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If you have ever sat outdoors in the summer eating lunch underneath a grape vine hanging with young fruit, you will know how beautiful a vine is, with its large lobed leaves and clusters of fruit. If you haven’t had this pleasure, it is time you did and started growing grapes. Grapes are hardy in every state and grow well in drier areas, where the shade they produce is very much appreciated. They are a beautiful way to hide an ugly fence or dead tree and have the added bonus of producing delicious fruit that can be eaten, made into jelly or turned into your own juice or wine.
The grape is a climbing plant, so it needs something to climb on. This makes it very useful for covering old, unsightly fences of wood or chain-link and for growing over dead trees that cannot be removed. Grapes can also be grown over trellises and arbors, or around a porch. If you have a patio or terrace that is too sunny to use comfortably in summer, a simple open structure built over it in wood or steel can be covered with a grape vine and will provide shade in summer while letting in the sun during the rest of the year. For serious fruit production you can easily grow them as vineyards do, on wires stretched between poles, which makes a lovely way to separate the vegetable garden from the rest of the garden and enjoy the benefits of a bumper crop of grapes for juice, wine, jelly or dessert.
Grape vines can also be used to cover a pergola, where they can be mixed with other climbing plants like Purple Wisteria, Red Trumpet Vine, or Sweet Autumn Clematis. These will produce a riot of color and fruit, besides creating cooling shade as you walk or sit beneath your pergola.
The Grape, one of several species of Vitis, is a climbing plant or vine with strong stems that can become quite thick with age. The stems twine around any support and young stems also have tendrils, which are modified leaves that curl around anything they come into contact with. This allows the grape vine to climb up into trees or along wires or trellis. Older stems are covered with a peeling, brown bark. The leaves are large, up to 8 inches long and as much across, and are lobed like a hand, with scalloped edges.
Grapevines can grow very fast and once established, new shoots will cover a complete arbor in one season. If un-pruned, plants can be 100 feet long. The leaves are green and turn yellow or bronzy in fall. The bunches of grapes, which are of course the fruit of the vine, are produced in clusters along the new stems that shoot from stems that grew in the previous year. These bunches ripen in fall and are harvested and used for whatever purpose you have in mind.
Grapevines vary considerably in their hardiness. Many of the European varieties are not very hardy and can only handle a few degrees of frost, whereas some American varieties, like the Concord Grape can go down to minus 200F (the coldest parts of zone 5). So with the right choices grapevines can be grown in every state. The Niagara Grape is also hardy and will grow well in zone 6 and in warmer parts of zone 5.
Grapevines do best in full sun, but can take a little shade if they are being grown for ornament. Grapes will grow in all soils except wet ones and they are drought resistant once established. They are known for their ability to grow in stony, dry soils where other plants will not survive. So even in a small planting hole beside a patio they will grow into the stone and rubble beneath that patio and thrive.
It is best to build your support system before planting, as your grapevines will need support as soon as they begin to grow. If you do not have an existing fence, trellis or arbor, grapes can be grown on wires stretched between sturdy wooden poles. One of the simplest methods uses 6 inch poles driven into the ground 16 feet apart. Two wires are stretched between the poles with one 2½ or 3 feet off the ground and the second wire 5 or 6 feet off the ground. A vine is planted 4 feet on either side of the poles and trained to grow along the wires.
To cover a trellis or fence, plant your grapes 4 to 10 feet apart. For a smaller arbor put one plant at each corner if possible and for a larger one put an additional plant half-way down each side.
The soil should be well-dug and enriched with a little organic material and bone-meal to get your grapevine off to a good start. Dig a hole in the prepared ground and remove the plant form its container. Place it in the hole so it is at the same depth as it was in the pot, put back most of the soil, firm it down around the roots and add plenty of water. When the water has completely drained away put back the rest of the soil and firm it gently. Keep your grape well watered during the first year or two, but after that they are quite drought resistant, although some water during severe dry spells will be appreciated.
Grapes naturally carry yeast spores on their fruits, so if simply collected and crushed they will ferment and produce wine. The very first wine was made in Georgia and in Persia (Iran) starting about 8,000 years ago. From these beginnings hundreds of types of grapes were developed from different forms of the European Grape, Vitis vinifera.
When the explorers and early settlers came to North America they found a land where the trees were covered with grapevines. The early Viking explorers called this new land ‘Vineland’. Although initially regarded as inferior for wine production, these American grapes both attacked and eventually saved the European grape industry. A minor pest of the American grape was the Phylloxera insect which lived on the roots. It was accidently introduced into Europe and by the end of the 19th century it was on the brink of destroying all the vines, when it was discovered that if European grapes were grafted onto the roots of American grape species the insect would no longer be a problem. Still today it is illegal to grow European varieties on their own roots.
One species of American grapevine, Vitis labrusca, does produce quality edible fruit and it is also very hardy and can be grown in almost every garden in America. The main varieties grown are the Concord Grape, which is red, and the Niagara Grape, which is white (actually pale green). Both these varieties are excellent choices for the garden, since they are hardy, pest and disease resistant and produce a good crop with just some basic care.
Grapevines are usually fed in spring with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, but mulching with organic material is also effective for home gardens. If the growth is very vigorous no fertilizer will be needed. Once established additional watering is only needed during periods of severe drought.
Grapes are very vigorous growers and need to be pruned each year. On an established vine as much as 90% of the new growth may be removed each year. It is necessary to have a permanent framework of a main trunk and a few side branches, which are tied to the support system. Grapes are produced on shoots which grow out of stems produced the previous year, so each year the old stems which have had fruit are removed back to the main trunk and branches, and some new stems are kept to produce fruit during the coming year.
The best time to prune your grapes is in winter or very early spring as soon as the snow has melted enough to be able to get to them. Check the website of your local agricultural extension service that will probably have more detailed instructions on how to establish grapevines in your area and how to prune them for the maximum crop.
For more casual pruning of a grapevine planted for its beauty on an arbor or trellis, simply cut back all the new growth to 3 or 4 buds, leaving the older stems to make an open framework. Some grapes will be produced from the shoots that come from these buds and long new stems will grow over the arbor and create shade. Cut out a few very old stems each year and replace them with strong younger stems.
It doesn’t matter whether you grow grapes to cover an ugly fence, for the shade they give under an arbor, or to harvest the fruit – growing grapes is fun. They are an easy, hardy plant that quickly grows to cover any support and it will bring beauty and usefulness to your garden.