Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
September, 2004
Regional Report

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A grape arbor provides beautiful foliage, a shady canopy, and delicious fruit.

Grape Arbors Simplified

The title may sound like an oxymoron, but truly you don't need to be an expert gardener to enjoy all that a grape arbor has to offer: beautiful foliage, a shady canopy, and delicious fruit. Any one of these merits is reason enough to choose a plant, but the promise of all three has me imagining relaxing beneath a leafy ceiling abundant with clusters of plump grapes. A friend was inspired to build her arbor after returning from a trip to Italy. I'm foregoing the trip (for now) and skipping right to the arbor.

If you have fruit trees that require yearly pruning, you already have the tools and wherewithal to keep a grapevine healthy and productive. Here are three points to consider before heading to the nursery or lumberyard:

#1: Grapevines are very heavy and need very strong supports.

#2: Grapevines are fast growing and need room to spread.

#3: Grapevines are permanent and need a place where they won't be disturbed for house-painting, etc.

Choosing a Spot
While you can get away with planting the vines with their roots in the shade, the majority of the vine should be in full sun or at least receive sun all morning. More sun means more fruit and earlier fruiting. Grapes also require well-drained soil -- preferably a sandy loam -- with a pH between 5.5 and 7. You don't need a large soil area because most of the vine will be above ground, but give the plant at least a 3-foot square for good root growth.

Choosing a Variety
American varieties, such as Delaware, Concord, and Reliance, are the best ones for the Northeast. Concord is the quintessential, jelly and juice grape, with large blue bunches containing small seeds. Delaware is a sweet, wine grape, and Reliance produces seedless red fruit good for fresh eating. There are many more choices so do some research or check with your nearest county extension office. Incidentally, before you rule out varieties with seeds, consider the health benefits of grape seeds.

Getting Support
A single Concord grapevine needs at least 32 square feet of area. A 4- by 8-foot size is a good dimension, but you can build a square, rectangular, or even irregularly shaped arbor. Two vines would need double the area. If your arbor will be covering a long walkway, you could have several vines.

An arbor can be as simple as four corner posts topped by a framework of 2x4s; if you're attaching it to a building, you'll only need two posts. Use 2x4s set 18 to 24 inches apart running across the width of the arbor to provide the base of support for the vines. Top those with 1x2s or strong, galvanized wire running the length of the arbor about 18 inches apart for additional support. You also can tie the vines to these. Corner braces will add extra strength when the vines are laden with fruit.

As with deck posts, the arbor posts should be made with rot-resistant wood if they stand on the ground, but avoid pressure-treated wood that contains herbicides, which can be toxic to grapes. Also use rot-resistant -- not pressure-treated -- wood for the arbor platform itself.

Make the arbor high enough so you can walk underneath even when the grapes are hanging down -- at least 7 feet high from the ground to the underside of the arbor.

Planting a Young Vine
Spring is the best time to plant grapevines in our region. Bare-root vines need to be planted while they are still dormant, container plants can be planted later. But the more time the plant has to grow the first season, the better, to help the vine develop enough of a root system to withstand the first winter.

You'll get the most even coverage of the arbor if you plant the vine in the middle of one of the long sides. Use a temporary post or a wire to support the vine until it reaches the top of the arbor. Or you can plant at the base of one of the corner posts. Water well at planting time and provide an inch of water per week the rest of the first summer. But don't overwater and avoid wetting the foliage. Fertilize in spring and again a month later with well-rotted manure or compost. Pinch off any grapes that form the first year.

Training Your Young Whippersnapper
The trickiest part of growing a grapevine on an arbor is the training of it. Cut the vine back to two or three buds at planting time and once the buds begin growing, select the most vigorous one and attach it to the support. (If you live in a very cold region, you may want to allow two shoots to grow in case one of them becomes damaged during the winter.) The shoot should grow to the top of the arbor in one season. If it doesn't, cut it back to two or three buds again and start over the next year. The main trunk of the vine needs to be very strong so don't settle for any weaklings.

Once the vine reaches the top of the arbor, you can train the growing canes to form a fan shape across the top of the arbor or train them along the 2x2s or wires. Read more about training to find out how to encourage the framework of canes you want.

Getting Fruit
Grapevines, like most fruiting plants, produce more fruit if they are pruned. A good time is whenever you normally do dormant-season pruning on other plants. Grapevines produce fruit on the shoots that form on one-year-old canes. So you want to encourage new canes every year and prune out the canes that have already fruited because they won't fruit again. Another advantage to thinning out old canes is that if there's too much foliage, individual leaves don't get enough sun to make enough food to effectively ripen the fruit.
If you're mainly after the shade and the ambience of a grape arbor, minimal yearly pruning will be all that's needed.

In general, it takes about three years to get a good crop of fruit, so there's no time to lose. Fall is the perfect time to build an arbor so you'll be ready to plant in the spring. Hey, who needs Italy!

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