Learn how to grow, trellis and prune the best grape varieties for your region so you can enjoy delicious, heart-healthy grapes in homemade jellies, jams, juice and wine.
Growing grapes organically can be done with all types of grape varieties, including table grapes, muscadine, labrusca and wine grapes.
Illustration By Keith Ward
Long-lived grapes can be grown in most climates, provided you choose appropriate varieties for your region. Cold-hardy varieties bred in Minnesota can survive temperatures to minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, while disease-resistant muscadine grapes excel in warm climates with limited winter chilling. Growing grapes organically is easier in the arid West than it is in the humid East, where disease prevention is a higher priority.
Learn more about various grape varieties and their best uses in our Grapes at a Glance chart.
Seedless table grapes produce juicy, thin-skinned berries great for eating fresh, drying as raisins or making into juice.
Labrusca grapes have wild North American grapes in their pedigree, which gives them a bold flavor ideal for juice and jelly. Labrusca grapes have good tolerance of cold winter temperatures.
Muscadine grapes are best grown in warm, humid climates and produce sweet berries with a robust, musky flavor excellent for fresh eating, juice, jelly or wine.
White wine grapes — which were created by crossing European and North American grapes — can be grown organically in hospitable sites. White wine grapes mature earlier than darker ones, so they are the best choice where summers are short. Some varieties, such as ‘Traminette,’ need only 110 days from bloom to harvest.
Red wine grapes take between 105 and 140 days after blossoming to ripen, so choose early-maturing varieties in cold climates. Red wine grapes can produce yields in excess of 30 pounds per plant.
In spring, set out purchased plants four to six weeks before your last frost, when the plants are emerging from dormancy. Grape varieties grown in containers can be planted up until early summer.
Growing grapes in full sun helps develop sweet, full-flavored fruits. Plants can produce fruit for decades if grown in deep, fertile soil that drains well. Before planting, dig out all perennial weeds and amend the soil with at least 2 inches of mature compost or other high-quality organic matter. If your soil tends to be acidic, use light applications of lime or wood ashes to raise the pH levels to between 5.6 and 6.2.
Most grapes should be planted 7 to 9 feet apart, with a durable trellis installed at planting time. After planting grapes, water them thoroughly and mulch the area beneath the plants with 2 to 4 inches of wood chips or another organic mulch.
Matching your trellis design and pruning practices to the natural growth habit of your chosen grapes will go a long way toward preventing disease and maximizing productivity. In general, ‘Concord’ grapes and other labrusca varieties produce downward-facing branches from long canes that form a cascade of foliage, so they do best on a high trellis or an arbor. Similarly, muscadine grapes are easiest to manage on an overhead rectangular trellis, sometimes called an “X trellis.” With these vigorous fruits, pruning should be geared toward preserving two to four 6-foot canes while trimming out excess growth.
Most table and wine grapes produce upward-facing shoots, so a two-tiered trellis that supports the branches as they gain height is best. Trellises of tightly woven wire are preferable because they do a good job of supporting the vines when they become heavy with fruit. Pruning of table and wine grapes should be aggressive — remove all old growth except for selected fruiting spurs. If you’re growing table grapes on an arbor, you can prune a little less if you want to get a thick cover of foliage.
Prune grapes in late winter, before the buds begin to swell. The first year after planting, concentrate on helping your young plants grow straight, sturdy trunks. The training of side branches will begin in the second year, with buds ready to bear fruit three years after planting. Each grape variety you grow will respond differently to various pruning practices, so be prepared to fine-tune your methods.
Grapes are ripe when they taste sweet. Early-maturing white or red varieties may be ready to pick a month before later-maturing blue or black grapes. Allow grapes to stay on the vine until the berries show a whitish bloom on their skins, but bring them in should a period of wet weather be in the forecast. Ripe grapes often crack after heavy rains.
Keep clusters of unwashed grapes in the refrigerator, stored in plastic bags to help retain humidity. Fresh or frozen grapes can be made into juice, jelly or wine. Seedless grapes are easiest to dry into raisins.
Grapes can be easily propagated by rooting 6-inch stem cuttings taken in late winter or early spring. When stuck 3 inches deep into an outdoor propagation bed or containers of moist potting soil, most of the cuttings will root within two months and be ready to set out the same growing season. Grapes should always be propagated from cuttings because they do not grow true from seed.
All grape diseases can be prevented in part with attentive trellising, pruning and mulching. In all areas, powdery mildew (evidenced by whitish patches on leaves) can weaken plants and reduce grape flavor. Preventive sprays with a 1-part-milk to 5-parts-water solution can minimize this problem.
Rare in the West, the fungal disease known as “black rot” is a constant threat to Eastern grapes. Plants often need regular sprays with organic, copper-based fungicides, even if the variety is disease-tolerant. Microbial fungicides based on Bacillus subtilis (such as Serenade) can also offer significant protection.
In the Sun Belt, gardeners should choose varieties with resistance to Pierce’s Disease, common in warm-climate soils. Good choices include ‘Black Spanish,’ ‘Blanc du Bois’ and ‘Victoria Red.’
Grape leaves are among the favorite foods of Japanese beetles, and the fruits are a beloved snack of many wild birds. Early-season handpicking of beetles is essential to good control, and tulle netting can help protect plants from hungry birds.
Read more: Learn more about the grape varieties that work best for making homemade jellies, juice and wine with our Grapes at a Glance chart.
Seedless table grapes are perfect for snacking, can be added to salads or chutneys, or can be dried for raisins. All types of grapes give up their juice when barely heated to a simmer before being crushed and drained. Refrigerate grape juice for at least 24 hours to allow it to clear, then pour off the juice and discard the tartaric acid crystals at the bottom of the container. Grape juice can be canned, frozen, or made into jelly or wine.
Grapes provide fiber, potassium and a smattering of vitamins and minerals, but their real nutritional punch comes from phenols and antioxidants, which are most abundant in dark-colored grapes. The antioxidants in dark purple grape juice can improve brain functioning, and both juice and wine made from dark grapes are good for your heart.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.
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