Organic Gardening with Sue Robishaw
Growing Grapes in the
Four decades of Growing
in Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Is there a fruit as filled with romance, history, myths and fairies as the venerable, soft blushed grape? An orb as wide ranging as a chicken, it may be responsible for more discussions in more diverse settings than any other edible fare.
Itasca '21 // Bluebell '04 // P.S. seedling '18 // Somerset Seedless '17 // new // Prairie Star '13
(former vines now removed - Valiant, King of the North, Marquette, Brianna)
2021 - Dry Winter, Dry Spring, Hot Summer
I had read about the new hardy Itasca grape and it sounded worth trying. So when I removed Brianna I decided to plant an Itasca, but the only place I could find a vine was from Jung's. Not the best but I ordered it anyway. It arrived half out of an open plastic bag with a scant handful of damp stuff in the bottom of the bag. It looked dry and dead but I set it to soak and hoped for the best (and resolved to be patient and only buy from reliable sources!). I gave it good care and it did survive and grow.
With the dry winter and early warm-up everything started early, including the grapes. When a 22 deg. freeze hit in late May there was a lot of bud kill though I had covered the vines with blankets. More freezes forecast (ended up four nights in a row) so we got out the big tarp to cover (which I should have done to begin with). That helped but the damage was already done. They did regrow and there was a light harvest in the fall. With the long hot summer and late fall frost what managed to survive matured well. Harvested 2 1/2# from Bluebell and 3 1/3# from Prairie Star for over 4 pints of good strong juice. I enjoyed the few small bunches of Somerset direct from the vine.
New Plan -- In looking for vines I came across an excellent article on Canadian "Hardy Fruit Tree Nursery" site, whose website I'd been to many times, sighing over the truly hardy offerings there that aren't available to us here in the States. This article was "How to Prune a Grape Vine". I'd read so much over the years on this subject, all pretty much the same advise, that I almost skipped this. But being determined to find a way to grow and mature grapes here I gave it a read. This one was different. This was from folks who truly understand trying to grow fruit in the north. And the video was excellent.
After all these years of going back and forth trying to put my vines into the permanent trunk Fan or Kniffen method box I completely changed direction and in the fall pruned to the "Hardy Fruit Tree" way. Now, laying down vines for winter certainly isn't a new concept but their method is different from anything I'd read. I'm feeling more hopeful about my grapes! I had a good current cane to prune and lie down on all but Prairie Star.
Unfortunately, when I went to the Hardy Fruit Tree website to get (and post) the link to that article there was a note that it would be coming "soon" as they add info to their new website. So check their site later for the article. But meantime here is a link to the YouTube Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jmY6KPBOJc
2020 - They Keep Trying
This year’s grape harvest certainly doesn’t have bragging rights, hardly worth mentioning in fact. Lot of winterkill, so early on figured they were a bust (lesson learned - never underestimate your plants!). But to my surprise, late but significant, a good number of buds grew. Hope! Then the first May freezes (teens-20’s) hit. Oh well, maybe next year. But they felt different. Secondary buds grew! Scattered throughout the vines but enough. When the second hard freezes came (we had record cold May) I decided to cover. But when I was done covering the garden the second night I forgot the grapes. Obviously lost again. Darn! And considering the record heat this summer it could have been a decent ripe. But the vines didn’t give up - thirdiary buds grew and these never-give-up vines set a small crop. These late comers did their best but just not enough time. When an early hard freeze was forecast mid-September (it got down to 21 deg) I decided there weren’t enough near ripe to cover so I harvested what I could find. Picked out the ripest grapes and juiced with plenty of sugar and some apples. Got 4 1/2 pints which was OK for such a rough year.
Marquette was the winner with the most ripe and near ripe berries. It thankfully has recovered from the vole damage a few winters ago. Sommerset tied with Marquette. I’m SO thankful to Jesse and others who recommended this variety. It is low vigor and small vine but the grapes sweeten early. I ate all the ripe ones off the vine but still had some for the pot. I’m going to plant another Sommerset.
Prairie Star was close and is still a keeper for me even though I didn’t get much. It came through the difficult winter in good shape. Bluebell just had a handful of barely ripe but I still think its worth it for the good years. Brianna is coming out this fall. It was with Bluebell with very few even close but mainly it is just too vigorous for my spot and my vine continues with some leaf issues. In a warmer location I’d still recommend those two though, both for berry size and flavor.
So, not a great or even a good grape year but it did give me a better appreciation for the vine’s persistence and desire to grow and produce. And a resolve to cover, cover, cover, and give them a chance. On to next year!
2019 - Rough Winter, Short Summer, Wet Fall - But They Made It!
When I pondered the large amount of winterkill on the vines I figured it would be sparse crop come fall. Grapes just have a rough time of it here. It was a very cold winter, record snow, slow spring with a 24 deg freeze early June to take out some early growing buds. Dieback was both high and low, surviving buds scattered, so I pruned to my all too usual style -- cut off dead wood, count buds wherever they are, if more than 40 prune back to that number, going for some semblance of order with canes that are left. I tie them to the wires in a somewhat two wire Four Arm Kniffen System. Sometimes they even come out looking somewhat like that. They don't really care, nor do I, as long as what I do doesn't interfere with their desire to set and mature fruit. A desire I applaud!
They all grew well, most needing late summer pruning to tame the jungle. And in the end the total harvest (October 14) was equal to last year's, even without the previously prolific King of the North which I had dug out last fall. I love those kind of surprises, and thoroughly enjoy the juice. We had a very good apple year this year so made a good supply of cider - my favorite to mix the somewhat strong grape juice with.
Brianna, only two years in the ground, did not fare winter well, losing about 3/4 of the vine, leaving only about 16 buds. Being young this was OK since it shouldn't be fruiting much yet anyway. It is a vigorous grower needing extra pruning to keep it in check. Unfortunately, it again had some leaf issues so along with its over vigorous habit I'm not sure I'll be able to keep it. But I let it set a half dozen bunches and they were very good, a pretty golden color, sweet. I'm not giving up on it yet.
Bluebell(MN 158 (Beta x unknown) Developed by JM Dorsey, U Minn, 1944) came through best of all with the lightest winterkill and plenty left. Unfortunately, it was a little too eager and lost many growing buds with the early June freeze. But it grew well and I was able to prune it to a good shape. The generous crop barely made it to ripe (most being from secondary post-freeze buds) for its largest harvest yet of 15#. In a little warmer climate this variety would be top notch, but even here it does a commendable job.
Marquette sadly was mostly winterkilled. In spite of being promoted as a great northern midwest wine variety I'm afraid it isn't living up to that PR. A local winery who has a large field of Marquette in a better location than mine is having large winterkill problems, too. Bummer as it's a very good grape! But it's a vigorous grower and recovered well over summer. Maybe that is its problem though, the vigorous growth isn't hardening off well. Same with Brianna. I keep hoping they will both adjust to this climate. I will give Marquette another winter and see how it does.
Prairie Star(TP 2-1-24 (MN 1094 x ES 4-7-26) Tom Plocher intro, 2010) had a lot of winterkill, too, about 1/4 - 1/3, but had enough left for 40 buds. It had its most vigorous growth this year (planted in 2013) and set a good crop, its best thus far at 7# and they were ripe! It's a very nice white variety, gentle and sweet.
Last fall I had replaced the King of the North with a Prairie Star seedling. The top winterkilled (sigh) but 5 low and new shoots grew well and healthy, almost making it to the bottom wire. Sure be nice if it surprised me by making it through the winter in good shape! I'm anxious for it to grow and fruit and see what kind of fruit it has, since I don't know which grape pollinated it. Plants from seed are slow but so much anticipation and fun.
Somerset Red Seedless(ES12-7-98 (ES5-3-64 x Petite Jewel) Swenson intro.)- A success! Even if it was only one very small bunch of 5 berries. And even if the small young vine winterkilled except for one low bud (many more grew from the roots). But it grew well, was very healthy, had no leaf issues, made it to the top wire by the end of summer. And most important, those little grapes were the first to color up and the first to ripen! Even better, they were sweet early on, before being fully ripe. Though small they lived up to their reputation as a really nice grape. I'd gotten more recommendations from others to grow Somerset than any other variety. This grape shows great promise and I do hope it develops better hardiness as it gets older (it was only planted 2 yrs ago.
2018 - Wonderfully Long, Hot Summer
We don't get ripening summers like this one very often but relish it when it happens. I sampled many berries on the vine and thankfully the birds, for the most part, were busy eating elsewhere. Unfortunately, the winter wasn't as kind, with sudden deep temperature drop in December, record cold April into sudden record high May, and little snow throughout the winter. Then there were the voles... But in spite of a lot of winter-kill on all vines and plentiful vole damage we ended up with a total of 24# harvest of well ripened berries, and lots of tasty grape juice.
The newest two vines regrew well from their winter trials, Somerset Red from being eaten by voles and Brianna from winter kill, likely because it was a young vine. But Brianna managed to set a tiny bunch of several berries so I could taste them - delicious! Medium-large, golden white, sweet. It's a very vigorous vine and, unfortunately, had quite a bit of leaf issues. Hopefully it will settle down once it is better established. Somerset is a much less aggressive vine with little to no leaf problems. I'm really looking forward to a harvest from this one in a few years. I did put hardware cloth around all of the grapes before winter set in to prevent a recurrence of the vole damage (first time I'd ever had them eating the grape vines! But it was a record vole year.)
Both Marquette and Prairie Star had a lot of winterkill which surprised me, so harvest was light, especially with Marquette. Both grew well through the season, though, with Prairie Star finally catching up with the other vines for size. The PS fruit bunches were particularly nice and full, and delicious. I sampled this one a lot!
Bluebell was a disappointment just because of the extent of winterkill, which meant a smaller harvest in a year that was finally long enough and warm enough for the fruit to mature well! But it did its best with the vines and buds that made it through the winter to put out over 8# of really nice, ripe fruit. What fruit I didn't eat fresh made great juice. It is such a nice grape that it is worth growing it even those years it doesn't quite mature.
King of the North was the only vine that didn't have much winter-kill, nor any vole damage. It did have a good crop, with a harvest over 13#. But... It is a VERY vigorous vine, wanting to take over the entire grape trellis I think. Trying to keep it pruned back is an all-summer job. It doesn't mature very well, even this exceptional year, and is the least sweet of my grapes. Plus it had some black-rot this year which, since I don't spray, is something I definitely want to keep out of my small vineyard. So, though it is the most prolific of the vines, I finally decided to take it out after harvest, while appreciating the good fruit it gave me this year and previous years. In its place I planted a Prairie Star seedling I had growing in the nursery. I had planted the seed the fall of 2016 and it grew well and healthy, being about waist high. It will be fun to see how it does and what the fruit is like. As it was open-pollinated I don't know who the father is.
2017 - Respectable Harvest
With such a rainy summer and many frosts in September I wasn't sure we'd get ripe grapes this year. But by covering the vines with a very large tarp when the cold snaps hit to keep them from freezing they managed a respectable maturity and crop after all. Since it appears the cold/cool weather will continue, along with more rain, I harvested them today, October 1, and was happy with the yields. This is their second year of fruiting in this new spot and it appears they are much happier here with more sun, better air circulation, and slightly higher ground. I ended up with 20 pints of grape juice which is pretty good from 4 young vines.
The grapes were healthy and beautiful. They are fun to harvest, one bunch at a time, cutting them off and laying them carefully, and admiringly, in the basket. Popping one or two in my mouth now and then. But two things were missing this year. One was the aroma of ripe grapes. It's quite distinctive and something I was used to when I harvest. But it wasn't there. Maybe because the grapes were just barely ripe, no overripe or split berries. Maybe it was the weather, cool and damp as it has been. And along with that there were no yellow jackets. Usually, I'm very conscious of their presence, carefully putting my hand on a grape cluster to make sure I don't inadvertently handle a yellow jacket along with the grapes. Now I admit it was easier that they were missing but it was disconcerting and I'd rather have them there. They love grapes as much as I do. But we've had very few wasps/hornets around this year. I missed them, and certainly hope it's a temporary situation.
I have four vines fruiting and two more just planted this year. That is all
I have room for in this space and that really is plenty of grapes for us.
But it's hard not to keep looking for new varieties to try! I guess it helps
that there are so few grapes that will mature in our climate.
King of the North - is a grape I've grown for quite awhile, transplanting it from the old plot where it had a hard time ripening. It is very vigorous! I had to really keep on top of it with summer pruning to keep it in its allotted space. I'm sure it would prefer to have more wire to itself but this grower prefers to have more varieties so they each have to make do with less. Actually, I had planned to dig this one out after harvest. It's a small concord type, tending to get some black rot, barely ripening. It came to the new spot only because I had it and didn't have anything else to put there yet. I figured to replace it. But this year it made a good stand to prove itself, with a 7# harvest, only a touch of black rot (pruned off early), and good juice! He gets to stay, at least for now. But I do think he might be happier with someone who has more space.
Marquette - is a younger vine with small purple berries, which surprised me last year (it's first small harvest) with a sweet taste as soon as it was fully colored (most grapes are several weeks or more off from peak ripeness/sweetness when they first color up). This year's harvest of 6# was good for its second year and I'm still happy with it, but the flavor was milder, likely due to the weather (last fall was unusually warm) and the bunches not as full. Again, likely due to weather during pollination. It has also proved to be a vigorous grower. My decision to plant my vines at 6 ft apart is keeping me busy with summer pruning. But it does allow me to grow more varieties in a smaller space.
Prairie Star - is a petite gentle grape. A white (really more light golden
hue when ripe) gem amongst its rowdy purple companions. It's grapes and
bunches are small and I do hope it produces more as it ages (this is only
the second year for grapes), giving me only 1#. But for the small vine it is
it did well and it is a really nice mildly sweet grape, very pleasant to eat
fresh, which means it loses quite a few grapes to the vineyard manager
before final harvest.
2016 - Expanding Vinyard
In the fall we put an addition onto the trellis to make room for a 50% expansion of the vinyard. Which means the addition of two more grape vines to make a total of six. In the Berry book I said 4 was enough for our needs, but it seems I was mistaken. Surely we have need for two more! Someone highly recommended Sommerset Seedless Red, and another Brianna. They both sounded good, so into the plan they went. The plants won't arrive until next spring but I prepared the additional 12 feet this year by loosening up the soil/sod with a fork, laying out cardboard to smother the vegetation, and covering all with hay.
It was a decent year for the young 3 year old grape patch with a small harvest from all four vines and a long enough season to ripen even Bluebell. It was fun to get first taste of Marquette and Prairie Star -- both are winners! I'm looking forward to larger harvests in the coming years.
The articles below first appeared in "Countryside Magazine" in years past. For a more current discussion and info check out my "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" book which includes strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and grapes, published in 2016. More recent updates are included on this page above. Happy browsing!
GRAPES!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 root.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * * * * * *
Lon J. Rombough's website -- www.bunchgrapes.com.
Fedco Trees, PO Box 520, Waterville, Maine 04903-0520 -- www.fedcoseeds.com.* * * * * *
Copyright 2005-2008 by Susan Robishaw
for Food and Fun" , published in 2016, for updates from my additional years
of experience growing grapes, as well as raspberries, blueberries, and
appreciate links to our site www.ManyTracks.com from appropriate sites, and we thank you for
Have you read "Frost Dancing - Tips from a Northern Gardener" ? A fun short read.
or "Homesteading Adventures" Creating our backwoods homestead--the first 20 years.
and "Growing Berries for Food and Fun" A journey you can use in your own garden.