The Vineyard: How to Grow Grapes

John Vivian shares his vineyard experience of how to grow grapes, including growing wild grapes, grape planting and care, and pruning of grapevines.

| September/October 1975

  • Red grapes on grapevines
    The wild purple grapes have too acid and "foxy" a flavor to make even a barely palatable dry dinner-type wine. The reds, perhaps with a bit of purple mixed in, can be coaxed into a fair dry wine, and both types make good dessert or aperitif sweet wines.

  • Red grapes on grapevines

Reprinted from The Manual of Practical Homesteading, copyright © 1975 by John Vivian, with the permission of Rhodale Press, Inc. 

That old saw "Write what you know" may be a cliché by this time, but it's still a pretty good rule for authors, and it gets broken more often than it should in the literature of the back-to-the-land movement. A happy exception is a new book from Rodale Press: The Manual of Practical Homesteading by John Vivian. John and his wife, Louise, are former city slickers who've spent the last seven years learning — the hard way — how to live on their land in central Massachusetts, and the fruits of their experience are packed solidly into a 340-page guide that really lives up to its name. No one system is right for all areas or all individuals, of course, but the Vivians' gardening, stock-raising and food preservation techniques make a lot of sense for large portions of the U.S. and Canada, and the couple's down-to-earth approach to their new lifestyle is a good model for settlers anywhere. 

Early Viking explorers who reached New England named the new continent Vineland after the masses of wild grape vines growing thick in the forests. Most coastal woodlands, of course, have been replaced with housing developments or paved over with asphalt. But out here in our little backwater the maples, hickories and evergreens still grow tall, and play host to vines that most every fall grow heavy with clusters of red and purple native grapes.

Wild Grapes

It's safe to say that most wild grapes go to feed the birds, as well they ought. The plants require full sun, so in the woods, the vines send their woody trunks up to the tree tops. There they leaf out and bear fruit, hidden from the gaze of any human down below by all the tree limbs and leaves. In early fall when I'm getting the land in shape for winter, Louise prospects the woods for fall mushrooms, hickory and walnuts — and grapevines. Each ropy vine gets a sharp pull, perhaps one time out of ten producing a shower of ripe grapes. Each wild vine is an individual, some with tiny, bitter fruit that are mainly seed, others sour, most with just a few berries. But occasionally one will prove to be a wonderful surprise, with great clusters of juicy, sweet grapes.


If the vine is in dense woods, Louise just remembers the spot for future mid-hike treats. But if there is a clearing within reach of the long trunk, and some are over fifty feet in height, we make a return visit to attempt "civilizing" the plant by pulling it down. Some vines refuse to cooperate; they are so well tangled in the trees they won't budge. They will be good for at least a generation of kids' games of Tarzan of the Apes. Those that do come down leave a lot of growth in the trees. This is a benefit, surprisingly. Wild grapes, just like their domesticated relatives, produce more and better crops if they are well pruned each year.

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