Growing Grapes on an Allotment
Growing Grapes on an Allotment (for fun)
Having grown grapes as a hobby for a number of years in my garden it seemed a natural progression to try the same on my first allotment when I acquired one in 2003. Having grown a selection of wine grapes in the garden namely Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Triomphe D’Alsace, Gagarin Blue and found them easy to grow I thought I would try and grow them in greater numbers. As wine grapes they are wanting in comparison to dessert grapes size flavour and quality: but they make superb juice when crushed either for wine production or to drink as is. Although they can achieve a very acceptable sweetness they are thick skinned and contain pips. The smallest variety of that I grow Triomphe produces tight bunches of pea sized grapes. Whilst Gagarin Blue produces large open bunches of grapes the size of small cherries and is passable as a dessert grape.
Gagarin blue dessert/wine Triomphe D’alsace Madeliene Angevine
FIG 1 Three varieties of grape at my allotment
I sourced the vines at the allotment from cuttings following my autumn prune of the garden grape vines as well as a small number of new varieties that I have purchased. I am trying Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as an experiment. They seem to flower later than the varieties I am used to and I think may not ripen easily. Having said that the French have bought considerable acreage in southern England in anticipation of rising temperatures bringing England up to a par with northern 20th century France. Propagation from cuttings is quite straight forward. Following the autumn prune in November I select candidates from the pruning debris, cut them back to six inches (four or so nodes at which point buds will appear). I place them immediately in the soil without use of rooting powder and find the cuttings strike at about a 40% success rate so long as they do not dry out. Using rooting powder and well drained soil ie mixing in sand would ensure a far higher success rate but because of the vast number of waste from pruning I can set as many cuttings as I wish.
FIG 2 a hard wood grape vine shoot suitable to use as a cutting
I very loosely follow the Guyot training method in which one rod (single Guyot) or two (double Guyot) is grown horizontally from the main trunk of the vine. The purpose of the training is to produce a open framework that lets light in and encourages fruiting. A vine will take three years before grapes begin to be produced from cuttings. The winter prune removing 90-95% of the new growth.
FIG 2 Double Guyot vine training
I currently have a small number of fruiting vines at the allotment and a large number that will come into fruiting over the next few year. There is a successful commercial vineyard at Costock, just north of Barrow. I think planting vines to add character to my allotment is not overly ambitious. The past two years have seen weather presenting a problem.
Grapes favour a short cold winter period to allow a dormant period of rest as much as a long sunny warm to hot period. The cold period is essential. Frost hardens/ripens the fresh growth from green to woody colour. The past two years have seen unseasonably warm February’s which triggered the vine’s sap to begin to rise a month or so earlier than in a traditional winter/spring seasonal transition. This early warm spell exposes them to the inevitable later spring radiation frosts that occur up to June and so damage occurs to new growth and flowers. Wet summers also are a problem as the cooler temperatures and lower light levels result in lower sugar content; but that is not too great a problem for wine grapes. The allotment site, although south facing in aspect, is exposed and the season is four weeks shorter compared to my sheltered south facing garden. Wine grapes are smaller than dessert grapes and so take less time to reach maturity.
The space between the rows of grapes provides an area that may be cultivated in other ways. Grapevines are vigorous once established and it is important to maintain the vines well. This is done principally during the autumn pruning – after leaf fall to no more than five foot in width. A vine can only support a certain number of grapes without vastly reducing the quality. This quantity is determined predominantly by age. The Hampton court vine, the well known black Hamburg dessert variety, in the 1840s averaged 2300 to 2400 bunches a year; having been planted in 1769.
Once growth starts in spring the vine will be shooting forth from numerous buds. Many of these shoots and buds need to be rubbed out to allow light into the frame work and limit the number of fruiting shoots. On the fruiting shoots the tips should ideally be pinched out to allow light in once four or five leaves have grown above the flower cluster. Grapes can be extremely vigorous once established and pruning becomes a time consuming job. The objective to keep the vines open to light and not over crowded is relatively easy. Winter pruning likewise can be easy as it involves a very hard prune and subsequent bonfires and taking cuttings if required.
The grapes flower in June and take roughly three months to ripen depending on the weather. A second flurry of flower clusters can occur a month or two after the first. In our climate these do not have a chance of ripening and should be pinched out. The flowers appear as what looks like mini bunches of grapes which set a few weeks later and bunches of very small grapes appear. Wine grapes are self fertile and no assistance is required with pollination. These small grape clusters steadily grow through the summer flourishing in sun and warmth but cool cloudy weather hamperstheir progress.
Wine grapes crop happily outdoors without assistance in our region. The harvest is in September to October depending on the weather over the summer and the flowering time. The crop can spoil rapidly if not picked once ripe. Whilst they are tolerant of rain any other time the grapes themselves can be damaged by heavy rain when they are ripe.
FIG 4 some vines July 2008 at my allotment