The history of grape production is as diverse and sprawling as the many uses for this dynamic plant. “European” grapes were likely first cultivated around 8,000 years ago in the Middle East before traveling west to Europe. Once there, they became a vital part of European culture in the form of wine made from grapes like Chardonnay and Merlot. In North America, we actually have a few of our own species of grape with a completely different history. American grapes like Concord and Muscadine are better adapted to most North American climates and offer different flavors from their European/Middle Eastern cousins.
In the US and Europe, most people grow grapes for their fruit, but my relationship with this plant started with the leaves. My father maintained a large grapevine in our home garden from which we harvested tender leaves in spring to make Syrian stuffed grape leaves throughout my childhood. We still do this every year and I don’t believe he’s ever eaten a grape from his vine. Due to their concentration of tannic acid, mature grape leaves can also be used to maintain the crisp bite of pickled cucumbers.
With their numerous uses and vigorous growth, grape vines are an excellent addition to any garden. The principles below will set you on the path to success as you establish your home vineyard.
Grapes are most often categorized by their end uses and referred to as either table grapes or wine grapes. Table grapes are primarily grown for fresh eating and wine grapes are grown for, well, wine.
Most American varieties of grapes are categorized as table grapes although some are used for wine as well. In North and South Carolina, Muscadine grapes are used to produce a sweet wine that is very popular in the Southeast, but they are also excellent fresh off the vine. Concord and Niagara grapes thrive in the cooler climate of the Northeast where they are most often eaten fresh or used to make grape juice and jelly.
Wine grapes grow best in Mediterranean climates like the Middle East, Southern Europe, and California. They often contain more sugar than table grapes which results in higher alcohol content in the resulting wine because alcohol is a byproduct of yeast digesting sugar. Wine grape varieties are generally more difficult to grow in North America due to added pest pressure. For home gardeners, I recommend growing a table grape variety like Concord, Niagara, or Muscadine, on which the following recommendations are based.
When first establishing a grapevine you can do so with either a bare root sapling or a potted plant. Most garden centers will carry a few varieties, but your options are greater if you buy from an online nursery like Stark Brothers or Jung’s Seeds. You should plant your grapes as soon as the soil is workable in the early spring. Grapes need to be grown in an area with full sun (at least 6 hours per day) in order to produce fruit, but if you are growing them for their leaves they can be grown in partial sun (4 to 6 hours per day).
To prevent the buildup of water around the roots which can lead to fungal disease, grapes should be grown in well-draining loamy soils. If your soil is very clay-heavy, consider amending it by working in compost to increase the soil's organic matter. My good friend Dr. Suzanne Fleishman who studies grapevine root systems recommends maintaining a 2- to 4-foot weed-free area around the vines by hand weeding or using mulch for the first one to three years of growth. After that, you can allow native vegetation to regrow, though it may negatively impact the grapevine’s production if you are located in a very dry climate.
Grapevines require a sturdy trellis or arbor to support their growth. Remember that these plants often live to be 50 years old and they can get quite heavy over that time so make sure your trellis is able to support the plant as it grows.
If you are growing your grapes to harvest the fruit, pruning them is critical. Prune your grapes while the plants are dormant in the late winter or early spring. Pruning increases airflow which will cut down on fungal diseases and ensure that the plant doesn’t try to produce more fruit than it can optimally support in the following season. How heavily you prune your grapes is up to you, but a good rule of thumb is to try to have one or two primary vines per plant. If you are growing grapes to harvest the leaves, pruning is not nearly as important and you can more or less allow your vines to sprawl wildly (as long as your neighbors are okay with it).
When your plants are small they can be susceptible to small mammals who will eat the tender shoots and buds in the spring. This can be prevented by protecting your vines with a chicken wire cage or fence when they are young.
There are a number of insect pests that can impact your grapevines, but if you monitor your vines closely you can most often nip them in the bud before they destroy your crop. Keep an eye out for Grape Berry Moths which are small brown moths whose larvae tunnel through grapes and destroy the fruit. Remove any affected fruit from the vine and destroy it to prevent the larvae from pupating. If your grapes are heavily impacted I recommend treating them with the organic pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis.
Black rot is the primary fungal disease to look out for, it can destroy your entire crop if left unchecked. Black rot is characterized by brown blotches on the leaves and black shriveled fruit. If you find that your plants are impacted by black rot, remove infected fruit and leaves from the plant and dispose of them in a burn pile or hot compost system. This will prevent the spores from reinfecting your plants. Pruning your vines heavily will increase airflow which makes your grapes a less hospitable environment for fungal diseases like black rot.
To prevent the buildup of fungal diseases in general it is best to rake up and remove all dead foliage in the fall so it doesn’t overwinter and reinfect the plant in the next growing season.
Grapes can be harvested whenever you like the way they taste, but the longer you leave them on the vine, the sweeter they become. Unlike many fruits, grapes are not fully ripe when they change color and red grapes can take up to two months to reach their peak sweetness after changing from green to red. Some grape growers in Canada and Germany even allow their grapes to freeze solid on the vine which concentrates the sugar content to make them suitable for a sweet drink called ice wine or “eiswein.” Once harvested you can store your grapes long-term by fermenting them into wine or dehydrating them into raisins. Depending on the variety, fresh grapes can last for up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
Grape leaves should be harvested in the spring when they are most tender and have the lowest concentration of tannic acid. The leaves should be large enough to stuff with filling and roll, usually about 4 inches wide is best. If you don’t plan to make stuffed grape leaves right away you can preserve the leaves by blanching them in boiling water and freezing them in stacks. They can also be stacked in layers of salt which is what my grandmother did to preserve her grape leaves before she owned a freezer.
Grapes are an incredibly versatile perennial plant and you should consider including them in your garden to have fresh fruit and delicious leaves for years to come.