Growing grapes for home use
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Grapes are woody perennial vines. Flowers and subsequent fruit develop on new shoots called canes. Annual pruning is very important to keep this type of growth healthy and rejuvenating each year. Let’s take a close look at a grapevine to get a start on understanding how the vine grows and how that growth contributes to producing bushels of juicy grapes.
Do you want to grow grapes primarily to cover an arbor? Then you can choose just about any cultivar that is hardy and reasonably vigorous. Do you hope to make grape juice and jelly? Several dependable easy-care cultivars will fit this purpose. Juice and jelly grapes are traditionally some of the most winter-hardy cultivars, mostly vigorous and low-care. Do you want seedless grapes for fresh eating? Some seedless cultivars are being grown in Minnesota now, but except in far southern Minnesota all of these cultivars will need some winter protection. Seeded table grapes are generally more cold-hardy and vigorous than newer seedless cultivars.
Being familiar with the various parts of a grapevine will help when it comes to growing and pruning. A typical grapevine would have a thick canopy of foliage. Much of that has been removed from this graphic for clarity.
There are now many excellent cold-hardy wine grape cultivars available for commercial and hobby winemakers in Northern climates. Several of these have been developed by the University of Minnesota specifically for our harsh climate. For winemaking you will need to choose the cultivar more carefully, considering what cultivars will make the type of wine you desire, and what training and pruning they will need. While these grapes can be eaten fresh, they generally have higher acid, higher sugar, higher skin-to-pulp ratio, and more seeds than table and juice grapes.
- Full sun is important to provide the heat required to ripen the fruit.
- Each vine needs about 6 feet of space.
- Flowers are self-fertile and pollinated by wind and insects.
- Prune in spring before leaves emerge. Vines can be trained to many decorative forms.
- Flowers are initiated on young canes. It is possible to get fruit one year after planting.
- Grapevines need full sun and heat to mature the fruit.
These cultivars can be enjoyed fresh from the vine, used for juice and jelly, and some for making wine. Of course any can be eaten fresh, and you might be surprised at the wide range of flavors! There are certainly other cultivars available at garden centers and online nurseries that are listed as being hardy to USDA zone 4, but those listed here have been carefully tested by the University of Minnesota and have proven successful.
If you're interested in more extensive information about all these varieties, you can find this as well as a current list of nurseries at the Minnesota Grape Growers website. The University of California at Davis also maintains a national grape registry nursery list that includes northern suppliers. Please note that some nurseries only sell wholesale.
Grape varieties recommended for northern gardens. University of Minnesota releases are in bold and include date of introduction.
|Cultivar||Best use||Berry color||Seeds||Hardiness||Avg. harvest date1|
|Zone 4||Zone 3|
|Bluebell (1944)||Juice, jelly||Blue||Seeded||Excellent||Very good||Mid-Sept.|
|Flavor and appearance similar to Concord.|
|Edelweiss2 (1977)||Fresh||Yellow-green||Seeded||Good||Fair||Late Aug. to early Sept.|
|Very juicy berries. Floral aroma. Can also be used to make a sweet wine.|
|Frontenac (1996)||Wine||Blue||Seeded||Very good||Good-fair||Late Sept. to early Oct.|
|Small berries ripen late. Versatile grape can be used to make rose, red, and port wines.|
|Frontenac Blanc (2012)||Wine||Yellow||Seeded||Very good||Good-fair||Late Sept. to early Oct.|
|A truly white variation of Frontenac. Makes a very light white wine.|
|Frontenac Gris (2003)||Wine||Pink||Seeded||Very good||Good-fair||Late Sept. to early Oct.|
|Small berries have fruity aroma. Makes sweet white wines.|
|LaCrescent (2002)||Wine||Yellow-pink||Seeded||Very good||Good-fair||Late Sept. to early Oct.|
|Berries have apricot and honey aromas.|
|Marquette (2006)||Wine||Blue||Seeded||Very good||Good-fair||Mid to late Sept.|
|One of the best for making red wine.|
|Flavor similar to Concord. Sweet, juicy, melting flesh.|
|Excellent fruity, spicy flavor.|
|Juicy, delicious. Hardiest of the seedless cultivars.|
|Swenson Red2 (1977)||Fresh||Red||Seeded||Good||Poor|
|Berries are large, crisp, fruity, with hints of strawberry.|
|Swenson White||Wine, fresh||Yellow-green||Seeded||Good||Poor|
|Very juicy berries. Floral aroma.|
|St. Croix||Wine||Blue||Seeded||Very good||Fair||Late Aug. to early Sept.|
|Generally known as a wine grape, but good for fresh eating.|
1Average harvest date is for east central Minnesota. Harvest dates may shift depending on your area.
2Joint release with Elmer Swenson.
In Minnesota, spring planting is recommended to give the young vines the most time to get established before their first winter. If you order from catalogs or online sources your plants will arrive as dormant, bare root plants. When you receive the plants, keep them in a cool place with the root system moist. You should plant the se vines as soon as possible. Local nurseries also carry potted vines. These vines should also be planted as soon as possible, but because the roots are growing the timing is not as critical.
Before planting bare root vines, soak the roots in water for 3-4 hours. At planting, remove all canes except the most vigorous one. Plant vines with the lowest bud on the cane just above the soil surface. Trim off any broken or excessively long roots. Dig a hole large enough to you can spread the root system out then cover the roots completely with soil. Mulching is not usually recommended for grapes because mulch will moderate the soil temperature, often keeping it cooler in warmer months, and grape vines grow best in warmer soil.
After planting, water the vines regularly throughout the first year. The root system needs to grow and establish to allow for shoot growth in the first year.
Grapevines can be trained and pruned to just about any form and shape. These vines were pruned in early spring before growth started. In a few months they will completely cover this fence and pergola.
Grapevines need some type of support or they will trail along the ground. The support can be an arbor covering a patio for shade, or can be as simple as a post in the ground to support the trunk of the vine. Grapevines can also be grown along an existing fence. Virtually any type of support structure will do, provided it is sturdy. Grape vines grow quickly and get quite heavy.
Through the seasons
Fertilizer and mulch
The first two or three years, each early spring, apply compost around the base of the vines. Grape vines grow vigorously and might need a nutrient boost each year. You may not have to do this as the vines mature; it all depends on your observation. Do the vines look vigorous and healthy? Maybe you don't need any fertilizer.
Unlike many other plants, it is best not to mulch around the base of your vine as the mulch can keep the soil too cool. Grapevine roots like to be warm.
Keep grass and other plants from growing under grapevines. This allows the soil to heat up early in the spring and maintain higher soil temperatures to encourage growth. When plants grow under vines, the soil temperature stays cooler. With grapes, this will delay growth in the spring. Keep the ground under the vines clear of other plants throughout the growing season by hoeing gently under the vines.
Follow this simple calendar of tasks to keep your grapevines healthy and productive.
|Things to do||When to do them|
|Plant bare root grapevines as soon as soil can be worked||April, May|
|Plant potted grapevines after threat of frost has passed||May, June|
|For existing vines, prune before growth starts||March|
|Rub off any shoots that start growing lower down on the trunk||April through June|
|Tie new growth to trellis as needed.||April through August|
|Inspect vines throughout the season to catch disease and insect problems||April through October|
|As fruit ripens, watch for bird damage; cover with netting if needed||September, October|
|Harvest fruit based on color and flavor||September, October|
|Clean up all fallen leaves, fruit and debris||October, November|
Insects and other creatures
Most insect and other problems can be reduced by planting vines in a sunny location with good air circulation. Weather conditions, winter hardiness of the cultivar, infection from the previous year, history of pesticide use, and surrounding vegetation can affect a vine's susceptibility for a particular year. The good news is that insects are rarely seen as problems with grapes grown in gardens in our climate. The exception to this is Japanese beetles. These insects chew holes in the leaves leaving them with a lace-like appearance. Look for beetles and their damage beginning in late June or early July through August. The presence of Japanese Beetles on a plant attracts additional beetles, so it's important to prevent accumulation. The best control for home gardens is to check your plants often, at least twice a week and ideally in the morning when they're less active, and knock beetles into a pail of soapy water.
Monitor frequently and throughout the growing season for any other potential pest outbreaks. As with diseases, cleaning up dead leaves and berries and clean-cultivating under the vines will help.
Other insects such as yellow jackets and multicolored Asian ladybeetles may feed on ripening grapes, damaging the fruit and promoting fungal disease infection. The best prevention is harvesting grapes as soon as they are ripe.
For treatment options and information on other insect pests, see Grape Insect Pests of the Home Garden.
Whereas insects might not pose a significant problem with home-grown grapes, other creatures can. Birds are attracted to the ripening berries and can eat them all before you are ready to harvest. The only foolproof method of protection is netting to cover the ripening fruit on the vine. Deer and raccoons may need to be kept out with a fence if they prove to be a problem.
Diseases and other challenges
Diseases flourish in high humidity. Good air circulation in very important for preventing most diseases. This means annual pruning to keep the canopy from getting too dense. Equally important is raking and removing leaves each fall as well as picking up and composting fallen fruit. After pruning, remove prunings from near the vines. These practices will remove some of the places disease can overwinter to infect the following spring. Diseased portions of a vine should be removed and discarded at first sign of disease, to prevent spread to the rest of the vine.
This fungus can infect all parts of the grapevine. The first sign of infection appears as a white powdery layer on leaves and/or fruit. Leaves infected while they are still growing become distorted and stunted. If grapes are infected when they are small, about the size of a pea, the skin stops growing but the pulp continues to expand and the berry splits. If infection occurs during fruit ripening, purple or red cultivars fail to color properly and look blotchy at harvest.
This fungus can infect any actively growing parts of the vine. When lesions form on leaves, the affected areas become brown and wither. Severely infected leaves curl and drop from the vine. When parts of the vine are infected, they frequently become distorted, thickened, or curled with a white downy appearance. If the infection is severe enough, parts of the vine will wither and die. If grapes are infected, they fall off the vine.
High relative humidity promotes infection from both powdery and downy mildews. Infected shoots should be pruned and destroyed. Pruning in late winter should increase air circulation, as the vine grows during the year with the goal of reducing the chance of heavy infection. Additionally, making sure all leaves and rotted fruit are removed from around the vine reduces infection potential.
These fungal diseases can cause complete crop loss in warm, humid climates. Infection can be seen on leaves, petioles, shoots and grapes. For black rot, grapes are susceptible from bloom until they begin to ripen. An infected berry first appears light brown, and then black spore-producing bodies develop on its surface. Later, the berries shrivel and turn hard and black to become mummified. Botrytis fruit rot can grow on dead blossom parts in the cluster and then, before grapes begin to ripen, move from berry to berry within the bunch. Botrytis occurs most commonly on ripening berries, where infection and rot spread rapidly throughout the clusters.
Grapes are very susceptible to 2,4-D herbicide, which is widely used to control dandelions in lawns. Exposure to herbicide results in deformed leaves and causes flower clusters to fall off. Avoid using this herbicide anywhere near grapevines. You might want to ask your neighbors to not use it either.
Additional resources on disease identification and treatment:
Grapes need not to be grown on a traditional trellis in the home garden. A fence, arbor, or any other sturdy structure will do.
Pruning grapes depends on how your decide to grow them in your garden and how much space you have. Fences are ideal to use as support for vines. Vines can also be contained to one stake in the ground. If you have an arbor or pergola, grapevines can be grown over the top to produce shade. Remember, flowers and fruit are located on buds that developed the previous year. Therefore you need to encourage new growth, but not too much. There are many ways to prune and train vines-let your imagination loose!
For the first year, pruning is the same no matter how you plan to train your vine; the key is to develop a strong root system and straight trunk. Depending on the size of the vine that you buy, prune the vine back to one straight cane. Tie this cane to a stake or to the fence and encourage it to grow straight. You might have to tie it multiple times during the first year to keep it straight. When the vine gets to the top of the fence-this might be the year you planted, or it might be in the spring of the following year-remove an inch or two of terminal growth to force the vine to branch. Train two branches, one in each direction, by tying them to the fence in opposite directions to form permanent branches running along the top of your fence. Remove any buds that start to grow lower on the trunk. This will make managing the vine much easier.
These vines, growing in a vineyard, are just finishing the growing season. You can see how they were pruned the preceding spring - the vertical, copper-colored canes are this year's growth. These canes will be pruned back during the coming spring, leaving one or two buds per spur.
After year one
Once the trunk has reached as high as you want, and the lateral trunks have been formed, prune the vine each spring before growth begins so the developing canes have enough air movement around them to reduce diseases. There are many different methods and techniques for training vines; we recommend you experiment with pruning vines to make them an integral part of your landscape. Remember, fruit is produced on the current season's growth, that in turn grows from last season's wood. Heavy pruning provides the best fruit. Light pruning results in large yields of poor-quality fruit; very heavy pruning produces too much vegetative growth and very little or no fruit. Table, juice, and jelly varieties can have 40 to 60 buds per vine after pruning, but wine varieties should have only 20 to 30 buds per vine after pruning.
Pruning old, neglected vines
Have you moved into a house and inherited some old, overgrown grapevines? Don't dig them out just yet; they can probably be saved! You want to prune old and neglected vines in stages. Your goal is to get the vine back to a single trunk with well-placed canes. Prune when the vine is dormant, just before growth begins in spring.
- Select a new trunk from canes growing from the base of the vine.
- Cut the chosen new trunk to back to the desired height.
- Choose two canes on each side to bear fruit this season and tie them to a trellis as they grow. If there are no lateral canes, wait until the next season and choose two new shoots to become the cordons, removing others lower down.
- Remove other old wood. You might be cutting out a LOT of old wood.
- Continue pruning and training as with a new vine.
Harvest and storage
The best way to tell if grapes are ripe is to taste a few. Many cultivars turn color before they are ripe. To harvest, clip full clusters off the vine with pruning shears or heavy scissors. Handle clusters carefully; remove any discolored, injured, or undesirable berries; and then cool them as soon as they are picked. Storing grapes in a refrigerator is preferable to a cellar or other cool place where temperatures fluctuate. Cover grape clusters loosely with plastic to reduce moisture loss. Most grapes can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or two.
In particularly harsh years, winter injury may sometimes kill much of the vine. Grapevines are often able to regrow new canes from low down on the trunk. You may need to limit pruning for the year to determine how much of your vine has died. It might be easier to start again with a cane from the base of the vine and treat the vine like you just planted it. Because the vine will have a large root system, you might be surprised at how fast it will regrow.
Growing Fruit in the Northern Garden
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University of Minnesota Department of Horticultural Science