Homegrown grapes can be used in making jams, juices and baked goods and can be grown fresh on the vine right at home, regardless of what climate or part of the country you live in. In fact, grapes are grown all over the world in virtually any climate or soil type. Here’s how to grow your own grapes fresh from the garden.
Plant Selection and Planting
Most grapes require full sun, moderate amounts of water and a rich, well-draining, slightly acidic soil. When selecting the planting site, avoid heavy clay, waterlogged or consistently dry soils; sandy loam soils are ideal. The site should also have good air flow and a southern exposure; gently sloping site with southern exposure is ideal as it typically has the warmest temperatures. Prior to planting, have a soil test done to check pH and organic matter levels. Apply the recommended soil amendments as needed and work it into the soil by tilling.
When selecting which types of grapes to grow, consider your region and climate. European types of grapes are usually grown in the western United States and enjoy a long, warm growing season. American species are grown in short-season areas, such as the northeastern states. Muscadine grapes do well in the humid South.
The best time to plant grapevines is in early spring. In colder climates where heaving occurs, avoid planting grapevines in fall in order to prevent this. Plant potted stock so that the graft, which is the swollen joint on the stem just above the root ball, is just above the soil surface. Cut back all canes but the strongest central leader; prune away damaged or dead roots. Cut back the remaining central leader to two buds. Grapes also grow easily from cuttings taken during the dormant season. In early spring, before the buds begin to swell, plant cuttings in a prepared 24″-deep hole with two buds just above the soil surface. Plants should be spaced eight feet apart.
Once the grapes are planted, set up a drip-irrigation system at the base of the plants. It will supply water directly to the root zone, so that little is lost to evaporation. Apply supplemental water as needed, especially in periods of drought.
Allow grapes to grow wild during the first year. Begin pruning the second season. Grapes should be pruned in winter or very early spring, before the buds begin to swell and after the threat of harsh cold temperatures has passed. Fruit is produced on year-old wood, which has smooth bark; older stems have rough, shaggy bark. Since grapes grow on vines, they need support on sturdy stakes, trellis or arbor in the second growing season. These growing structures are available at home and garden centers.
There are two common pruning techniques for grapes: spur pruning and cane pruning. Let the first year’s growth go unchecked. Then during the first winter, select the longest, strongest canes, and remove all other growth.
For spur pruning, let two shoots grow just below the tip of the trunk. Pinch out the tip. In the second winter, remove the lateral shoots from the arms, or branches, formed the first season. In the third winter, prune off weak lateral shoots from the arms, and leave strong stems, or spurs, spaced 6″ to 10″ apart along the arms. Cut these spurs back to two buds each. For each winter following, leave two more buds on the spurs.
For cane pruning, in the second winter, pinch off the tip of the main stem when it grows 1′ above the top of the support. Remove lateral shoots on the lower half of the trunk. During the second winter, leave four lateral shoots for permanent canes; cut them back to two buds. Thereafter, remove the canes that bore fruit to two buds.
During the first three years after planting, grapevines are establishing their roots and growing their stems. Fruit production generally occurs in the fourth or fifth year after planting. Grapevines generally don’t require much fertilizer, so fertilize sparingly. In early spring, apply about eight to ten ounces of 10-10-10 or 10-20-20 fertilizer.
Remove weeds mechanically from around the base of plants either by hand pulling or with a garden hoe. Do not use a string trimmer around the base of plants as that can cause damage to the trunk. Keep at least a two-foot area weed-free around the trunk.
When fruit starts to change color, this doesn’t automatically mean that it’s ready for harvest. In fact, if they’re picked too early, grapes can taste bitter and acidic. Mature grapes are sweet and less acidic in taste. Keep in mind that fruit doesn’t ripen any further after picking, so sample a few right off the vine before harvesting. To keep birds from enjoying the harvest, place bird netting over the grapevines.