An old world plant, grapes have been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. References to grape growing are found as far back as 1000 BC. There are several 100 year and older grape vines in established homestead gardens and vineyards. Sitting under an old grape arbor and contemplating what those thick, strong vines may have witnessed over the years offers the peace of aging wisdom.
Start your vines today for the many years of joy and sweetness they will offer you, your kids and your grandkids. Grapes are grown all over the world because they are among the most versatile and adaptable of all small fruits. When deciding where to plant your vines, choose an area that has plenty of sunlight for at least half of the day and a place where you can train the vines.
Grapes don’t take up much space as they do best trained up on fences, trellises, or on an arbor*. If you create an arbor, be sure to add that garden bench! Wine grapes have gained great popularity with home gardeners. They are of the European persuasion and require long, hot summers to mature, and good drainage. Popular red wine varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel or white wine options, like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc do well in a wide range of soil types.
Determining the Best Varieties of Grapes for Your Garden
Checking with your neighbors or a local winery is a good way to determine which variety will grow well in your area. Even if your main focus is stomping the grapes, a bowl of table or fresh eating grapes will be a welcome addition to your summer meals. American varieties like Ruby or Flame Seedless and Red Globe have moderate heat requirements, but can do well in warmer areas. They are late blooming (good for those late frosts) and resistant to powdery mildew.
American grapes have soft flesh and seeds, and their skin slips off easily. European varieties, such as Muscat of Alexandri, like hot weather, but may require some preventative mildew control. This ancient old world grape has a delicious, distinctive, sweet and aromatic flavor.
Grapes will tolerate poor soils, even alkaline soils, but they grow best in well-drained loamy or sandy soils. Heavy clay soil tends to hold water around the roots, which has the same effect as over watering. Grapes hate to have their feet wet, so be sure proper drainage exists. If you plant them where there is too much water, even for part of the growing season, they will eventually succumb to root rot and die. They grow best in a deep soil with a pH between 5.5 to 7.0.
Planting grape vines is a lot like planting tree seedlings
You must prepare a hole that is large enough for the root system. For some two or three year old seedlings, this may mean digging a hole that is a foot or more wide. Don't crowd the roots or try to cram them into the hole you have dug. Grapes should be planted 1" deeper than they were planted at the nursery and spaced 5' to 8’ apart for maximum performance. The hole should be wide enough to spread out the roots. Insert a support stake, 2”–4” from the stem and as tall as you plan for the head. Break up the soil well; it should be free of large clumps. Add a little sand and peat moss if you have a lot of clay in your soil.
Pruning grape vines
At planting, grapes should be pruned back to two buds. As the vine begins to grow, select the strongest cane and train it up the arbor post. All side canes should be tipped to stimulate the trunk. During the second and third year, allow one trunk to develop, with all the side canes pruned off. A single cane should be selected to grow across the arbor to form the cordon. Soil should have regular watering the first year after planting, but grapes will withstand short dry periods in following years. Soaker hoses or drip tape can work well. Grapes have deep root systems, so once they are established, water deeply once or twice a month, depending on weather and soil type. Fertilize lightly at planting, amending your soil to your soil test results or area needs.
Soil tests and nutrition for growth
Conduct a soil test to make sure phosphorus and potassium levels are adequate for proper fruit production. Unless the soil is particularly poor, grapevines need little feeding. For all soils, fertilize lightly the second year. Apply no more than 1/4 pound of a balanced fertilizer, such as All Purpose Plant Food or high quality compost, in a circle up to 4' away from each vine. In following years when the vines are established, apply about a pound up to 8' away from the base, especially if growth was slow or foliage color poor the previous season. Apply fertilizer only when the buds start to swell in the spring; later fertilizing may cause extensive growth in late summer, making the plant more vulnerable to winter injury. Adding compost in a ring around the trunk each year is a good idea. Homegrown grapes are not likely to be as large as those found in grocery stores. Commercial growers treat their grape crops with gibberellic acid, a growth hormone that causes the cells to grow larger and longer than normal. No forms of this hormone are registered for homeowner use.
If you want larger grapes, keep more buds at pruning and thin out one cluster of every three just before spring bloom. If your grapes are of mature size but fail to ripen on the vine in the fall, the leaves may be shading the grapes, which inhibits ripening. Try pinching foliage-bearing side shoots back to one leaf, which will bring more sunlight and warmth to the clusters.