Growing Grapes for Self Sufficiency

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Growing grapes is a fairly simple task. If you select the right site and get them off to the proper start, they require very little care, produce heavily and consistently, and live for a very long time.

freshly picked Concord grapes

My grandparents had an old Concord Grape vine on their farm when I was a kid that seemed to me to be older than old. No one could ever tell me who planted it or when. It was a huge mass of vines that grew on an unseen trellis of fence posts and cattle fencing. I don't recall it ever having been pruned, with the exception of the vines that got in the way when Grandpa mowed the grass. And yet, for the neglect, that grape vine produced grapes by the bushel basket full every year. My mother and grandmother made grape jelly and grape juice in a supply that seemed to never run out.

Now I'm growing grapes of my own, and other than pruning every winter, the care that I give to my vines are no more than my grandparents gave to theirs, and mine produce just as heavily. I make my own jelly, juice and wine now that I and my family and friends enjoy. If you are interested in growing grapes of your own, here's how it's done.

Growing Grapes - General Information

There are two main divisions of widely cultivated grapes.

European varieties, which are used primarily for wines and table grapes, and originate from the Vitis Vinifera grape of Europe and western Asia and include the "noble" grape varieties used to make fine wines.

American varieties are used for making grape juice, jellies and jams, and some wines, and originate from the Vitis Labrusca (Fox) grape native to eastern North America. Best known among these are Concord, but there are many other varieties.

Many people growing grapes of European descent in North American will graft their European grape vines onto North American root stock for improved disease resistance. Most (but definitely not all) European grapes aren't well suited for growing here in Southern Indiana, so I stick with the North American varieties for my grape arbors.

Growing Grapes - Planting Grapes

Plant grapes like you would plant a fruit tree. Like most other fruiting perennials, plant is done in the late fall or early spring while the plants are dormant to reduce shock to their systems. Select your location carefully, because you will likely be growing grapes there for a VERY long time.

A healthy growing grape arbor

Grapes like full sun and well drained soil, so pick a sunny spot, and one with a bit of a grade to allow excess rain water to run off. Grape vines should be spaced between 8 and 12 feet apart, because once established, the vines will grow very long and very fast.

Remember the old saying: "Dig a $10 hole for a $5 tree"...Don't skimp or take shortcuts when digging your planting hole - you'll only do it once, so do it right. Dig a hole for each vine that is at least two times the size of the root ball, and loosen at least 6 inches of soil on the bottom.

Place the vines in the hole at about the same level as the plants were originally grown. A bit deeper won't do any harm, but planting shallower than original is a bad idea.

Grapes prefer lots of organic matter so, if you have a compost pile, mix together about 50% compost and 50% original soil (this is most easily done in a wheel barrow) and back fill the hole to about 2/3 full, making sure to keep the roots spread out nicely. If you don't have a compost pile, you can purchase bags of composted cow manure at nearly any garden center, and use it the same way.

Water well or use a water soluble root stimulator (Ferti-Lome makes a good one). Get at least 2-3 gallons of water in the hole and allow it to soak in.

Finish back filling the hole, taking care to keep the vines straight as you go. Keep your grape vines well mulched, either using bark mulch, dry grass clippings, or dry leaves. I don't recommend using gravel, or other "mulches" that won't decompose over time and improve the soil.

Clip back any dead or damaged twigs, and leave only 3-4 buds on each plant Keep your new plants watered for the first year. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked.

Growing Grapes - Making an Arbor or Trellis

During the first year of growing grapes, your plants won't really grow as aggressively as they will during the second year and later, so this will be the perfect time to get your arbor (trellis) made. An arbor is a support system that helps keep your grape vines growing where you want them to grow.

There are many different designs of arbors, some are simply a series of posts and wires - essentially a fence, and some are far more elaborate, with two rows of posts and cross beams forming an arch under which you can walk, and pick your grapes overhead. In my opinion, simpler is better. It makes maintenance easier, and the grapes are equally happy to grow on an arbor of any design.

Angled end post on a grape arbor

My arbors consist of end posts set in the ground at about 30° angles leaning away from the grape vines. These posts are set in concrete, as they will bear most of the lateral (inward pull) weight of your growing grapes. Setting them at an angle translates part of the inward pull on the end posts into downward force.

Also, set support posts centered between each pair of vines. These do not need to be set in concrete or on an angle, because all they have to do is support the downward weight of the vines. These posts (end and center) can be 4x4 pressure treated lumber, landscape timbers, or I have even seen old railroad crossties used, but that may be a bit of overkill.

Eye bolt in an arbor end post holds a support wire

Once you have your posts set, you need to string your wire between them. I have two runs or rows of wire on my arbor, but some folks use 3 runs. My runs are 24 and 48 inches from the ground. Once the concrete has set (24-48 hours) start by drilling holes through the end posts that will allow 6 inch eye bolts to be installed in each one. Use a washer and nut to hold each one in place, but only thread the nut on to the eye bolts a few turns (3-5 will do).

close-up of an arbor support wire

Drill holes through the support posts at the same height as your eye bolts are installed. Thread heavy gage (1/8 inch) wire through the center support posts, and attach the wire to the eye bolt on one end. Attach by twisting the tail of the wire back on itself.

Thread the wire through the eye bolt on the other end post, and pull it as tightly as you can before attaching it to that post. I recommend wearing heavy gloves when working with wire.

Repeat this process for the second run. You can then tighten the wires up by using a crescent wrench to turn the nuts on the eye bolts. Over time, the wires will stretch and you may have to re-tighten them. Eventually after several years, you may have to remove the eye bolts and re-tighten the wires by hand then repeat the process.

Growing Grapes - Training and Trellising

Early spring grape vine trained to a trellis

Once your grapes begin growing, you need to take some time in training them (just like raising kids...). Ideally you want one main center trunk on each vine with lateral leaders running to the left and right at the level of the support wires.

The lateral leaders are the fruit bearing portion of the vine. As they grow, gently and loosely wrap them around the wire, or use light wires (bread bag twist ties work well) to tie them up loosely to the wire until tendrils can take hold themselves. Getting to this point may take a couple years, or it may happen the first year - this depends on how happy your vines are in their location, and how aggressively they grow.

After a number of years, you may find that the main trunk or a lateral leader has become weak or has been damaged. You can replace both the main trunk or a lateral leader by selecting a new trunk sprout near the base, or leader sprout at the right location. Allow this replacement to grow for a year, and train it as a shadow with the old growth.

After a year, cut off the old trunk or leader while the vine is fully dormant, and your new one will be established and ready to go. Typically you'll be growing grapes for many many years, before you'll have to even consider taking this kind of action.

If you happen to buy a place that already has established grape vines that are quite old, you may need to consider this kind of drastic pruning. Often times, old grapes like this have been neglected for many years, so finding candidates for new trunks or leaders should be very easy. But - before taking this drastic action...try simple pruning first. In MOST cases pruning will get the job done.

Keeping your grapes growing on an arbor will keep them off the ground and less susceptible to diseases. It also makes it easier to maintain and care for them, and also easier to harvest your crop of grapes when harvest time comes.

Growing Grapes
Blooming and Fruit Formation

half developed grapes - looks to be a good crop!

Grape vines start growing about the same time that fruit trees do. You'll see buds begin to form, and new growth will begin at each node on the lateral leaders.

Grape blossom justpropr to opening for pollination

Grapes unlike fruit trees, bear fruit on new wood. Because of this, grapes bloom well after fruit trees have finished and already set fruit. These small cluster of flowers grow into clusters of grapes. Here in southern Indiana, my grapes will usually bloom in the first half of May, where my fruit trees bloom in the early half of April.

grape blossom in

Grape blossoms (or more accurately a cluster of blossoms) are small, greenish and not much to look at. the blossoms in a cluster turn quickly in to tiny green growing grapes. Grapes are self fruitful, which means one vine can pollinate itself. That means you can get away with growing only one vine, and still have a harvest, but like self pollinating fruit trees, your crops will be heavier if you have more than one plant to assist in pollination.

Growing Grapes - Harvesting and Use

Fresh off the vine Conord grapes!

Grapes mature 3 to 4 months after they bloom. I usually harvest my Concord and Niagara grapes in the first half of August. You will find that your grape clusters will not all mature at the same time, and may take up to two weeks for the entire harvest is complete. You will even find that not all grapes in a cluster will be ripe all at once.

Short of picking individual grapes when they become ripe (like berries), which I don't recommend, you have to harvest when the majority of grapes in a cluster are ripe. Plan on some losses (maybe 5%) due to some unripe ones. Use pruning clippers to cleanly snip the cluster off of the vine. breaking or pulling the clusters does a lot of harm, and is a lot more work. There are even special clippers made especially for harvesting grapes. These have thin narrow blades that allow you to get into tight places between the stems and vines without doing any damage.

Grapes can be kept fresh by refrigeration for a couple of days, but You're better off if you clean them and either use or freeze them as soon as you can. Cleaning grapes is simply a matter of floating the clusters in a sink full of water to rinse them off. Remove the grapes from the stems, separating the good grapes from the bugs, leaves and bad or unripe grapes.

If you're going to be growing grapes, you'll soon find out how versatile they are. Aside from eating them fresh, grapes can be made into:

Grape Juice




My father-in-law likes grape pie, and I have to admit - it IS pretty good. If you grow seedless varieties, you can even put them in in a dehydrator and make your own raisins. Even the young leaves can be pickled and used in Mediterranean cuisine - stuffed grape leaves are really good. Once your vines are established and producing heavily, it's likely that you'll have enough to share with your family and friends, as well as for your own use.

Growing Grapes - Pruning

Freshly pruned grape vines on an arbor.

Pruning is an essential part of growing grapes. It keeps them healthy, keeps the vines off the ground, and makes other tasks, like mulching, mowing, and harvesting much easier.

Most people under prune their grapes. When they read instructions on how to prune they panic and think "there won't be anything left if I do that!!!" Which is kind of the point.

Remember - grapes are NOT fruit trees, and require an entirely different pruning strategy. as I noted above, grapes bloom and bear fruit on new growth, where fruit trees bloom and bear on old wood. Grapes are also very aggressive growers, with vines growing many feet in a year.

A grape arbor before pruning the vines

Like fruit trees, pruning is done in late winter or very early spring, but the similarity stops there. Your pruned grapes should have a main trunk, 4 to 6 lateral leaders (2 or 3 on each side of the trunk, depending on how many support wires your arbor has), and a series of shoots every 6-8 inches on each of the laterals. These side shoots should be cut back to 3 or 4 growth buds on each. Everything else should be clipped off.

Cutting a grape vine just past the bud

Typically there will be a very large amount of material that get's cut off - way more than will be left of the plant when you are done. The first time I pruned my grapes like this I was scared to death that I had killed them, but they produced like crazy that year and every year since, so it DOES work, and it DOESN'T kill your grapes, even if it does feel like it at the time.

A newly pruned grape vine side branch

During the growing season, your grape vines might grow so aggressively that you may need to prune back some of the growth to allow you room for mulching and mowing close to the arbor. There's no harm in trimming new growth during the growing season, to keep those vines under control and in shape.

It's also a good idea to prune a bit during the growing season to allow some sunlight and air movement within your arbor. Grapes develop best in partial, not complete shade, and air movement can help in preventing certain fungal diseases from developing.

Growing Grapes - Pests and Diseases

Like any other gardening activity, growing grapes has it's share of pests and diseases. However,Concord Grapes are hardy and mostly disease and pest free. The biggest problems that I have with mine is with Japanese beetles eating leaves in the summer, deer eating new growth in the spring and birds eating the ripe fruit.

The beetles can be controlled with an insecticide spray. I don't recommend using those bag trap baited with pheromones, because they seem to just bring the beetles in from all over the neighborhood, and not all of them go into the trap. A better idea would be to try to get your neighbor to put them out!!

Deer can be repelled by certain human scents. I've been told that a net bag sock or stocking full of human hair from a barber shop tied on the ends of your arbor will keep them away. I have pretty good luck tying a bar of lifebuoy soap on each end of my arbor. The deer don't seem to like that scent at all.

Birds can be deterred with bird netting or simply by getting the grapes picked as soon as they are ready.

There are several fungal diseases that can affect grape vines. The most common is black rot. It causes the nearly mature grapes to turn black and shrivel up (the official term is "mummify"). Along with pruning to allow sun and air movement, most common fungicides that are sold by reputable nurseries will work against black rot and other common fungal infections.

An important key is to not use the same chemical every year. Switch it up every year or two or the fungus that survives will develop a resistance, and become harder to treat. Usually two treatments will be sufficient, one before blooms begin to develop and once again after fruit has formed and are pea sized. If it rains within 24 hours after spraying, you'll have to re-spray.

Grapes are versatile and hardy plants that can produce large quantities of grapes for you year after year for many decades,in exchange for just a little care. You can make juices, jellies, wines, and vinegars from your crop of grapes as well as just eating them fresh, and sharing with friends and family. Growing grapes of your own is rewarding and just another small way you can increase you and your families self sufficiency.

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Grape Related Topics:

Making Jelly

Grape Juice

Winemaking Pt#1

Winemaking Pt#2

Making Vinegar

Home Orchards

Growing Berries