One of the first cultivated fruits, there are written descriptions of growing grapes and making wine dating back thousands of years.
Sunlight: Full sun
Maturity: Up to 3 years
Height: 4 to 10 feet, depending on variety
Spacing: 6 to 8 feet apart, 8 to 10 feet between rows
Grapes have the reputation of being fragile and difficult to grow. In fact, many home gardeners are convinced that they are too tender to even consider trying to grow them, yet a variety of species will do well in regions of every state and in several Canadian provinces. Once established, well-tended grapevines can be productive for 40 years or more. Here’s how to grow them organically:
All types of grapes require a warm planting site in full sun, moderate water and pruning during the dormant season to control growth and produce abundant fruit. Consult with a nursery professional to select a variety that will do well in your area. The soil at the planting site should be loose, rich and deep. The roots of grape vines go deep into the earth. Amend to a depth of 24 to 36 inches with a good organic compost to improve existing soil.
Tip: To lessen the chance for disease, make sure drying breezes are not obstructed by fences, shrubs or buildings.
Grapes grow easily from cuttings. Select a healthy stem about 2 feet long with at least 4 buds. Place the cutting in fast draining, sandy soil in a location with full sun. Two buds should be below the ground and two above. The bottom half of the cutting should be dipped in rooting hormone. Early spring is the best time to plant from cuttings. Plant from nursery stock by digging a hole as deep as the container. Prior to planting, soak the roots in compost tea for 20 minutes and dust roots with a mixture of 2 cups of kelp meal and 1 cup of bone meal. When planting make sure that the top 1-inch of the root ball sits above the surface to prevent sucker growth from the graft. Space the plants 6 to 8 feet apart.
Water young grape vines for the first two years during the summer. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth.
Provide support for mature grape vines in the form of a trellis or fence. Vines can be trained to cover arbors and gazebos.
Apply organic fertilizers rich in nitrogen two weeks after planting. Reapply annually in early spring right before growth starts. Do not apply nitrogen later in the season as it will delay ripening, inhibit coloring and subject vines to winter injury. Four to six inches of mulch may be applied to help control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Tip: For a greater harvest, plant grapes in raised beds or individual raised hills.
All grapes produce fruit on one-year old wood. That means that the growth produced during the previous year will produce fruit for the coming season.
After planting, do no pruning at all during the first full year. Having abundant stems and leaves will help develop a strong root system on immature grape vines.
The second year, select the strongest and most vigorous stem that developed during the first season. Remove everything else from the plant as close to the base as possible. Stake the one remaining stem to provide support. This stem will become the main trunk of the vine. Pinch the top of the main stem to encourage side growth.
After the second year, select two of the best looking stems that are growing horizontally from the main trunk. Ideally they should be on opposite sides and about the same height on the trunk. Remove all other side growth. By the end of the second year, you should have a plant that looks like a ‘T’. This is now the basic frame of the vine.
In following years, growth will form on the arms of the ‘T’. Leave 10 to 12 buds along each arm and remove all other growth along the main trunk. The buds will produce fruit, and every year thereafter should be pruned down to 1 or 2 new buds on each of twelve on the ‘T’.
First year, no pruning.
Second year, create a ‘T’.
Third year, allow the top of each ‘T’ to form 12 buds.
Fourth year +, prune the 12 buds down to 1 or 2 new buds during the dormant season.
Do not pick grapes until ripe. They will not ripen further after harvest. Most varieties should be picked in bunches when all of the grapes in the cluster are fully colored, sweet and slide off easily. Other varieties, like muscadine berries, should be spot-picked because they do not ripen evenly.
Insects and Diseases
Grapes are susceptible to a large number of insect and disease pests. Select disease tolerant cultivars when possible and utilize good sanitation practices. Monitor grapes closely and if problems occur, treat early with organic pest solutions.
Birds can be a major pest. The only sure method of protection is placing garden netting over the vines.