Grapes for Michigan and other northern climates

(this article originally appeared in Michigan Country Lines

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Sommerset grapes (Stark Bros)

There’s never been a better time to grow grapes here in Michigan, even up here in the chilly U.P. Thanks to breeders in this country and Europe there are many options for growing a delicious variety of grapes for fresh fruit, juice or wine making.

Grapes are a big deal here in Michigan, especially along the Lake Michigan coast line, but increasingly in all corners of the state.  Most of the 15,000 acres of grapes in production in this state are grown for juice, jams and jelly. However, the production of grapes for wine has literally exploded over the last ten years, according to Duke Elsner, small fruit specialist with MSU Extension.

“Michigan now has over 100 wineries, compared to about 25 ten years ago,” said Elsner. “We’re not just a casual producer of wine anymore.”

He said the quality of the wine is “fantastic” as well, owing in part to the many grape varieties now available to wine growers. Reisling is currently the most planted grape variety for wine in Michigan;  Pinot and Chardenay are also used by wine makers here in Michigan.

There is a great selection of grapes for gardeners around the state, especially those varieties coming out of the University of Minnesota, including Frontenac, a hardy variety for making wine. Avoid purchasing grapes in packaged in cardboard boxes that have been sitting on the shelves of discount stores for God knows how long. These plants could easily be stressed from the heat and drying out that occurs in these stores.

Planting Grapes

Grapes should be planted in full sun on level or sloping ground. The ideal location is east of a large body of water like Lake Michigan, but of course not all of us have this option. Fortunately, there are many hardy varieties available these days, including the juice and jelly “Beta” variety of grapes that have been growing on the northern edge of my property for several years.

Elsner said grapes are adaptable to different types of soils but in general will do best in loose, sandy-loam. Amend clay or sandy soils with organic matter.  A soil test can reveal what you need to add to bring your pH in balance and beef up the nutrients in your soil. Contact the MSU Extension for more information on soil testing.

Grapes are normally planted from one-year old vines. Plant them in front of a sturdy trellis or fence. I use the four- arm Kniffen system to trellis grapes; there are other trellising methods you can use, including the Hudson River Umbrella.

Use cedar posts, treated 4 X 4’s or metal stakes, sunk at least two feet into the ground to build your trellis.  Space the posts six to eight feet apart for a single planting of grapes. Use a number 9 wire for the top wire, a number 12 for the bottom. The bottom wire is fastened 30 inches from the ground and the top wire 30 inches from the bottom wire. Fasten it in such a way so you can tighten it later.

Each vine will need to be trained up the trellis. The first year it will be simply a matter of training the single vine in a vertical fashion. By the second year there will be “arms” that will need to be trained along the wire. Select four of the thickest arms and train them along the wires, two per wire for a total of four arms. Each arm should have 8- 10 buds and will be about two feet in length. Select four more canes as close to the arms as possible and cut them back to about six inches, leaving only two buds. These are called renewal canes and will produce fruit the following year.

Remember this setup because you will need to repeat it each year when you prune in late winter or early spring. This type of pruning may seem a little drastic, but it is necessary to ensure a healthy harvest of luscious grapes.

To keep your grapes producing up to their potential, fertilize each spring with a 10-10-10 or organic fertilizer and apply a mulch around the base of the canes to control weeds. Shallow cultivation  (no more than two inches) is recommended.

Elsner, who is an entomologist by training, said that grapes can go a number of years without disease and insect problems, especially if not planted close to wild grapes. To be on the safe side he suggests purchasing hybrid varieties with stated disease resistant.  Keep an eye open for the dreaded Japanese beetle and rose chafer.

The biggest threat to grapes appears to be song birds, notes Elsner. He said bird netting may be needed to keep the birds from helping themselves to your grapes. Deer can also be a problem, especially during the establishment phase. Protective mesh or a cage may be needed if deer are a problem in your area.

Grapes won’t take up much of your time, with the exception of the annual pruning and keeping an eye out for critters. They’ll also produce much sooner than most tree fruits (two years after planting vs. 4-5 years with tree fruits) and you won’t need a ladder to pick the grapes.  They’re also pretty easy to propagate from stem cuttings.

Neil gardens in the U.P. and writes about his experiences in the syndicated blog North Country Gardening (www.northcountrygardening.blogspot.com).

Grape Varieties: Uses, Hardiness Zone

Frontenac                           Wine                     Zones 3-7

Niagara                                 Wine                    Zones 5-8

Concord                               Juice/Jelly           Zones 4-8

Beta                                       Juice/Jelly           Zones 3-8

Marquette                          Wine                     Zones 4-8

Summerset (seedless)  Table                     Zones 4-8

 

Sources                for grape vines:

 

Miller Nurseries

www.millernurseries.com

 

Jung Seeds & Plants

 

Source for grape vines and grapes:

 

Michigan Wines

www.michiganwines.com

 

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