Grapes are hardy plants. They grow in many different parts of the world, even in the hot, humid Asian tropics where I live. I remember seeing a vine just growing out of a huge container in my parents’ front yard when I was small, but its fruits were small, green and sour. It was probably the kind used for wine-making.
In the US, many varieties of grapes thrive beautifully. They’re classified into 3 main groups: American, European and Muscadine. American grapes are cold-hardy, thriving for a short season in areas like the Northeastern states. European types, usually used for wines, grow for long seasons in dry, sunny, Mediterranean-type regions like California or the USDA Zone 7 states. (There are many hybrids between these 2 types.) Thick-skinned Muscadines are a vigorous, native variety, adapting well to the heat and humidity of the South.
Grapes would be a good addition to any garden. They have lots of uses, from jams to juices, desserts to cereal toppings, or just eating straight off the vine. You could try your hand at wine-making, or drying them into raisins. Not only are they rich in essential vitamins and minerals, they’re also loaded with antioxidants like resveratrol, known to reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Grapevines can provide a leafy green shade on your patio during the summer, or a nice screen from the neighbors on your fence. Growing them organically isn’t difficult. But it does take patience and some level of commitment, says one winery owner in California. But since they are vigorous growers and can thrive for as long as 30 years, with proper care and attention, grapevines can provide you and your children decades of nutritious and delicious satisfaction. They’re also prolific — some varieties can yield up to 15 pounds of fruit per vine. So 2 vines would be enough to support a household of grape-lovers.
Should you decide to grow grapes, several factors would have to be considered.
1. Location. As mentioned above, the local climate will determine which varieties would grow best in your area. Grapes vary in flavor, color, size and texture. Some are sweet and ideal for the table, others are best suited for jellies, juices and wines. Your local agricultural extension office can recommend the exact variety for your region, and whether they’ll be good for table or wine.
2. Sun. Grapes require full sun. If you don’t have a spot in your yard that’s sunny all day, find a place where it can at least receive the morning sun. In northern areas, find a south-facing patch where it can enjoy as much of the summer sun as it can.
3. Air flow. Good air circulation helps to prevent funguses from attacking your vine. Find an area away from trees, tall brush or buildings that can block breezes from blowing into your vine.
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4. Water and drainage. A growing vine needs about an inch of rain per week. If your location doesn’t get much rainfall, you’d have to water it. But it doesn’t like getting its roots soaked, either. A gently sloping or hilly terrain would provide perfect drainage. You may set up a drip irrigation system at the base of your vine so it can get small amounts of water on a regular basis, especially during droughts.
5. Soil. Ideally, your soil should be deep, loose, well-drained and free from weeds and grass. Soil that’s slightly sandy or loamy with a pH just above 7 is best. Mulch it with aged compost. Do not fertilize unless you have problem soil — grapevines don’t require high fertility. As it grows, check if it looks vigorous and healthy, and the leaves dark green. If not, apply a nitrogen fertilizer.
6. Pests. Insects and diseases that afflict grapes vary from one region to another. Warm, humid weather in the East can attract mildew and fungus. Mild winters and cool, wet springs in the Pacific Northwest can cause powdery mildew. In California, the phylloxera is a common pest that attacks the roots; and Pierce’s disease can scorch the leaves and canes. Other potential enemies are aphids, mites and Japanese beetles. Find a variety that has a high resistance to disease so you can minimize problems in the future. For insects, you could spray organic insecticide on aphids and mites. (Ladybugs are a natural consumer of aphids, too, and won’t hurt your vine.) You may just handpick beetles off the leaves, and prevent birds from pecking on fruits with an over-head netting.
7. Training. Before planting, set up a structural support system to train your grapes. Vines can be grown on a trellis, overhead arbour, or an iron, PVC or wooden post with wire fence or wooden lattice. Young plants often need to be coaxed to grow upwards, which would also help to cut the risk of disease. At planting time, prune the top of a bare-root grapevine back to two or three buds. Trim off any broken roots, or excessive ones longer than 6 inches. You may allow the vine to grow unchecked the first year. During its first winter, select the 2 strongest, longest canes and remove all other growth. The buds along the canes will produce several shoots that will grow leaves and flowers. On the second year, prune back all canes. Leave a couple of buds on each of the arms. As flower clusters begin to form, remove them as well. Vines should not be allowed to bear fruit in the first 2 years as the weight could damage them. They need to establish their root systems first before they can support the extra weight.
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8. Regular care. The secret to growing very productive grapes is good pruning. It’s probably the most important and demanding task you’ll have to do in caring for your vines. Most home gardeners don’t prune grapes enough, resulting in lots of vine growth and little fruiting. Prune yearly when the vines are dormant, around late winter or early spring. Keep a few vines that grew last year, then cut everything else off. Note that fruit is produced from the current season’s growth, which in turn grew from the previous season’s wood. So don’t be afraid to remove up to 90 percent of last season’s growth – your grapes will grow better because of it. Heavy pruning produces the best quality fruit, while light pruning results in large yields of poor quality. Also, if you want to produce bigger fruits, cut off every third bunch the moment they form so that more energy goes into developing the remaining fruits.
The key to growing grapes successfully is choosing vines that will flourish in your climate. Make sure you buy your vine or cuttings from a reputable nursery. Look for healthy, 1-year-old plants with an even root distribution and symmetrical canes. Try to make sure they’re virus-free stock, and find out if you will need more than one plant for pollination. Most varieties are self-fertile, though.
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In mild winter areas (USDA Zone 7 and warmer) you can plant your grapevines in late fall or early winter. In colder regions, wait until late winter or early spring when most bare-root varieties are available.
You can expect to harvest good, edible fruits in the third or fourth year, around late summer or early fall. Test their ripeness by picking from different areas and tasting them. Color and size aren’t good indicators of ripeness, so harvest only when they’re as sweet as you’d want them to be. Grapes don’t ripen any further after picking.
You can eat them fresh, store up to a week in the refrigerator, 6 weeks in the cellar, or freeze in zipper bags for use later in smoothies and desserts. My kids relish sweet frozen grapes like popsicles in the summer! I’m sure yours would, too.
What grape-growing tips do you have? Tell us in the comments section below.