Growing grapes in your home garden
Story by Eric Stafne, Photography by Richelle Stafne
Different kinds of grapes grow in the southeastern U.S. A “bunch grape” refers to grapevines having berries that hang as a cluster. The entire bunch is harvested as a single, uniformly ripe unit. Wine grapes (Vitis vinifera mainly) and table grapes (V. vinifera and interspecific hybrids) are bunch grapes. Muscadines (V. rotundifolia) are not, as they bear small clusters of berries that may ripen at different times. Muscadines are often called by common names like scuppernong (this is also a variety name) or bullace. All grapes grow best in deep, well-drained, sandy loam soils. In general, grapes do best with a long growing season, relatively high summer temperatures, low atmospheric humidity, a ripening season free from rain, and mild winter temperatures.
MANAGING THE VINE
Most vertical trellises for vineyards in the eastern United States are of the same general type (high curtain/bilateral cordon): two or three wires, one above the other, one 1 foot above the ground to support the irrigation line, the second at 3 feet to help with training the vine up, and the final one 6 feet above the ground. Each wire is stretched tightly on firmly set posts.
Dormant grapevines can be planted in the late winter or early spring. Spacing depends on the type grown: 6-8 feet apart in rows spaced 10-12 feet apart for bunch grapes and 15-20 feet apart for muscadines. If vines are grafted, which some varieties of bunch grape may be, the graft union should be 2 inches above the final soil level. After planting, cut back the vine to leave two or three buds, which helps balance the vine and ensure survival. Place posts or bamboo stakes at each plant to support the vine. When the new shoots begin to grow, select the most vigorous and tie it loosely to a stake. Eliminate competition for the main shoot by removing or reducing the size of other shoots.
The primary objectives in training a young vine in the first year are the development of a large, healthy root system and a straight trunk. These objectives can be accomplished by eliminating or reducing the crop and increasing the leaf area. If vines are very vigorous, a small amount of fruit may be left to harvest in the second year, otherwise it is best to remove all fruit until the third growing season.
Pruning is an annual job that removes unwanted parts of the vine. The objective of pruning is to produce the maximum yield of good-quality mature grapes while maintaining adequate vine size, vigor, and fruiting wood quality for the following year. In many cases, this involves removing 70 to 90 percent of last year’s vine growth during winter pruning. Bunch grapes and muscadines can be cane-pruned or spur-pruned, but some varieties do better with one or the other. Spur pruning is the most common.
The South does not have the ideal climate for bunch grapes, but muscadines thrive. The primary threat to successfully growing bunch grapes is Pierce’s disease (PD), which shortens the life or kills the vines. Some bunch grape varieties have tolerance to this disease and most muscadines are resistant to its effects. Good management practices and choosing resistant or tolerant varieties should allow you to successfully grow bunch grapes and muscadines in the South.
Fungal diseases are very common in areas with high humidity and rainfall. Muscadines combat disease very well and they grow and produce fruit without the need for many fungicide sprays. Bunch grapes are generally more susceptible to fungal diseases present in the South, including black rot, anthracnose, downy mildew, powdery mildew, and phomopsis.
Going farther north, away from the Gulf, improves the chance of successfully growing bunch grapes because PD is less severe. But, don’t go too far north with muscadines, as they are sensitive to cold temperatures.
HARVESTING THE FRUIT
Bunch grape harvest usually begins in July and continues into August, depending on variety and location. Muscadines mature later, starting in August and going into September and October.
Harvest is the end product of intensive management, but can yield some sweet rewards. Whether growing grapes for fresh market or value-added products (wine, juice, jams, jellies, etc.) it is a hard-fought, but gratifying experience.
Get Your Grapes
Locating appropriate grapevines for the South can be difficult, so shopping around will be necessary. Here are two good sources.
Ison’s Nursery – isons.com, 800-733-0324
Womack’s Nursery – womacknursery.com, 254-893-6497
Possible Varieties for the Upper South:
‘Cynthiana’/‘Norton’ – A hearty red wine grape.
‘Neptune’ – A seedless, neutral-flavored white table grape. Other grapes from the University of Arkansas breeding program may also work.
‘Victoria Red’ – A new, PD-resistant table grape from Texas.
Possible Varieties for the Gulf Coast region
‘Black Spanish’/‘Lenoir’ – The top PD-tolerant red wine grape.
‘Blanc du bois’ – A fruity, white wine grape.
‘Champanel’ – A large, black grape. Good for fresh eating, but has seeds.