Each fall I enjoy a special treat: munching the sweet-sour flavor of grapes I have grown.
I generally eat them outdoors as they are full of seeds and I enjoy spitting out the seeds, much as I did as a boy. I like to see how far I can spit them, and whether I can hit objects accurately. That’s puerile, for sure. But it’s good to be a kid again, especially as an adult old enough to qualify for Social Security.
According to my best reference text on growing grapes organically, “The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture” by Lon Rombough (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2002), there are some 10,000 varieties of grapes and less than 1 percent of those are seedless.
Grapes are supposed to have seeds, that’s how they reproduce. We have been spoiled by 3 common grocery store varieties that are seedless, most notably Thompson’s Seedless, which dominates the market.
Here in the Northeast we can grow grapes for eating or for wine, despite the reputation of California as the place for wine grapes. According to the catalog of Elmore Roots, an organic nursery specializing in cold-region fruit plants, there are several good wine grapes to choose from.
I recently called David Fried, owner of Elmore Roots, to talk about grapes. He told me that King of the North and Sabrevois, both red grapes, were the best for making wine. Six plants can produce enough grapes for making wine.
And for eating? Fried says Bluebell is the best. The fruit is pinkish-purple, and is great for eating fresh or for making juice or jelly. It is disease resistant and survives frosts quite well.
So what do grape vines need to thrive? Full sun and good air circulation.
Air circulation is important because low spots that have poor circulation tend to encourage fungal diseases. Growing on a hillside is best, preferably a slope facing south or east. Growing them on a stone wall works well, too, as the wall provides extra heat.
According to Rombough’s book, “The ideal soil for best vine growth and production, especially of table grapes, is a deep, light silty or slightly sandy loam.” Rombough suggests digging some test holes 2 to 3 feet deep to see what the soil is like — if you are on a rocky ledge, see where the deepest soil is for your grapes. He says you should rent a power posthole digger to make test holes. Fried noted that sandy soil in full sun is best.
Test the pH, or acidity of your soil, before planting and make adjustments as necessary. Soils with a pH of 6.5 to 7.2 are best.
Remove grass, weeds and other competitors for nutrition from the area where you will plant your grapes. Rombough suggests planting grapes so that rows go along with the prevailing winds, which for me is east to west. That will help to dry out the vines in wet times, minimizing fungal problems.
He says to plant roots 8 feet apart, and rows 8 to 12 feet apart if you are starting a vineyard. And if you have bought grapes grafted onto a root stock, do not plant them deeply. The graft union (place where the roots and the tops were joined) should be above ground.
This is the time of year to prune grapes. They produce grapes on shoots that were new last year. Pruning now stimulates new growth that will produce grapes next year. And if you do not prune each year, your grape vines will develop into an unmanageable mess. An unpruned vine may produce lots of blossoms, but the quality and size of the fruit will not be good.
Grapes grow well on trellises or wires. I have two rows of wire attached to my barn for grapes to grow on, but they are so vigorous that if I didn’t prune off new growth each year, they would engulf my small barn and cover the windows. I wouldn’t be able to reach the grapes for picking.
“The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture” has excellent drawings of ways to set up wires for your grapes, and how to prune.
I hesitate to give advice on how to prune grapes, as I am still learning. Rombough’s book shows a thick stalk coming up from the ground, with sturdy lateral arms attached to the wires, which I have. Each year I am supposed to cut off most of last year’s vigorous new growth, leaving some short spurs on those lateral arms to produce this year’s fruit.
I have just three grape plants, two growing on a trellis in front of my barn, and one growing on a cedar arbor I built years ago. I have a very high water table — a brook is nearby — and I am surprised that my grapes have survived. But in my experience all vines, including grapes, are tough and adaptable.
I don’t get a huge crop and I share it most years with the birds, as they do love grapes — and some years they are more attentive to my grapes than I. A flock of cedar waxwings can — and will — eat all my grapes in one sitting, those greedy gluttons. Maybe I should rent an owl — or buy a plastic one to live near my barn in grape-picking season.
Henry’s new book, “Organic Gardening (not just) in the Northeast: A Hands-on, Month-by-Month Guide,” is now in print and available from him or from your local bookstore. His website is www.Gardening-Guy.com. His blog is henryhomeyer.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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