Grow Grapes of Your Own

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PHOTO: GORDON TILLOTSON
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.

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!