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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2007 11:39 am

Growing grapes

Learn how at special program next week

Untitled Document Did you know that the grapevine is one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world? Whether as a source of grapes or as an attractive addition to the landscape, grapevines are popular among home gardeners. Grapes can be grown successfully in Illinois — if a variety adapted to our growing conditions is chosen — but selecting a cultivar can be difficult because they vary in flavor, best use of the fruit, winter hardiness, disease resistance, and training and pruning needs.
American and French-American hybrid cultivars are best because they tend to be more winter-hardy, and American grape cultivars are generally even hardier and more disease-resistant then the French-American hybrids. American cultivars are best used for juices, jams, jellies, and wine; French-American hybrids are generally grown for wine. A few seedless table-grape cultivars also grow well in Illinois. Berries come in various colors, including red, white, blue, purple, and black, and seeded and seedless varieties are available. Early, midseason, and late cultivars can extend the harvest season from mid-August to mid-October. The grapevines available to home gardeners are self-pollinating, so there’s no need to worry about having more than one plant. Whatever cultivar he or she chooses, the central-Illinois gardener must be sure that it is winter-hardy to zone 5B.
The best time to plant grapes is early spring, after the danger of a hard freeze has passed. Vines, which are usually purchased bare-root, should be stored in a cool, moist location before planting. Grapes need a full-sun location with well-drained soil, preferably with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. They also need adequate space in which to grow; plant them 8 feet apart in rows set 10 feet apart. A trellis or support system is needed for grapevines. A trellis or arbor can be a functional part of the landscape: Vines can be grown on a trellis or a fence to screen an undesirable views; grapevines grown on an arbor or pergola can provided a shaded area over a patio. Successful grape-growing not only requires proper cultivar selection but also good cultural practices, of which pruning is the most important. Grapevines produce the greatest amount of high-quality fruit when they are properly pruned to promote moderate-vigor growth. Prune after the coldest part of the winter but before buds begin to swell — generally in February and early March. Pruning encourages healthy, vigorous new canes to develop, eliminates unproductive old canes, trains fruiting canes, and limits the number of buds on the vine. Done correctly, it will result in the removal of 80 to 90 percent of the previous year’s growth. There are several types of training systems; consult a reputable Web site or book for instructions on pruning. “Small Fruits in the Home Garden,” a University of Illinois Extension publication, has good information on grape-pruning practices. In addition to proper pruning, growers of grapes should inspect plants weekly for signs of disease or insects. Common diseases of grapes include black rot, downy mildew, and powdery mildew; common insects include the Japanese beetle and grape flea beetle. Some pesticide use may be necessary to produce good-quality fruit. If you take the time to properly care for your plants, growing grapes in the home garden can be a rewarding experience.
Join Elizabeth Wahle, a horticulture specialist with the University of Illinois Extension, to learn tips on growing grapes in your back yard. Her presentation will be offered twice — at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18 — at the extension offices, on the state fairgrounds. To reserve a seat, call 217-782-4617. The cost is $2 per session.
Jennifer Fishburn is a horticulture educator with the University of Illinois Extension Sangamon-Menard Unit. Contact her at