By: Nikki Tilley, Author of The Bulb-o-licious Garden
Grapevine winter care involves the addition of some type of protective covering and proper pruning, especially in colder regions. There are also hardy grape varieties that require little to no upkeep. Learning how to winterize grapevines and how to care for grapes in winter isn’t difficult. However, learning about overwintering grapes can be crucial to the health of your vines.
How to Prepare Grapevines for Winter
There are a number of protection methods for overwintering grapes. Choosing a variety hardy to your area is one of the most important things you can do to ensure their survival.
In cold climates, grapevines are generally covered with about 8 inches (20 cm.) of mounded soil. Extremely cold regions should also add some insulating mulch such as straw or shredded cornstalks (which is more water resistant). The addition of snow in these areas provide adequate insulation for protecting vines. Areas with little snowfall should cover vines with at least a foot or two (30-61 cm.) of soil.
Since mounded soil above ground can still get quite cold, some grape gardeners prefer using other methods, like deep ditch cultivation. With deep ditch cultivation, ditches are about 4 feet (1 m.) deep and 3 to 4 feet (.9 to 1 m.) wide. The vines are actually planted within the ditch and then soil is added as they grow. While this method takes much more time to fully fill the ditch, it provides adequate winter protection.
Another method that can be used in less frigid regions involves the use of shallow trenches. Dormant grapevines are carefully removed from their support structures and lightly wrapped in old blankets or burlap. They are then placed into a slightly sloped trench lined with sand. Another protective covering is placed on top along with a layer of black plastic or insulating fabric. This can be anchored into place with soil or rocks. Once spring arrives and buds begin to swell, the vines can be uncovered and reattached to their support structure.
Pruning Care for Grapes in Winter
While pruning can be done in early spring, the ideal time for pruning your grapevines is during late winter, while the vines are still dormant. Trimming the buds at the end of the vines stimulate new growth. This is why pruning too early can become a problem. You don’t want new growth to get cold damaged. As new vines begin to grow, prune them back. In fact, a hard pruning is usually best. You want to remove as much of the old wood as possible. Don’t worry, they will come back readily.
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Grape Vine Looks Dead From Winter
The rolling hills of the wine country are lined with vineyards. In the summer, the green rows of wine, table and seedless grape varieties (Vitis spp.), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 10, depending on the species, provide a beautiful contrast against the dry, brown hills. But when winter comes, the scene changes. The grapevines die back to shriveled brown vines, clinging to trellises while the ground is covered with green grass and mustard plants. In your garden, the grapevine growing over your arbor or fence follows a similar pattern, dying back in the winter until it appears completely dead.
Grapes Planting, Care, Pruning and Harvesting Instructions
Concord, Niagara, and Catawba are all native American bunch grapes. The grapes are used for the table, juice, jelly, jam and wine.
For grapes you must be particularly careful to match the type and variety of grape to the site's climate. We recommend that you consult with your local county extension service, local nurseries, or gardening neighbors for the best selections for your area.
Site Selection for Grape Vines
Light: Full Sun
Soil: Prefer a deep, acidic (low pH 5.0-6.5), well drained, sandy soil, but they tolerate a wide range of soil types except alkaline and wet. Organic matter content should range between 4-5 percent, but a highly fertile soil is not recommended. If the soil is too fertile, the vine grows too fast and doesn't bear well. If possible, do a soil test and amend the soil before planting.
Orientation: North-south rows maximize sun exposure. Northeast-southeast rows reduce sunburn problems in warm climates. The vines need full sun, because sunlight plays a major part in fruit sugar development. North-south rows maximize sun exposure. Northeast-southeast rows reduce sunburn problems in warm climates.
Other important considerations: Grape vines have a large leaf surface and are susceptible to fungal diseases. Good air circulation is important. Grapes like to be planted on a slope to help keep air moving and to prevent frost from settling. The best slope is to the east or southeast, but a south or southwest slope is also good. Planting parallel to prevailing winds increases air circulation. Protect from severe wind.
How to Plant Grape Vines
For best results, plant your grape vines in the spring. Once your plants arrive, plant them immediately. If you cannot plant immediately, keep new arrivals cool and roots moist. To keep cool, it is recommended that you store in refrigerator or cool place.
Keep new arrivals cool and roots moist. Rehydrate the roots by soaking in water for a few hours just before planting, Have your vine supports in place before planting. You can use a stake if no other support is available. Dig a wide, deep hole, so roots can be spread out completely. Cut off broken roots. Plant at the same depth as in the nursery, 6'-8' apart. Insert the stake carefully, so you do not injure the roots. Right after planting, prune back to the best cane with 2-3 healthy, living, fat buds (nodes). After the danger of spring frost is over and shoot growth begins, remove all but two of the strongest shoots. Remove all the flower clusters this first growing season. The goal in the first year is to establish the plant with strong roots and a straight trunk. Water after planting.
For best results plant your grape vines in early spring. Once your plants arrive plant them immediately. If you can’t plant immediately keep new arrivals cool and roots moist. To keep cool it is recommended that you store in refrigerator or cool place.
- Unpack and Soak: Unpack grape vine and soak in water for 3 to 6 hours just before planting.
- Cut Broken Roots.
- Dig Hole(s): The width of the hole should allow you to spread roots. If you are planting multiple grape vines dig holes 6'-8' apart.
- Spread Roots in Hole
- Shovel Dirt Back in Hole.
- Water: Give each plant 1"-2" of water. The plants are rather shallow rooted, so moisture needs to be at the surface. Do not let soil become dry to a depth of 6".
Watering Your Grape Vines
Water regularly the first year about 1" a week. Directly moisten the roots. Do not spray or mist. After the vines are established, they seldom need watering. Overwatering causes leaves to drop. Mulching is not necessary after the vines are established.
How to Fertilize Grape Vines
The fertilizer requirements of bunch grapes can vary widely depending upon vine vigor and crop size. This makes it difficult to give generalized recommendations. Young vines may not need any fertilizer for the first two to three years. Apply only when vines appear to need it and only in early spring. Excess nitrogen can cause plants to become vegetative and not flower. Too much fertilizer can also cause possible winter damage and delay the coloring and ripening of fruit. If fertilizing is necessary, apply a small amount of 10-10-10 fertilizer two to three weeks after planting, keeping it one foot away from the vine's base. Increase the amount in the following years before bud swell in the spring. Test the soil periodically (3-5 years) and keep soil pH at 5.0-7.0.
How to Control Weeds around your Grape Vine
Eliminate weed competition prior to planting if possible. Weed around the plant base. Hand pull or hoe out weeds. Cultivation is better than mulching in cool climates, because grapes need warm soil to grow well. Grape vines are very sensitive to weed killers and garden chemicals.
How to Prune Grape Vines
Pruning maintains the vine's form, size, vigor, and next season's fruiting wood. Pruning should be done when the vines are dormant in late winter or early spring. Do not prune when vines freeze, because they are brittle and can damage easily. Grape vines produce more wood than necessary. Typically 70-90 percent of the new growth is removed on a mature vine. Leave 3-4 buds per foot of cordon length (horizontal trunk on the vine). Balanced pruning means balancing next season's crop with last season's growth by judging how many buds to leave during pruning. Balanced pruning involves only wood produced during the previous growing season. Wood two years and older is not counted or pruned annually in this system.
Leaves around the grape clusters can be removed to expose the fruit to sunlight in a short growing season. Keep the grapes picked and prunings removed to prevent overwintering of insect larvae.
How to Protect Your Grapes from Wildlife
Birds love grapes. Netting is the most effective solution to prevent birds from consuming your crop. Net the grapes when they begin to change color. The grapes provide food for other wildlife, including squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, and opossums. The vines provide cover and nesting sites, and deer may browse the leaves and stems. Yellow jackets are attracted to the rotting fruit, so remove it promptly. Watch out for snakes that can hang among the vines.
Harvesting Your Grapes
American grapes are a late ripening crop – Concord in late September, Niagara mid-season in August-September, and Catawba in late September-October. Grapes change color several weeks before they reach maximum sweetness, so let the grapes hang. Table grapes are left on the vine longer than wine grapes. Near harvest, the cluster stems turn brown and woody. The seeds turn from green to brown when the grapes are ripe. Taste the grapes to determine if they are sweet enough to harvest. Pick grapes on a dry day, because wet grapes do not store well. Cut a complete cluster leaving a small "handle" of stem. Handle the grapes as little as possible to avoid rubbing off the powdery gray blush on the fruit for a longer storage life. Do not pile the harvest too deep to avoid crushing the fruit. Refrigerated grapes keep one to two weeks.
How to Protect your Grapes from the Winter
- Select adapted, hardy varieties
- Grow multiple trunks
- Mound up soil around the base of the vine. Be sure to cover any grafted part. and/or
- Train the vines to a support system that will allow them to be easily removed.
- In fall, after leaves drop and vines are dormant, prune the vines leaving a few extra buds in case of cold damage.
- Release the vines and gently bend to lie on the ground.
- Completely bury the vines with dirt, straw, snow. Soil is best if rodents are a problem.
- In spring before buds swell remove the covering and return vines to the support system.
- Tie vines back onto the support system.
- Don't dig up what appears to be winter killed vines too soon. The roots might survive and send up new shoots.
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How to prune grapes
Find out how to get the most from your grapevine by pruning hard. Learn how and when to do it, in our guide.
Do not Plant in September
Plant does not flower in January
Plant does not flower in February
Plant does not flower in March
Plant does not flower in April
Plant does not flower in June
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Plant does not flower in September
Plant does not flower in October
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Plant does not flower in December
Plant does not fruit in January
Plant does not fruit in February
Plant does not fruit in March
Plant does not fruit in April
Plant does not fruit in May
Plant does not fruit in June
Plant does not fruit in July
Plant does fruit in August
Plant does fruit in September
Plant does not fruit in October
Plant does not fruit in November
Plant does not fruit in December
Do not Prune in September
Do not Cut back in January
Do not Cut back in February
Do not Cut back in August
Do not Cut back in September
Do not Cut back in October
Do not Cut back in November
Do not Cut back in December
Do not Harvest in January
Do not Harvest in February
Do not Harvest in November
Do not Harvest in December
One of the common problems with homegrown grapevines is that they have far too many grapes, both in number of bunches and per bunch. This results in small fruit of low quality. The secret is to prune them hard every year, aiming to ensure your vine bears far fewer grapes than it’s capable of producing.
Find out how and when to prune grapevines, below.
When to prune
Grapes form on new wood so need to be pruned every year to a framework. In other words, anything left when the leaves have fallen will not produce grapes. So, during the vine’s winter dormancy, remove everything but the most basic structure.
How to prune
Don’t be frightened to cut hard – vines grow strongly and always fruit on new growth. Cut all fruiting sideshoots back to just two buds. You can also use this method for ornamental vines such as Ampelopsis brevipedunculata, or porcelain berry, and virginia creeper, which can be cut back to create spurs from which vigorous, flowering shoots will be produced in summer.
Cutting back new growth
In May, when there’s been a lot of new growth, cut out everything apart from developing stems that will create future structure, and your sideshoots that should be carrying pinhead-sized grapes. Then reduce the latter to just two bunches per sideshoot.
Thinning the grapes
In midsummer, cut back excess growth again, to make sure that the grapes get as much ventilation as possible to avoid fungal problems. To ensure nice big individual grapes, thin each bunch by at least half, cutting out young fruit so that none is touching. This is an extremely fiddly job but is well worth the effort.