The Vineyard: How to Grow Grapes

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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.

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.

The final step is to build an arbor in the nearest sunny spot within reach of the vine. For each vine, I cut four stout saplings with a fork about ten feet off the ground. Cut and trimmed, they are set into two-foot-deep holes in a six by twelve rectangle. I fill the holes with rocks, and later with a concrete slurry if they are near enough to the house or a water supply that the hauling isn’t a big chore. A framework of saplings is laid in the forks of the uprights, more poles are laid over them, and we weave the vine into its new home. If removal from its original tree hasn’t done enough pruning, we cut the vine back, ideally so that only its four strongest tendrils remain. These are cut to no more than twelve feet long and all but a half-dozen of the pencil-thin old fruiting canes are removed from each one. Probably well over three quarters of each vine is pruned off, and the pruning is repeated each fall. But the vines respond dramatically, producing great clusters of fruits that are often twice the size of the earlier fully wild crop.

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. Both kinds of grapes produce superb jellies, too. In a good grape year a single tamed vine has produced enough purple Concord-type grapes to supply our year’s jelly needs and a goodly supply for several neighbors. As each year sees one or more new vines added to the family, our wine production increases.

Sissy Grapes


Other than their annual pruning, the wild grapes get no attention. However, the more delicate grafted fancy varieties need more care, since most are descended from vines developed in the balmier climates of France, northern California or the Finger Lakes region of upper New York State. Indeed, it took several years before we found a bought grape vine that would survive our frosty climate, to say nothing of producing a crop. The superb blue variety Alden and the white seedless Interlaken managed to survive our minus 30 degree  winters, but only from ground level down. Top growth was killed back each winter no matter how heavily I mulched.

So far we are having good luck with the Delaware red grape and Worden and Van Buren of the Concord family, but they are not all that different from the wild grapes. We have hopes for another good white seedless variety, Himrod, and a hardy wine grape called Seibel 9549 by the Millers’ Nursery, but the final results aren’t in yet. Our objective in all this is to come up with a completely hardy grape that will produce a really good dry, red dinner wine. Since none of the professional hybridizers have been able to do it as yet, I really don’t have much hope, but there’s no harm in trying.

Grape Planting and Care


Two-year-old grape vines when received from the nursery are puny looking things, requiring a planting hole no more than a foot across and deep. I dig out this cubic foot of soil, remove rocks, scatter a cup of bone meal on the bottom, then mix it with a couple of shovelfuls of peat, a little lime, a shovel of mature compost, plus enough soil to fill the hole. Roots are trimmed to a six-inch length, spread in a circle and the soil mixture is firmed very well around them, the top left in a shallow dish-like depression to hold water. Like all newly-planted vines, bushes and trees, the grapes receive a good watering each week of summer and fall that we have less than an inch of rain.

I locate the vines against the vertical supports on one of the twelve- to fifteen-foot arbors on the orchard hillside. They have either a reclaimed native or one of the ranker-growing domestics growing at each end to provide arbor cover. The first year young vines need no training, but at planting are pruned of all but the single strongest cane, and this is cut off so that only the two base buds remain. The second spring, after hard frosts are done, but well before buds begin to swell, the vine is pruned again of all but the single best cane and this is tied with baling twine to two horizontal wires stretched between the arbor posts, one thirty inches from the ground, the other two feet above that. The third year the vine is a healthy adolescent five-year-old and we can expect a first small set of fruit. I choose the two best canes at each side of the main trunk and tie them out to the wires at each side. All others are cut off at the trunk, but the two second-best (thickest) canes are cut nearest the wire levels. They are pruned to two buds apiece and will provide the fruiting canes for next year. In succeeding years the old fruiting canes are removed and the same new cane selection, training and pruning as in year three is repeated.


In time the trunk around the wires will get pretty knotty, but that is normal and will not interfere with the vine’s productivity. To get the most good grape clusters, many vines should have fruiting canes pruned to a certain number of fruiting buds — and it takes experience to tell just how many. A young or weak plant should only be allowed to produce on five or so buds per cane, and you go on up from there. Productivity is further increased by a constant heavy mulch/fertilizer applied each spring. I pile rocks around at the vine’s base and each year dump on a good six-inch layer of soiled bedding from the goat pen.

We rely on the native plant’s built-in vigor to carry them through disease and pest problems, and though there have been years when the crop failed, we have never lost a wild vine. The domestics are more vulnerable, though, and require attention, especially during the first two years when their foliage cover is thin and their root structures immature. Most years from mid-May into June we have a big hatch of rose chafers, skinny beetles with tan bodies, brown heads, and long, thorny legs. Hand picking for three or four days is usually effective. If not, I wrap the worst-chewed vines in plastic sheeting, leaving the top open so the vine won’t toast. If the plastic “tube” thus created rises five or six feet above ground level the bugs won’t try to fly over it.

Our summers are seldom humid enough for mildews to be much of a problem, and being on a hillside, the orchard air drains and flows constantly, which also keeps bacterial diseases from doing much damage. Still, I make a weekly inspection, removing all shriveled or wizened fruit and pulling, then composting or burning, any leaves with a powdery white deposit or black spots.

In late summer we have always had legions of Japanese beetles, the beautifully iridescent but voracious Oriental immigrant that tends to congregate in groups on the tops of large, flat leaves, and which sticks its prickly hind legs up at you when disturbed. In a bad year the beetles can ruin both foliage and fruit of grapes, cane berries as well as several vegetables. For a while we tried hand picking the bugs, jiggling leaves so the beetles would let go, then catching them in cans half full of water with a thin layer of kerosene on top. However, since they have a considerable flying range, we would just have a new crop each morning.

A few springs ago when we expected a really good grape harvest we swallowed hard and spent over sixty dollars for a ten-pound drum of DOOM, one brand name of the milky spore disease which government scientists found in the Japanese beetle populations in a part of New Jersey some years back. Ours came from one of the firms licensed by the U.S.D.A. to make the stuff, Fairfax Biological Control Laboratory. When spread by the spoonful in a four-by-four-foot grid in cropped or mowed sod and garden soil (where the beetles lay eggs) around the home place and orchard, the disease will attack the beetles in their grub stage. It will live on in the soil, being passed from generation to generation of beetle grubs, and will slowly expand out from our place wherever the beetles go. Milky spore will never completely eradicate the beetle, simply keep it in natural check so that it won’t appear in huge numbers and do serious crop damage.

Even milky spore disease’s most ardent fans admit that the effect is slow to take hold, and we still have more beetles than we’d like. But they do seem to become fewer each summer. Last year was the first time I didn’t have to cover the best grape clusters with plastic bags till the Japanese beetles left. Perhaps next year they will be nothing more than an occasional curiosity.

If anyone is thinking that sixty dollars is a lot of folding money to spend getting a two-acre plot of sod rid of just one kind of bug, I might agree. But the cash and environmental savings are a lot greater than if we used whatever poisons they dream up to replace DDT over the next decade or so. And besides, I consider that money something of an investment in all our futures. Milky spore will spread out slowly from wherever it’s applied and sooner or later the spread from ours will meet the spread from someone else’s. The more folks use the stuff, the faster Japanese beetles will come under natural biological control, the better and easier will be gardening for us all, and there will be just one less excuse for the chemical companies to claim their poisons are the only thing keeping the human race from starvation.

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