Growing Grapes

Sometimes my grand plans just don’t turn out as I envision. No matter how well prepared I am, Mother Nature always holds the wildcard. As a fellow gardener I think you know what I mean.

Last year I developed a design for a two espaliered pear tree tunnels that would sit on either end of the vegetable garden at the Garden Home Retreat. It was an industrious project that involved installing two metal tunnel-shaped arbors planted with 8 espaliered pear trees. Given a few years for the trees to mature, I just knew it was going to be stunning.

Unfortunately the pears had other ideas. The branches wanted to grow straight up and were too stiff to bend and attach to the curve of the arbor. My vision just wasn’t going to happen.

Grapes Climbing Up a Trellis
Because of all the work that went into the project, this wasn’t a case where I was willing to go with the flow so I made a mid-course correction. I moved the pears to the vegetable garden proper and planted grapes in their place. The pliable grape vines will be much easier to train and the open, sunny location is perfect for growing these fruits.

One big problem gardeners often face when growing grapes is fungal diseases. This tendency coupled with the hot, humid-summer climate typical at the Retreat could equal a whole lot of extra work. I’m hoping to circumvent the situation by selecting varieties that are reliably disease resistant.

Varieties Planted at the Garden Home Retreat (mid-south, hardiness zone 7)

‘Mars’ – Mars is a blue, seedless table grape with labrusca flavor similar to Concord grapes. Compact clusters of mid-sized berries are ready to harvest mid-season or sometime in late August. It’s a slipskin, which means the outer skin is easy to remove from the pulp. It is highly disease resistant, but may require a certain amount of spraying. Very vigorous.

‘Sunbelt’ – This is a selection of Concord that is recommended for warm climate gardens because of its ability to ripen evenly in hot weather. Plus it is highly resistant to fungal diseases such as powdery mildew and downy mildew and mildly resistant to black rot and anthracnose. Large, blue, seeded berries in small clusters are ready for harvest mid-season.

‘Reliance’ – ‘Reliance’ is a pink, seedless table grape with medium to small berries in medium to large clusters. It is very hardy with moderate resistance to fungal diseases. Very flavorful. It’s an early to mid season variety so it might work in areas where summers are short.

The Grape Tunnel

Baby Grapes

Baby Pears

Grapes aren’t really any more difficult to grow than other plants. A little research into the best varieties for your area, planting techniques and training will go a long way toward success.

Here are a few tips to get you started.

Preparation – The fall before you will be planting the grapes is the best time to create your bed space.

Varieties – Most grapes will grow in zones 5 – 8. In addition to winter hardiness, gardeners should consider their growing season and typical weather conditions. Northern regions with short summers should select early maturing varieties and gardeners in hot, humid climates should look for disease resistant varieties.

Planting – The best time to plant grapes is early spring, 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. Select healthy, one-year old plants. Choose an area that receives full sun and is sheltered from prevailing winds. The soil should be well-drained and slightly acidic.

Water – Grapes need 1-inch of water per week the first year after planting. Once established they are fairly drought tolerant.

Training – There are several methods of training grapes to support systems. Select a method that is best suited to your site and enthusiasm. Although young plants may not need to be supported until the second year, go ahead and install your trellis support system when you plant them. This way you won’t have to worry about disturbing the roots.

Prune – As you plant, cut the vine down to a single cane and reduce the height to two buds. Prune annually in late winter or early spring according to the training plan you choose.

Fertilizer – Grapes don’t need much feeding. About 3 weeks after planting apply 1/4 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer in a circle around the base of the vine, about 4 feet out. The following spring, just before the plants break dormancy, repeat the application using 1/2 pound of fertilizer. This should do it. If the plants begin to lose vigor, get the soil tested and apply the appropriate blend of fertilizer in spring.

Harvesting – Wait until grapes are completely ripe to harvest. The best way to judge is by taste.