Humans have been growing grapes for thousands of years. The first evidence of vine cultivation dates back over 8,000 years. And it makes sense. Grapes are incredibly easy to grow and a beautiful, productive addition to any backyard or farm.
If you’re unsure on whether or not you want to trouble with it, the answer is you do. They’re not a fussy crop and they produce fruit for fresh eating, delicious wines and jams and more depending on the variety you select.
Choosing the right grape cultivar
There are three main types of grapes to select from. The first being the American grapes. They are known for being incredibly cold hardy and are best for fresh eating.
European grapes do best in warmer climates, but are also the best for winemaking and are, believe it or not, what is typically grown in the United States.
French-American hybrids are less flavorful, but more cold hardy than European grapes.
There is also muscadines. These grapes are native to the southern US and best for making jams and wines as they have a very thick skin.
When deciding which varieties to plant, you’ll want to know what their purpose is. If you’re wanting grapes fresh for eating, an American variety will do quite well. If you want to make your own wine, you will want to try a European variety. Making jam? You may want to grow some muscadines.
And you can grow several different varieties, too. You do not have to stick with just one. All wine and table grape varieties are self-fertile (meaning they don’t need another plant to pollinate). But, note that seedless and seeded grapes can cross-pollinate and produce small, edible seeds in seedless varieties if they are planted too close together.
After you’ve chosen a few varieties to grow, you’ll need to find the stock. A reputable nursery is going to provide you with good stock. Try to find certified, virus-free and heirloom stock when you can.
You’ll want to plant your grapes in the early spring while the plants are still dormant. Be sure to ask if your variety is self-fertile. Almost all are, but there are exceptions to very rule and it would be a shame to grow something with no fruit simply because you needed another plant.
Choosing a site
Ideally, you will want a full-sun location for planting your grapes. If it gets a little bit of afternoon shade, it’s not the end of the world. Just try to make sure it gets a decent amount of sun.
Grapes also like loamy, well-draining soil. So, whether you amend your soil to represent that or you’re lucky… try to find a spot like that.
Choosing an area with a slight slope to it can also be beneficial. East to west drainage is the most beneficial. This helps with air flow, which is essential for grapes.
They will also need a trellis or a fence row to grow along. So either create a trellis to train them to or plan to plant them along a fence. Ideally, you will have this in place before planting.
Prepare and soak the roots
After you receive your cultivars, you’ll want to trim the roots to 6 to 12 inches and soak them in water for two to three hours prior to planting.
Prepare the site
After you’ve selected a site, determined what type of trellis you’ll be utilizing and prepared the roots, it’s time to plant.
You’ll dig a hole about one foot by one foot first. You’ll need a hole for each vine planning on placing them about 6-10 feet apart save muscadines which need about 16 feet between them.
Once you’ve dug the hole, fill it back in with about 3 to 4 inches of topsoil. Then, place your plant into the hole, spreading the roots out evenly. If you notice any dead roots you missed when trimming, remove them before planting. You’ll plant the vine slightly deeper than it was planted at the nursery.
Next, you’ll cover the roots with about 6 inches of soil and tamp it down firmly. Then, you’ll finish filling the hole with topsoil, however do not tamp this down.
Cover the surrounding area with a deep layer of mulch in order to retain moisture and cut back on weeds.
After you’ve finished planting, water them heavily. That’s all there is to it.
How to care for grapes
Grapes are not fussy and are incredibly easy to care for. The first year is spent creating vigorous plants and establishing root systems. So, if you see any clusters the first year, immediately pull them off so the plant can spend its energy creating roots instead of producing fruit.
Grapes may or may not be ready to be productive their second year, but should be by their third year after planting. Patience is key, but they really don’t require a lot of care.
You don’t want to make the soil muddy. You may or may not need to water much at all, depending on your site and climate.
You will want to allow the roots to dry out completely between waterings. Deep and infrequent watering will produce a strong root system as the roots grow deeper trying to find water.
In September, cut back on watering which will allow the plants to go dormant before the first frost hits.
Pruning is essential to a productive plant. Since grapes grow off of shoots growing off of year old canes, it’s important you remove old growth.
Typically, grapes are pruned in late winter (February-March) while they are still dormant. You can learn more about pruning grape vines, here.
You will not want to fertilize grapes the first year unless you have really terrible soil.
After the first year, you will want to fertilize annually. Rabbit manure is a great fertilizer for grapes. It is not hot and can be added directly to the surrounding soil.
You’ll want to use about 5 pounds of rabbit manure per vine, but you’ll be glad you did. It’s a great organic fertilizer and rabbits produce a lot more poop than most people realize. This makes a great reason to keep your own backyard rabbits, by the way.
You can apply the manure at the same time you prune (around February). Making sure you don’t apply too late which can leave your plants vulnerable to injury.
Dealing with common diseases and pests
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that looks like a powdery substance all over your plants leaves.
It thrives in warm, dry climates and makes your plants look as though they’ve been dusted with flour. The leaves will eventually yellow and dry out.
You can remove and destroy any infected foliage and treat by spraying with an organic fungicide like sulfur or neem oil.
Black rot is another fungal disease that usually affects grapes, apples and other fruiting plants. It turns leaves, and fruit black, eventually.
Black rot occurs when you have a particularly wet (and generally cool) growing season. It will look like yellow spots on the leaves, blackened edges on the leaves, stem lesions and rotted fruit.
Black rot can be kind of difficult to kill off completely, but not impossible. You will want to remove all of the dead and diseased foliage completely with pruning shears. Treat the shears between each cut with isopropyl alcohol to make sure you don’t spread the disease further into the plant.
Good air flow is essential to prevent black rot in the first place, as well as treat it. You will want to treat the affected plants with fungicide just like you did with powdery mildew.
I hate these critters. And grapes are one of their favorite plants. So, if you have grapes… expect a lot of them.
There are some ways to keep Japanese beetles out of your garden that you can read more about here.
Aphids are another nemesis of mine. If you have a garden of any consequence, you’ve got aphids. It’s just a given.
If you want to know how to control these pesky critters, you can read more about that here.
How to harvest grapes
You’ve waited a year or two and finally, you have fruit to harvest! Yay!
Grapes will not ripen any further after they’re picked, so keep that in mind when you’re harvesting and wait until the crop is ready to pick it.
Of course big vineyards use things like hydrometers to test the sugar content of grapes to figure out when they’re ready, but for the backyard vintner, that’s not really necessary.
The best way to figure out when grapes are ready? Taste them. If you know what the particular variety you’re growing is supposed to taste like, test a few out!
Also, your grapes are going to look full, and have an all around deep coloring to them. However, even after they’re reached the look, it can take a few more weeks for them to develop the flavor you’re looking for.
Grape seeds (if you have a seeded variety, which is typical in wine grapes), will also turn brown when they’re ripe and ready for harvesting. They’ll look full of juice and if the birds are eating them? They’re ready.
To harvest, simply grab a bunch and prune off the entire cluster with sharp pruning shears. That’s all there is to it.
Like I said. Grapes are really a no-fuss, fairly self sufficient crop to grow. They’re productive, and given the right variety hardy and even multi-purpose.
I am glad to see grapes making a comeback in backyard gardens all over the place. And people learning new skills like making their own jams and jellies and even wine with these delicious, beautiful fruits.
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