To flourish, grapevines need a support such as an
arbor, a fence or a trellis. Their flexible, woody stems cling
to the support by tendrils and, with some effort, can be pruned
in limitless ways.
The prerequisite for growing grapes in this
region is to choose a variety that can withstand our icy
winters. A stalwart native such as 'Concord,' 'Niagara' or
'Catawba' is a fine choice, but a number of hybrid or European
varieties can flourish as well.
Native American Grapes
Historically, native American grapes (Vitis
labrusca) were disdained for their distinctive "foxy" flavors,
while European grapevines (Vitis vinifera) proved too delicate
for frigid North American winters. Enter Konstantin Frank, a
native of Ukraine who emigrated in 1951 and devoted his career
to the cultivation of European grape varieties in the chilly
Finger Lakes region of New York. Frank discovered that by
grafting European vines onto native American root stock, the
resulting plant would be hardy enough to survive the winter, yet
would offer the more refined taste of its Old World ancestor.
Frank's approach had the happy side effect of inoculating the
European cuttings against the root louse Phylloxera, which is
prevalent in American soils.
As a result, the home grower can choose
French-American hybrids such as 'Chambourcin,' 'Vidal Blanc' and
'Vignoles' and classic Old World varieties such as 'Chardonnay'
and 'Cabernet Sauvignon.'
Native varieties, which are extremely hardy,
tolerant of cold and resistant to pests and diseases, still
predominate in Pennsylvania's commercial vineyards. But newer
plantings tend to feature the Old World varieties championed by
Frank. If you are determined to plant a non-native vine, pay
close attention to USDA hardiness zones. Generally, vinifera are
hardy only to zero degrees Fahrenheit, and French American
hybrids are hardy to 5 below zero Fahrenheit. Non-natives
benefit from a minimum of 160 frost-free days per year.
Soil Preparation for Growing Grapes
The gardener's job begins the year before
planting, with careful attention to site selection and soil
preparation. Grapevines adore a maximum amount of sunlight, good
air circulation, and deep well-drained soil. Shallow unamended
soils do not drain well, and damp roots can lead to an array of
fungal diseases. This explains why many commercial vineyards are
found on hilltops and slopes, preferably with a southern or
eastern exposure. A slope will maximize the vines' exposure to
sunlight, and good air flow will allow foliage to dry out more
quickly from rain and dew, further minimizing damage from fungal
Test the soil with a kit available from the Penn
State Cooperative Extension, specifying grapes as your desired
crop, and follow the instructions to the letter. Prior to
planting, clear the space of weeds, vegetation and debris.
Most grape vines are sold as bare-root dormant
plants, which should be planted in the spring as soon as the
soil is workable. Prune off any dead roots and plant the vine in
a large hole with the roots 4-6 inches below the soil surface.
Vines should be spaced no closer than 3 feet from each other. If
using a grafted variety, make sure the graft point is about 2
inches above the soil surface. Prune the plant down to one or
two canes with two to three buds, or nodes, per cane.
Water and weed diligently during the first year.
A few weeks after planting, apply 2 ounces of 33-0-0 fertilizer
at a distance of a foot from the vine base. Test the soil every
three to five years and amend accordingly. Keeping the ground
beneath the vines raked and weed-free will help to protect the
vine against the host of pests and diseases to which grapes are
prone. Also, prune out any dead wood, leaves and fruit.
Grapevines take awhile to become established, but
eventually the vine will produce much more wood than it can
support. For this reason, vintners will prune out up to 90
percent of the new growth each year during the dormant season.
One to two layers of leaves on the vine are ideal for grape
production, as this permits adequate photosynthesis while
allowing sufficient sunlight to reach the developing fruit. Do
not remove all new growth, however, as grapevines bear fruit on
By taking the time to choose a grape variety
suited to our climate, and preparing for its maximum vigor and
health, home gardeners can enjoy delicious grapes from their own
backyards. The structure chosen to support grapes can be
utilitarian or, with some time and imagination, can add vertical
interest to the garden. A well-tended grapevine can bear fruit
for up to 50 years. Why not make its presence a beautiful focal
point in the garden?
Grape Black Rot