Last updated on March 23rd, 2022
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Grapes make a delightful addition to all gardens and are very flexible, allowing you to train them over an archway, up a wall, or anywhere in between. The vines do need particularly deep, free-draining soil with ample sunlight to properly ripen the fruit, but beyond that, you can prune them to fit a small space if that’s all you have. If you live in northern Britain where it gets particularly cold outside you can even consider indoor cultivation in a greenhouse for a more reliable crop.
How to Grow Grapes
Water frequently in the first year
Grapes need to be watered thoroughly during their first year. If you are growing indoor grapes you need to be a bit more careful about your watering but outdoor grapes can, after that first year, be watered only during a severe drought.
Remove all flowers in the first two years to prevent fruit production
For the first two years after you plant your grapevines, you should remove all flowers from them.
Once your vines are 3 years old you can usually allow three to four bunches of grapes on them. Once they are 4 or 5 years old you can allow slightly more and begin to receive bigger yields. The idea is to let the grapevine establish itself over the first few years, forming a solid framework.
Mulch around grapevines in spring
You should mulch your grapevines in the spring when the soil is moist, and this will also help to suppress any weeds that might try to infiltrate your soil and deprive your grapevines of much-needed nutrients.
It’s also a good idea that you add stones or gravel around the base of the plant, approximately 6cm deep, to effectively suppress weeds. The colour you choose for the gravel should be a literal reflection upon the amount of sunlight you receive. White gravel will reflect sunlight directly into the canopy of your grapevine whereas black gravel will absorb the sunlight and warm the soil itself.
Growing grapes indoors
If you are growing your grapevines indoors, you need a ventilated greenhouse or conservatory when the sky is bright for spring and summer. At the same time, you will want to damp down the floor. The only exception to this rule is when the fruit is ripening or flowering.
Helping with pollination
The process of pollination for your grapes needs a very dry atmosphere and you can help pollination by regularly and gently shaking the branches.
While the grapes are growing you should water them frequently and feed them with a liquid fertiliser, like that of tomato feed as soon as the growth starts in spring.
Thinning out grapes
Using a sharp pair of sterilised pruning shears, you can thin out the bunches so that there are no more than three grapes per bunch. In fact, you can purchase special scissors specifically for this purpose. This will help to improve ripening and air circulation for indoor grapes, however, this does not apply to grapes you are growing outdoors. Outdoor grapes don’t need any thinning. It is recommended though, that you check your grapes indoors or outdoors two or three times each week and get rid of any damaged or diseased stems.
When growing grapes inside, always ventilate freely during the cold dry weather until spring, but do not heat your greenhouse. If you have a potted vine you can place them outdoors in the winter for sufficient cold exposure, something that is necessary for dessert grapes when they go into dormancy.
When September hits you can gradually remove all of the leaves on your plant to expose the branches to sunlight and to help increase the air circulation.
Pruning and Training
If you are going to place your vines against a wall you can install a wire support structure approximately 30cm apart. If you are placing your vines directly into the ground you will need to drive the stakes directly into the ground, ensuring that they are three metres apart. From there you can add wire approximately 30cm apart to create the support structure.
In terms of pruning, the best time to prune your grapevines is at the beginning of winter, usually around the end of November or the beginning of December. When you are pruning you can use one of two methods, the first of which forces your plants to develop one or two horizontal arms while the second has fruiting side shoots that grow outwards. When you are training you should be pinching out your new shoots and thinning the fruit in the spring and summer.
There are two categories of grapes that you will likely grow: dessert grapes or wine grapes.
Growing dessert grapes
Dessert grapes are best grown in a greenhouse so that they are able to ripen properly. If you want to put them in a container you can also grow them in your conservatory and leave them outdoors in the winter so that they have enough time to go into dormancy. You can plant them outside if you are training them against a protected structure such as a wall or fence. Vines grown in this fashion very rarely need watering and are simple to manage. They do their best work when the temperatures reach about 16°C.
Growing wine grapes
Wine grapes on the other hand are best grown outdoors in a sheltered, warm, sunny spot. You can grow them in any soil as long as that soil is well-drained. They will work most effectively if grown against a southwest or a south-facing wall. If you plan to grow a row of vines rather than just one or two, a south-facing slope is best so that the rows can run north to south.
Before you start planting make sure you pick up a variety that is suitable to your climate and the soil type you have. If you live very far north with particularly cold winters you simply might not be able to grow wine grapes but you can still cultivate dessert grapes.
- Dessert Grape: ‘New York Muscat’ AGM: This is a dessert grape with dark red skins and a blackcurrant flavour. It offers beautiful colours in the winter and thrives in warm conditions. It’s also quite resistant to diseases.
- Red Wine Grape: ‘Boskoop Glory’ AGM: This offers moderate flavour and is also fairly disease resistant, and can be reliably grown in most places throughout the UK.
- White Wine Grape: ‘Seyval Blanc’ (syn.’Seyve Villard 5276) ‘Seyval Blanc’ (syn.’Seyve Villard 5276): If your climate is conductive to mould or that has been a problem with other plants, this particular variety will do well against mould.
- Red Wine Grape: ‘Pinot Noir’: This is something you should grow in a warmer, southern region as colder, damp conditions expose it to a higher risk of mould.
- Red Wine Grape: ‘Regent’: This variety is very sweet and if you plan on making wine it will give you a good quality wine.
- White Wine Grape: ‘Phoenix’: If you plan to make wine or juice, this is a white version that is equally successful.
- ‘Buckland Sweetwater’: If you have a smaller greenhouse, this is a good variety to consider. It ripens early and gives a high-yield as long as you give it some extra feeding.
- ‘Foster’s Seedling’: This is another early ripening variety that produces large bunches with a delightful flavour but should be consumed immediately after harvesting.
- White Wine Grape ‘Chardonnay’: If you are looking for a dark golden grape that you can serve effectively as dessert for all your friends and neighbours, this is the one to choose.
- ‘Schiava Grossa’ (syn. ‘Black Hamburg’ and ‘Trollinger’): If you have an unheated greenhouse, this is a beautiful variety that gives a high yield.
Buying your Vines
When you head to your local nursery or garden centre to purchase your vines, examine them thoroughly before taking them home. If you notice that they are rootbound, where the roots have collected outside of the pots at the base and are sticking out every which way, pick a different vine. This one has already outgrown the space in which it lives.
If you are purchasing your grapes in summer find those with the healthiest, most verdant of foliage and avoid anything with yellow foliage. It shouldn’t be yellow that early in the season.
Before you plant your recently purchased grapevines, break up your soil so that it’s very loose and add a lot of compost and fertiliser to enrich the soil, especially if you are growing them indoors.
The ideal time to plant is between October and March. Save yourself some trouble further down the line by removing any weeds before you put your grapevines in the ground.
When planting more than one, you should space them about 1.3 metres apart in rows that are 1.6 metres apart.
Pests and Problems
There are a few common pests and problems that you should look out for. The first is the red spider mite. If your grape leaves are little mottled in their appearance, they are starting to pale in colour, and eventually, you notice webbing, you probably have spider mites.
Spider mites love hot, dry conditions so you can mist your plant regularly to help alleviate them and let loose natural ladybirds as a counter if you so choose.
Mealybugs are another issue. These are small creatures that like to cluster underneath loose bark or inside the leaf joints. They will suck out the sap and leave honeydew in its place which results in a black mould on the leaves. Again, ladybirds are a wonderful way to help support this but you can also use commercial products to control it.
Grey mould is a fuzzy fungal growth common in damp or humid conditions. The spores will get into your grapevine through any damaged tissue, like an open wound or an open flower. The tricky thing about these mould spores is that they can survive over the winter and manifest their destruction come spring once again.
The remedy for this is to remove any damaged parts as soon as you see them so that they do not spread their infection to the rest of your plant. Cut away all of the unhealthy parts until you reach healthy tissue and be sure to throw away the cuttings and disinfect the tools you have used for the process. If you have a plant in a greenhouse you can reduce the humidity by ventilating the greenhouse, which will help prevent mould.
Similarly, if you have white powder on the leaves it is likely powdery mildew. If you grow your grapes in a cooler area and keep your soil moist you can avoid this.
When your grapes are soft to the touch, and you try one of them and the result is a sugary taste, they are ready for harvesting. If you are growing white grapes, the skin colour will change from rich greens to translucent yellows. The skins themselves become much thinner as well.
Realistically, the best way to make sure your grapes are ready for harvest is to simply taste them. When they are sweet, they are ready. When you cut them, cut them in bunches with the stalks attached.
If you have harvested dessert grapes you want to eat them as soon as possible, although you can save them for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. If you are growing wine grapes you can eat them fresh or, as the name suggests, convert them into wine.