Growing Great Grapes

From variety selection to ideal growing conditions, get expert advice on cultivating grapevines right in your own backyard.

  • Grapes aren't hard to grow as long as you have a sturdy trellis, well-draining soil, plenty of sun, and good airflow.
    Photo by Lynn Stone
  • Vineyard netting can be used to guard your vines against hungry birds. Do a little research to see what size and type works best for your grapevine setup.
    Photo by Lynn Stone
  • Check with local experts to find grape varieties that best suit your situation.
    Photo by AKM Images/Mike Briner
  • Dark stems and full-colored fruit are a couple of signs your grapes are close to ripe.
    Photo by AKM Images/Mike Briner
  • Consider training vines up a pergola or arbor for added aesthetic appeal. Just make sure the structure is sound, as grapevines can grow for many years.
    Photo by Getty Images/jodikelman
  • Ideal pruning methods and trellising designs differ depending on vine variety and growth patterns. In general, plan on removing about three-quarters of each year's new growth.
    Photo by Getty Images/VickyTretrop

Humans have been cultivating grapes for a very long time, be it for eating or winemaking. With some 60 different species of grapevines in the Northern Hemisphere — woody deciduous climbers rambling through treetops in temperate woodlands — each one has particular traits that make them better at some jobs than others.

Among the variety of species, Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris stands out. This particular vine hails from the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian seas. From this species came fresh grapes, raisins dried on the vine, and even wine and vinegar. This is the ancestor of all wine grapes and most table grapes. It may also be the plant that taught us how to garden — and to make wine.

It’s entirely possible the tradition of drinks around a campfire began after a successful New Stone Age hunt, with bunches of grapes, already fermenting on the vine, being passed around the fire in celebration. Either that, or a previously forgotten skin bag of almost-dried raisins got the whole thing started. We may never know what happened for certain; all this was long before anyone was writing anything down. What we do know, thanks to archaeologists, is that grape pips have been found at Neolithic fire pits as old as 8,000 B.C., Armenian wine presses date from about 4,000 B.C., and the earliest proof of active cultivation of grapes in Caucasus Georgia turned up about 6,000 B.C.

Sometime in that period, man learned to prune and trellis grapes, root vine cuttings, and ferment grape juice into wine without it turning to vinegar. The grapevine itself most likely taught new gardeners most of these lessons. Grapevines will readily strike roots wherever they contact soil, and dormant vine cuttings are one of the easiest to root. Simply sticking a piece of vine with a few buds into the ground is virtually assured success. Observant gatherers would have noticed that the newest branches of a vine produced the biggest and best clusters of grapes, and that vines damaged by falling trees recovered quickly — and provided a bumper crop of grapes to boot. And, just like the fireside scenario above suggests, overripe grapes are quick to ferment, thanks to a natural bloom of yeast covering each berry in the bunch.

Somewhere in that time, grapes themselves changed fundamentally, with a chance mutation creating what botanists call “perfect” flowers, having both male and female reproductive structures. Before that, each vine was only male or female, and vineyards without so-called barren male vines bore few or no grapes at all. Reflecting this change, modern domesticated grapes are known scientifically as vitis vinifera ssp. vinifera.

Grapes, grapevines, and wine quickly assumed spiritual and religious importance among early cultures.

2/23/2018 11:24:52 AM

I highly recommend vines from Fedco in Maine if you live up north like I do in zone 4b. Temps down to 35 below, my Worden and King of the North were exceptional last season.

2/23/2018 8:53:03 AM

How about a pruning article next year, in time for the pruning season? Give us enough info and specifics to be useful for the home grower. Thanks for considering!

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