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Growing Backyard Grapes

Grapes Thompson seedless 1

Grow backyard grapesGrowing backyard grapes is not difficult, but success depends upon choosing the right variety for your climate, training the vine, and pruning regularly.

Grapes require a cold spell during the winter (but not a killing freeze), warmth in spring for flowering and fruit set, and heat and sunshine in summer to ripen the fruit.

There are three basic types of grapes you can grow in your backyard:

  • European grapes (Vitis vinifera) require high heat to ripen and are cold tolerant to about 0°F (-18°C). European grapes include table grapes such as Thompson Seedless and wine grapes such as Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. These grapes are grown primarily in California but are also grown in the Northwest, Texas, tidewater Virginia, coastal Maryland, and eastern Long Island.
  • American grapes require less heat than European grapes and are cold tolerant below 0°F (-18°C). These are slipskin grapes of the Concord type. These grapes are used for jelly and unfermented grape juice and some sweet wines. These grapes grow throughout much of the United States but do not do well in the more humid Deep South. These grapes are mostly native to America (Vitis labrusca).
  • Muscadine grapes (Vitis roundifolia) are also American grapes. They are tolerant of greater heat and are often grown in the South. Muscadine grapes produce only half a dozen large grapes per cluster and are usually black or coppery purple colored.

Once you choose the right grape for where you live, it’s time to plant, train, and later prune the vine.

Best time to plant: Bare root grapes are best planted in early spring before the buds on the dormant vines begin to swell. Container grown grapes can be planted just about any time during the growing season, but spring after the last frost is best. In mild-winter regions, grapes can be planted fall through spring.

Site: Grapes want sun. Choose a south-, southwest-, or southeast facing spot protected from wind and frost pockets. If you plant more than one vine, orient the row north to south. If you live where summer don’t get hot, plant the vine against a south facing wall or fence so the plant can soak up reflected heat.

Grapes can tolerate most soils; their roots are very deep growing. Avoid poorly drained or waterlogged soil. A pH range of 6.0 to 7.5 is best.

Planting: Plant grapes in holes amended with agree compost and manure. Plant the stems of bare-root grapes deep with only the top bud above soil level. Space 8 to 10 feet apart. Put a post or other support in place at planting time. Once established, grapes are aggressive growers so posts and cordons or an arbor should be in place at planting time or soon after.

Training and Pruning Grape Vines:

Fruit producing stems: Grapes are produced on stems growing from 1-year-old wood; those are stems that formed the previous season. One-year-old stems have smooth bark; older stems have rough, shaggy bark.

Pruning for fruit production: The reason to prune grapes is to limit the amount of fruit producing wood; this ensures that the vine does not produce too much fruit; fruit quality declines as vines become over-loaded with fruit. Always prune grapes in the dormant season—winter or early spring, before the buds swell.

  • First year in the garden: Let vines grow unimpeded the summer in the garden. Don’t train the vines; let them grow close to the ground and spread. The more leaves the better root development. The first winter in the garden, chose the sturdiest shoot to become the trunk of the vine. Use elastic garden tape to secure the shoot to a post then prune the trunk to 3 or 4 lowest buds.
  • Second year in the garden: In the spring of the second year, choose one of the new shoots growing from “trunk” stem to become the upper trunk of the vine. Tie this stem loosely into the post and then remove all of the other stems. Later in the summer, top this upper trunk so that it develops two lateral stems or arms. Tie these arms into the wire cordon or arbor and pinch away any new lateral shoots or train the arms to an arbor. At the start of the second winter trim away any new growth that is not part of the trunk or arms.
  • Third year in the garden: Let the arms of the vine grow along the cordon or arbor. Trim away any side shoots that appear on the trunk. During the winter of the vine will either be cane pruned or spur pruned (check the variety to know which type of pruning).
  • Each winter after the third year either cane prune or spur prune (check the variety to know which type of pruning): Cane pruning: cut back each arm to 12 buds and tie to support; these buds will develop fruit the next summer; also choose 2 strong lateral shoots near the trunk and cut these back to 2 buds; these will grow to become renewal shoots or fruiting canes the summer after next; each winter remove the arms that have just fruited allowing the renewal shoots to grow on in spring; repeat this each winter. Spur pruning: remove weak shoots from the arms leaving strong shoots spaced 6-10 inches apart; cut each shoot back to 2 buds; each spur will produce 2 fruit-bearing stems the following season; every winter remove the lower shoot on each spur and cut the upper stem to 2 buds–these will develop into stems and bear fruit the next summer; repeat this each winter.

Caring For Grapes:

  • Watering: Water vines regularly throughout spring and summer. Keep water off leaves
  • Feeding: Feed grapes a dilute potassium-rich fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Feed and mulch vines with aged compost.
  • Netting: Protect fruits from birds by covering vines with bird netting during the summer.

Harvesting Grapes: Leaves grapes on the vine until they are fully ripe. Ripening can come several weeks after the fruit reaches full color, so taste the fruit to know when it is ready for harvest. If the grapes fail to sweeten, you have probably planted the wrong variety for your region or the vine is not in a warm enough spot.

Grape Varieties for Backyard Growing:

Mild Summer Region Grape Varieties:

  • Bluebell: American; seed blue grapes; for juice and fresh eating; ripens early; excellent in cold winter regions; cane or spur prune.
  • Buffalo: American; seeded black grape; spicy flavor; for fresh eating or juice; ripens midseason; cane or spur prune.
  • Canadice: American; seedless red fruit; for fresh eating or juice; ripens early in cool regions; spur prune.
  • Himrod: American hybrid; seedless white fruit; spicy flavor; hardy in cold winters; ripens very early; cane prune.
  • Interlaken: American hybrid; seedless green or yellow; fruity flavor; for fresh eating; ripens early; matures in cool regions; cane or spur prune.
  • Price: American; seeded blue grape; sweet flavor; for fresh eating, wine, jelly, juice; hardy in cold regions; ripens early; spur prune.
  • Seneca for fresh eating; ripens midseason; cane prune.
  • Schuyler for fresh eating; ripens midseason; spur or cane prune.
  • Valiant: American; seeded blue fruit; for juice and jelly; very cold hardy; ripens early; cane prune.
  • Van Buren for juice; ripens early.

Warm Summer Region Grape Varieties:

  • Cardinal for fresh eating; ripens very early; spur prune.
  • Concord; American; seeded blue fruit; for fresh eating, cooking, jelly, juice; ripens midseason; cane or spur prune.
  • Delight: European; seedless dark green yellowish grape;  for fresh eating and raisins; ripens early; spur prune.
  • Niabell: American; seeded black grape for fresh eating; ripens midseason; cane or spur prune.
  • Niagra: American; seedless green to pale yellow fruit; for fresh eating, wine, jam, juice; ripens midseason; cane prune.
  • Perlette: European; seedless pale yellow; for fresh eating; ripens early; spur prune.

Hot Summer Region Grape Varieties:

  • Cardinal for fresh eating; ripens very early; spur prune.
  • Crimson Seedless: European; seedless red fruit; for fresh eating, raisins; ripens late; cane prune.
  • Delight: European; seedless dark green yellowish grape;  for fresh eating and raisins; ripens early; spur prune.
  • Early Muscat: European; seeded green fruit; use for muscat wine; ripens early midseason; spur prune.
  • Emperor for wine; ripens late; cane prune.
  • Flame: European; seedless red grape; for fresh eating, raisins; ripens early midseason; cane or spur prune.
  • Muscat of Alexandria; European; seeded green or amber fruit; for wine; ripens late midseason; spur prune.
  • Niabell: American; seeded black grape for fresh eating; ripens midseason; cane or spur prune..
  • Perlette: European; seedless pale yellow; for fresh eating; ripens early; spur prune.
  • Red Malaga for fresh eating and wine; ripens early midseason; spur prune.
  • Ribier: European; seed black fruit; mild flavor; for fresh eating and wine; ripens early midseason; spur prune.
  • Ruby Seedless: European; seedless red to red-black fruit; dessert grape; ripens late midseason; cane or spur prune.
  • Scarlet seedless for fresh eating; ripens midseason; cane prune.
  • Thompson Seedless: European; small seedless amber fruit; for fresh eating and raisins; does best in hot dry regions; cane prune.
  • Tokay for fresh eating; ripens late midseason; spur prune.

Also of interest:

How to Plant, Grow, Prune, and Harvest Grapes

Grape Types and Varieties

Table Grapes: Kitchen Basics

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. Harvesttotable.com has more than 10 million visitors each year.

Comments

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  1. All great advice. But where can I find cuttings? More specifically, of ribier/ Alphonse Lavalee and Cardinal grape in home gardener quantities?

    Yes, everyone says UC Davis. Good advice for those who want 100’s. I could afford 5-10 cuttings. Thanks

    • There are scores and scores of grape varieties; not all are offered for sale each year through garden centers or online grape brokers. It may take a bit of searching to find the varieties you want; here are a few suggestions on where to start: (1) contact Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis to see if they can provide varieties in the quantity you seek (2) contact the Cooperative Extension Service near you for grape nursery contacts; (3) contact the Master Gardener organization in your area to see if there are members who grow grapes or if they are aware of a home grape growers group near you; (4) contact online grape brokers; (5) if you live in vineyard country, visit a vineyard supply business.

  2. Great article. It’s very helpful. I have been growing grapes for the past years and I find it difficult to grow as a newbie. But because of some sort of research (including your article) and experience I find my own way to grow great grapes.

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