With British winemakers increasingly scooping up top prizes in international competitions, more people are realising it is possible to grow decent quality grapes in the UK. It may be more challenging for the British gardener than those folk lucky enough to live in the Mediterranean, but if you like the idea of picking your own grapes then it can be well worth the effort.
In warm, wine-making regions you’ll spot grape vines growing on supports made from posts and wires that encourage warm air to circulate through the canopy, helping the fruits to grow plump and disease free. More often than not, grape vines will be planted on hillsides to aid drainage, with the added elevation helping to protect from crop-spoiling frosts. For the UK allotmenteers who want to grow grapes, these conditions can be tricky to meet. However, certain grape varieties are relatively easy to grow and, despite the fact that the claggy soil of our native Somerset is far removed from the fertile fields of the Dordogne, we’ve decided to grab the vine and plant some grapes. Here’s a bunch of tips on how to grow your own grapes…
Support Grape Plants
Unfortunately, we don’t own an enormous greenhouse to accommodate vast, rambling grape vines so this means we’ll be growing our grapes al-fresco. As a general rule, dessert grape varieties tend to do best when grown behind glass but don’t let that put you off – wine grapes will grow perfectly well in the UK, and although you might not get vines groaning with burgeoning bunches of ambrosial fruits, there are certain dessert varieties that will also grow nicely in the UK climate. Growing grape vines up a sheltered, south-facing wall that has been fitted with horizontal, vine-supporting wires every 40 cm is your best bet for success. If you are posh enough to own a pergola (and if we did we’d never admit it) then this would also provide a decent structure for your vines to grow and spread.
How to Plant Your Grape Vine
Grape vines grow deep, so fetch your sharpest spade and dig a hole twice the radius of the rootball. Give the root ball a good soaking, then carefully lower it into the hole and pack it with a good quality, peat-free compost. You might also want to add a spot of fertilizer as well to give the plant an early boost. Don’t trample the soil and compact it too much, just give it a firm pat before mulching. Mulching is critical to vine success, so you really do need to pile it around the base of your grape plant. You can use bark, wood chippings, manure or stones – just make sure you leave a bit of space around the stem to prevent it from rotting.
Should You Feed a Grape Vine?
Grape vines grow like the clappers, so it’s important you keep them well watered. Start your regime from late March onwards, giving the grape vines a good morning soaking each week, then reduce the frequency from Autumn to prevent your fruits from splitting. It’s also wise to feed your vines with a well-balanced fertilizer in February/March. Giving them an ounce of potash at this point will also help encourage bonus grape bounty at harvest time.
How to Harvest Grapes
As painful as it may be, you’ll need to remove all flowers and fruits from your vine for the first two years after planting, much as you would the blossom on young apple trees. In the third year (providing your vine is still alive) you should have fruit ready for harvest. Wait until all your bunches are fully ripe before harvest. Grapes should all be evenly coloured, with dessert varieties tasting sweet and juicy. To remove them from the grape vine, use a sharp pair of snips and remove each truss, taking care not to damage the grape plant.
Beware The Mildew
One of the most common ailments that grape vines suffer is mildew which can inhibit new leaf growth and spoil fruits. It tends to be prevalent in wet growing seasons and will strike if your vines have poor air circulation. The removal of excess leaf coverage throughout the growing season will help, and the painful job of thinning out fruit clusters will not only help thwart mildew, it will encourage larger, better quality fruit. There are also certain grape varieties that are mildew resistant, so whilst the choices are limited, planting a disease resistant variety may prevent mildew misery further down the line.
Three Glorious Grape Varieties to Try
Boskoop Glory Grapes
This black, mildew-resistant grape is widely considered to be one of the most reliable varieties for outdoor UK planting. As with all varieties, plant in full sun, preferably in a south-facing location. Boskoop Glory is a flavoursome grape, perfect for dessert, winemaking or eating fresh from the vine.
An easy-to-grow white grape variety that originates from Germany. It’s grown extensively in many UK vineyards and lends a crisp citrus flavour to wines. It’s also a tasty fellow to eat, so double the fun.
Queen of Esther Grapes
A pink-hued grape that crops mid-September and produces large, juicy fruits. It’s one of the hardiest grape vines around so is particularly suitable for growing in northern parts of the UK. It’s predominantly a dessert grape but worth flinging into a blend for winemaking purposes if you fancy.
Do you grow your own grapes? What is your favourite grape variety to grow in your garden? Let us know in the comments.