Simply deVine: How to Grow Grapes
Growing grapes goes against the grain of everything the modern world is coming to. They take time. Commitment. Patience. Knowledge. Maybe even a bit of wisdom. The good part is that one who is shy on these qualities to begin with but persists in growing grapes may soon notice these qualities emerging.Grapevines were around long before people were. No doubt as we evolved, those of us who grew in less-than-tropical climates enjoyed them in the wilds before we saw the need and discovered the knack of growing them ourselves. Some say the ancient and honored craft of cultivating grapes for wine goes back 10,000 years.Not many homegrown fruits or vegetables are as versatile as grapes. Eat them straight from the vine (if you didn't spray them) -- no thorns to fight, no cooking or peeling necessary (although my dogs prefer them peeled); properly trellised, you needn't even bend or stoop. Make wine or juice. Preserve them as jam or raisins. If your gardening interests lean more toward the architectural or environmental than culinary, you'll want grapes to feed the birds. enjoy the shade, maybe cover a wall.Grapes are almost as gung-ho as wisteria when it comes to growing. In two or three years, a single grape vine can produce enough new growth to roof an arbor 10 ft. x 10 ft. For a Mediterranean feel, grow your plants on a pergola (horizontal trellis). Set your outdoor dining table under it, and be cool. In fact, place your pergola alongside the sunny south side of your house, and its leafy greenery can lower the indoor temperature by 5 degrees!You'd like them to arch a walkway or cover a wall? No problem. Prepare yourself for aromatic delights as well: The unassuming green blooms will lure you into the garden on late spring nights; and the heavy, full-blown bundles of red, purple, blue, black, green or yellow fruits in the fall give off so much intoxicating aroma that it's not hard to imagine how our ancestors came to think up wine-making in the first place.When the broad, maplelike leaves turn to brilliant reds and yellows, they soon unveil a woody trunk, the plant's architectural interest. Come spring, shiny new leaves will force their way through the wood. Eventually the grapes. They, too, are beautiful and worth growing, even if you never harvest a single one. But just try not to.VarietiesWhat to plant? Garden catalogs tempt us with too much. Look at them and feel your heart swell with lust over the endless possibilities. Then go shopping locally, at a garden store where the people know their plants.There's a grape variety for every climate and soil in the country, so rest assured: You can grow grapes. If you want them for the birds or the greenery, or for culinary purposes (eating, juicing or drying), you'll have many varieties to choose from. Interested in making wine? You can make wine out of any grape. Good wine, however, depends on the right grape. Pick your varieties carefully. It's more important than anything else you will do for these grapes. An instructive story: When my dad died, people took bottles of his homemade wine to remember him by. That was seven years ago. Short of a desperate act of a teen-aged son or daughter, those bottles are probably still sitting in their wine racks or in the uppermost cupboard shelf. They will remember him forever.For my dad produced wine that not many wine-drinkers could abide by. Made by the book, with care and grace, he loved to drink it himself. But it had that "homemade" flavor, a foxiness that grabs at your throat.The reason? His choice of grapes. No doubt he used American grapes, (V. lambrusca). Probably that lush-looking come-on of a grape that promises so much but delivers Mogen David: Concord. A great grape, if you're talking Welch's. For wine, however, there are far better alternatives.You will encounter three basic types of grapes: American, European, and hybrids of the two. They differ significantly in their culture. "That sounds good in books," says Dave Brown, garden consultant at Western Garden Center's downtown store, "but it doesn't tell you what to do with them." He prefers to think in terms of grapes to eat and grapes to juice (grapes to make wine from would be a further subset of the juice grapes). Western Garden Centers carry 16 varieties that include six juicers, six to eat, and four that are good for both. His choice for the tastiest table grape is the black seedless Glenora.American. (V. lambrusca) -- "slipskin" (because skins slip off easily). Sweet-flavored, but with an astringent feel. Moderate summer heat requirements. Cold-tolerant. True to their name, American (lambrusca) grapes are found throughout the U.S.European (V. vinifera -- pron. vi-NIF-era) -- tight skins. Winelike flavor. High heat requirements. Cold tolerant to 5 degrees F.Hybrids -- Crosses of the above two types tend to have most characteristics of the European with the hardiness of the American, and flavor on the spectrum in between. Viniferas are growing in Southern Utah for Arches Vineyard in Moab, after some trial and heart-breaking error. "The terrible freeze of Ô89 wiped out our vines," recollects Arches Vineyard owner Anita Bradford. Now they successfully grow pinot noir. But at that time, chenin blancs froze and the zinfandels languished. They were all pulled out. "Vines will come back from the roots; that's why we grow rootstock instead of grafted plants. But this freeze even killed the roots. Older, more established plants might have made it."Freeze or not, Bradford says, more than one Utah vineyard has been abandoned. "It's hard work," she says. "People plant without realizing just how hard it is, especially in the training years. Then there are the good growers." "Good" means doing the right things at the right time. Anita estimates there are about 75 acres in vineyards throughout the state, with about 20 growers, in addition to the smaller, household vineyards.None of the above-mentioned grapes are recommended for the Salt Lake City vicinity, although a devoted gardener may have modest success for a limited time. I find this surprising. You'd think V. vinifera would appreciate our low humidity, sparse summer rain and decent growing season (200 frost-free days, on average). They are, after all, deciduous and require a certain amount of cold. But, even with mulching, the occasional deep-freeze winters and late cold blasts (dropped like pop quizzes on the unwary) are just too much for these Continental guys.Highbrids are grown on the estate at La Caille, a French restaurant near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. For 10 years owners David Johnson, Steve Runolfson and Mark Haug experimented, with more or less success. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc -- clear failures. Chardonnay and Reisling -- somewhat successful. Baco Noir, Chancellor Noir and Marchal Foce -- good, according to the vineyard's winemaker, Michael Knight. But in the early '90s they discovered Seyval Blanc, a weather-hardy, early-ripening French hybrid. Now 1,900 plants grow on several acres. The resulting wine is available on the premises of La Caille and at the Cottonwood branch of the state wine stores.Unlike most states, in Utah it's of very little use knowing simply what "zone" a plant is hardy to. Particularly along the Wasatch Front, this is a land of microclimates. What works in one place may fail on the other side of the fence. If you're looking for hardiness, choose types that ripen by early October, advises Western Garden Center's Dave Brown.Adam Davidson, buyer of woody plants for the nursery at Cactus and Tropicals, recommends the hybrids Flame and Thompson seedless. Neither is normally recommended for most of this area -- "they need protection," he says -- but are worth it. He also recommends Himrod. "It has tough skin, but the flavor is good and it's hardy," he says.If your primary purpose in growing grapes is architectural -- say, you have an arbor that needs quick coverage -- Davidson recommends Himrod or Genola. You might want to try a variety of vines and see which does best in the microclimate of your own yard. Since almost all grapevines are self-fertilizing (both sexes appear on each plant -- "monoecious"), you should have no problem planting different varieties next to each other. If you have a vine that produces flowers but no grapes, you've got yourself a "dioecious" one -- a yin without the yang. Good luck finding it a mate. Just enjoy the greenery, or start over."Don't take all this too seriously," Davidson advises. "Just get a variety you like, and take care of it." What you need to grow grapes:Location: In full sun, away from moisture-sucking trees/shrubs, on a gentle south-facing slope is ideal. Soil: The preferred soil type is generally speaking, well-drained and deep. Heavy or light is okay, and soil of average fertility is superior to rich soil, which can result in more stalks and less fruit. Slightly acidic (pH 5.00-5.75) is nice but not necessary. Tools: Pruning shears, trellising (after the first year). Time: It's mostly a matter of doing the right thing at the right time. Patience: If it's fruit you're after, expect to wait two to six years (depending on variety) before you will be rewarded with a crop to show for your efforts. Weather (as opposed to climate): Supposedly a cool summer makes for sour grapes, and heat makes sweet. You can pick the right plant for our climate, but still come up wanting where the weather is concerned. Who's to say what El Nino/global warming might make of our typically hot summer days and not-too-cold winter nights? (Grapes were extensively grown by the Romans in Britain. But a climate shift -- perhaps the same event that impacted Anasazi and Mayan civilizations -- made it too cold. Wine grapes are still grown in Britain, but in greenhouses.)For established vines, dry weather is not too serious; a plant properly watered in its early days will have roots as deep as eight feet. Commitment: An appropriate, well-tended grapevine stands a chance of outliving all cats and most marriages -- forty to sixty years, in fact. Choose well.Planting grapes:When to plant: March-May, late October-early November. Where to plant: See Location and Soil above. What to plant is absolutely the most important question of all, if you plan to make wine; the soil and weather are factors, too, and, to some extent, the skill of the wine-maker; but they are trivial influences compared to the question of genetics. (Of course, in the finest of wines, all of those factors are optimized.)How many vines to plant (yield): Because they grow two-dimensionally, grapes are well-suited to gardens too small for fruit trees. Unless you have the luxury of a very large lot, think of how much space you want to give to the plants, rather than how many pounds of grapes you wish to harvest.How to plant: Allow an eight-by-eight-foot space (more or less) to each plant. Work the soil deeply, adding some well-rotted manure. Dig your holes about sixteen inches deep and wide. Prune any roots that are broken or too long for the hole. When you fill in the hole, leave a slight depression around the stalk to gather water. Let sprawl the first year. The annual pruning ritual will begin next spring.Caring for VinesWater: Adam Davidson says he waters his grapes for one hour at a time, on a drip system. Avoid overhead watering: It invites powdery mildew. Mulch the plants. Maintaining an even level of moisture is important for vines still establishing themselves but older plants, with deeper roots, are fairly drought tolerant. Fertilizer: On established vines, apply 5 lbs. poultry manure or 15 lbs. of steer manure. (In the first five years, use a fourth to a half of these amounts.) Mature plants have roots spreading out several ft. from trunk, so feed all of it.Mulch: Feeder roots are near the surface. For weed control, use mulch instead of mechanical cultivation. (Also, see "Water" above.) Protection: Cover vines with netting if you don't want to share with the birds. Stake the corners or weigh down with rocks. Thinning: When grape clusters form, if you thin them out a bit you'll get fewer but larger bunches of grapes. Then, mid-summer, thin out some leaves: It will allow more light and air in, and free up more of the plant's energies for fruit production.Structures: Trellis posts should be two feet deep -- end posts at least three, with sturdy wire stapled to the posts. Place the first wire two feet from the ground, and add them as needed. Use long-lasting, low-maintenance materials, and make sure that arbors/pergolas are strong enough to support a roof.Pruning: "Pruning of grapes is a contemplative art that is learned as you live your way into it," writes Nancy Bubel in The Adventurous Gardener. "Some of us suspect that, even as we are guiding the vine, the grape is training us ... to be observant ... responsive ... responsible ... attentive. Don't let it worry you; you and the grapevine will grow together." Controversy exists regarding just how necessary pruning is for small-scale grape production. Certainly, if you wish to optimize your space, you must prune. The question remains: If you don't prune, just how much difference will it make in the size of your harvest? At any rate, points out Davidson, you will probably wish to prune for attractiveness. "A pruned plant is cleaner, less susceptible to disease and rodents. An unpruned vine can be unsightly. I've seen them tear down fences," he says. He recommends the caning method of pruning for all vines.In pruning, timing critical; procedure differs yearly through the first four years; thereafter, follow the fourth year's procedure. Keep in mind: Fruit always forms on the new growth. For detailed pruning information, visit the Garden Web -- "Grape Training Systems" is a clearly illustrated publication from the Dept. of Horticulture, U of Missouri-Columbia, that you can download from your computer. It will show you exactly how to prune. Harvesting: Depending on plant selection and care, you can expect 20 to 40 lbs. of grapes per 100 sq. ft. of plants. Harvest only when ripe -- and that can't be judged by appearance, for sugars may still be forming for weeks after the grapes look great. Look for a brown stem within the bunch. Also notice the seeds, which in mature grapes are brown. Don't let the grapes get overripe unless you don't mind sharing them with birds and bees. And don't pull -- use your rose clippers. Winter care: Mulch the vines just before freezing, to a depth of at least one foot. If you've had a problem with black rot, try to use mulch in which the diseased portions have been composted. (See Problems and Solutions.) In the early spring you'll remove the mulch. Problems and solutions: Flame and Thompson seedless are both susceptible to vermiciliam wilt, a bacterial fungus which also afflicts tomatoes. "If you have trouble growing tomatoes, forget growing grapes," suggests Davidson. Have your soil (or plant) analyzed by taking a soil or leaf sample to the County Extension. The black rot fungus may also get your grapes. Pruning invites more air circulation, and that's a good preventative. The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening offers an intriguing solution to this problem: Make compost of the diseased fruit and place the compost around the plant. Like a polio shot, this should boost the plant's resistance. Brown doesn't buy it. "It's too iffy, and unnecessary," he says. "Many natural alternatives exist," such as lime sulphur (it stays on the surface and washes off -- no yucky sulphur taste to your wine) or Neem.A Simple Treat: After you've picked and washed the (preferably seedless) grapes, spread them out on a cookie sheet and freeze for about 45 minutes.Even The Leaves ... Add a few grape leaves to the jar when canning dills, and your pickles will be crisper.Place leaves under a fruit salad, if you're feeling whimsical. Make dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves). Instead of the preserved grape leaves that most recipes call for, use leaves fresh from your garden: Drop young leaves into boiling water; remove after they darken (about 4-5 minutes). Drain and proceed according to your recipe. (There's a good one in The Silver Palate Cookbook.)Making RaisinsHomemade raisins! If you've a food-dryer, why not? To get one lb. of raisins, you'll need four to five lbs. of grapes. If you blanch them in boiling water for a minute first, the transformation will take 14 to 20 hours at 95 to 120 degrees. (Don't bother trying to sun-dry them, unless you know how to keep clouds and bugs away for two weeks straight). Keep the stems on until they're dry.By the way, dried currants aren't made from fresh currants. They're a particular grape variety, Panariti.