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Growing Glorious Grapes

Vineyards may be the oldest organized gardens. After Noah’s flood, the first thing he grew was a vineyard. People have been following his example for thousands of years. Grapes, called the “queen of the fruits,” are full of health promoting phyto-nutrients called polyphenolic antioxidants. They also have lots of vitamins and minerals.

Grapes come in two basic varieties—table grapes and winemaking. There are many different American, European, and French-American hybrid cultivars in those two varieties. Recommended American cultivars are Candace, Niagara, Reliance, Concord, and Delaware. A couple of French-American hybrids recommended for their hardiness are the Vidal Blanc and the Seyval Blanc. There are no European grape cultivars that are recommended for backyard growers, as they are not winter hardy.

Choosing Your Site:

Choosing the site is very important for growing grapes. Check with your agricultural extension service to see if they will thrive in your zone before buying vines. Take into consideration that grapes are cold tender and need 160 or more frost-free days each year. Having grapes in an area where the ground is sloped gently is great. This allows air circulation, which keeps cold from being trapped and harming your vines.

Preparing Soil and Feeding Vines:

Grapes prefer a ph of 5.5 to 7.0. Test soil and add required amendments the season before you plant. Two to three weeks after planting, apply two ounces of an organic 33-0-0 to the plants, taking care to keep fertilizer about a foot away from the vines.

In following years, apply four to eight ounces of 33-0-0 per plant each spring before buds start swelling. If vines are too vigorous, leave off nitrogen for 1-2 years – you don’t want to grow monster vines. Test soil and leaf petioles yearly to check vine’s nutritional needs. Most of their deficiencies can be detected by examining the leaves and fruit for symptoms. Taking time to learn these symptoms will give you a better yield.

Choosing Cultivars:

After choosing the site, picking the type of grapes to grow is most important. There are two primary factors that must be considered. The first is the grape’s purpose. Take Concord grapes for example—they make great juice and jelly, but they produce a wine that has limited appeal, and most people dislike seeds in their table grapes. On the other hand, Concord grapes have adapted well to many climates, are resistant to many pests, and have a good tolerance for cold. European grapes, like Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, make excellent wines, but they are more cold tender and are susceptible to many more insect pests and diseases than native cultivars.

If wine making is your purpose for grape growing, then French-American hybrids like Vidal or Chambourcin are a wonderful compromise. They have great wine-making characteristics and better horticultural traits than the European cultivars.

This chart shows recommended cultivars, fruit color, harvest time, and uses.

Buying and Planting:

Grape plants are sold two ways: rooted cuttings (called own rooted) or grafted plants. Both are sold as bare-root, dormant plants that are planted as early in spring as weather permits and soil can be worked. European grapes must be grafted, as they are susceptible to the root louse phylloxera.

Rooting dormant cane cuttings easily propagates grapes. Collect pencil thick canes in winter months. Canes must be stored in a cool, damp place until spring. Be sure to note which end is the top, as canes will not root if placed upside down in the soil. When ready to plant, put two nodes deep in crumbly, moist, well-drained soil. Keep your newly planted canes well watered. Canes usually take about four weeks to root. You can transplant them the next spring to your desired location. Make sure they have full sun six to eight hours daily.

Prepare the vineyard carefully. The year before you plant, mark off your chosen area and cultivate the soil well. Remove weeds, as they will compete with vines for water and nutrients. Fewer weeds will mean healthier, better-tasting grapes. Next add the needed amendments according to soil test. Whenever possible plant vines in a north-south orientation to ensure the most sunlight. Mark rows evenly using wire and sticks. Straight rows are more pleasing to the eye than crooked ones, and are easier to maintain. Tie shoots loosely to the training stakes to make a straight trunk. There is only one chance to correctly train your vines; you will need a clear idea of how to train the vines to make permanent, strong vine structures.

Whether buying or propagating plants, they should be planted in holes a few inches deeper than the longest root. Trim roots to six to twelve inches in length and soak overnight in water before planting. Roots should be pointed downward and spread out evenly in the holes. While dormant, prune back to one or two canes and leave only two or three nodes on each cane. When shoot growth begins and there is no frost danger, remove all but two of the strongest shoots. Weed and water new vines well and remove all bloom clusters during the first year to maximize growth. Adding a small amount of fertilizer may be helpful to young vines.


Now that the vines are planted, kick back watch them grow. By the third harvest season, you will enjoy the fruits of your labor. Happy gardening!

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