I’ve never thought of grapes as a typical or easy crop to grow, here, in the Midwest. My aunt tried to grow a small, hobby crop when I was young and I don’t recall much fruit ever developing. It could have been her results or the complex appearance of the giant trellis systems my uncle built, but grape growing seemed awfully intimidating for the average gardener.
Now that I’m a little more seasoned than I was at 10 years old, I realize it could have been any number of things that complicated the growing process for my aunt. It could have been as simple as the variety she tried to grow. According to Penn State Extension, many species of grapes are native to North America and extremely easy to grow. However, other species are native to Europe and present a bigger challenge.
To successfully grow backyard grapes, you need to select the right cultivar and then meet its planting, pruning and growing requirements.
Selecting a planting site
Selecting the right planting site can make growing backyard grapes a lot easier. Penn State Extension recommends the following conditions for cold-hardy grape varieties:
- Climate. An ideal site should have more than 160 frost-free days.
- Winter temperatures. Minimum low winter temperature for vinifera grapes — European wine grape varieties — is 0 F and -5 F for hybrids.
- Soil. Well-drained soils like a clay loam are most preferred, as they help remove excess moisture from the root zone.
- Sloped locations. A location with a slight slope can improve air drainage. East-to-south exposures are desirable.
Selecting a grape cultivar
Once you’ve scouted out the best site on your property, it’s time to make the most important decision of the entire process — selecting the ideal cultivar.
When selecting a grape cultivar for your backyard, you need to consider two things.
1. What do you plan to use the grapes for? Maybe you want to make juice or jelly. Maybe you just want to eat the fruit you produce. Maybe you’re more interested in wine production. There are varieties that are suited best to each of these tasks. Make sure you choose a variety that works well for its intended use.
2. Is the variety you selected adapted to your climate? Varieties suited to your climate will grow better in natural conditions, having good pest resistance and cold hardiness.
Concord grapes are suited to Midwestern climates with good pest resistance and cold hardiness. They make wonderful juice and jelly. They have sweet-tasting fruits, but they contain seeds. They produce a wine of limited appeal. Concord grapes would be ideal for a beginner gardener who’s not looking to produce wine.
European grape varieties are susceptible to a host of diseases and are less cold-tolerant than native varieties. However, they have excellent wine-making characteristics. Growing these varieties should probably be left to a more experienced gardener.
French-american hybrid grapes offer a good compromise for wine production because they standup to environmental stressors better than their European cousins, while maintaining good winemaking characteristics. These varieties are a happy medium for the less experienced gardener who wants to produce grapes intended for wine production.
If you’re still not sure what kind of variety is best suited to your climate, skill set and intentions, Penn State recommends trying the Concord or Niagara varieties, which thrive in most Midwestern climates.
Planting your grape vines
1. A year before you plant, you should mark off the area you’ve selected for your grapes and begin preparing the soil.
- Cultivate the soil
- Kill any weeds
- Add necessary amendments suggested by soil tests
- Plan to plant rows in a north-south orientation to maximize sunlight
- Mark off straight rows with wire and stakes
2. After you’ve prepared and established the site intended for your grape vines, you need to purchase bare-rooted plants for spring planting.
3. Trim roots to 6-12 inches and soak the vines in water before planting.
4. Dig your hole a few inches deeper than the longest roots. Then plant your vine with the roots pointed down and evenly spread out.
5. Tie your shoots loosely to a training stake to ensure a straight trunk and to create a strong, permanent vine structure.
6. Keep new vines watered and weeded.
7. You may want to apply a small amount of fertilizer two weeks after planting. Penn State Extension suggests applying 2 ounces of 33-0-0 to the plants. Make sure it is applied at least 1 foot from the vine. For information on fertilizing in subsequent years, visit Penn State Extension.
8. Monitor for pests and diseases.
Pruning your grape vines
1. While the vine is still dormant —December to March — prune back to one or two canes and leave only two to three nodes on each cane.
2. After shoot growth begins, remove all but the two strongest shoots.
3. Along with keeping your new vines watered and weeded, be sure to remove all flower clusters in the first year.
4. Stake vines as needed.
5. Deer, rabbits, and other animals like to eat tender shoots, so try to keep them away from new vines.
For more pruning tips, visit Penn State Extension.
You can erect a trellis system of your choosing during the summer or fall. A standard trellis used in commercial vineyards is about 6 feet tall with wires to support the grapes. The trellis system can be installed in the first or second year.
For more information on training systems, visit Penn State Extension.