Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Well-Mannered Grapevine

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
A grapevine can be a wonderful addition to your permanent landscaping, and to your food supply. But this is not a relationship to be entered into lightly. Grapevines are remarkably long-lived. A deep taproot both protects the plant through a wide range of weather conditions but also means moving an established plant is not advised. Research what varieties do well in your area (including susceptibility to local diseases), think about how you plan to use its produce, and take a long, hard look around for the best place to put it.

Grapes are not for those seeking instant gratification either. Patience is needed, as it can be three to four years before you see your first harvest. In the meantime, careful shaping and pruning will set the stage for bigger and better crops in the long run.

I've seen many an arbor, cracking under the weight of an unpruned grapevine. Underneath, in what could be a lovely shaded spot on a hot summer day, is a spider-haven thicket of dead branches; the grapes, if any, are small and bitter - left unpicked, they can contribute to mildew and other diseases. A well-mannered grapevine, on the other hand, takes only a few hours spread out over the season to maintain. Thoughtful planning, training, and pruning can turn a scary nook into a valuable asset.

I have a red seedless Reliance grapevine, now almost 20 years old - initially chosen for its ability to withstand our frigid winter temperatures and still bear reliably. Each year, I harvest around 50 pounds of grapes - enough to eat fresh for months (Reliance does very well in cool storage - bunches spread out on trays in the cellar will hold at least until early December), some frozen whole to use like blueberries, and the rest dehydrated into about 20 pounds of wonderful raisins. Planting it on the east side of a chain link dog run provided the growing vine with support, welcome shade inside the dog run (used as a chicken brood pen), and makes it easy to wrap with a long piece of netting to protect my crop from the birds.

I need to get out there now to prune away last year's branches. I trained this grapevine into a four-arm kniffin, the best shape for the expected vigor of this particular variety, the type of support I was using, and the best use of the leaves for shade. Other shapes may be more appropriate for how you'd like to use a grapevine in your landscaping. Here is a good overview of the various pruning styles, plus getting-started instructions.

I did make one mistake in the earliest days of growing my grapevine. The four arms are supported by loops of old pantyhose tied to the fence. I didn't notice that one of the arms had woven itself in behind a piece of the chain link until a couple of years too late. Although I weave each year's branches through the fence for support during the season, they are cut back close to the arm, to a single bud late each following winter. Eventually, I'll have to either cut this arm back to where it loops behind the fence, or figure out how to unravel the chain link up enough to free it. I keep putting off doing either. I don't want to destroy the dog run, and this particular arm is the strongest one of all four. Plus, it wraps around the south end of the dog run, providing much-needed shade inside at the height of the summer heat.

It's best to start training your grapevine early, and keep up with it annually. But if you've inherited an overgrown mess, don't lose heart. Start by trimming the dead wood underneath away - anything that doesn't show a layer of green beneath the bark is dead. Cut back to green wood, leaving a bud or two to sprout in the Spring. It's best to prune grapevines when they're dormant, before the sap starts to rise in the spring, before or after the coldest part of winter. If your grapevine is severely overgrown, you might want to make this a 2-3 year project. The end goal is to have only a framework of support arms; each year's fruiting branches removed before the next year's growth begins. Allowing air and sunlight to reach every part of your grapevine will produce better, tastier crops and lessen disease.

I also have a 3-year old Golden Muscat just getting started in front of my deck. The first year was mainly devoted to getting a good root system established - the growth clipped back to a few inches above the ground the first winter. The second year, the main trunk was clipped when it reached the final height I wanted. Last summer, I started training two arms, one going each direction, where the main trunk tops out. This next year, I'll train those two arms to wrap around the outside of the deck, tying them to each post as they grow. I'll be able to wrap netting over and around the deck railing when my plant starts to fruit, and it will provide a privacy screen for the deck. I might even make my own dessert wine some day. Is a grapevine in your future?