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Grow Your Own Grapes

Do you long to grow grapes without spray, but think it's hopeless? You've a better chance than you might think. I've worked with grapes in several ways: as a private grape breeder and former graduate student of one of America's foremost grape breeders; as a member of the North American Grape Breeders; growing a collection of over 200 varieties (out of an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 worldwide); and serving over 20 years as both chairman and consultant for the grape interest group of the North American Fruit Explorers.

So I know "versatile" is practically a synonym for grapes. Counting all varieties and species, grapes can be grown from the tropics to at least as far north as latitude 56, or a temperature range of over 100oF (40oC) to -50oF (-45oC) and a bit colder. HOWEVER, to encompass "easy-care" grapes, expand your image of them to more than just hard, crisp, neutral flavored, seedless "grocery store grapes", shipped from California or a similar, Mediterranean climate. Many "low-care" grapes are soft and juicy, have seeds and/or tough skins, and distinctive (but good) flavors. Accept that and there are almost certainly grapes you can grow without spray for disease (though not without work). Even "grocery store grapes" can be grown in a fair number of areas. And changing another image helps. When people go tasting in my collection I often hand them a cluster without telling what it is. They may note the berries are small and have seeds, but they forget that as soon as they taste and start to rave. THEN I tell them they are eating "wine" grapes.

Grapes for wine have high sugar and balanced acid, which as any fruit connoisseur knows, makes for the best flavor. And several "wine" grapes are easy-grow types. Few varieties can always be grown without spray - somewhere, under some conditions, every grape can develop at least some disease if conditions are severe enough,but the right varieties in the right climates can be very healthy and easy to grow. So we'll begin with a "core" of known easy-grow grapes and their climates and show you how to go from there. Odds are good you'll be able to add several more that are "easy-grow" in your area. When looking at varieties for the climate most like yours, don't overlook the others, because some varieties adapt to more than one set of conditions.

In the Upper Midwest and Northeast U.S., summer rainfall and humidity are enough that fungal diseases are common, though not severe every year, and moderate disease resistance generally suffices, though varieties must be hardy enough to survive the winter. Winter temperatures may often reach -30oF, with colder temperatures possible, andsummer heat units often total less than 2,000.

Three of the best easy-grow types for these areas include;"Edelweiss", an early white grape from the late private breeder Elmer Swenson, hardy to -30oF (-35oC) and with excellent disease resistance. It has a mild labrusca flavor, similar to "Niagara", though it susceptible to downy mildew, and somewhat susceptible to powdery mildew. "Valiant", the current hardiness champ (to -50o and lower), can also get black rot and is disease-free only where summer has little rainfall and low humidity. Cold-winter states where Valiant and Beta do well without spray include parts of Colorado, Montana, and the Dakotas.

Moving south, approximately around mid-Ohio, longer, warmer summers with more heat units (3,000 or more is common) make it possible to grow more varieties. Winter lows usually go no lower than -20o to -25oF(approximately -30oC), and are usually milder, hardiness becomes less vital,though the best vines still have good hardiness, to help them in the harshest years. But more disease resistance is needed. Several of the grapes of T.V.Munson grow well here. Some include: "Albania", a white grape ripening with or after Catawba, but with an unusual flavor not exactly like the common American grape: "America", a variety with only American grape species in it's parentage, a cross of Vitis lincecumii with V. rupestris. America is actually very hardy, able to survive -30 to -35o(-35oC to -37oC) and grow well up into Minnesota, but in the cooler summers of such northern areas it is too acid. Except for that it would be as close to a "universal" grape as any, with disease resistance that allows it to grow well into the humid areas of the mid South. The black berries have colored juice and a flavor like black currants with a dash of wintergreen that may seem odd if you're used to Concord, but it's easy to learn to like.

America does have the flaw of having female flowers (most modern varieties are perfect flowered), so it has to be next to a perfect flowered variety that blooms at the same time. One that works is "Manito", another Munson grape, a delightful, firm black grape with a refreshing, light fruity flavor. Early (two weeks before Concord) and hardy enough to grow up into New York, it's also good well into Tennessee and Kentucky. "Nitodal" comes on a short time before Concord and has a sprightly flavor. Originally described as a dark red grape, by it's creator, Munson (again), it gets nearly black in cooler areas than the Denison, Texas area where it was bred.

If you like "Delaware", "Beaumont" is one of it's descendants with much improved disease resistance. Bred by the late Byron Johnson in southern Ohio for wine (but remember what we said about the high flavor of wine grapes for fresh eating), it is early enough, combined with it's high resistance to disease as well as good hardiness (having withstood -25oF in 1993-94) to be an easy-grow grape over a large area. Finally, nurseryman Hector Black in Tennessee speaks very highly of T.V. Munson's "Ellen Scott" as a very late, high quality easy-grow black table grape to finish the season, though it will crack if there is much rain at ripening time.

Moving into the Deep South, starting around the lowlands of the Carolinas, west into Texas, the summers are warm enough to ripen any grape(often with 5,000 heat units), but are very humid with high summer rainfall,making fungus diseases rampant. Additionally, the bacterial disease known as Pierce's Disease is a severe problem. P.D. either kills or weakens nonresistant vines so much they aren't worth growing. There is NO ready treatment for it, so grapes HAVE to be resistant. The disease exists in other areas, but is only severe here because of high activity of a species of leafhopper insect that transmits early to midsummer and their vines are much larger and more vigorous than the average bunch grape. Where a bunch grape needs eight feet of trellis, a muscadine would fill 15 to 20 feet. The fruit is amazingly aromatic and can be smelled many yards away when ripe. Muscadines require more heat, ripen much later than bunch grapes, have fewer berries to the cluster (5 to 15 is an average range) and drop from the cluster when ripe, with a dry scar. A common method of harvesting them is to spread a sheet under the vine and shake the ripe fruit into it. The species has large berries, even in the wild, and fruit 1´ inches (4 cm) in diameter is not uncommon. Most muscadines have much tougher skin than other American grapes. Folks in Muscadine country know you bite the fruit until it "pops", then swallow the slippery pulp and spit out the "hulls".

Fruit colors are different, with some an unusual "bronze" color, as though they had been dipped in the metal, while others range from near-black to a dull purple. They are excellent for juice, with some used for wines, usually only sweet wine, though. They are an acquired taste, but it took me about three berries to acquire the taste when I first met up with them. Unfortunately, they need the hot summers and mild winters of the deep South to perform well so most of us can't grow them.

Difficult to root from dormant cuttings, Muscadines either have to be propagated by layering, or by rooting green cuttings in a mist bench. For those who live where it is hard to import plants, growing seed of good selections is a useful alternative. While seedlings won't necessarily be like the parent, Muscadines produce a much higher percentage of good quality seedlings than other grapes. 20% or more of Muscadine seedlings will have good quality and high yield, versus less than 1% of seedlings from other types of grapes. Muscadines were brought into cultivation more recently than other grapes and for a long time all varieties were females, needing male vines to pollinate them. Now there are perfect flowered types which do not need a pollinator and which will pollinate the female varieties. Muscadines are not uniform in disease resistance and haven't been tested long enough in different areas for all information to be in, so it helps to take advantage of local experience if you haven't time or space to plant a range of varieties. However, if you have the only vines in the area, odds are they will stay clean. Major disease is more common in large commercial-size plantings that are big enough to let it build up. Two old and two new varieties to give a starting point include: "Scuppernong", one of the very oldest, said to have been grown and named by American Indians. It has very large bronze berries that can often be 1´ inches in diameter. Like most old muscadines, it is female, needing a pollinator. "Hunt", another old female variety, has black berries that are smaller and about two weeks earlier than Scuppernong. "Golden Isles" is a recent, light bronze,perfect flowered variety bred for wine. That just means it is very productive and has a milder flavor, but otherwise can be eaten much like other muscadines. In Georgia, where it was bred, "Golden Isles" showed enough disease resistance to be grown without a pest control program. The final variety is "Cowart", a perfect flowered black variety of good resistance which ripens about two weeks before "Golden Isles".

Some bunch grapes have been bred using V. simpsonii and other species resistant to Pierce's Disease such as that succeed without spray in areas of the deepest South, into Florida, but results are not consistent enough to make unqualified recommendations, so growers need to try varieties on an individual basis. Names to look for include ways in tropical climates. A grape breeding friend found an old vine of the American grape "Isabella" in Hawaii which had "gone native" and was continuing to grow, bloom and set fruit all year around. Vinifera grapes can be adapted to tropical climates by picking all the leaves off after the fruit has been harvested to trick the vine into going dormant without being exposed to cold. After a rest period, the vine is watered and fertilized and starts to grow as though it was spring.

Going west into areas like central Arkansas, on into Texas, summers are still very hot and humid, so fungus disease is rampant, but there are areas where winter is too cold(between -5oF and -15oF [-17o to -22oC]) for muscadines. Also, there may be problems such as the high lime soils of Texas. A variety proven carefree in the former area is "Cynthiana", a very healthy, productive variety grown commercially for red wine. Though it's berries are small, it has large, attractive clusters. America, mentioned earlier, is worth a try, too, with it's cast-iron constitution. In the problem-soil areas "Nitodal" (mentioned earlier) looks promising and the old Munson variety "Champanel" grows well much of the time. The latter is a small-berried, black grape that can grow for years with no care at all. Fruit is rather like Concord, one of it's parents. It does color before it is really ripe, so be sure to leave it long enough to sweeten up. "Elvicand", a red berried, extremely vigorous variety stands up to the heat and disease of central Texas and has a unique peppery flavor.

When you get to the west, including the Desert Southwest, California and the Pacific Northwest, the climate is Mediterranean and summers are dry, and you've got it made as an organic grower because so few diseases grow here. Powdery mildew is one, able to grow in dry climates, but it's usually only on pure vinifera grapes. So almost any grape, except the pure vinifera (Thompson Seedless, Flame, Tokay, Zinfandel, and the like) are easy-grow, with little disease to bedevil them. All you need to allow for is the amount of heat needed for ripening, with nearly anything able to grow in the southern areas, the heat units ranging from 2,000 to 5,000. Eastern labrusca- type grapes may be flat and lacking in flavor here. In the cool summers of the Pacific Northwest (heat units may be as low as 1,100 or less in the coolest areas) grapes must ripen earlier, before fall rains slow ripening and cause cracking and botrytis rot in the fruit of susceptible varieties. Only a comparative few hybrid grapes are susceptible to such fruit rot, though.

Since most any grape except vinifera is spray-free in this area, we'll list varieties for cooler short-summer areas. For ripening time comparison, Thompson Seedless (Sultanina) is late in the Northwest, about a week after Concord, the most common standard of ripening time, being ready to harvest between the first and second week of October in much of the U.S. where it is grown commercially. In the cool areas covered below, it would be considered midseason to late. Several seedless grapes do well here, including: "Canadice", with it's compact clusters of red berries able to ripen even in the cool areas around Puget Sound. It must be pruned closely or thinned to prevent overcropping, though. "Vanessa" is a red seedless from Vineland, Ontario that is as firm and flavorful as Flame but earlier and less fussy about soil. It is vigorous and not always productive when young, but stands up to fall rain well. "Reliance" is a little prone to cracking if hit by rain when it is ripe, but other than that it's a very reliable heavy producer. "Himrod" and "Interlaken" are Montana, the Dakotas, etc. Summers here are warm and dry enough that disease is rarely a problem, if the frost-free season is long enough and the vines are hardy enough to survive the numbing winters. "Easy-grow" here means "hardy" more than "disease resistant". In addition to the hardy varieties mentioned earlier, such as Bluebell, Kay Gray, and Edelweiss, varieties for this area include "Valiant", with it's small clusters of small blue Concord-flavored berries and hardiness to -50oF; "Beta", similar in hardiness though with larger clusters and more acid in the berries; Minnesota #78, a female flowered, blue seedling of Beta that is only slightly less hardy, but with sweeter, better flavor. A number of the old varieties bred by Nels Hansen in South Dakota early in this century are worth trying.(see chart).

This is only the tip of the iceberg as to what exists in grapes. If we've succeeded in getting you interested, the sources given will take a serious seeker a long way in finding more "easy-grow" varieties and information. Now that you've got a grape or two to grow, remember that proper culture techniques are just as necessary to keep grapes healthy as disease resistance. Freedom from fungal infections such as black rot, anthracnose(birds-eye rot), downy mildew and powdery mildew, (the ones most growers will have to contend with) means good culture, too. It may take a bit more work, but it really pays in the long run.

Before you plant, take the following into consideration:


Site and soil are two of the most important factors in growing grapes. Proper site can make the difference between healthy and unhealthy grapes. A grower in Massachusetts had Concord vines both on a slope with good air drainage and in a low pocket where air settled and stagnated. The vines were only a few hundred feet apart, but the upland vines were usually healthy while the low ones were diseased most years. Good air circulation keeps vines dry, robbing fungus of moisture it needs to grow and blows away spores before they settle on the vines. A site should have open air circulation, though not excessive wind that could break shoots. It should have good air and water drainage, and be free of low spots that could collect water or act like frost pockets or dead air spaces which would encourage disease. Slopes should ideally face south or east. West or north facing slopes get sun late in the day, allowing dew and cold air to remain around the vines longer. Row direction is important. If possible, rows should parallel prevailing winds so breezes dry vines after rain and reduce humidity around them. Thus, with prevailing wind from the west, rows should run east to west to let it blow through the aisles. I have both north-south and east-west rows and in 1993, an unusually cool wet year, north-south rows (against the prevailing wind) had more powdery mildew than east-west ones, parallel to it. Keep in mind, if you have hot summers, east-west rows may require different training systems to shade south-facing fruit to prevent sun scald.


When you fertilize, keep it light. Heavy feeding is mainly for young grapes to get them up to size. Mature vines fed too much nitrogen become over vigorous and dense growth can be hard to keep disease-free. Also,excess nitrogen causes flower clusters to "shatter" (flowers fall off),reducing fruit set. Additionally, not all varieties like the same soil. For example, "Ontario", a white grape bred in Geneva, New York likes a fertile, slightly sandy loam for best growth. And since it's a parent of many of the Geneva varieties, such as Himrod, Interlaken, Lakemont,Schuyler, etc., many of those prefer similar soil. In soil they don't like they are less vigorous, have smaller berries, less acidity the vines grow slowly and won't bear.

On the other hand, Vitis vinifera and a number of Munson's varieties can tolerate a fair amount of alkalinity, close to 8.0 pH. Generally, vines do best at 6.5 to 7.2.


Most grapes are sold bare root and need attention on arrival. Inspect your vine(s). They should have a good root system with at least two large (3/16 to ¨ inch diameter) roots and a number of smaller ones. Untrimmed is best, but even roots cut to 6 inches are acceptable if there are plenty of them and they have no discolored or damaged areas. Cut one to see if it is firm and light-colored inside. Soft, spongy roots that are dark brownish or watery looking inside may have been frozen. Such a vine may not grow.

Shoots are less critical, as long as the roots are healthy. A vine may have as little as two inches of new shoot on the original cutting and still grow well if it has a good root system. New vines need no pruning other than to cut broken or dead roots or shoots off just back of the break. If the vine can't be planted immediately, heel it in soil or moist,aged sawdust (fresh sawdust could burn it). Soak the vine in water for several hours before planting to replace water lost in storage and shipping. If fall planting is possible where you live, it lets grape roots grow until the ground freezes, establishing the vine better for faster growth in spring. However, vines are often not available until late winter, for spring planting. The planting hole should accommodate all roots without cutting or bending any. Plant the vine the same height it was in the nursery (visible as a dark area on the trunk) with the roots spread evenly over a small mound of soil. Do NOT use compost or similar soil amendments in the hole or the vine tends to keep it's roots there, as though it was planted in a pot,rather than move into surrounding soil. Use only small amounts of soluble fertilizer in the hole, putting soil amendments on top of the soil as mulch. Standard spacing for most bunch grapes is 8 feet apart in the row, with rows from 8 to 12 feet apart. Wider is better for air circulation and in-row mowing, etc. as vines fill in during the summer.

Muscadines should be 15 to 20 feet apart in the rows, with 12 feet or more between rows. It is possible to grow vines up the trellis the same year they are planted, using drip irrigation and regular fertilizer, but the average home grower is better off to let the vine grow undisturbed the first year to get it well established. The second year it can be cut back to two buds in late winter, letting the vigor of the established vine be channeled into those new shoots, and trained up that season.


Like the right site, the right training system makes a BIG difference. The old four cane Kniffen system is a good because it spreads out the fruit and exposes the vine to good air circulation. A better variation is training the fruiting canes in a fan shape. Even better is a system used by wine grape growers, training fruiting canes vertically, like a candelabra,up a high trellis of five or more horizontal wires. Each wire is about afoot higher than the one beneath it, starting three feet from the ground. Shoots always grow upwards on this eight foot high trellis, never hanging over to create pockets of uncirculating air. The Geneva Double Curtain, by comparison, is a two-edged sword. Yields are greater, but the double curtain traps air between it, creating a "dead air" zone where lack of air movement encourages disease.


Sanitation is extremely important to healthy grapes. Fungal diseases overwinter on dead leaves, mummified fruit, and on bark, so clean up the vineyard as soon as possible at season's end to make for healthier grapes.

Article copyright of Lon Rombough, reproduced with author's permission.

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