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Grow like a pro: grapes

By Emily Peagram
15th May 2023

Grown on vines of lush, maple-like leaves, these sweet or tart-tasting green, yellow or maroon fruits are produced in heavy bunches that can be crushed and made into wine, juices and jams. The clusters of berries have ornamental value, too, transforming an ordinary garden into a Renaissance paradise. Growing one of these rambling plants might seem like a big task at first but in reality, all it takes is some initial planning, a support system and continued care throughout the seasons.

The first thing to do before planting a grapevine is to decide whether to grow dessert or wine grapes. Dessert grapes are sweeter, but they will not ripen unless grown in a greenhouse whereas wine varieties can be grown outside. A popular way to grow both of these types is to plant a grapevine outside and train the trunk and stems into a greenhouse through a hole in the wall. This will give the roots space to take hold and the fruits enough heat to ripen. Wine grapes can also be trained up walls, on a free-standing trellis, over a gazebo or even wrapped around arches and, if pruned properly, will not take up much space. Grapevines grown outside, however, will need as much warmth, sunshine and shelter as you can give them – for the best chance of success, position vines against a south or south-west facing wall as the brickwork will help to keep the foliage nice and toasty. Make sure also to plant in soil that is free-draining and deep, as the length of the vines growing up will be the same size as the vines growing downwards – so choose a spot wisely.

Grapevines can be purchased as container-grown plants to be planted in the dormant period from October to March. To get your ground ready for a grapevine, dig over the soil, removing any weeds, and incorporate lots of garden compost and a general fertiliser. If you are planting against a wall or a greenhouse, you will also need to train grapevines to a support structure. To do this, take 1.8m long wires and fasten them horizontally to the wall every 30cm and secure in place with vine eyes. Make
sure the wires are distanced 10-15cm from the wall or glass as this will help to keep the stems aerated during development. Plant vines in deep holes spaced 1.2m apart and fill with a mixture of soil and compost. If planting in rows, make sure to space these 1.5-1.8m apart. You will then to set up an espalier or ‘guyot’ system – to do this, take three strong stems and tie the two outer stems to the lowest support wire. Next, tie the middle stem to the top support wire so that it grows vertically upwards.

Make sure to cut the central stem down to the third bud from the base as this will help to eliminate the weak upper stems. During the growing period, the three buds and the other two outer stems will develop sideshoots and these will need to be tied in to the wires, too. Remove all flowers during the first two years after planting and keep three bunches of grapes on three-year-old vines and five bunches on four-year-old vines. For grapes growing in a greenhouse, thin the branches to one in three grapes per bunch as this will help to expose the fruits to sunlight, encouraging them to ripen.

The best way to tell if a grape is ripe or not is to try one. If they’re still a little sour, leave them on the branch to soak up more sun, but if they taste sweet and sugary they’re ready to be harvested. You can also look out for when the fruits turn from a dark green to a light yellow and feel soft to the touch.

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