Great Grapes for Organic Gardens

The secret to growing grapes without a lot of fuss or toxic treatments

By Amy Stewart

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Every summer when I was a kid, my mother took me to visit her parents, who lived on the shores of a lake in east Texas. When we arrived, we always headed straight to their grapevines to pick and eat the fresh, juicy fruit. This was not a fancy grape-growing enterprise—just a couple purple 'Concord' grapevines climbing a metal trellis in a vacant lot. These grapes got very little attention between our visits. My grandparents pruned them and tied on new strips of flash tape to keep the birds away, but apart from that, the grapes were on their own.

A local mix of weeds and wildflowers served as cover crops. A diverse population of insects pollinated the flowers. The creek running into the lake kept water available to the roots. Disease must have struck from time to time, but the vines seemed to shrug it off and keep bearing bunches of the fruit that brought us back each visit.

As a gardener now, I know that the secret to growing grapes (or anything else) without a lot of fuss or toxic treatments is to grow plants that will flourish in my climate, just as those grapes did in east Texas. Whether you have room for a small vineyard or just a few vines climbing over the patio, you and your family can enjoy homegrown grapes. The secrets to success are simple and manageable for even a novice gardener.

Light and Air
"Find a site that's got good drainage and as much sun as you can get," emphasizes Lon Rombough, nurseryman and author of The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture. "If you don't have a spot with full sun, make sure you've got morning sun, especially in cooler climates. That'll get the vine warmed up and get its metabolism going, so to speak."

Air circulation is vital to preventing disease. "Don't park your vine in a corner with a fence on two sides," Rombough warns. "That would just block all the air movement." Given those constraints, though, he's seen some creative ideas for fitting grapevines into small spaces, including a trellis that was partially shaded but tall enough to allow the vines to climb up and reach full sun high above the rest of the garden.

As a backyard gardener, be realistic about the number of vines that you can plant in a small space. Unlike many other types of fruit-bearing plants, most grapes will produce a healthy crop from just one vine—no pollination-partner necessary. A single grapevine can scramble up an arbor and provide leafy green shade all summer. In a vineyard, most growers space grapes 8 feet apart in rows with 8 feet between them; in even the most compact quarters, allow at least 3 feet between vines.

Smart choices and Planting Hints
You can choose from dozens of grape varieties, so how do you select the right ones for your garden? Start by looking for those that are disease-resistant—and in almost every case, that means growing grapes with seeds. Seedless varieties, Rombough explains, have not been bred with disease resistance as a priority. "There are a lot of very tasty seeded grapes out there," he adds. "I swallow the seeds with the fruit and don't even notice them."

When choosing grape varieties, also consider whether you want to eat the grapes fresh, make juice or jam, or try your hand at raisins or wine. If you just want to enjoy the beauty of a grapevine growing up a trellis and don't want to harvest the fruit, try the purpleleaf grape (Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea'). Check out "Best Backyard Grapes" on page 44 for specific varieties recommended by the experts I spoke to.

In mild winter areas—USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7 and warmer—you can plant bareroot grapevines in late fall or early winter. In colder climes, wait until early spring to plant them. Before you plant, set up your trellis and mulch the soil with aged compost. You can train grapes to scramble over sturdy fences, walls, and arbors, or you can build a simple post-and-wire trellis (see our online grape-growing guide for building instructions). Cover the vines with netting if you don't want to share your harvest with the birds.

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