Grapes (Vitis vinifera) have the reputation of being fragile and difficult to cultivate. In fact, many home gardeners are convinced that growing organic grapes in your backyard is far too complicated and not worth the effort.
Fresh fruit lovers (and winemakers) rejoice! A number of grape varieties are well-suited to the colder regions of every state and they are now grown in almost every part of the country, including Montana where I live. The trick is choosing the right grapevines for your hardiness zone.
Once established, a well-tended plant (or vinyard) can be productive for 40 years or more. Plus you’ll have peace of mind knowing that the sweet, juicy fruits you harvest contain no chemical residues, unlike the non-organic kinds found at the supermarket.
Fun Fact: The United States has been the world’s largest wine market since 2010. According to Wines & Vines total U.S. wine sales were $62.7 billion in 2017 and steady growth is expected.
Quick Guide: Planting, Growing & Harvesting Grapes
- Choose varieties best suited to your region
- Start from cuttings or nursery stock
- Plant in full sun in compost-rich soil
- Locate where breezes can dry off moisture
- Fertilize early in the season; water regularly
- Prune carefully to minimize side shoots
- Provide a trellis or other support
- Check regularly for pest damage, cover with netting to protect fruit from birds
BUILD YOUR SOIL
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All types of grapes require a warm planting site with full sun and moderate water. 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 grapevines go deep into the earth. Amend to a depth of 24 to 36 inches with a good organic compost or well-rotted animal manure to improve existing soil.
Pruning during the dormant season will control growth and produce abundant fruit, so keep reading for our recommendations.
Tip: To reduce the chance for disease, make sure breezes that can dry moisture from foliage are not obstructed by fences, shrubs or buildings.
How to Plant
Grape plants 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 vines for the first two years during the summer. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage strong, deep roots.
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 create tender, late-season growth that will be damaged in the winter. Four to six inches of mulch may be applied to help control weeds and conserve soil moisture.
Tip: For a more productive harvest, plant grapes in raised beds or hills.
All grape varieties 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. Immature grapevines need abundant stems and leaves to help develop a strong root system.
The second year, select the strongest and most vigorous stem that developed during the first season. Remove all other stems and leaves 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 shoots.
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, new shoots 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.
Harvesting and Storage
Do not harvest grapes until ripe. Unlike tomatoes, they will not ripen further after harvest. Most varieties should be picked in bunches when all of the fruits in the cluster are fully colored, taste sweet and slide off easily. Other varieties, like muscadine berries, should be spot-picked because they do not ripen evenly.
Grapes taste best when used fresh. Can or freeze whole fruits or make jellies, jams and wine.
Insect & Disease Problems
Grapes are susceptible to a large number of insect and disease pests. Select disease-tolerant cultivars when possible and utilize good sanitation practices. Monitor vines 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 as soon as fruit begins to ripen.
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