Growing grapes in the home garden
- Grapes are woody perennial vines.
- Plant in full sun to provide the heat required to ripen the fruit.
- Each vine needs about 6 feet of space.
- Flowers and fruit develop on new shoots called canes.
- It is possible to get fruit one year after planting.
- Flowers are pollinated by wind and insects.
- Vines can be trained to many decorative forms.
- Annual pruning is very important to keep growth healthy each year.
- Prune in spring before leaves emerge.
Growing grapes for many uses
Do you want to grow grapes primarily to cover an arbor? Then you can choose just about any grape variety that is hardy and reasonably healthy.
Do you hope to make grape juice and jelly? Several dependable easy-care varieties will fit this purpose. Juice and jelly grapes are traditionally some of the most winter-hardy cultivated varieties.
Do you want seedless grapes for fresh eating? Some seedless varieties are being grown in Minnesota now, but, except in far southern Minnesota, all of these cultivars will need some winter protection. Seeded table grapes are generally more cold-hardy and vigorous than newer seedless cultivars.
Grapes for wine
There are now many excellent cold-hardy wine grape cultivated varieties available for commercial and hobby winemakers in northern climates. Several of these have been developed by the University of Minnesota specifically for our harsh climate.
For winemaking you will need to choose the cultivar more carefully, considering what cultivars will make the type of wine you want, and what training and pruning they will need. While these grapes can be eaten fresh, they generally have higher acid, higher sugar, higher skin-to-pulp ratio, and more seeds than table and juice grapes.
Follow this simple calendar to keep grapevines healthy and productive
|Tasks||When to do them|
|For existing vines, prune before growth starts||March|
|Plant bare root grapevines as soon as soil can be worked||April, May|
|Rub off any shoots that start growing lower down on the trunk||April through June|
|Tie new growth to trellis as needed||April through August|
|Inspect vines throughout the season to catch disease and insect problems||April through October|
|Plant potted grapevines after threat of frost has passed||May, June|
|As fruit ripens, watch for bird damage; cover with netting if needed||September, October|
|Harvest fruit based on color and flavor||September, October|
|Clean up all fallen leaves, fruit and debris||October, November|
The cultivated varieties in the table below can be used for juice and jelly and some can be used for making wine. Of course any can be eaten fresh, and you might be surprised at the wide range of flavors!
There are other cultivars available at garden centers and online nurseries that are listed as being hardy to USDA zone 4, but those listed here have been carefully tested by the University of Minnesota and have proven to grow successfully in our climate.
If you're interested in more extensive information about all of these varieties, you can find a current list of nurseries at the Minnesota Grape Growers website. The University of California at Davis also maintains a national grape registry nursery list that includes northern suppliers. Please note that some nurseries only sell wholesale.
Varieties in bold were cultivated by the University of Minnesota and include the year they were introduced.
Grapes with seeds
|Variety||Best use||Avg. harvest time||Description|
|Bluebell (1944)||Juice, jelly||Mid Sept.||Blue berries that look and taste like Concord. Excellent hardiness in zone 4; does very well in zone 3.|
|Edelweiss (1977) (joint release with Elmer Swenson)||Fresh eating||Late Aug. to early Sept.||Very juicy yellow-green berries with floral aroma. Can also be used to make sweet wine. Does well in zone 4; okay in zone 3.|
|Frontenac (1996)||Wine||Late Sept. to early Oct.||Small blue berries that ripen late. Can be used to make rose, red and port wines. Grows very well in zone 4; does well in zone 3.|
|Frontenac Blanc (2012)||Wine||Late Sept. to early Oct.||Truly white version of Frontenac. Makes very light white wine. Grows very well in zone 4; does well in zone 3.|
|Frontenac Gris (2003)||Wine||Late Sept. to early Oct.||Small pink berries with a fruity aroma. Makes sweet white wine. Grows very well in zone 4; does well in zone 3.|
|LaCrescent (2002)||Wine||Late Sept. to early Oct.||Yellow-pink berries with apricot and honey aromas. Grows very well in zone 4; does well in zone 3.|
|Marquette (2006)||Wine||Mid to late Sept.||One of the best for making red wine. Grows very well in zone 4; does well in zone 3.|
|Swenson Red (1977) (joint release with Elmer Swenson)||Fresh eating||Red berries are large, crisp, fruity, with hints of strawberry. Grows well in zone 4.|
|Swenson White||Wine, fresh eating||Yellow-green, juicy berries with a floral aroma. Grows well in zone 4.|
|St. Croix||Wine||Late Aug. to early Sept.||Generally known as a wine grape, but good for fresh eating. Grows very well in zone 4; okay in zone 3.|
Seedless grapes generally don't do well in northern climates. Three varieties that are best for fresh eating and have been tested to grow reliably in zone 4:
- Mars— Sweet, juicy, blue berries with flavor similar to Concord.
- Petite Jewel— Red berries with excellent fruity, spicy flavor (may be difficult to grow).
- Somerset Seedless— Pink-red berries that are juicy and delicious. Hardiest of the seedless varieties.
Planting, growing and maintaining grape vines
Care for your grape vines from planting and throughout the seasons, year after year.
In Minnesota, spring planting is recommended to give the young vines the most time to get established before their first winter.
If you order from catalogs or online sources your plants will arrive as dormant, bare root plants. When you receive the plants, keep them in a cool place with the root system moist. You should plant the vines as soon as possible.
Local nurseries also carry potted vines. These vines should also be planted as soon as possible, but because the roots are growing the timing is not as critical.
Before planting bare root vines
- Soak the roots in water for 3-4 hours.
- At planting, remove all canes except the most vigorous one.
- Plant vines with the lowest bud on the cane just above the soil surface.
- Trim off any broken or excessively long roots.
- Dig a hole large enough to you can spread the root system out.
- Then cover the roots completely with soil.
Mulching is not usually recommended for grapes because mulch will keep the soil temperature too cool. Grape vines grow best in warmer soil.
After planting, water the vines regularly throughout the first year. The root system needs to grow and establish to allow for shoot growth in the first year.
Grapevines need some type of support or they will trail along the ground. The support can be an arbor covering a patio for shade, or can be as simple as a post in the ground to support the trunk of the vine.
Grapevines can also be grown along an existing fence. Virtually any type of support structure will do, provided it is sturdy. Grape vines grow quickly and get quite heavy.
Grapevines can be trained and pruned to just about any form and shape.
Fertilizer and mulch
The first two or three years, each early spring, apply compost around the base of the vines. Grape vines grow vigorously and might need a nutrient boost each year. You may not have to do this as the vines mature; it all depends on what you observe. Do the vines look vigorous and healthy? Maybe you don't need any fertilizer.
Unlike many other plants, it is best not to mulch around the base of your vine as the mulch can keep the soil too cool. Grapevine roots like to be warm.
Keep grass and other plants from growing under grapevines. This allows the soil to heat up early in the spring and maintain higher soil temperatures to encourage growth.
When plants grow under vines, the soil temperature stays cooler. With grapes, this will delay growth in the spring.
Keep the ground under the vines clear of other plants throughout the growing season by hoeing gently under the vines.
Pruning grapes depends on how you decide to grow them in your garden and how much space you have.
Fences are ideal to use as support for vines. Vines can also be contained to one stake in the ground. If you have an arbor or pergola, grapevines can be grown over the top to produce shade.
Remember, flowers and fruit are located on buds that developed the previous year. Therefore you need to encourage new growth, but not too much. There are many ways to prune and train vines—let your imagination loose!
For the first year, pruning is the same no matter how you plan to train your vine. The key is to develop a strong root system and straight trunk.
- Depending on the size of the vine that you buy, prune the vine back to one straight cane.
- Tie this cane to a stake or to the fence and encourage it to grow straight. You might have to tie it multiple times during the first year to keep it straight.
- When the vine gets to the top of the fence—this might be the year you planted, or it might be in the spring of the following year—remove an inch or two of terminal growth to force the vine to branch.
- Train two branches, one in each direction, by tying them to the fence in opposite directions to form permanent branches running along the top of your fence.
- Remove any buds that start to grow lower on the trunk. This will make managing the vine much easier.
After year one
Once the trunk has reached as high as you want, and the lateral trunks have been formed, prune the vine each spring before growth begins so the developing canes have enough air movement around them to reduce diseases.
There are many different methods and techniques for training vines. You can experiment with pruning vines to see how they work in your landscape.
- Remember, fruit is produced on the current season's growth, which grows from last season's wood.
- Heavy pruning provides the best fruit.
- Light pruning results in large yields of poor-quality fruit.
- Very heavy pruning produces too much leafy growth and very little or no fruit.
- Table, juice, and jelly varieties can have 40 to 60 buds per vine after pruning, but wine varieties should have only 20 to 30 buds per vine after pruning.
Pruning old, neglected vines
Have you moved into a house and inherited some old, overgrown grapevines? Don't dig them out just yet; they can probably be saved!
You want to prune old and neglected vines in stages. Your goal is to get the vine back to a single trunk with well-placed canes. Prune when the vine is dormant, just before growth begins in spring.
- Select a new trunk from canes growing from the base of the vine.
- Cut the chosen new trunk to back to the desired height.
- Choose two canes on each side to bear fruit this season and tie them to a trellis as they grow. If there are no lateral canes, wait until the next season and choose two new shoots to become the cordons, removing others lower down.
- Remove other old wood. You might be cutting out a LOT of old wood.
- Continue pruning and training as with a new vine.
The best way to tell if grapes are ripe is to taste a few. Many cultivars turn color before they are ripe.
- Clip full clusters off the vine with pruning shears or heavy scissors.
- Handle clusters carefully.
- Remove any discolored, injured, or undesirable berries.
- Cool them as soon as they are picked.
- Store grapes in a refrigerator in a steady, consistent temperature.
- Cover grape clusters loosely with plastic to reduce moisture loss.
- Most grapes can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week or two.
In particularly harsh years, winter injury may sometimes kill much of the vine.
Grapevines are often able to regrow new canes from low down on the trunk. You may need to limit pruning for the year to determine how much of your vine has died.
It might be easier to start again with a cane from the base of the vine and treat the vine like you just planted it. Because the vine will have a large root system, you might be surprised at how fast it will regrow.
Managing diseases, insects and other pests
Most insect and other problems can be reduced by planting vines in a sunny location with good air circulation.
Weather conditions, winter hardiness of the cultivar, infection from the previous year, history of pesticide use, and surrounding vegetation can affect a vine's susceptibility for a particular year.
The good news is that insects are rarely seen as problems with grapes grown in gardens in our climate.
The exception to this is Japanese beetles. These insects chew holes in the leaves leaving them with a lace-like appearance. Look for beetles and their damage beginning in late June or early July through August.
Having Japanese beetles on a plant attracts more beetles, so it's important to prevent accumulation. The best control for home gardens is to check your plants often, at least twice a week and ideally in the morning when they're less active, and knock beetles into a pail of soapy water.
Monitor frequently and throughout the growing season for any other potential pest outbreaks. As with diseases, cleaning up dead leaves and berries and cleaning under the vines will help.
Creatures that like to eat grapes
Other insects such as yellow jackets and multicolored Asian lady beetles may feed on ripening grapes, damaging the fruit and promoting fungal disease infection. The best prevention is harvesting grapes as soon as they are ripe.
Whereas insects might not pose a significant problem with home-grown grapes, other creatures can. Birds are attracted to the ripening berries and can eat them all before you are ready to harvest. The only foolproof method of protection is netting to cover the ripening fruit on the vine. Deer and raccoons may need to be kept out with a fence if they prove to be a problem.
Diseases flourish in high humidity. Good air circulation in very important for preventing most diseases. This means annual pruning to keep the canopy from getting too dense.
Equally important is raking and removing leaves each fall as well as picking up and composting fallen fruit. After pruning, remove cuttings away from the vines. These practices will remove some of the places disease can overwinter to infect the following spring.
Diseased portions of a vine should be removed and discarded at first sign of disease, to prevent spread to the rest of the vine.
This fungus can infect all parts of the grapevine.
- The first sign of infection appears as a white powdery layer on leaves or fruit.
- Leaves infected while they are still growing become distorted and stunted.
- If grapes are infected when they are small, the skin stops growing but the pulp continues to expand and the berry splits.
- If infection occurs during fruit ripening, purple or red cultivars fail to color properly and look blotchy at harvest.
This fungus can infect any actively growing parts of the vine.
- When lesions form on leaves, the affected areas become brown and wither.
- Severely infected leaves curl and drop from the vine.
- When parts of the vine are infected, they frequently become distorted, thickened, or curled with a white downy appearance.
- If the infection is severe enough, parts of the vine will wither and die.
- If grapes are infected, they fall off the vine.
High relative humidity promotes infection from both powdery and downy mildews. Infected shoots should be pruned and destroyed. Pruning in late winter should increase air circulation, as the vine grows during the year with the goal of reducing the chance of heavy infection. Make sure all leaves and rotted fruit are removed from around the vine to reduce infection.
These fungal diseases can cause complete crop loss in warm, humid climates. Infection can be seen on leaves, petioles, shoots and grapes.
For black rot, grapes are susceptible from bloom until they begin to ripen.
- Infected berries first appear light brown.
- Black spore-producing bodies develop on its surface.
- Later, the berries shrivel and turn hard and black to become mummified.
Botrytis fruit rot can grow on dead blossom parts in the cluster.
- Before grapes begin to ripen, it moves from berry to berry within the bunch.
- Botrytis occurs most commonly on ripening berries, where infection and rot spread rapidly throughout the clusters.
Grapes are very susceptible to 2,4-D herbicide, which is widely used to control dandelions in lawns.
Exposure to herbicide causes deformed leaves and causes flower clusters to fall off. Avoid using this herbicide anywhere near grapevines.
You might want to ask your neighbors to not use it either.
Reviewed in 2018