Grow your own backyard vineyard
Story and Photos by Bob Westerfield
I remember growing up we had a large arbor behind our house that supported some type of purple bunch grapes. I can remember bringing the harvested grapes inside, where my mother would make jams, jellies, and grape juice from the delicious fruit. My earliest childhood memory is taking a cold drink of pure grape juice on a hot summer day and how delicious it tasted. Fast-forward to today and I still have my fondness for fresh grapes. Because of the warm climate I live in now, I grow primarily muscadines (Vitis rotundifolia) rather than bunch-type grapes. Depending on where you live in the state, you should consider adding some type of grapes to your home orchard. From plain ol’ fresh eating, all the way up to jams, jelly, and wine, there may not be a more versatile fruit.
Because of the limitations of this article, I will treat muscadines and bunch grapes as similar crops. In reality, they are quite different. Muscadines actually grow natively in our woods, but for production, we grow cultivated varieties. Muscadines are not normally self-fertile and do best when more than one variety are planted closely together. Muscadines, sometimes referred to as scuppernongs, can grow virtually anywhere in our state. Bunch-type grapes, or wine grapes, prefer the cooler climates of north Georgia, although a few folks do grow them in the middle part of the state. Bunch-type grapes used to be more prevalent throughout the state, but several deadly diseases have made them extremely difficult to grow. Most growers plant American/French hybrid varieties.
One of the most important steps for a successful vineyard is choosing the proper varieties. I would suggest purchasing your grape and muscadines from a reputable fruit nursery. In Georgia, we have two excellent options: Bottoms Nursery in Concord and Ison’s Nursery and Vineyard in Brooks. The folks at both of these nurseries can help you select the right varieties for your area, as well as the proper pollinators for muscadine vines. When established properly, vines can live for decades and the base can as large as a medium-sized tree trunk. Healthy muscadine and bunch grapes can produce an excess of 20-30 pounds of fruit per vine.
Whether you choose bunch grapes or muscadines, the initial planting process is vitally important. Select your planting location carefully. Avoid low-lying areas that may be subject to late frosts. Both types of these grapes require full sun and the availability of supplemental irrigation. Deep tilling or subsoiling will allow newly planted vines to root out more easily. Because of the vigorous nature of grapes and muscadines, you must provide a sturdy structure they can grow on. One of the most common structures is constructed with strong posts, such as 6×6 treated lumber, or a round fence post equivalent. Space the posts 20 feet apart within the row and leave at least 12 feet between the rows. Strong, steel tension wire, commonly used for livestock, works perfectly strung between the posts for the vines to grow on. You can choose a single- or double-wired system. Plant your new fruit plants within 1 foot of the posts, as this will give the heaviest part of the vine the greatest support. This is contrary to what you often see in home orchards. Muscadines do best when planted during the dormant season or very early spring. No fertilizer is necessary until the foliage begins to break out in later spring.
The day you plant your vine, you should cut it back by about one-third to activate new growth. As new branches begin to shoot off after the spring flush, encourage only one branch to go down your wire supports. All other side branches should be removed – you want to maintain a single trunk at the base.
Muscadines and bunch grapes are extremely vigorous growers and will need severe pruning every year during the dormant season. They produce fruit on new wood, so pruning just before the spring flush does not harm the harvest. Each season as the plant matures, you will have to vigorously prune it back to maintain only one shoot per wire. This producing shoot should also put out a multitude of side shoots in which the fruit will bear. Prune these side shoots back hard every year, leaving stubby stems three buds long. Anyone watching established grapevines or muscadine vines pruned for the first time might be horrified by how drastic the shearing seems, but these extreme measures are necessary for this very aggressively growing vine to keep it in-bounds and producing.
Beyond proper planting and pruning, your vineyard will appreciate some supplemental irrigation and fertilizer. A balanced fertilizer applied right after the spring flush and again midsummer is usually all it takes to produce an abundance of fruit.
The final step is to keep a careful eye out for any signs of disease, insect, or critter issues. Within just a few years, you should be producing your own jams and jellies or even a fine table wine.