How to grow grapes (Vitis vinifera)

Siting

Choose a location for Grapes where they'll receive sun all day long for the entire growing season, but avoid low-lying areas where cold air settles. In most parts of this country, a sunny south-facing slope is ideal. Good air circulation is important, too, as it reduces fungal diseases such as powdery mildew.

Planting

Before planting, remove and discard the packaging materials and soak the roots in a pail of water for several hours. Plant Grapes in average, well-drained soil. Rich soil is not desirable for Grapes. It causes a vine to produce lots of lush foliage but little fruit. Rich soil may also delay the hardening of new growth at the end of the season, increasing the chances of winter damage.

Dig a hole wide enough to accommodate the roots and deep enough to allow you to set the crown (the point where the stems of the plant meet the roots) 1in below the surface of the surrounding soil. Place the roots in the planting hole and arrange them like the spokes of a wheel or in whatever fashion appears natural, but take care not to break them, for they are fragile. Holding the crown at the proper level with one hand (see depth given on the plant label), push the soil back into the hole with the other, working soil around the roots to prevent the formation of air pockets. Then firm the soil around the crown with your feet. To catch and hold water and channel it down to the roots, make an 18-24in diameter ring of soil around the base of the plant. Finally, water thoroughly -- even if rain appears imminent -- to settle the soil. Space your plants 4-6ft apart in a row.

Watering and feeding

Grape vines need to be watered frequently in the first year, at least one deep watering a week -- more often if hot weather causes the leaves to wilt. Do not, however, mulch grape vines: Their roots run deep (ultimately as much as 50 feet!), and once established they actually prefer soil on the dry side. Keep weeds in check by using a hoe to cultivate around the vines. Grape vines don't require fertilizer. A couple of shovelfuls of compost each year in spring should provide enough nutrition. Their roots will generally find whatever else the plants need.

Training and pruning

The first 3 years of a grape vine's life are spent in training. The fundamental framework established during this time will sustain the vine for its entire life, which can be 100 years or more -- so proper training is a good investment of time. The simplest method of training Grapes is along a 1- or 2-wire trellis.

At planting time, place a stake in the ground next to the vine, tie the vine to it, and cut the vine back to 2-3 healthy buds. Remove any flower clusters that appear during the season. No further pruning is required the first year.

In late winter of the second year, just before growth resumes, select the best cane (branch) from the previous year's growth and cut it back, leaving only 3 new buds. Cut off all other canes. After the 3 buds on the remaining cane have sprouted and put on a bit of growth, cut off 2 of the resulting canes, leaving only the strongest. Tie it loosely to the stake. As the season progresses, continue to tie the vine to the stake to keep it growing vertically. When the vine has nearly reached the lower wire, pinch off its growing tip to induce branching. Shoots will extend out from the trunk, and you should select the best one from each side -- one on the left, one on the right. Tie them loosely to the wire and cut off all other shoots. The 2 remaining shoots will develop into the arms, or "cordon," that will eventually bear fruit. Remove flower clusters, so the vine puts energy into developing its root system first.

In late winter of the third year, cut the 2 cordons back to 10-12 buds each. As growth resumes in the spring, pinch off any buds that sprout from the trunk. If the vine is growing vigorously, you can leave a few flower clusters to go to fruit; if the vine still needs some time to get established, remove all of the flower clusters for one more year.

Whether or not you enjoy your first small crop of Grapes in the third year, you will have established the living structure that will support future harvests.

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