Growing Grapes in Northern Climates
Anyone Can Grow Grapes
Growing grapes in northern climates can be difficult, but not impossible. Grapes can be grown a variety of ways, including container gardening. If you've avoided growing grapes because they didn't succeed before or you didn't think it was possible, think again. You can grow grapes successfully, even in colder climates. All you need is the willingness to do so and a small arsenal of inexpensive supplies to get the plants through tough times.
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Cold Hardy Grape Vines
If you're planning on growing grapes in the north, you must start by buying rootstock that is cold hardy. This is one of the most important things you can do to get your burgeoning vineyard off to a good start.
The following are cold hardy varieties, though each year there are new varieties developed. Many of these new varieties are developed in the United States at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Red Wine Varieties
Frontenac - cold hardy, even in zones 3 & 4
King of the North
White Wine Varieties
Frontenac Gris- cold hardy, even in zones 3 & 4
LaCrosse- cold hardy, even in zones 3 & 4
St. Pepin- cold hardy, even in zones 3 & 4
Juice and Jelly Grapes
Concord - cold hardy in zone 4
Planting Northern Grapes
Planting grapes is fairly easy, since they are usually shipped as bare root stock. However, grapes won't grow in just any old soil. They need well drained soil, usually amended with a mixture of compost, sand and peat moss. Many areas in the north have rocky or clay in the soil, making growing grapes difficult. As long as you make the soil friendly for your grapes, the chance of success in growing them will be much greater.
The best place to plant your grapes is on a gentle slope which has direct sunlight for most of the day. Grapes need plenty of sun to grow and the grapes themselves need sunlight to ripen. A gentle slope will also help to keep water from settling around the plants.
It is recommended that you wait until the danger of frost has passed before you plant your grapes, especially if you live in zones 3 and 4. Planting the grapes in amended soil is easy- simply dig a hold large enough for the grape plant, then gently tamp in the soil around it. If you have older root stock, create a small mound within the hole that you have dug. Gently arrange the root system around the mound, then gently fill in the hole, covering the roots. Tamp down gently. Generally, it is best to plant the grapes three to four feet apart. Follow any directions provided with the plants from the grape plant producer to ensure your plants will thrive in your area.
After you have planted your new grape plants, be sure to water them, keeping them moist during the growing season, but never soaking wet. Grapes hate to have "wet feet" and may succumb to root rot if left to sit in water for an extended period of time.
Finally, grapes can be grown in containers- large containers or tubs that are at least 1-2 feet deep. The plants will also need a 3-4 foot stake placed in the container to help support the plant once it starts producing grapes. The container may be brought indoors (such as the garage or basement) in the winter if you live in a harsh northern climate.
As with any plant, there are always pests and problems to contend with. One of the biggest problems is dealing with Japanese Beetles. They will methodically defoliate your grape vines and leave the skeletal remains. To deal with these pests, I use a combination of methods. One is to simply pluck the beetles off of your plants and throw them in a bucket of soapy water. This is time consuming, but it will do the job if you are vigilant and have the time to do this every day. Secondly, buying Japanese Beetle traps can also help eliminate them. Finally, sprinkling baby powder on your plants (assuming you don't have acres of the vines), seems to stop the beetles in their tracks. However, you need to sprinkle the powder when it is especially windy or rainy.
Frost is another killer of grapes in the north. Every time I get a frost warning I panic, especially if the plants are just leafing out. If you have a small garden, placing tarps over the plants at night can protect them, however the tarps or covers must be removed promptly the next morning, or you may unintentionally "steam" the leaves and kill them when the sun comes out.
Protecting and Winterizing Grape Plants
There are two things that people commonly use in the north to protect young rootstock and older vines. The first is plastic sleeves that fit over the new rootstock, protecting it from sunscald, harsh winds and some local wildlife. These are pretty inexpensive and can be purchased from most nurseries, especially those that sell grape and tree stock.
Second, mounding up hay or straw around the plants before the first snowfall can also help winterize your plants in the north. However, it must be removed or spread around once spring occurs, otherwise you may end up with a sopping mess that can cause mold growth and root rot.