wet spring weather and is best prevented by the sound grape culture summarized just above.
Downy or powdery mildews most often affect the European-type grapes, but any grapes can get them in areas where mildew is a problem. You may have to resort to fungicides such as benomyl or copper sulfate to get rid of mildews. The grape berry moth is best identified by the little silken webs with which it ties leaves or grape clusters together.
If you spot these, be sure to clean up all fallen leaves or fruit in fall, then from mid to late spring cultivate the first inch or two of the soil (Carefully, since grapes have roots near the surface) to expose overwintering pupae to the air. Japanese beetles love grapes; they can be controlled with the milky-spore disease, but in cool climates, this takes a few years to work. In the meantime, it may be necessary to pick beetles off by hand to save your crop.
Grapes leaf hoppers can also do considerable damage; control them with insecticidal soap or by planting blackberries among the grapes these harbor a tiny parasitic insect that attacks the leaf hoppers. Grape phylloxera is a serious insect pest that sucks the juices from the roots.
You can see pea-sized galls on the roots and on the undersides of affected leaves. Phylloxera almost destroyed the entire European wine industry many years ago. The grapes were saved by the introduction of American species into the breeding these are immune. You can avoid phylloxera by growing American grapes or by growing European grapes grafted onto American rootstocks.
How to Harvest Grapes?
Grapes must be fully ripened on the vine in order to reach the peak of flavor and sweetness. Don’t go by looks; taste a grape near the tip of the cluster. If it tastes ripe and the seeds have turned brown, you can pick it.
Grapes should be cut off the vine with a sharp knife or a pair of “grapes shears” not pulled off. Pick them on a dry day and they’ll store better. They don’t keep a long time but can be held for a few weeks at just above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The European grapes types store better than the American Type.
Varieties of Grapes?
The varieties of grape you will find listed most often in catalogs are predominantly. American parentage, among these, some of the most versatile and easy to grow are “Concord” the classic blue grape, which matures fairly late in the season on a vigorous, healthy vine; “Niagara”, sometimes called a “White Concord”, which is white and a bit earlier, “Fredonia”, a big early blue-black table grape on a vigorous, disease-resistant vine; “Golden Muscat”, a late white; “Steuben”, another good blue-black table grape;
“Delaware” is a good midseason red grape; and “Catawba” is an excellent late red. In general, these grapes do well in both warm and cold regions. Others do well only in the south, such as the sweet red “Flame” and the muscadine types. Southern grapes include “Scuppernong”, the classic muscadine that is bronze-green colored and tart-sweet. Most muscadines need a male and female plant for pollination, but “Carlos” a big bronze-colored grape, and the large blue-black “Cowart” are both self-pollinating.
Seedless grapes do not always have the richness of flavor that the seeded, slip skin types have, and so are not as good for cooking and preserves, but they’re popular for easy eating. The hardest are the white “Himrod”, the pinkish “Reliance”, and the red “Canadice”. Other good ones are “Seedless Concord”, which is like “Concord” but smaller, blue-black “Venus” and “Glenora”, and the moderately hardy red “Suffolk” and white “Interlaken”.
Juices can be made from any grape, but there are varieties bred expressly for juice. Grapes are a rather specialized topic about which much has been written. In general, gardeners in climates like that of California can grow just about any juicy grapes, including the European ones; in colder climates, you can grow the newer “French” hybrids, such as the red “Foch” and “Baconoir” or the white “Aurora” and “Seyval”, which are more suited to climates such as that of New York state.