Grapes Are Great But You May Have to Wait;
Rooted Vines Can Save You a Year
by J. R.
Grapes may be used as fresh or stored table fruit, made into jellies or
juice, or fermented into wine. There is a wide range of flavors among the
many varieties. Grapes can be one of the easiest home-garden fruits to
grow and one of the most rewarding.
There are several types, each suited to particular climates, areas and
use. Trying to grow types not adapted to your area can be a frustrating
In an article this brief, there is no way to cover all varieties or all
the methods of growing grapes. Nor can all the possible mistakes, hazards
or pests be discussed. What follows are general statements.
Before deciding to try to grow grapes, you should consider the basic
requirements for success:
-A growing season of at least 140 frost-free
-A site with full sunshine and good air drainage (not frosty).
-Soils that are neither waterlogged nor shallow, at least 3 feet deep.
-Willingness to spray at least three times per year to control insects
-Patience to wait three to four years for vines to reach
maturity before cropping.
-Annual pruning of vines.
defend the fruit against birds by netting the vines or bagging clusters.
A few vines may be planted along an existing fence, or a fence or arbor
may be built in an esthetically pleasant place. Vines form an excellent
summer privacy screen, but after leaf fall and pruning there is little
Purchase of rooted vines from a nursery or garden store saves a year
over propagating your own vines from cuttings. If muscadines or grafted
vines are to be grown, the purchase of plants is preferable.
Spacing of vines is not critical. Six to 10 feet between vines gives
room for each vine, makes pruning easier, and is a more economical use of
Planting will be easier if the soil is spaded or tilled beforehand.
Grapevine roots rapidly grow out several feet in the first two years, so
working compost or fertilizer into the planting hole will be of little
For at least the first 2 years, an area one to two feet around each
vine should be kept free of weeds by hoeing, or with a heavy mulch of
grass clippings or black plastic. Fertilize young plants only on very poor
The choice of grape varieties is both
important and complicated. Advice from neighbors, your county Extension
office or from State Agricultural Experiment Station bulletins can be most
For California and parts of the Southwest, there are many excellent
varieties of Old World grapes (Vitis vinifera). There are seedless table
varieties, muscats and many wine varieties, each best adapted to certain
For the Southeast (from Tidewater Virginia, through the central areas
of the Carolinas, south through Florida, and, west through the southern
part of Texas) Pierce's disease kills or shortens the fife expectancy of
many popular grape varieties.
In these areas the kinds of grapes that may be expected to give the
best results are the muscadines, like Scuppernong or modern self-fertile
varieties, and a few tolerant varieties introduced from the Florida
Experiment Station at Leesburg; Stover, and Lake Emerald, and a few older
varieties such as Champanel, Herbemont and Lukfata. Other varieties may
survive to produce a crop or two, but have not proven successful over a
For the rest of the country, where the climate is humid enough to
permit wild grapes to survive, the problem of variety selection is
complicated by the several diseases and insects that attack cultivated
grapes. The American and French-American varieties are somewhat tolerant
of these problems and therefore less risky to grow.
In the shorter season areas (140 to 160 frost-free days), you can grow
early ripening varieties such as Beta (blue) for juice and jelly; Foch
(blue), Cascade (blue), and in better sites Aurore (white), for wine.
Light cropping of vines may be useful in short-season areas because it can
advance ripening of the fruit by about two weeks.
In the medium season areas (160 to 200 frost-free days), Concord (blue)
and Niagara (white) are two of the most popular and easily grown varieties
for table use and for juice and jelly. There are several semi-seedless
varieties, like Himrod (white) and Suffolk Red, table grapes such as
Seneca (white), Alden (blue) and Steuben (blue), and many French-American
wine grapes that are satisfactory. Chardonnay and White Riesling,
representatives of vinifera wine grapes, may survive if sprayed carefully
For growing seasons longer than 200 days, late ripening varieties are
preferred. Concord and Niagara are suitable for juice or jelly. White wine
varieties include Villard blanc and Vidal 256, for red wine- Chambourcin
and Villard noir. A muscat flavored grape of interest is Golden Muscat.
If you have a protected site, in cold areas, and if you are willing to
take a chance on occasional crop loss and especially if you are willing to
take extra effort to protect vines against pests, you may succeed with
varieties that might otherwise fail.
Vines should be planted at about the same depth they were grown in the
nursery. If vines are grafted, the graft union should be about 2 inches
above ground level.
Roots should be spread out in all directions in the planting hole. They
may be trimmed to about 2 inches if you choose to plant the vines in a
narrow hole made with a post-hole digger.
The top should be cut back to leave two or three buds. When the new
shoots begin to grow, remove all except the one or two shoots that are the
most vigorous and straight. Tie these loosely to a light stake. Several
times during the first season remove lateral shoots that develop at the
point of attachment of each leaf. This allows the main shoot to grow more
rapidly and a full year may be gained in establishing the vine.
Failure to remove these lateral shoots and the sprouts that appear from
the base of the vine throughout the season will result in a bushy vine
which seldom has any shoots long enough to reach the trellis.
Leave about four lateral shoots just below any horizontal wires along
which you want the vine to grow. When the shoot or shoots reach the
highest point of the trellis or arbor, tie them there, pinch off the tip
and allow several of the lateral shoots to grow.
If for any reason a vine fails to make good growth during the first
growing season, cut the top back to two buds and treat it as a newly
planted vine. It will generally grow more vigorously during the second
Training places the crop in a convenient location for vineyard
operations and harvest. Pruning controls the size of the crop to a level
that can be ripened successfully.
Structures on which the vines may be
trained range from two or more posts set in the ground and strung with two
or three horizontal wires (a trellis) to decorative arbors. Bracing should
be sufficient to carry the weight of vines and crop under the sort of wind
conditions experienced in the area. Trellis posts should not be more than
20 feet apart and arbor posts not more than 10 feet apart.
Wires (11- or 12-gauge smooth galvanized) should be spaced about 2 feet
apart up the posts or along the top of an arbor. Closer spacing causes
excessive shading. To permit weed control under the vine and to keep the
fruit up, the lowest wire should be 30 to 36 inches above the ground.
Train a permanent trunk to the top wire of a trells or to the top edge
of an arbor.
During the dormant season when vines are pruned, fruiting canes (see
below) should be trained outward along each wire on the trellis or along
an arbor's top edges.
Each bud on the fruiting canes grows into a shoot from 4 to 20 feet
long. These are tied along trellis wires as they grow, or on an arbor are
spaced out across the top wires to give even exposure to sunlight.
Fruiting canes can be readily identified if we look at a vine in the
spring before growth begins. They are the one-year-old shoots (wood of the
previous season), with bark that is smooth and brown. At each place where
a leaf grew the previous season, there is a conical swelling, or bud.
During the growing season, each bud grows into a shoot which bears
leaves and generally three clusters of grapes. The more buds that are left
after pruning, the more clusters will appear on the vine.
An unpruned grape vine will set far more fruit than it can ripen
successfully. Fruit from overcropped vines is low in sugar, sour, and has
poor color. Excessive over-cropping can severely damage the vine.
Obviously the cluster size must be considered in calculating size of a
crop. With very large clustered varieties, such as Thompson Seedless, as
few as 10 clusters per vine (8-foot spacing) should be left. Perhaps 50
clusters of Concord can ripen and as many as 100 of small clustered
varieties such as Beta or Foch.
The commercial grower controls crop size by leaving exactly the right
number of buds. The home gardener can achieve a far more accurate control
of crop size, and do it despite variations in weather or fruitset, by
leaving an excess number of buds, two or three times as many as needed,
and removing clusters until the right number remain. Removal of excess
clusters can be done any time from before bloom until mid-season.
Most county Extension offices have
spray schedules for the home gardener and in those areas where grapes are
grown, appropriate sprays for diseases and insects of grapes are included.
You may be able to get an occasional crop without spraying, but both
diseases and insects tend to become progressively more severe from year to
Control of weeds for a foot or two around young vines is worth the
effort in the improvement of growth you can expect. Once established, the
vine will shade out some weed growth.
Some types of weedkiller should not be used near grapes as they are
extremely sensitive. Do not use the combination of fertilizer plus
weedkiller on lawn areas within 15 feet of a grape vine. The weedkiller
may be picked up by the grape roots that extend out this far and the vine
can be damaged.
In many areas birds can be a major problem. Netting. which can be used
earlier in the season for strawberries and blueberries, is available and
if placed carefully over the vines will protect the fruit.
Hornets and wasps on ripe fruit are a common complaint. They are able
to attack the fruit only if it has been damaged bv insects, diseases or
birds, or if it is overripe.
An acceptable taste is the main criterion for table use. On a vine that
is not overcropped, the berries of blue varieties will lose their red
color and white varieties will change from green to golden yellow. Ripe
berries will soften and seeds become brown.
As the berries ripen, sugar content rises while the acid level
decreases. Both these changes are reflected in improved taste.
Determining the harvest of wine grapes requires either experience or a
means of measuring both sugar and acid levels.
The yields of a grapevine greatly affect fruit quality. If you permit
vines spaced at 8 feet to produce over 30 pounds of fruit each, the
quality will almost surely be low. Only under ideal circumstances and
climates can this size crop be ripened successfully.
It is better, especially on young vines, to leave a smaller crop than
optimum, say 5 to 10 pounds of fruit, until you find out how much fruit
can be ripened successfully in your particular situation.
There are several sources of information at all levels of complexity
for the home grape-grower.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and State Agricultural Experiment
Station bulletins and leaflets cover general grape growing, variety
recommendations, descriptions of diseases and insects, pests, and
recommended spray programs. States which have an established grape
industry tend to have more complete and extensive publications.
J. R. McGrew is a Research Plant Pathologist with the Fruit
Laboratory, Plant Genetics and Germplasm Institute, Agricultural Research
Service, Beltsville, Md.