Backyard Grape Growing

Backyard Grape Growing

Jun 28th 2024


With a small garden it’s always hard to decide what plants will make the cut. Originally, I chose perennials and a few smaller shrubs to create a happy bird habitat to complement my various feeders. I must admit, though, that over time I’ve become a bit more selfish and have focused on growing as many edibles as possible in my tiny homestead. Of course, the various berry bushes I've planted do benefit the birds, but my snacking, not theirs, was the priority. At least I don't net the plants, so my little feathered visitors have a fair chance.

One of the most exciting additions has been the 8-foot arch that frames the sliding glass door, which provided the perfect opportunity to add another edible to my line-up: grapes. Truthfully, I did this as a lark, finding the vine for 50% off at one of those big box stores. I never really imagined it would work—it seemed like something too difficult to grow. But I must tell you, I was wrong! It was amazingly easy, and incredibly fun and satisfying.

If you’ve thought about creating a leafy green, shaded retreat in your landscape, then a grape arbor is just the thing. The vines are fast-growing, the foliage is attractive, and the maintenance is relatively simple. You can grow several along each side of a pergola, or just one vine on an arch if you don’t have room for more. Either way, when you eat that first fresh, home-grown grape you’ll want a whole vineyard!

Here’s how to get started: 

This year's Concord grape vine after dormant and light summer pruning--4 year old vine; raspberry bush in foreground

Growing grapes at home

1. Choose the Right Variety

Selecting the appropriate grape variety is crucial for successful cultivation. Choose varieties that are well-suited to your climate and desired use (eating fresh, making wine, or drying).For home growers, consider these popular choices:

  • Concord: Known for its robust flavor, Concord grapes are excellent for fresh eating and juicing.  Concord is a cultivar developed from our native Vitis labrusca, or fox grape.
  • Thompson Seedless: A versatile variety used for table grapes, raisins, and wine production.
  • Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon: Ideal for wine enthusiasts who
    want to try their hand at home winemaking.

I'm in zone 7, and chose a Concord variety, as they handle hot, humid summers well and ripen several weeks earlier than others. 

2. Site Properly

  • Most grape varieties prefer temperate climates with warm summers and mild winters. Ensure your chosen variety is suitable for your USDA hardiness zone. Grapes generally need a frost-free period of 150-180 days for fruit ripening.

  • Grapes require full sun for optimal growth and fruit production. Choose a location for your arbor that receives at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily.

  • Grapes thrive in well-drained soil with good fertility. If necessary, before planting amend the soil with compost or well-rotted manure to improve its nutrient content and drainage. Aim for a slightly acidic to neutral pH level (pH 6.0-7.5).

  • Grapes prefer their roots warm and don't want root competition, so don't mulch heavily or use a groundcover around them.

My soil is rather poor and sandy, and to be honest I didn't do much other than adding some composted leaves and root starting fertilizer to the backfill soil. Planting site was south-southwest facing, blocked in the morning by another unit, and a large silver maple in the common area partially shades it for a few hours in the afternoon. I'd be surprised if it gets any more than 6 hours of sun.

3. Planting 

  • Space grapevines 6-10 feet apart along the arbor or pergola. Dig holes deep and wide enough to accommodate the root system without crowding.

Since I was planting on an 8' wide arch, I planted only one, on the left side. At the same time I planted a native honeysuckle vine on the right side, and they have coexisted peacefully. I do prune the very long grapevine shoots back in the summer so it doesn't cover up the honeysuckle.  

I could have planted another grape on the other side and it probably would have worked out fine, except the hummingbirds would miss the honeysuckle! I never "attached" the grapevine, but just wove it through the lattice in a few places as it grew taller. 

    How 'bout them apples?  Well, grapes, as of early June. It's so cool to have these right outside the door!

    4. Watering and Fertilizing

    • Grapes require regular watering, especially during dry spells and when fruit is forming.
    • Avoid overwatering to prevent root rot.
    • Apply a balanced slow-release fertilizer in early spring, according to package instructions.
    • Avoid excessive nitrogen, which can promote foliage growth at the expense of fruit production.

    I don't recall paying much attention to watering in the first couple of years. I watered whenever I needed to water the rest of the garden, so roughly every week during the hot summer. The vine is planted under an overhang, so compared to the rest of the yard it gets less water when it rains. Other than the starter fertilizer, I only made a very occasional application of AlgoFlash all purpose liquid during the first couple of years.

    5. Pruning and Training

    • Prune established grapevines during the dormant season (late winter or early spring) to promote air circulation, reduce disease risk, and improve fruit quality. Prune away old wood and retain strong canes for the next season. Delay until danger of hard frost has passed if you are prone to late frosts in your area. Pruning prompts tender new growth which can be damaged by a late frost so timing is important.
    • Grapes fruit on the new growth arising from one year old canes. Pruning is aimed at removing non-productive older wood and also thinning the canopy to direct the plant's energy toward fruiting.  
    • There are several different systems for pruning and training, but cane pruning is usually the best for an arbor or pergola. Some varieties may produce better with a spur-pruned cordon system, but that is not recommended for Concord and other similar types.
    • For new plantings in spring, prune away all but the strongest shoot, and prune that one back to 3 buds.
    • When new growth is about 8-12 inches long, remove all but the strongest, most upright shoot and tie that into your frame; also remove any shoots coming from below ground level.. This is what will become the permanent trunk of your vine.
    • Hopefully that trunk will have grown to about 30 inches in height by late winter/early spring. If not, you should repeat the pruning as per the previous year so as to ensure the growth of a good, solid trunk. When growing on a pergola you will want to create a longer trunk, with the head of your vine to closer to the top of the pergola.
    • By the second dormant season your trunk should be formed, so you would choose 2 canes to keep for the upcoming season.  They should be light brown and about as thick as your little finger. Tie these in to your arch rails and cut to about 2-3 feet long. Choose another 2 canes as renewal canes for the following season and cut these down to only 2 buds. Remove all other growth.
    • Each year you will repeat the process, removing last year's canes, tying in new, and creating renewal canes.  With cane pruning all your cutting will be done near the head of the vine, which means you don't need a ladder to get to the growth on top the pergola--you can just pull it down after it's been cut. 
    •  If you've seen pergolas with neat rows of grapes all the way across each rail that involves a different pruning method creating permanent cordons across the top and then spur pruning the cordons. Obviously that is a bit more involved and you will need a ladder, but still is not that difficult.  You could also create a permanent cordon across an arch and spur prune that if you choose.  
    • The type of grape you have will partially determine your pruning method.  American grapes like Concord, Niagara, Catawba, etc., are typically cane-purned as they will form fruit on buds farther out from the trunk.  Wine grapes more often need spur pruning to maximize production, as they will only fruit on the first 2-3 buds.

    This is the most important part of growing grapes. The better you prune, the better your crop. I didn't prune much for the first couple of years as the plant was getting taller, but the plant would have developed a better trunk if I had. Dormant pruning involves removing about 90% of the growth, so you must be brave! The vines grow very quickly, so don't be concerned that you'll entirely lose your shady oasis. In fact, you may want to prune again in summer if the new growth is extensive. If the foliage on the fruiting canes is too heavily shaded it reduces photosynthesis which affects ripening. Thinning the canopy by removing shoots with no fruit clusters may be necessary if your vines are very vigorous, but be sure not to prune back too hard the canes you'll need for next year.  

    6. Maintenance

    • Monitor vines for pests such as aphids and diseases like downy and powdery mildew.
    • Plants can often live with a small insect population without harm. A strong spray of water can often knock them off. Use organic pesticides if absolutely necessary.
    • Overuse of nitrogen fertilizer can prompt excessive new growth that is most attractive to pests.
    • Remove any diseased leaves promptly and discard in trash--do not compost. Clear and discard any infected foliage that may have fallen on the ground below.
    • Keeping watering consistent and avoiding wetting foliage late in the day can help to prevent fungal disease. If foliage is very heavy a moderate summer pruning of new growth can improve air circulation.

    Had a tiny bit of mildew in the second year, probably drought related, but nothing serious. Looking back at my pictures, there may also have been some downy mildew in the third year, but it didn't seem to cause any trouble. I will have to watch for that this year. No pests that I've seen so far.

    7. Harvesting Grapes

    • Grapes are typically ready for harvest in late summer to early fall, depending on the variety.
    • Grapes should be plump, firm, and easily come off the vine when
      gently pulled.
    • Harvest clusters carefully to avoid damaging the fruit. Use sharp scissors or pruning shears to cut grape clusters from the vine.

    First fruiting for me was in the third year. It was exciting to see it bloom for the first time! There were perhaps 10 clusters, with 6-15 grapes per cluster. Each fruit was about the size of a nickel, and they didn't all ripen at the same rate within the cluster. Perhaps they would have caught up with each other if various family members (including me) hadn't been so anxious.

    The most fascinating thing was how the taste changed as they ripened. The longer we left them the sweeter they became, but also a bit more bland. The skins seemed to thicken a bit as well. Once they started to ripen I think it was about 3 weeks or so that we were tasting at various times.

    This year we have more clusters with more grapes, and as I'm watering more regularly they will hopefully be larger.

    • Super-Edg installs securely with steel stakes
      2021-- summer first year growth.  I really should have pruned much of this off to start creating the trunk
    • Everedge Classic creates a supremely clean line between lawn and garden bed
      2022--late spring second year growth which I also should have pruned as there are too many shoots arising from the base.  But the foliage is so pretty!  Did get this cut back eventually, though.
    • 2023 fall--you can see the grapes are a bit small and are ripening at different times, but they were plenty tasty.  
    • 2024 spring--grapes in flower again, hooray! That means I didn't prune too badly. Grape flower panicles are not particularly showy--you might miss them entirely if you're not looking for them.
    • 2024 early summer- lightly pruned back new non-fruiting growth for better air circulation.  Grapevines grow FAST, and this will cover again in no time.
    Final Thoughts
    Let's face it, did I do everything right so far?  Absolutely not. Did i get grapes anyway? Yup, sure did. Did they taste good? Oh, yeah. The best thing about grapevines is that they grow fast and they're very forgiving. If you make some mistakes you'll usually have the opportunity to fix them in subsequent years--just don't wait too long. I plan to really study the vine this year and figure out how to maximize fruiting for the future. It's one of the best things about gardening--learning something new and feeling a part of making something happen. Everytime I look at my plump little grape clusters I feel so proud.....and hungry.

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