The Grapevine, the Rolls-Royce of fruit, a truly magnificent plant that is super easy to grow, ridiculously productive, wonderfully seductive, flourishes when neglected but given a little care can live for centuries. The plants are grown extensively on every continent (except for Antarctica) and of all of the fruiting plants on this planet only Grapevine has a God dedicated to it, the Greek God Dionysus.
According to some accounts, Dionysus is actually attributed to creating the Grapevine. The story goes that Dionysus had fallen in love with a handsome young Satyr-boy named Ampelos. Ampelos was quite a reckless character and one day when out and about on a jolly with Dionysus he attempted to ride a wild bull they happened upon. His rodeo was cut tragically short as he was tossed off the bull, repeatedly gored by the horns and killed. Dionysus was devastated and, for reasons beyond my mortal comprehension, used his powers of deity to transform the corpse of his lover into the first grapevine. Equipped with the vine, Dionysus proceeded to travel the world with a posse of party goers and introduced the people of foreign lands to the grapevine with instructions on how to cultivate and how to make wine. The world's first alcohol industry lobby was born and the path was paved for a $350 billion global wine market.
There is another story about Dionysus and Ampelos where the reckless boy was killed when he slipped picking some gaudy grapes from an Elm. Dionysus, in honour of his lover, lifted the lost boy to the stars turning him into one of the stars of the constellation Vindemitor, but come on... everyone knows grapes don't grow on Elms.
In any case there are now around 60 species of grapevine and 8,000+ cultivars found all over the world. Of these 60 species there are three main species of primary interest to the fruit grower, Vitis labrusca - American Grape, Vitis rotundifolia - Muscadine Grape and Vitis vinifera - European Grape. About 90% of cultivated grapevines in the world are Vitis vinifera - European Grapevine and this is the species that I have most experience growing so will be the focus of this post. So, during this article we'll take a close look at these incredible plants including how to grow them, the uses of Grapes, growing Grapes in polycultures, permaculture and agroforestry and I'll introduce some pest and disease resistant cultivars that we are offering from the bionursery this season.
Latin name - Vitis vinifera
Common name - European Grapevine
Family - Vitaceae
History - The grapevine family, Vitaceae, is believed to be over 65 million years old and would have initially spread around the globe by continental drift long before us humans arrived on the scene. It's unclear where Vitis vinifera originated but there is evidence that we have been growing grapes since the earliest days of civilisation from as far back as 6500 B.C. By 4000 B.C. grape growing extended from Transcaucasia to Asia Minor and through the Nile Delta of Egypt. The Hittites are credited with spreading grape culture westward as they migrated to Crete, Bosporus and Thrace, as early as 3000 B.C. Later, the Greeks and Phoenicians extended grape growing to China, Carthage, Sicily, southern Italy, Spain and France. Under the influence of the Romans, grape production spread throughout Europe. Much later, the Western Europeans planted the grapevine wherever cultivation was possible, i.e. throughout the temperate and warm temperate regions of the world: North America, particularly California; South America, North Africa, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, etc. and hence this humble plant has gone global.
Description - V. vinifera is a woody deciduous vine known as a Liana that climbs by branched tendrils to 12-18m in height. The plant bears a fruit, botanically referred to as a berry that we know as the grape. Depending on the cultivar, the grapes can be green, pink, red or purple-skinned and the pulp is usually a light green or yellow colour and encapsulates small seeds.
Vitis vinifera leaves and tendrils
Sexual Reproduction - The plants are hermaphrodites with each tiny flower containing both male and female reproductive structures. The flowers are borne in clusters (inflorescence) with each cluster containing hundreds of flowers. At the beginning of the flowering process, in the spring, the petals are fused together in what is known as a calyptra. The calyptra serves as a cap containing the male and female flower parts and eventually slips off liberating the pollen from the anthers of the stamen (male part). If the pollen from the anthers make contact with the stigma (female part) the pollen grains (plant sperm) will proceed towards the ovary down the stigma and if they reach the egg at the bottom, fertilisation occurs and a grape will start to develop. V.vinifera is self fertile and it is thought that the transfer of pollen from stamen to stigma is largely achieved while the stamens and stigma are in contact with each other as the calyptra slips off but wind also plays a part with pollen from different flowers distributed to different stimga.
Growing Range - Vitis vinifera is found throughout Asia, North America and Europe and has a preference for subtropical, Mediterranean Climate and temperate climatic conditions. When you think of grape growing countries, Italy and France spring to mind but China is actually the world’s leading producer of grapes, with the USA following.
Countries by grape production - Wikipedia
Hardiness USDA - Vitis vinifera are hardy to USDA zones 6-10. Plant damage can occur at -18°C and late frosts will kill young shoots. We have not had any problems with the grapes we are growing in our gardens that are borderline USDA 5b. For grapes that will tolerate colder climates look to cultivars of Vitis lambrusca - American Grapes, or hybrids of, that are cold hardy to USDA zone 4.
Ecology - Although Vitis vinifera does not need insects to set fruit, a range of pollinators will still visit grape flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar. Many other insects (including some serious pests) will feed on the roots and leaves of the plant (see pests below).
Bees and wasps are also very fond of the ripe fruit and we always leave some bunches on the vine to provision for them. As well as flying insects, we commonly observe a variety of birds eating the grapes including Blackbird, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Mistle Thrush and Starlings. On a few occasions a flock of 100+ starling have descended upon the vines in late October and cleaned off all of the fruits we left after harvest in a matter of minutes. The Great Tit, Coal Tit, Blue Tit also seem to enjoy picking through the flaky bark for grubs that may be sheltering there for the winter.
Where to Plant
Climatic limitations - Grapevines are grown in regions across the globe where temperatures during the growing season average 13-21°C. These temperature limits are found mostly in the mid-latitude regions of the continents. With careful cultivar selection and use of microclimate it is possible to grow outside of mid latitude regions with good success but most commercial production of grapes is grown within the preferred climates as mentioned above.
Soil - Grapevine prefers a deep, rich, moist, well-drained, moderately fertile loam and prefers a pH in the range 6.5 to 7 but will tolerate a range from 4.3 to 8.6. There are a wide range of cultivars available that are suited to a variety of soils (see table below) making it possible to find a cultivar for pretty much all soil conditions.
Location - Grapevines require full sun for healthy growth and good production. Some shade for a few hours a day is fine but in areas with cooler summers than a typical Mediterranean summer, plant in full sun and utilise a favourable microclimate, such as sun facing wall, to help provide the heat required to ripen the fruit. Like many fruits, Grapevine are susceptible to replant disorder, a problem of re-establishing plants in soil where the same species was grown previously. This should not be a problem when five years have passed since the removal of the previous plant.
Spacing - Vine spacing, when trained on wires along a row, can be 1.5-3m apart, 2m being a typical spacing. The distance between the rows should be at least as high as the vines (to avoid shading). For grapes grown on arbors one vine per 15-30m2 of arbor space is good. If growing your vines from cuttings you can double or triple the planting density to account for the cuttings that don't make it or do not grow as strong as others and thin them out later.
Pollination - V.vinifera can be grown alone and will produce fruit. The flowers are self fertile hermaphrodites and the pollen is transferred from the male flowers to the female flowers when the calyptra (cap that fuses the petals together) is shed. This process is very noticeable on the vines of our arbour as the floor is littered with the tiny flower caps. Wind is also thought to assist in pollination and insects may also play a small role. Development of flower parts begins shortly after bud break and takes approximately six to eight weeks. It's normal for nearly 50 percent of the flowers not to set fruit in a cluster.
Picking the right cultivar - There are thousands upon thousands of cultivars to choose from. More often than not the best cultivars to grow are ones that are already growing well locally to you. There are a range of options from late summer fruiting dessert grapes to late autumn wine grapes.
Grapevine root stocks - It’s important to consider the root stock of a grapevine when selecting plants as the choice of root stock often determines pest and disease resistance, drought tolerance, soil salinity and alkaline tolerance. I found this root stock selector tool for Australian growers and the below table from the excellent Agroforestry News Vol 8 No.3 pages 23 -35 lists the properties of various root stocks for European growers.
|Characteristics of Grapevine Rootstocks|
|Rootstock||Species||Resistance to Phylloxera||Resistance to Nematodes||Drought Tolerance||Tolerance to Calcium||Tolerance to Salt||Vigour||Soil Types|
|101-14 mgt||V.riparia x rupestris||4||2||1||9||0||moderate||moist|
|110 Richter||V.rupestris x berlandieri||4||2||4||17||-||v.vigorous||dry|
|1103 Paulson||V.rupestris x berlandieri||4||2||3||17||0.6||vigorous||dry, sandy/alkaline|
|1202 Couderc||V.riparia x vinifera||2||1||2||13||0.8||v.vigorous||poor sandy|
|140 Ruggeri||V.rupestris x berlandieri||4||3||4||20||-||v.vigorous||shallow, dry|
|1613 Couderc||V.Solonis x (labru x ripar x vinif)||2||4||2||low||-||moderate||fertile moist|
|161-49 Couderc||V.riparia x berlandieri||4||1||-||25||0||-||-|
|1616 Couderc||V.riparia - Solonis||3||1||1||11||0.8||moderate||fertile, moist/wet|
|3306 Couderc||V.riparia - rupestris||4||1||1||11||0.4||moderate||fertile well-drained|
|3309 Couderc||V.riparia - rupestris||4||1||1||11||0.4||vigorous||fertile well-drained|
|333 EM||V.berlandieri x vinifera||2||1||2||40||v.sen||-||alkaline|
|41 B Mgt||V.berlandieri x vinifera||4||1||3||40||v.sen||vigorous||Poor alkaline|
|420 A Mgt||V.riparia x berlandieri||4||2||2||20||-||moderate||deep fertile heavy|
|44-53 Malegue||V.riparia - rupestris x cordifolia||4||4||2||10||-||moderate||acid, sandy|
|5 BB Teleki||V.riparia x berlandieri||4||3||1||20||-||v.vigorous||moist clay/alkaline|
|5 C||V.riparia x berlandieri||4||4||1||17||-||moderate||clay, loam|
|8B||V. berlandieri x riparia||4||4||3||17||0||v.vigorous||-|
|99 Richter||V.rupestris x berlandieri||4||3||2||17||0||v.vigorous||moist deep fertile|
|AXR #1||V.riparia x vinifera||2||1||2||13||0.8||-||-|
|Freedom||1613c x Dogridge||2||4||2||-||-||-||-|
|Harmony||1613c x Dogridge||2||4||2||-||-||moderate||-|
|Riparia Gloire||V.ripaira||5||2||1||6||0.7||low||deep fertile|
|Salt Creek||V.champini||2||4||2||-||-||v.vigorous||deep sandy|
|SO 4||V.riparia x berlandieri||4||4||1||17||0.4||moderate||moist clay/loam|
Fertility, Irrigation and Care
Fertility - Grapes are deep rooted and once established will require little compost unless your soil is extremely poor. When planting out I often use 15 L compost applied to the surface topped with 20cm deep straw mulch and will repeat this in the 2nd year of planting only.
Irrigation - Outdoor-grown grapes will only need watering in severe and prolonged dry spells. The most important time to irrigate is when the plants are in flower and when the fruits are starting to enlarge. Applying irrigation when the fruits are ripening is not at all necessary and can lead to a dilution of the sugar content, reducing sweetness.
Weeding - Young vines should be kept clear of weeds while they establish. Our older vines (50+ years old) with well developed root systems are under planted with a full ground cover of herbaceous plants and they do not seem to be hindered by the under-story vegetation. Our newer vines are weeded each year with the weeds chopped and dropped to the surface following with half a bale of straw mulch to prevent new weeds emerging and to preserve soil moisture.
Pruning - When pruning, the most important thing to know is the fundamental growth pattern of Grapevines. The buds, that will emerge as flowers and ripen to fruit (if pollinated and fertilised) are borne on the new growth and are fully developed by the end of autumn ready to emerge again in the following spring. These stems are easy to identify as they are the only stems that have buds are lighter in colour and smoother than the previous years and older wood that will never produce buds. In the below photo taken in autumn you can see the previous year's growth at the top center of the image and the three shoots that emerged in the spring of that year with fully developed buds ready for spring of next year.
Whether you are growing Grapes on an arbor or training them on wires they will benefit from pruning. There are many pruning methods for trained grapes but all have the same purpose - to produce uncrowded growing spaces for the fruits to develop, to allow plenty of light to reach the new growth and ripening fruits, and to promote growth of fewer but better developed fruits.
I'll also remove all of the dead vine and older stems that are rubbing against each other. If you do not prune the vines they will produce more fruit however after a few years without pruning the vine will be crowded, the fruits will be small, low quality and the plant will be more susceptible to disease. Shoots can be very long, ranging from 20cm to 3m in length. When establishing your vine on an arbor, when it comes to pruning, you can leave a few of the longest shoots to promote faster cover.
Harvesting - The fruit takes from 3-4 months to ripen depending on the weather. Grapes don't ripen once picked and should be allowed to ripen on the vines to get as sweet as possible. Providing there is not a lot of rainfall, and day time temperature remains above 20oC, the grapes will continue to sweeten. Personally I prefer a slight sourness to the juice but if you are making wine it's best to leave them on the vines until the last possible moment to increase the sugar content. We generally harvest our grapes in stages to take advantage of the different flavoured juice. The early harvest has more of a sour tang with the last harvest sometimes being so sweet it aches. With good cultivar selection you can pick grapes for eating fresh from as early as late August right through to late October.
Propagation - Grapevines are super easy to propagate via hardwood cuttings and I usually combine propagating with pruning, selecting the best stems and popping them straight into deep pots. We use a 50% river sand 50% sieved compost as a potting mix which works really well and if kept moist during the growing season the cuttings are ready for planting out into beds or their permanent positions by the autumn. Keep the rooted cuttings weed free and well watered during the next few years and they will grow on to be strong vines and should start producing fruit a few years after planting.
Buying Grapes - Vigorous, 1-year-old plants are best. Smaller, sometimes weaker, 1-year-old plants are often held over by the nursery to grow another year and are then sold as 2-year-old stock. It's best to ask for strong 1 year old plants. (Balkan Ecology Project offer a range of pest and disease resistant Grape cultivars - email balkanecologyproject@gmail.)
Insect/Pest: The most damaging pest of the vine was Grape Phylloxera - Daktulosphaira vitifoliae which during the mid 1850s completely destroyed 2,500,000 ha of vine in western Europe. These almost microscopic, pale yellow sap-sucking insects, related to aphids, feed on the roots and leaves of grapevines and are easily recognisable by the galls they create on the leaves of the vine.
Galls made by D. vitifoliae on leaf of Vitis sp.
The insects were imported to Europe with the American vine species (Vitis labrusca) and although causing little significant damage to the American vines that had evolved several natural defences against phylloxera, they ravaged through the defenceless European Grapevine. The best way to defend against this pest is to use grafted cuttings on resistant V. labrusca (and hybrids) root stock. Flooding the vines for 50 days in winter has also been used and will kill all the nymphs that overwinter in the roots or the bark at the bottom of the plant.
Another insect, the Vine Erinose Mite - Colomerus vitis causes parts of the leaf to bulge upwards, appearing blistered and can superficially look similar to D. vitifoliae galls, however these mites are relatively harmless and should be of no concern.
Disease: Fungal – The most common diseases of grapes are fungal. Black spot, powdery mildew and anthracnose are some of the common fungal diseases that affect the plant by reducing its capacity to harvest light via leaf loss and leaf deterioration. Choosing resistant cultivars and keeping the plants well cared for i.e planted in a proper location with plenty of light and good air circulation, will significantly reduce the risk of disease.
Disease: Bacterial – Bacterial grapevine diseases are more common for broad scale monoculture grape cultivation and should not be of concern to the home grower given proper cultivar selection and care for the plants
Early Autumn Frosts: During autumn the vine is redirecting nutrients from its leaves to store as reserves in the trunk and roots. An early frost can disrupt this process with the leaves falling to the ground early resulting in less nutrition for the plant and possibly leading to weaker growth the following season.
Extreme Weather Events: Hail and strong winds can defoliate a vine in early spring and lead to poor flower development and reduced fruit set by way of reduced carbon assimilation and storage. Our vines are subject to spring hail and some pretty strong storms with obvious damage caused, but we always receive a good crop.
Allergies: Although allergies to grapes and grape pollen are uncommon, allergic reactions have been described in the last two decades in areas with high planting density of vines.
Beyond the nutritious delicious fruits, the grapevine plant can be used for a variety of purposes.
Wine - Perhaps the go-to beverage of leisure for Homo sapiens, there is an argument to make that this humble plant is part responsible for Homo sapiens spectacular population growth both in terms of reducing the suicide rate and increasing the rate of reproduction.
Kindling - When we prune our grapes in early winter, aside from the cuttings used for propagation, we pack the rest of the stems into sacks and leave them in a dry place. By the time winter comes around again the stems are dry and make perfect kindling for starting fires.
Stems - The annual growth of a stem can be meters long and there is tradition to use the long stems of the vine for basket making. Certain cultivars make better basketry material than others.
Oil - An oil can be extracted from the seed and is a vital ingredients for skin care cosmetic products. Grapeseed oil is also used in salad dressings but is not suitable for hot cooking.
Animal Fodder - The twigs and leaves make excellent fodder to a range of animals including rabbits, goats and cattle. The fast growing nature of the plant and the abundant stems and leaves produced during the growing season make this a plant well worth planting around animal housing specifically for fodder.
Leaves - Vine leaves are very edible and often used in Mediterranean, Balkan and Middle Eastern cuisine. Grape leaves should be picked fresh off the vine in late spring or early summer when the leaves are tender and can be used fresh or preserved in brine, frozen for use all year around.
Dye - I heard it through the grapevine that a yellow dye can be extracted from the fresh or dried leaves.
Shade Structure - A mature arbor can create the perfect shade for those hot summer days. In our town nearly every south facing house has an arbor full of vines to protect the house from the intense summer heat and provide a source of fruit for wine making that is commonly practised here. When the leaves fall in the winter the lower sunlight can pour into the house and warm the place up a little. Passive solar design at it's best. I keep many of our potted nursery plants under the vines to escape the intense summer heat.
Our Grapevine Arbor with nursery plants in the understory
Biomass Plants for Mulch - The plants grow very fast at the beginning of the season and produce plenty of biomass. As easy as they are to propagate and given that the deep rooted plants are drought tolerant there may be a case for growing them for biomass. I've been growing Vitis coignetiae - Crimson Glory Vine in our hedgerows in the market garden for about six years and the plants are really starting to take off now. The plants have not borne fruits but we do receive a decent yield of biomass that I use to mulch the surrounding productive shrubs and being a climbing plant they take up no extra space.
Medicinal uses - There are many medicinal uses recorded for grapes;
- Grapes are a natural laxative, diuretic, and enjoy high levels of Vitamin C and B6
- Grapes have a low glycemic index, making them a great source of natural energy for diabetics and dieters alike
- It is excellent in treatment of liver problems, helping to lower blood pressure and ease the problems caused with poor circulation
- The leaves are an astringent, so they have been used to treat diarrhea
- Grape juice (not to be confused with fermented grape juice or wine) helps to detoxify the body.
- Resveratrol is still being discussed as increasing the longevity of a healthy life. Specifically, reseveratrol, which is extracted from grape skin and flesh, is being studied and touted as increasing the longevity of three of our genes.
- Grape seed oil is a popularly used natural oil that is hypo-allergenic
- Grape seed extract is a known antioxidant
The second year after planting they should start producing fruit and after three years you can expect up to 7kg (15 lbs) of fruit per vine. Two vines are probably enough to support a household of grape lovers and as the vines mature will produce enough fruit for juicing as well as eating fresh. For juicing and wine making you can expect approx. 1 litre of juice from 1.5kg of grapes.
Approx 150kg of grapes harvested from our 3 x 50+ year old vines
The oldest known vine grows in Slovenia and is over 400 years old and still producing 35-55kg of grapes a year.
Grapes are good candidates for use in polycultures, the vertical climbing nature of the plant and its adaptable form when pruned provides many opportunities to combine the grapevine with other plants. Growing grapes in multi plant polycultures is probably only worth considering for small scale garden polycultures and for people wanting to get creative in the edible garden.
We've been growing various grape polycultures for almost 10 years now. For one polyculture the grapes are grown 2-3m high with a variety of herbs, shrubs and trees grown around. We've also planted a new polyculture this year featuring grapes trained on wires and we'll see how it gets on.
Below you will find a brief description of our grape polycultures. I'll be writing full profiles of these polycultures for a book I'm working on that should be ready in a few winters time.
Grapes trained on wires Polyculture
We have been training grapes in polycultures around the gardens this year but as they have not matured yet, I'm not sure how effective they are.
This design is planted on the berm of an overflow swale that catches overflow from our reservoir. The vines are planted in the middle of the swale and trained onto two wires (Kniffin system). In front of the vines are Vaccinium corymbosum cv. - Blueberry 'Sunshine Blue' (a Dwarf Blueberry and tolerant of a higher pH than most blueberry cultivars) with Rubus × loganobaccus - Loganberry, a border of Hemerocallis fulva - Orange Daylily (that I have observed growing extremely well under some mature vines in another garden) and flanked by two Iris germanica - Bearded Iris.
Grape Polyculture - Large Arbor
We inherited some wonderful old vines when we bought our house, they must be at least over 50 years old now and produce a great quantity of grapes each year. The vines are grown up a large arbor that is approx 3m high and there is around 30m2 of arbor. The vines also grow up the face of the house and onto a balcony on the top floor. Underneath the vines we have variety of plants growing including the plants listed below.
Here's a short list of shrubs, herbs and bulbous plants that I have observed growing well under and alongside our grape vines.
Iris germanica - Bearded Iris
Hemerocallis fulva - Orange Daylily
Physalis alkekengi - Chinese Lantern
Trifolium repens - White Clover
I planted a climbing Akebia quinata - Chocolate Vine beside one of the vines in our yard. I can't recommend this combination as the Akebia growth will eventually strangle the Grapevine as it matures and the Akebia, while not being pruned every year, is starting to dominate the arbor and reducing the light the vine receives and very few grapes grow in this area now.
Agroforestry Potential Of Grapevine
I believe there is good potential for grapes in agroforestry systems. Being suitable for growing vertically and trained to wires they require little space and can easily fit between rows of timber or coppice trees taking full advantage of light while the trees are growing. Spacing should be considered so that when the tree rows are mature and ready for cutting they will not shade the light demanding grapes.
It is also possible to grow grapes within tree canopies but harvest will be difficult, pruning will be near impossible and the shading provided by the vine on the tree and vice versa may reduce the productivity of both species. It would certainly be more of an attractive option on a very small scale at lines of latitude north or south below 40 where light is more abundant.
Grape Cultivars - Hardy and Resistant to Major Pests and Diseases
This cultivars was created in Kishinev Institute of Vine and Wine in Moldova and is a delicious dessert grape that ripens during the last half of September (depending on the conditions under which it is grown)
Fruit - The grape shape is conical and midsize with the average weight of each cluster being 385g. The skin is usually thick and the flesh is firm. The fruits can be eaten fresh and can be stored for 5-6 months under refrigeration. The grapes also keep well on the vine, providing birds do not get them.
Growth Rate - The vines are vigorous and are very suitable for growing up a tall trellis with plenty of room for the shoots to grow horizontally. Plants that are 8-10 years old, when properly cared for, can be expected to yield 150-170kg of grapes.
Soils - The variety does not appreciate calcareous/lime soil and is best grown in soils with pH 5.5 -7.5
Pest and Disease Resistance - Moldova is resistant to all common grapevine pest and diseases making this cultivar an excellent choice for the polyculture/permaculture/organic garden.
Naslada is an Italian dessert grape, selected in Italy in 1911 by Luigi Alberto and Pirot.
Fruit - Naslada ripens in the second half of September. The fruits are large, oblong shaped with thin skins and very juicy with 16-18% sugar content. The weight of a bunch range from 210-420g. The fruits can store for long periods of time when refrigerated.
Growth Rate - The vines are vigorous and require little fertility
Soils - Best grown in soils with pH 5.5 -7.5
Pest and Disease Resistance - Naslada is resistant to most common grapevine pest and diseases making this cultivar an excellent choice for the polyculture/permaculture/organic garden.
This article has been adapted from the Balkan Ecology Project's original post: https://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.com/2019/10/the-very-fine-grapevine-essential-guide.html