Grow Some Grapes!
by Bob Zimmerman
I grew up in Western New York on Lake Erie not too far from the vinyards that grew grapes for Welch’s grape juice, jelly and preserves. Fall meant bushels of concord grapes and the taste of them brings back vivid memories of life there. At each place I’ve lived in since then I have had grapes growing by my house. The first was a large rambling Victorian mansion at a university town in Ohio where we rented the first floor. I cleared out the overgrown back yard to reveal an old grape vine. The “trunk” of the vine was about 4” in diameter and I was told by my landlord that it never bore any grapes. I pruned it back severely and the next year it produced a huge crop of…. yes… Concord grapes! After that I planted grapes at every house I’ve lived in.
On retirement I moved to Santa Fe and figured that would be the end of my grape growing. Imagine my surprise when I found a large rambling grape vine growing on the coyote fence of the house we just bought. Again, I trimmed it up and sure enough… the next year I picked quarts and quarts of Concord grapes! I had no idea that grapes would grow so well here.
You too can grow grapes. They are very easy to grow and you will be rewarded with wonderful foliage during the summer and fall and delicious fruit as well. You can train them over an arbor to make a cool shady spot to sit under or grow them along fence lines. Deer will like them too, so it’s best to plant them inside your yard if the deer roam about in your area. Other than that, they aren’t bothered by many pests and our dry climate prevents mildew from attacking the leaves and fruits. There are many varieties to choose from but you should do some research to select the ones that you will like and are hardiest in our area. I have seen nurseries here sell California grapes that are not winter hardy for our area, so be careful. There are a number of tried and true varieties such as Himrod ( a green seedless), Concord ( there is a seedless variety that is great), Swenson, and Reliance ( red seedless). They are hybrids of American grape stock developed on the East Coast and have been shown to be good producers of table grapes. Wine grapes are a whole different proposition and probably best left to the professional growers.
You can buy them as potted plants at local nurseries or order them bare root online.
Look for well rooted 2 year old plants, and plant them as you would any other shrub or vine as early in the year as you can. Let them grow naturally the first year, making sure to water them regularly to develp good stem and root growth.
You will need to learn how to prune your grape vines to get the best fruit production. If you don’t prune the vines, the canes will grow everywhere, and the grape clusters will get smaller and smaller over the years until there will hardly be any grapes at all. But all is not lost. A good pruning will bring the vine back into peak production. Grapes will grow on vines that grow out on the previous year’s cane. Pruning is done in late winter. Be sure to do it before the sap starts rising and buds start swelling. A nice sunny February day is just right for this. Cut out any old vines (two years old or more) that you don’t want. Remove most of last years fruiting canes, leaving just the ones you want. This is the point where you can decide how you want your grapes to grow. Cut back canes to 6 – 8 buds. Each bud will grow a cane that will produce grapes for the current year. After a number of years the main trunk will get thicker and stronger. It is a bit confusing at first but don’t let this scare you off. The grapes are very forgiving and you will learn as years go on. You can read about all aspects of selecting and growing grapes, including pruning at this NMSU page: https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/CR483/
Within 3 to four years you will have a healthy vine and will be rewarded with the very best grapes for eating fresh, juicing or preserves.
Three year old grape vines on the ramada at the SFEMG Vegetable Demonstration and Teaching Garden at the Fairgrounds. Seedless Blue Concord ( left) and seedless Swenson Red (right)
Immature bunches of Swenson Red grapes on the ramada.
Concord grape vine trained to grow over the gate to my back yard.