Grow Grapes of Your Own

If you've always wanted to grow grapes in your own vineyard, January's the month to get it started... with (often free-for-the-trimmin') grape cuttings!

061 grow your own grapes 2

PANEL 1: From January to March, the grape cuttings are stored head down in a hole. PANEL 2: Bundles of wintered-over cuttings—still tied and tagged—are ready for spring planting. PANEL 3: Future fruit producers are set out in a nursery row in early April. PANEL 4: A 2 1/2-year-old grapevine in fine health.


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Our Oklahoma farmstead has a warm, gentle slope—just to the south side of the house—where my wife Diane and I had, from the day we moved in, dreamed of building a grape arbor. Unfortunately, although we knew we wanted a "backyard vineyard", we didn't have the faintest idea how to grow grapes. Then one day—quite by accident—we noticed a small card tacked to the bulletin board at the County Agricultural Extension Service office: "Oklahoma Grape Growers Association meeting, second Wednesday of every month."

You can bet we went out of our way to attend the next meeting—and we learned a lot there, too—but, more important, we met Walter Riggs ... one of the local grape growers. I asked him if he had any grapevines for sale.

"Oh no!" Walt exclaimed. "I never sell my plants. But I'll tell you what ... if you come to see me in January, I'll give you as many cuttings as you want. Heck," he chuckled, "I'll even show you how to prune the vines!"

Do Your Homework

In the course of the next two months, I just about emptied my local library's shelves of books on every facet of grape culture: taking cuttings, soil management, planting, grafting, pruning ... even winemaking. In the process, I learned that grapes fall into four principal categories.

Vitis labrusca: the American or Fox-type grape, grown mainly east of the Rockies and in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada. (The familiar Concord grape is the leading and typical variety of this species.)

Vitis vinifera: the "Old World" grape, grown principally in California, Arizona, and lower Texas.

Vitis rotundifolia: found mostly in the south Atlantic and Gulf states. This species includes the muscadine and scuppernong varieties.

Vitis riparia: the "offspring" of the wild grape, and the most. widely distributed of any American species. It's highly resistant to phylloxera, a small insect that feeds on the roots of the grapevine.

Get Out in the Field

That January (1974), we showed up at Walt's place. His 200 eight-year-old vines sent canes running in mass confusion, and we began to understand why Mr. Riggs had chuckled when he offered to teach us about pruning.

He pointed out the main trunk of a vine.

"Look for the four arms—two on each side—with the best one-year-old growth," he told us.

We saw that two of such "super shoots" were down at the three-foot-level supporting wire, and two more were up at the five-foot-level strand.

"Now count out 15 buds on each of the four strong canes," he instructed, "and cut off the rest of the arm."

With that part of the task done, we trimmed off all the other canes, sprouts, and suckers ... being sure to leave two renewal spurs—with two buds apiece—at each level, to insure the growth of new fruiting canes for the next year's grape production.

I have to admit that we were shocked at first—to be cutting away 80% or more of the plant's growth, but we soon learned that, if the trimming weren't done, all the grape's vitality would go to supporting the tremendous vine ... and little "energy" wouId be left to produce fruit.

When we'd finished pruning and had raked all the cutoff growth from between the rows, our teacher pointed out the pattern of his vineyard. Upright posts (Walt used old railroad ties) were placed every 20 feet, while each vine was five feet from the nearest post and 10 feet from its closest neighboring plant.

Select Your Grapes

When our education in "grape basics was complete, Mr. Riggs helped us make cuttings for our own nursery bed at home. We looked over his offerings and gathered a number of one-year-old prunings. We chose three varieties.

Himrod: a white, seedless table grape ... not especially good for jelly or wine, but just wonderful for fresh-from-the-vine eating.

Landot 244: a French varietal grape, excellent for making a deep ruby wine... dry and very much like Beaujolais. (Walt said it should age well, if we could let it sit unsampled long enough.)

Concord: the all-time favorite for jams, jellies, and old-fashioned Concord wine.

We made bundles of 20 to 30 cuttings, all 10 to 12 inches long with four buds each. They were trimmed off square on the bottom and at an angle on the top so we'd know "which end was up" when planting time came around.

Care for Your Cuttings

Once we arrived back at our garden, we tagged the bundles, buried each of 'em heads-down in a 15-inch-deep hole (to keep them cool and dormant), and marked the locations with stakes.

Then, at the end of March (1974), we dug our cuttings up and—after careful sorting and selecting—set out 50 sprigs in our prepared nursery bed. We placed the sticks in a shallow trench—at an angle, so they'd catch the sun—covered the bottom halves, and were careful to leave two buds (per shoot) above the ground. (That way, if one bud didn't produce, there was always a second chance.)

When spring rolled around again (1975), we ended up with 20 vines to set out and a dozen to share with our neighbors. (According to one grape authority, a 50% Survival rate from cuttings is considered good, so we were really fortunate to have done so well.) 

Lay Out Your Vineyard

We laid out our grape arbor as Walt Riggs had taught us ... digging the holes (which would "house" our now rooted vines) three feet deep and ten feet apart. Since we have a lot of red clay in our earth, we filled the bottom of each pit with good topsoil ... to make it easier for our vines to get started. Carefully, we spread the roots of the young plants over the rich earth and gently packed more topsoil around them.

At that point, we went our own way a little. We followed the topsoil with alternate layers of old hay, a handful of wood ash, and two handfuls of rock phosphate. Just before we put on the last layer of hay, I worked in a shovelful of well-rotted cow manure. (Most grape growers in our area shy away from fertilizing. They tend to feel that the vines produce better grapes by having to work at it.) All through the summer and fall of that second season and the third, we cleared the new arbor of weeds by rototilling—just enough to break the soil—and kept the vines well mulched with spoiled hay.   

Prune Carefully

The new year arrived (January 1976), and it was time to prune. We picked out two lower and two upper canes on the main trunks, trimmed them back to 10 buds each, and cut off the rest of the growth.

And—since we didn't want to run into trouble with vine training later on—we set the posts and strung the wire. (Now our grape patch was starting to look like a real vineyard!)

Sure enough, the first tiny fruit clusters appeared that fall ... but we decided to pinch them back, and let the vines mature for one more year.

In January 1977 we again selected the four strongest and healthiest canes ... and this time (as we'd done at Walt's), we cut them back to 15buds each before removing all the other growth.   

Reap the Harvest

When fall came 'round again, we reaped our first harvest ... big clusters of fine, succulent fruit! Soon, there was jelly on the shelves and wine in the cellar (both of which provided us with special Christmas gifts for friends and relatives!).

Sure, it took work ... and time ... and patience to turn our free cuttings into a producing row of grapes, but that kind of "sweat equity" isn't much to pay for the great and glorious satisfaction of owning your own vineyard!