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On Growing Grapes

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So, you’ve decided you want to try growing grapes in your backyard. Granted, they won’t take up as much room as peach or apple trees, and they would make a nice screen on the fence to keep the inquisitive neighbors at bay. You’ll have to wait longer for those juicy berries to ripen than, say, a plum or an apricot, but most varieties ripen on the same schedule as peaches and apples. You’re probably just excited to be growing your own fruit because you’ll know exactly where it came from. Well, you’ve chosen well; it doesn’t get much easier than growing grapes. 

What you need to decide first is, what kind of grape. Since this is for your backyard, we’re going to assume you are interested in table grapes, as wine grapes are a whole other enterprise. There are so many wonderful things one can do with them besides eating fresh right off the vine. Jams, jellies, raisins, salads, smoothies, frozen like tiny popsicles, just to name a few. Not only do they make a great quick high-energy snack in lunch boxes, but grapes are an excellent source of vitamins C and K, and they’re a natural source of antioxidants and other polyphenols. Grapes offer a variety of additional health benefits and are considered a healthy carbohydrate. A one-cup serving contains 24 grams of healthy carbs and 1 gram of fiber.

Most home gardeners choose to grow varieties such as Muscat, Ladyfingers and Thompson and Flame Seedless as table grapes. If you’re into making your own jelly, then the Concord grape might be your best bet. Thompson Seedless is the dominant raisin variety grown in California due to its high productivity, wide soil adaptability and seedless fruit. If you’re not sure which variety you want to grow, your local agricultural extension office can recommend the best variety for your region, and they’ll be able to tell you whether they’ll be suited for table, jelly or raisins. 

Grapes are like anything else, needing the basic requirements to grow and thrive. The most important factors to consider are location, sunlight, soil, water, spacing, drainage and pest control. Some thought should go into training and pruning, but let’s get those vines in the ground first. Now you must decide whether you want to plant bare-root vines or container grown. Bare-root stock should be planted in late winter or very early spring when the plant is dormant. Container plants can go in the ground at any time, but in hotter weather, extra care should be given to watering. Either method is a matter of personal choice and some personal study on the subject might be more helpful. 

Grapevines do best with full sun, between seven to eight hours per day. Less light leads to lower fruit production and poor fruit quality, as well as powdery mildew and fruit rot. Grapevines will grow and produce well in a wide range of soil types, but good drainage is very important. Roots tend to grow deep, down to 15 feet, although most of the growth is in the top three feet of soil. The experts at University of California recommend that soils should be at least three or four feet deep above hardpan or rock, although with careful management, two feet of soil can be adequate. 

If you are dealing with poorly drained soil, you might consider incorporating large amounts of well-decomposed compost before planting. If the soil is clay or if shallow hardpan is present, raised beds or planters that contain good soil might be a better option. As far as spacing goes, the vines should be at least eight feet apart to accommodate normal growth and air flow to help prevent the proliferation of pests and diseases. Home grapes are often grown on arbors for shade and landscape appeal. The UC Master Gardeners suggest planting one vine per 50 to 100 square feet of arbor space, or more if vigorous varieties are used. 

If your backyard doesn’t get an inch of rain per week, then you’ll have to water by hose or drip system. However, grapevines don’t like having soggy roots, either. A gently sloping or hilly terrain would provide perfect drainage. It would be ideal to set up a drip irrigation system at the base of your vines so they can be watered on a regular basis, especially here in California or where there are periods of drought.

Grape pests can range from the dreaded California phylloxera to universal fruit-thieving birds. Mild winters and cool, wet springs in the Pacific Northwest can cause powdery mildew and Pierce’s disease can scorch the leaves and canes. Now, you’ve come this far and you’re definitely trying to keep it organic. If you do find yourself up against the myriad of pests just waiting to cash in on your hard work, again, you might consult with your local AG extension office for recommendations on how to deal with them. 

Grapes require serious pruning to produce the best quality and quantity. Fruit is produced from the current season’s growth, which has grown from the previous season’s wood. Up to 90 percent of last season’s growth should ideally be removed for the vine to produce bigger and tastier fruit. If you are not sure, there are plenty of expert YouTube videos to show you how. 

So, if you’ve taken care to ensure that your new little vines grow and thrive, you’ll be rewarded with crisp, sweet, delicious fruit for a lifetime. Whether you envision a basket of colorful, homegrown grapes on your table or a row of purple jars of jelly lined up on the counter, growing your own will be a most delightful and rewarding endeavor. And what’s more, you’ll enjoy a lovely edible addition to your landscape.

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