In warm-blessed sections of the earth it can understandably be the
"nectar of the gods" fresh off the vine. Whereas the fruit elsewhere
may make one seriously question the gods good taste. But no matter, some type of
grape can be grown in most areas of the cultivated world. There are native
grapes in almost every part of the temperate zone, and in the sub-tropics as
well. Grapes can be equally as challenging and fun no matter where they set
Of course, a grape here
is not the same grape there. Types and varieties abound -- table grapes, wine
grapes, grapes for juice and grapes for jam, those with seeds, those without and
those that take to raisining; wild, native, old world, new world, hybrid.
Endless shades of blue, white, red. There are rampant growers and reluctant
producers, varieties that will call it quits at the mere mention of freezing
temperatures while others consider cold snow country the best there is.
Then there are the trellising choices.
Probably hundreds. Not for the grape is the simple bean pole, except for the
first year or two. And the pruning. You mean actually get in there and prune
that jungle?! I’d never get out alive! Aaughhhhhh!!!!! Thus says one who left
the vines to their own devices for too many years.
So the grape isn’t for the faint
hearted, nor for the overly busy or the impatient. Maybe it won’t be the first
fruit planted on the homestead, or the second or third. But sooner or later
things will calm down a bit and you’ll start wondering about having your own
vineyard, no matter how small. You’ll find yourself perusing the grape
sections of the catalogues and salvaging wine bottles. Grapes take a certain
commitment, a connectedness. The best growers have a respect and sensitivity to
the vine that would be a good role model for world peace. Though the grape doesn’t
need us -- it would no doubt be happy to be left to grow wild in the trees -- we
seem to need it, and when we agree to collaborate, great things can happen. Once
you sort out the details, it isn’t even that hard.
There are many books written about
growing grapes, and I recommend you read all you can. Visit neighboring grape
growers, search the internet, keep an eye open for nearby classes or workshops,
read the catalogues. Most of all, keep an open mind and in touch with your own
common sense, and climate. There will be many contradictory recommendations,
often from the same source, and the differing options can be confusing. The
truth is not the same for everyone, and what is best for one is not for another.
But over the years, I’ve found certain patterns emerging. After a time, even
the pruning starts to make sense.
I’ve had a good time with grapes in
this colder part of the country. I won’t suggest you follow my exact
footsteps, because I came at grape growing a bit sideways. But it’s been a
good relationship, and well worthwhile.
GETTING STARTED WITH
GRAPES is relatively easy due to the vine’s enthusiasm for growing. If you are
quite tired of the admonition that you put this plant or that in "your best
and most fertile soil" -- when the total amount of your thus designated
ground could be traversed by a large beetle in a matter of minutes -- you’ll
love the grape. It is one of the few crops that prefers less fertile land. Other
recommendations vary, but every source I’ve seen talks about the importance of
good drainage, particularly soil but air, too. Grapes don’t like sogg, so if
you have wetlands leave that area for the wildlife [who certainly need it more
than we do] and find drier ground for your grapes. Think well drained. The ideal
soil is gravelly, stony, coarse, heat retaining, with enough organic matter, but
not too much. But grapes can and do grow in a wide variety of soils, which is
good. Most of us have to make do with what we have. Our soil here is mostly
sandy loam or loamy sand. It suits the well-drained and not overly fertile
designation just fine.
The grape has other preferences, of
course. And a major one is for sunshine and heat. Not something we have a lot
of. But even if the U.P. doesn’t remotely resemble Italy or France or
California, we grow grapes. Across the upper Midwest there are a respectable
number of vineyards, producing wonderful and interesting wines. The grape is,
thankfully, amazingly adaptable.
Life is never black and white. I’d
like to be able to report that I followed all the rules and thus arrived with a
wonderful harvest of grapes via a nice neat orderly line. But twasn’t so.
Straight lines don’t seem to suit us. I suppose the fact that our new garden
fence ended up with ten sides, and our house has six, says something about how
we approach life, and our homestead.
My first grape planting (of one vine) was the result of a pretty
colored photo in a glossy catalogue and a naive belief in the descriptive hype.
Oh well, I’ve made worse mistakes. Hardy is relative. What is hardy in the
lake section of New York is not necessarily hardy in the colder areas of the
Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I knew we were on the edge though, and planted the
little Canadice vine on the east side of our house in a corner by the front
door, which I figured was the warmest spot we had. With little air circulation
and only part day sun, it didn’t thrive but it did grow. It made it through
several winters to produce an impressive crop of one little bunch of grapes. How
excitedly I watched those tiny globes grow and ripen. Every time I went out the
door I cheered them on. It was late, but they were beginning to color. One day,
after a short sojourn to the garden, I came back to the stark sight of stems
sans globes. In disbelief I demanded to know what had happened to my grapes! An
excited chittering nearby gave me my answer. Lesson number one -- no matter what
you think, they aren’t yours. You may get them first, but that has little to
do with rights of ownership.
The vine gave up the following winter.
It was years before I considered grapes again. But by then I had done a lot more
reading and studying.
This time I purchased cuttings from
viticulturist Lon J. Rombough of Oregon, choosing the recommended hardy
varieties Valiant and Edelweiss. With the accompanying clear directions I had no
trouble rooting and planting the cuttings, novice though I was. We had a well
prepared bed for the grapes along the east side of our garden, an open site with
both sun and air. The following year we installed a conventional post and two
wire trellis, anticipating the someday heavy vines.
The vines grew well, then died back
during the winter; the next year they grew, then died back; and again the
following year. It seemed we were not only on the edge of their acceptable
territory, we were over. And by many knowledgable accounts, these were some of
the hardiest grapes available. Sadly we removed the trellis, dug out the vines
and planted raspberries.
But many of the dug out root clumps
were so healthy and sturdy, I couldn’t just toss them in the compost pile. So
I chose the best looking and planted them along the west garden fence, about 30
feet from the woods. Though less sunny, this area was more protected from frosts
by the nearby forest. I didn’t expect to get fruit here, but thought they
might at least produce attractive vines. I dug in one by each fence post, ten
feet apart, and pretty much forgot about them. They didn’t get any special
care, though I would occasionally pull or cut back the grass and weeds and cut
down the wild brambles. If I had some extra mulch, I’d throw some around the
vines, and the trees added their own natural mulch.
They grew. And didn’t winterkill. I
became more interested, tying them up and cutting off some of the growth. They
grew sturdier, and I started studying books, trying to decipher the confusing
rules of pruning and training the vines. I stood resolutely in front of my vines
with books in hand -- but my vines seemed to bear little resemblance to the
drawings. Were we talking about the same plant? I persevered. I started to truly
care about those three growing vines. Did I dare hope for -- grapes --
Four years later they did it. They
barely made it, but mature they did -- 5# of the most beautiful grapes I’d
ever seen from three valiant Valiant grape vines. Then 13#, then 14#. I made
juice and jam and wine. We cut down a grove of nearby wild cherry trees that
were shading the vines. I was now serious about my grapes. I harvested 28# the
following year. I was learning, and they were responding. They weren’t the
sweet, dessert table grapes of commerce, but they tasted just fine to me. I was
soon working on developing the skill of popping several into my mouth, slipping
them out of their skins and spitting out the seeds without spitting out the
pulp. Homesteading is full of necessary new skills to learn.
Lesson number 2 --
no rule is sacrosanct. It all depends. And your own experience is the best, and
maybe only true teacher. Good sun exposure is important for grape production and
these grapes would no doubt be sweeter and earlier maturing with more sun, but
in my case, the trade-off of less sun for the buffering affect of the woods was
a higher priority. Fewer grapes is better than no grapes.
It’s a good recommendation to plant
young one year old plants or rooted cuttings. But I dug and moved yet another
three year old vine this past summer, a Kay Gray that wasn’t in an ideal spot,
and it settled in just fine. We’ll see this spring if it made it through the
winter without dieback in its new, more protected location. I hope so. Ideally
these plants will stay and produce where they are now for many, many years since
grapes vines can live a long time.
Probably the single most important thing you can do to better your chances for a
good harvest is to choose a variety that suits your climate and your growing
season. It’s fun to stretch the limits, but if you start with a grape that is
adapted to your area, then you can enjoy its fruit while experimenting with
other less sure varieties. Even wine makers consider the first, most important
element in making a good wine is the choice of an appropriate grape for the
area, climate, and soil. If the vine doesn’t thrive, neither will the wine.
Don’t depend on the glowing verbiage
of one glossy catalogue or a local nursery that just sells what is easily
available, whether appropriate to the area or not. Check around, ask around,
read catalogues, read books, compare notes, and be as knowledgeable as you can
in your choice. If I had chosen the common and oft sold Concord instead of the
shorter season Valiant, I would never have known that I could grow grapes in my
A grape vine takes more commitment than
a strawberry plant or a tomato -- you won’t know for many years whether it
will mature fruit or what that fruit will taste like. But varieties,
descriptions, opinions, and suggestions abound, so it’s not the chancy
endeavor that it might seem. If I can find a grape to grow here, you can
probably find a grape to grow where you are. There are some 6000 named varieties
to choose from after all! And once you have a good, healthy, mature, producing
vine, you have the source for as many new cuttings as you probably care to
contemplate -- for expanding your own vineyard or sharing with others.
Of course, choosing a variety will
likely not be the main challenge. Once you get into grapes, limiting your
planting to a reasonable number will probably be more of a problem. It’s just
as well that my grape growing space is limited -- we really don’t need any
more grapes, though I keep looking. It is easy and relatively inexpensive to get
into grape growing, whether by buying bare rooted plants from a catalogue or dug
plants from a local nursery or cuttings via mail or friends. One plant may do,
but plan on a few more. Even grapes like company.
TO MULCH OR NOT
TO MULCH. Being an avid mulcher, I had to stop and think hard and long
before mulching my grapes. It’s important to understand the requirements of
the plant rather than the druthers of the gardener. Authors are across the board
when it comes to care of the vine after planting, and they are probably all
right -- for their climate and land. The grape wants heat to mature a good crop
and mulch tends to keep the soil cool. Yet one needs to keep competing
vegetation at bay, and mulch is an easy way to do this. Mulch also adds organic
matter and nutrients to the soil -- too much for the hard-scrabble grape? But in
areas of hard, cold winters, most vines need some protection if they are to live
or produce at all, and mulch can give that protection.
A stone or rock mulch is a possible
solution, and I’ve surrounded my vines, as I do my fruit trees, with a small
circle of gravel. I started placing flat rocks on the ground between vines. But during harvest
when I dropped a couple of precious bunches of grapes on the stone, with a
resulting messy splat, the stone mulch didn't look so good. And it wasn't easy
to pull the weeds from among the stones. Hay mulch was looking better.
Then I decided to expand my grape plot.
The Fedco catalog had enticed me with a King of the North description. Then a
Bluebell caught my eye the next year. The grape row made a 30 degree turn and
headed northeast. Still within the buffering affect of the woods, the new area
had fairly good sun exposure. But it also had good sod. So we mulched it heavily to clear
the ground. It will need that mulch cover for many years to keep the grass at
bay. I removed the flat stone from the older plot (we wanted it for building
stone anyway) and mulched that area, too.
For me, mulch makes sense. I decided
to simply rake it off the plot in the late spring, hoe the ground as needed, then
put mulch back on later. The soil
will be bare to soak up the sun in the early summer, mulched to keep weeds and
grass under control in late summer, and protected from the deep cold of winter when we don’t get
2008 ~ The
mulch worked fine, but it was a fair amount of work and hard to manage with such
a long expanse neighboring a good grass sod. So I tried a recommendation I had
read about (where??) to keep the ground bare in the early summer, then plant a
"sod" for winter protection. By planting oats in August I have a nice
growth to keep the ground temps moderate over winter, and keep the ground from
warming up too fast in the spring. When the weather settles and warms, I hoe in
the winterkilled oats and leave the ground bare to soak up the early summer
warmth, with maybe a hoeing or two to keep weeds down. Then in August, I plant
oats again. I like this system better, and the grapes don't seem to mind.
MANAGING THE VINE
is probably the most challenging aspect of growing grapes. In the north,
protecting the vine and the buds from frost and winter-kill is a necessary
consideration. One way is to train the vine so the canes can be taken down in
late fall and covered with mulch or dirt for winter protection from the cold. A
lot of work.
Some recommend growing two trunks in case of an unusually cold winter where there
would be the better chance of at least one of the trunks surviving. I did this
for awhile but realized that it was probably more important in a commercial vineyard than
in the home garden, where being without a harvest for a few years while you
trained up a new trunk might be inconvenient, but not a financial disaster.
But while I had two trunks, I
experimented by laying down the canes of one trunk and covering them for the
winter while leaving the other trunk’s canes on the trellis. There was little
difference between bud survival or harvest between the two, so I thankfully
dispensed with this extra work. The Valiant was hardy enough in its new location
to survive just fine on the trellis. And I decided any other grape I grew would
have to be likewise as hardy. But this is certainly an option for getting a
tender vine through a cold winter.
There is still the problem of late
spring frosts and freezes damaging the buds and new growth, even if the vine
makes it through the winter. I prune my vines to the number of canes I want
before the buds start to swell in the spring, but leave the canes long. After
the buds swell, I prune them to final length. This way I can more easily see
which, if any, buds have been winterkilled. Plus the delayed pruning delays
growth and bud break of some of the buds, hopefully getting them past the
dangerous late frost period. Some cold years I end up covering the vines with
blankets spring, summer and fall to protect from unwelcome freezes -- an easy
way to expand my chances of a good harvest. They look rather like colorful
ghosts out for a dance, which helps lighten the "I can’t believe we’re
getting another freeze in July" angst. And those years (thankfully few)
that froze the buds in spite of all, the creative grape vines pushed out new
buds from deeper within. The fruit was later, but it was fruit! Plants really DO
know what they are doing, if we just let them do it.
THERE ARE MANY
TRAINING SYSTEMS for the grape grower to choose from once the vine starts
growing; and they are explained well in most books on grape growing. There is no
one best method. I started with the fan system, thinking I would want to lay the
vines down for the winter, but ended up changing to a different, almost opposite
system. I decided that a better approach for me would be to have
permanent arms go out across the top wire with the fruiting and renewing canes
hanging down from there. The first buds on the canes were more prolific than the
buds farther out, and they would be better protected from the cold and frost if
they were toward the top of the fence rather than down by the ground where the
cold settles. Also, more buds and fruit clusters would be under cover when I
threw a protecting blanket over the vines. Later I found this is called the
Hudson River Umbrella System.
It took some years to switch to
the new system, and rather confusing at pruning time, with some canes trained up and
some trained down and trying to decide who stays and who doesn’t. An
interesting challenge I had made for myself. But it worked and the vines
However, it was soon quite obvious that all of the varieties
I had really preferred to hang their canes UP, not nicely down as the
drawings in the books showed. I could tie them down to the bottom wire, of
course, and I did. Over and over and over again throughout the growing season.
Grape vines LOVE to grow. So, now that the vines were nicely changed over to the
new system, I decided to go with the flow (or the grow) and change once again.
Now the arms are going along the bottom wire, with the canes happily
growing up and over, or tied to, the upper wire. I often wonder what the vines
think of all this human fussing. In any event, they continue to do what they
most want to do, and do so wonderfully, in spite of me -- grow canes and
Meantime, I decided to
move my grapes farther inside the fence. I started training a new trunk on a
stake in front of the established vine. We were due to replace our old fence
with a new one, so the timing was good to get the grapes off the fence and onto
their own wire trellis. Although the fence was convenient, the canes loved to
wind in and out of the wires which made pruning difficult -- and it was
already challenging enough. Then the deer discovered the vines, enjoying the
browse as they passed by. I really didn’t mind them pruning some of the shoots
that grew through the fence, but when they started nosing through the wire to
nibble on ripening fruit, it was time to move.
When planning the new fence, we put in
extra large posts in that area to handle the additional weight of the braces for
the grape trellis, making up our own design to fit the space and still make
double use of the fence posts. We put up a two wire trellis, the top wire at
65", the bottom at 50". To bring the grapes in, yet still utilize the
posts, Steve made 2 x 4 braced offsets to hold the wire (see photo above). One end of
the long trellis wire is attached to the large gate post, the other to a
homemade wire tightener
made of threaded rod, nuts, and washers that goes
through a separate post. In between are posts with holes drilled
through, the wire running through them.
A few small posts with a top notch to
fit under the top wire and a side notch for the bottom wire were added later for
additional bracing when the vine was in full fruit. We used the high tensile
fencing wire we had purchased for the top wires of our new fence and it is
naturally somewhat stretchy. Most sources recommend #9 or #10 wire for
essential if you want a good harvest of grapes from your vines. It can be a bit
traumatic, but enjoyable once you get the hang of it. The most important aspect
is not to be intimidated by the confusing and complicated formulas and rules set
forth in many books on grape growing -- nor by the tangle of growth and canes
and shoots presented to you by your vines. It may not be as easy as pulling
runners off strawberries, but home growers have been pruning grape vines for
eons. And what’s a homestead without challenges.
The first year you don’t have to
worry much about it, except for researching and learning so you’ll be ready
when your vine is. You just want your plant to grow as well as it can and
develop a good root system. Some say to choose your trunk this first year,
others to leave it be until next. I let grow whatever will the first year, being
happy for each new leaf. If you haven’t put up your trellis yet, you’ll want
to now as the longer you wait, the harder it will be to work among the vines
without damaging them.
The most easily understood description
and graphics I’ve seen on pruning and training the grape vine is in "From
Vines to Wines" by Jeff Cox. Even if you have no interest in the wine
making end of it, this is a good book for its grape growing information.
"Growing Grapes in Minnesota", written by knowledgeable members of the
Minnesota Grape Growers Association, also does a good job. I’m sure there are
others, too, and the best is the one that is understandable to you. Glean from
all the sources you can because you will pick up different ideas from each. You’ll
learn most when you come face to face, or hand to hand, with your grape vine,
pruning shears at the ready. It helped me to draw out the system I wanted and
how the vine was to look after I had pruned it, including the number of buds to
leave. I still spend a lot of time standing there trying to sort out what is
what, and what isn’t. I like to take time pruning my grapes.
Every vine is different, so pat
formulas simply can’t apply. But if you give a reasonable amount of thought
and care to your pruning, you’ll have a healthy vine and a decent harvest, all
other things being cared for as well. Last year’s canes produce this year’s
grapes -- rather like a biennial plant. And you need to grow canes this year for
next year’s grapes. Everything else gets cut off. Then you trim back this year’s
fruiting canes to a certain number of buds, maybe 30 total for the entire vine,
spread over 3 to 6 canes. It’s as complicated, yet as easy, as that.
You’ll learn by observing your own
vines. If you have a lot of spindly growth the next year, you probably left too
many buds. If the growth is rampant, too few. Or you overfertilized. It isn’t
an exact science and is as open to interpretation as anything else in life.
Before you know it, after all those
years of growing and pruning and training, the HARVEST arrives -- for you, for
friends, and probably a share for the birds, insects and animals. Some will
consider this simply the midpoint on the way to a fine bottle of wine. For
others, the beauty of the vines themselves are enough. I could happily spend
many hours drawing or painting the grape vine. But the ripe fruit is enticing,
and so beautiful. What to do with it is a whole ‘nother adventure (and
article). The options are many.
So while you are struggling with the
pruning and wondering if those hard little balls will ever turn into soft edible
grapes, think of what lies ahead. When you taste your first sun ripened picked
fresh from the vine exquisitely bloomed peak-of-ripeness grape, whether sweet or
sour -- when it was your own sweat that contributed to this moment -- then you
will know there is hope, and all can indeed, be right with the world.
* * * * * * *
Growers Association -- www.mngrapes.com. "Growing Grapes in
Minnesota", 67 pages, $8.50 from MGGA, 35680 Hwy 61 Blvd, Lake City MN
Lon J. Rombough,
B.S., M.S., ATM -- www.bunchgrapes.com.
Fedco Trees, PO Box
520, Waterville, Maine 04903-0520 -- www.fedcoseeds.com.
* * * * * *
2005-2008 by Susan Robishaw