Previously I had written about trimming our trees. We normally perform tree trimming in March or possibly April in a really cold year. The snow is gone and the temperatures, even though they’re still quite cool, are warm enough to work in without suffering frost bite. Pruning grapes seems to be a different story. Past experience has shown us that pruning grapes in March almost assures that we won’t obtain much in the way of a harvest because the cuts don’t have time to heal properly before the grapes start pumping water into the stems. What you end up seeing is water dripping from all of the cuts if you prune grapes that late.
We’ve also tried pruning our grapes in the fall. Unfortunately, the winter air damages the cut ends, leaving more dead material than we would like. It also seems as if the wildlife takes the fresh cuts as an invitation for further pruning. We actually had several vines trimmed to unusable nubs by the local deer. Obviously, fall pruning doesn’t work for us either.
As with many other self-sufficiency issues, this one is a learning experience. We know that if we keep at it long enough, eventually we’ll have a good system down for our grapes. You can read all you want and ask everyone who has any idea at all about how to do things, but your plot of ground is different from any other plot of ground out there. When you’re self-sufficient, you have to be prepared to experiment. So, undaunted by previous failures, this year we’re pruning our grapes in mid-January. The timing will allow the grape ends to heal before spring takes hold, but should present less opportunity to the local wildlife for extra trimming and the weather won’t have as much of an effect either.
The approach you use for pruning your grapes depends on your weather and the method you use to train them. We use a four-cane Kniffin system. The approach yields a relatively large number of grapes, is easy to maintain, and doesn’t tend to have problems with mildew due to lack of airflow (as is the case with arbors). Picking can be more time consuming than when working with arbors and you need a source of rot resistant posts. Fortunately, we do have a native source of rot resistant posts in the form of the black locust trees that grow in our woods. Farmers actually planted them to use as fence posts.
Most of the books we have say that it takes seven years for grapes to grow to sufficient size to start producing well. Our own experience says that it’s more like ten years, especially if you have wildlife constantly nibbling at the canes. We finally ended up staking out one of our dogs to keep the wildlife at bay one year so the vines could grow unmolested.
We’ve chosen to plant a number of grape varieties: Niagra (white), Catawba (red), Concord (purple), Delaware (pinky purple), and King of the North (blue). Each cultivar has specific properties to recommend it. For example, the Delaware produces an outstanding wine grape, while the Concord is better for jelly production. The King of the North is a good juice or table grape. We prefer the Niagra for table and juice uses, but it should also make for a nice wine. The Catawba has yet to produce sufficient quantities of grapes for us to test it for various uses, but we’re assuming that we’ll use it for wine. When choosing grapes for your own vineyard, make sure you pick from a variety of cultivars. A single mature trunk can produce a significant number of grapes (upwards of 40 pounds), so you need a plan for using them.
It’s also a mistake to prune every year. I had noticed some of our local vineyards don’t trim their canes absolutely every year. When I started pruning every other year, our harvest went up significantly without reducing the vitality of the vines. It may be that some locations require yearly pruning, but this doesn’t seem to be the case here.
What are your experiences with grapes? Do you favor particular cultivars over others? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.