Set Your Grapes Free!

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20170817A Gellinger, Pixabay

Free-growing grape vines like the one above produce many more grapes than severely pruned ones. Photo: Gellinger, Pixabay

Laidback gardeners who ask an expert grape grower how to grow grapes (Vitis vinifera and others) will quickly lose all hope of ever succeeding. They’ll hear all about pinching, pruning, trellising, training, cordons and so much more. It’s enough to scare anybody  off!

Yet none of this is necessary for the home gardener. Ideally they’d consider a grape vines to be an ornamental climbing plant that can decorate a pergola or an arbor and that can also, at the end of the season, produce an excellent crop of delicious grapes. That attitude removes all the pressure of having to conform to the harsh training and rigorous pruning regime promoted by professional grape growers.

Why Vineyards Prune Their Vines

To understand why you don’t have to prune grapes to any great degree in a home garden setting, it’s important to understand why vineyards do train and prune their grapes so severely.

20170817B Mark Smith, WC

Commercial vineyards train and prune their grape vines so they are easier for grape pickers to harvest. Photo: Mark Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Most train them onto short trellises, then prune very carefully so that all bunches are at almost exactly the same height, because this allows grape pickers to work faster. Yes, not because it gives you more grapes, but to make large scale harvesting easier. If you have no intention of hiring a team of pickers (and so few of us do!), little of that pruning is really necessary.

Easy Grape Care

You’ll discover that grapevines can actually be very easy to grow and need little care.

20170817C iha.com

In cold areas, look for extra-hardy grape vines. You’ll find some in Grape Vines for Cold Climates. Photo: aha.com

Start by choosing a grape variety adapted to your climate and your growing conditions and plant it in well-drained that is not too acid and can even be a bit alkaline. If you want the grapes to be nice and sweet, make sure the plant is in a sunny spot!

You also need to supply a solid support for such a vigorous vine (grapes can be very heavy!): a pergola, an arbor, a chainlink fence, a strong trellis, a small tree, a balcony railing, an old clothesline, etc. (The average garden center trellis is too small and too fragile.) The grape plant will do the rest, using its twisting tendrils to cling to the nearest support.

Grapevine-Green-20170817G Max Pixel.jpg

Grapes cling to their support through twisting tendrils that wrap around thin supports. Photo: Max Pixel

Since the grape’s short, thin tendrils can’t cling to smooth surfaces nor can they wrap themselves around thick posts, you’ll need a fairly thin support they can cling to. If you want to grow your grape up a wall, for example, you should install some sort of strong metal meshing or trellising. In the case of a pergola or arbor, it may be necessary to run a wire or rope up the main posts so the grapes can work their way up to the trellised roof. Once at the top, they should be fine.

Patience Is a Virtue

You have to be patient too. Whether you prune it or not, a vine will probably produce nothing the first year and very little the second year. It’s from the third year onwards that harvests really start in earnest.

And Pruning?

201817D Clipart Panda et Clipart Library

Grape pruning is easy! Just remove any wayward branches, something you can do at any season. Illus.: Clipart Panda et Clipart Library

What about pruning?

The only pruning really needed for a home-grown grapevine is just to prune off any wayward branches plus the dead wood that accumulates over time.

There is no particular season for this. Whenever you see a branch heading up a nearby tree or making a grab for your clothesline, just chop it off. And if your vine becomes a tangled mess after 7 or 8 years—and that can happen!—, just hack it back in spring and let it start anew. Simple!

Less Pruning = More Grapes

20170817E Kathryn Greenhill, Flickr.jpg

Free-growing grapes are much more productive than pruned ones. Kathryn Greenhill, Flickr

“But won’t I have fewer grapes as if I let my vines grow on their own?” That’s what many vineyard web sites claim, but they’re very wrong! Actually, you’ll have many more grapes. By pruning severely, the commercial grape grower knowingly sacrifices most of the potential fruits. A free-growing grapevine will produce bucket after bucket of fruit rather than a few bunches. But it’s true that the grapes from free-growing vines will be a bit smaller. Smaller but much more abundant: is that really so bad?

A few bunches of big grapes or pails full of smaller ones? You choose.

But I prefer the “less work, more fruit” option!20170817A Gellinger, Pixabay

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