Grape growing is experiencing a renewed popularity in home gardens! And why not? Not only are grapes wonderful for eating, juicing, and winemaking, but they are also a beautiful ornamental plant. Learn how to grow, prune, and harvest your grapes.
Grape vines not only produce sweet and versatile fruits, they add an element of drama to a garden or landscape. They are vigorous growers, and with the proper pruning, they will produce fruit with ease within a few years and last for 30 years or more!
For home gardeners, there are three main types of grapes to consider: American (Vitis labrusca), European (V. vinifera), and French-American hybrids. American grapes are the most cold-hardy, while European grapes—usually better for wine than the table—do well in warm, dry, Mediterranean-type zones. Hybrids tend to be both cold-hardy and disease-resistant, but are not as flavorful as European grapes. Another type that is grown in the U.S. is the Muscadine (V. rotundifolia), which is native to the southern United States. The Muscadine grape’s thick skin make it best suited for use in jams, wine, or other processed grape products.
Make sure you purchase grape vines from a reputable nursery. Vigorous, 1-year-old plants are best. Smaller, sometimes weaker, 1-year-old plants are often held over by the nursery to grow another year and are then sold as 2-year-old stock. Obtain certified virus-free stock when possible.
Plant dormant, bare-root grape vines in the early spring.
Most grape varieties are self-fertile. To be sure, ask when you are buying vines if you will need more than one plant for pollination.
Select a site with full sun. If you don’t have a spot with full sun, make sure it at least gets morning sun. A small amount of afternoon shade won’t hurt. Your soil needs to be deep, well-drained, and loose. You also need good air circulation.
Grape vines will need to be trained to some sort of support to grow upward. This will also cut the risk of disease. The support needs to be in place at planting.
One option is a sturdy trellis or arbor. The arbor may have two, four or six posts, depending on whether it’s attached to the house or another structure. The top can be secured with 2-inch by 4-inch wooden slats that hold the arbor together and topped with 1-inch by 2-inch wood pieces to create the lattice work for the vines to grow on. You may also need corner braces to secure the whole structure. Grow the grapes, one per post, selecting the strongest cane. Allow it to grow to the top of the post the first year, securing it to the post as it grows.
If you are low on free space, try growing grapes on a stake. Pound in a sturdy stake next to the grape vine and securely attach it. Keep the vine growing vertically. Let the vine grow to the top of the stake the first year then top it. Allow 4 to 5 side canes to grow. Remove all the rest.
Before planting grapevines, soak their roots in water for two or three hours.
Space vines 6 to 10 feet apart (16 feet for muscadines).
For each vine, dig a planting hole 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide. Fill with 4 inches of topsoil. Trim off broken roots and set the vine into the hole slightly deeper than it grew in the nursery. Cover the roots with 6 inches of soil and tamp down. Fill with the remaining soil, but don’t tamp this down.
Water at time of planting.
Do not fertilize in the first year unless you have problem soil. Fertilize lightly in the second year of growth.
Use mulch to keep an even amount of moisture around the vines.
A mesh net is useful in keeping birds away from budding fruit.
Pruning is very important. Grapes produce fruit on shoots growing off of one-year-old canes. If you have too many old canes (from no pruning), then you’ll get fewer grapes. If you prune back your vines completely each year, then you get lots of new growth, but again, few grapes.
Pruning is done in late winter when the plant is dormant, usually around March. But for the first year or so, the goal is to create a strong root system and trunk. Plant in spring and prune back the grape vine to three buds. Then wait until the first winter.
If you are growing grapes on an arbor or trellis: Grow the grapes, one per post, selecting the strongest cane. Allow it to grow to the top of the post the first year, securing it to the post as it grows. The first winter top the cane and allow it to grow side branches along the top of the arbor. If you let the vines just continue to grow, they will produce dense shade, but little fruit. Prune the grapes each winter by removing those canes that fruited the previous year, cutting back one-year-old canes to five to six buds, and leaving some renewal canes pruned back to two to three buds. The goal is to have canes on the trellis spaced 2 to 3 feet apart. Remove any weak, thin canes. You want to leave enough fruiting canes on the trellis to fill it back in each summer, but not so many that is becomes a tangled mess.
If you are growing grapes on a stake, cut back the side canes in the first winter to three buds on each. These will send out shoots that will produce grapes the next year. Remove all weak and spindly growth, especially along the lower parts of the trunk. The second winter, prune back the healthiest canes to six to ten buds, select two canes as renewal spurs and prune those back to three buds on each and remove all other canes. Repeat this pruning each winter. Your trunk should be able to support four to seven fruiting canes each year as it gets older.
If grapes aren’t ripening, pinch back some of the foliage to let in more sunlight.
Grapes will not continue ripening once picked from the vine. Test a few to see if they are to your liking before harvesting, usually in late summer or early fall.
Grapes are ripe and ready to harvest when they are rich in color, juicy, full-flavored, easily crushed but not shriveled, and plump. They should be tightly attached to the stems. Sample different grapes from different clusters, and the taste should be between sweet and tart.
Grapes can be stored for up to six weeks in the cellar, but grapes can absorb the odors of other fruits and vegetables, so keep them separate. Use cardboard boxes or crates lined with clean, dry straw. Separate bunches with straw or sawdust. Check often for spoilage.
Note: Seedless varieties will produce smaller grapes.
‘Edelweiss’: Hardy in zones 4–7 (–20°F), early white variety. Table and wine.
‘Reliance’: Hardy in zones 4–8, seedless, pink table grape.
‘Seibel’: Hybrid, wine grape. Cold hardy.
‘Swenson Red’: Hardy in zones 4–8, red table grape.
‘Magnolia’: White Muscadine wine grape. Sweet. Best in zones 7–9.