In deep summer now the grape vines are lush and dark green, beautiful, and with clusters of still unripe grapes hidden under the broad leaves. A couple of months from now the grapes will be ripe and the family can decide to eat them fresh, or make raisins, or make wine or grape juice.
Besides food, grape vines provide me with shade and privacy, since the vines can be — must be — trained to provide architectural structure in the edible landscape and to keep them healthy.
I got into growing grapes by accident, almost 30 years ago, although I had been exposed to the idea of grapes and vineyards as a young child, in the Central Valley of California. But much later, in North Carolina, my husband and I bought an old house that had a broken-down grape arbor smothered by vines in the back yard. Since I didn't know what else to do, at the tender age of 29, I cut the two or three vines down to the ground — figuring I had killed the whole thing and could start over with something new.
The next year, though, vigorous new vines emerged, and the year after that the kids and I harvested 40 pounds of grapes. We learned how to make grape juice and grape jelly.
As The Encyclopedia of Organic Growing puts it, "Of all the fruits grown in America, grapes are the most widely adapted to varying soils and climates. Our first settlers found grapes growing from the coast of Maine to Florida and inland to the Rockies." Good and good for you, grapes will grow just about anywhere.
Here's all they need:
- good air circulation around the canes (the slender vine-like branches)
- loose, not too fertile soil with good drainage (a slope is good)
- lots of sun and no competition from nearby trees
- support from an arbor, trellis, or porch railing
Grape vines need something else to produce a good crop of grapes: pruning. Perhaps it's the idea of having to prune grapes every year that scares people, but I have learned over many seasons that pruning isn't difficult. I'll tell you more in a bit.
Eat and drink grapes
Plant whatever kind of grapes you find. Plant everything. The more diversity the better; whatever is available locally will be cheapest, and if nothing else, grape vines are easy to produce and usually on sale somewhere. I got a lot of my grape vines from 4-H youth fundraisers in my town, usually for $5 apiece.
Grape plants take a few years to get established and create a strong enough root system to support fruit production. So don't worry at all if you don't see any sign of grapes for a long while. All of a sudden it happens, and the long lead time lets you get some practice with pruning before the plants get really big.
Once your grape vines start producing fruit, there are all sorts of things you can do with the grapes besides eating them fresh. If there are children in the house, you might enjoy making grape juice, then pasteurizing and canning it to keep a supply through the winter. Adult grape growers often start making wine, and at the moment I have two gallons bubbling away in a cool closet.
My husband likes to make a delicious kind of raisin from pulpy, juicy muscadine grapes which we pick at a farm nearby. He uses the dehydrator to make "muscadine mini-leathers" and then stores them in Mason jars. The Cherokee Indians have a recipe for making grape dumplings -- noodles made with wild grape juice as a binding agent and then simmered in more grape juice. That recipe appears in my book Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines,herbs and flowers for your landscape. And I have made pickled grape leaves and canned them, for use in making stuffed grape leaves, a favorite Middle Eastern dish.
Then there are quirky recipes like sugared grapes and grape leaf wine.
Wine grapes grow, famously, in California, Chile, and the Mediterranean countries…all dry places with thin, rocky soil and little rainfall. But while traveling in relatively lush Hungary many years ago I saw grapes growing practically in water, where farmhouses sat next to creeks and grapevines were trained high around porch supports. Here in America, wild grapes grow high up in trees and scent the air, near forest edges. In any case, grapes need something to cling to and grow around.
At my house, early and mid-summer means training time, and it seems to go on forever. Until the vines have matured and hardened in late summer and through the fall, the vines want to reach out and grab something — anything — including the porch furniture and any tools left around.
So almost every day I spend some time basket-weaving the supple young vines, the new growth from the previous night, through the porch supports and stair railings. And I have to trim leaves to keep them from overwhelming the living space, being careful to avoid those that are sheltering grapes from the view of birds and squirrels.
A bit earlier in the season, in spring, one of my favorite events in nature's calendar is to watch the tiny pink grape buds emerge from the tender leaves. The actual flowers are tiny, but as the flowers appear they will attract lots of small pollinating bugs.
The real pruning, rather than just the summer grooming, takes place in early winter, as soon as the leaves are off and growth has stopped. Here's what The Encyclopedia of Organic Growing says: "Grapes develop on the growth of the current year. Buds left on the vine at pruning time will produce fruit in summer. Year-old wood is the best yielder of fruit."
My practice is to plant grape vines where they can easily reach training wires or other support, then prune back each major cane to just two buds — two nodules or bumps — each year. No matter how much vine and leaf you have to remove from the summer just finished, prune the canes back hard to just two buds.
Believe it or not, the vines will grow right back. It's almost impossible to kill a grape vine, so experiment away.
As always, the best source of local information about varieties, suppliers, and care of grape vines is your county Cooperative Extension office, or "Ag Extension." Click on your state and then follow the links to your county.
Nan K. Chase grows her grapes in Asheville, North Carolina, and is the author of Eat Your Yard!.