How to Grow Grapes

Muscadine grapes

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Grapevines serve many purposes. They produce table grapes to enjoy or for making grape jelly and juice, or grape leaves for cooking. You can also grow grapes to make your own wine. In a pergola or an arbor, grapevines provide natural shade creating a lovely, natural sitting area.

Grapevines are a long-term investment. It takes about three years for grapes to get established but once they go into full production, they are there to stay – grapevines can produce for up to 40 years.

Where to Grow Grapes

Grapes need a warm, sunny location with well-drained fertile soil that’s high in organic matter. Equally important for disease control is that the location has good air circulation.

Choosing Grape Varieties

Between American grapes, European grapes, and French-American hybrids, the huge variety of available grapes can be a bit overwhelming. To decide which ones to grow, check first whether the climate in your location is suitable for the more cold-tender European grape varieties, which require 160 or more frost free days, or whether you can only grow the more cold-hardy American grapes such as Concord or Niagara grapes and their hybrids.

If you live in a place where the temperatures frequently fall below minus 10 to 15 degrees F, growing grapes is not recommended.

Next, after you have narrowed down the varieties to those suitable for your climate, ask yourself what you want to use the grapes for: table grapes for eating or for wine-making? Or doesn’t it matter because they are primarily ornamental to create an arbor, and harvesting the grapes is just an added bonus?

Grapes on the vine in a vineyard in southwest Michigan
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Planting Grapes

Prior to planting, ideally six months to one year before, it is recommended you do a soil test to determine nutrient content and pH, which should be in the range of 5.5 and 6.5 depending on the grape variety. Also, amend the soil with ample organic matter during the fall before planting.

Grapes are planted as bare-root dormant plants (rooted cuttings) in the early spring as soon as the soil can be worked. 

Soak the roots of the plants for eight to 12 hours before planting. Dig a large hole deep enough so the roots are about four to six inches below the soil level, and large enough to spread out the roots. If any roots are damaged, remove them with a hand pruner or a knife. If you are planting more than one grapevine, leave eight to 10 feet between each plant.

Buds on vineyard grapes in the spring
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Keep the plants watered and weeded, and you should see some growth within a few weeks. At that stage, in order to get the roots established, some pruning is needed. Once the canes start growing, cut out all but the strongest of the canes. Then cut the remaining cane back so that it only has two to three nodes or buds. 

After the cane starts developing shoots, again cut out all but the two strongest shoots. Also remove any flowers.

Training Grapes

You can take your time deciding how to train or trellis your newly planted grapes. During the first year, a stake about five feet above the ground is sufficient. Loosely tie the cane to it. 

If you want to get started on a permanent trellis, place a post about six feet above the ground. As the grapevine grows, you will need to add a wire to train and support it.

Young grape vine buds in vineyard
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Fertilizing Grapes

Fertilizer recommendations for grapes vary. A baseline is 1/2 cup of a balanced 10‐10‐10 fertilizer per plant soon after it starts growing in the spring, and repeating this application after four weeks. Make sure not to spread any fertilizer within a one-foot range of the vine but spread it evenly over an area of four to five feet.

In the second year, and every year thereafter, fertilize at the same time. Apply one cup of a balanced 10‐10‐10 fertilizer in the spring when the vines start growing, always spreading the fertilizer away from the cane, which encourages the roots to spread out as they are reaching for the fertilizer.

Vigorous foliage may indicate excess nitrogen. Do a soil test to determine the nitrogen level in your soil, and use low-nitrogen fertilizer for the next couple of years.

Grape Pests and Problems

Grapes can be affected by a wide range of diseases. Common fungal diseases are black rot, downy and powdery mildew, botrytis bunch rot, eutypa dieback, bacterial diseases such as crown gall, and viruses such as leafroll disease.

Grape leaf affected by downy mildew
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Given the wide range of diseases, the best way to identify what ails your grapevines is to take a decent-size sample of the affected plant parts to your local Extension Office during the growing season.

Your first line of defense against grape diseases is planting resistant varieties. For example, the native muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia) has a better resistance against downy mildew than the European common grape (Vitis vinifera).

Keep in mind that American heirloom grape varieties such as Concord grapes, like all native plants, have generally better resistance to disease, as native plants are better adapted to the growing conditions in their native area.

The second most important step to control insects and diseases is good sanitation. Promptly remove and destroy any diseased leaves and fruit, otherwise they will infect new growth in the spring.

The application of a dormant spray can help reducing fungal diseases such as powdery mildew by killing the pathogens that overwinter in the grapevine.