Many a homeowner has moved into an older home to find an overgrown grapevine on a trellis, fence or telephone pole in the back yard. If it covers an ugly fence, it likely will be left alone. If it looks like it will drag down the garage, it likely will be exterminated. But with a little attention, that grapevine can be tamed and actually produce a nice crop of grapes.
Some Chicago-area gardeners cultivate grapes to eat out of hand, or to make juice, jelly or wine. And then there are dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), not to mention frozen grapes (better than a Popsicle), grape sorbet and a sweet touch for salads.Glenn Jensen gets about 100 pounds of grapes a year from a vine that came with his bungalow in Berwyn.
"I knew absolutely nothing," he says. First he learned jellymaking from an aunt.
Then, overwhelmed by vast quantities of jelly and being a longtime home-brewer, he turned to winemaking, and now makes about 30 gallons a year. He also uses grape juice to flavor mead, an ancient concoction of fermented honey.
Most grapes that grow well in the Midwest are descendants of wild grapes, of which there are about 16 species in North America, says to Bill Shoemaker, senior research horticulturist for food crops at the University of Illinois' St. Charles Horticulture Research Center in St. Charles.
The wild ones, such as Vitis riparia, still can be found in woodlands and areas such as the Indiana Dunes.
The most common grape in gardens probably is like Jensen's: Vitis labrusca `Concord,' a 19th Century hybrid of wild grapes with a tart blue-black skin over sweet green flesh.
"I keep hacking it back," he says. "It grows like mad." It is the most common commercial grape in the Midwest, grown for jelly, wine and juice.
Though most of the famous European wine grapes, cultivars of Vitis vinifera, are too tender for Chicago-area gardens, a number of American varieties and hybrids are hardy here.
Grapes are generally tolerant of a variety of soils as long as they have good drainage. American grapes are less prone to disease than European ones, and many grapes grown in France are grafted onto American rootstocks for that reason.
Alana Mezo, senior horticulturist of the Fruit and Vegetable Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, top-dresses grapevines with compost but doesn't find any other fertilizer necessary.
The No. 1 rule of grapes: Grow vines in full sun.
The No. 2 rule: Have a very sturdy support.
Grapevines are indomitable growers and can become amazingly heavy. An arbor or trellis should be anchored securely in the ground.
Build a support before planting a grapevine. Water it well, especially in a dry year like this one, and before you know it, that vine will be clambering madly.
The No. 3 rule: Prune hard, really hard.
"People are totally flabbergasted that I'm taking so much off," says Mezo, who has trained several varieties of grapes over a large arbor at the botanic garden so the grapes hang down underneath.
She prunes in late winter, when the vines are still dormant, and she figures she prunes back an established vine by 80 percent each year.
"If I didn't prune, I wouldn't see the harvest that I do," she says.
Grapes bear on second-year stems. Those are the ones that need the plant's energy and must be exposed to sunlight, which ripens the grapes and makes them sweet. In August, Jensen cuts away about half the foliage around each bunch of grapes to allow more sweetening sunlight in.
Pruning also ensures good air circulation, Shoemaker says, which keeps grapes dry and staves off fungus diseases. "My experience is that most people leave about 10 times too much on there," he says.
Be careful, though, to leave some new shoots. Those will become next year's grape-bearing stems. Of course, you can prune any time you need to keep the vine's size under control.
The biggest challenge with grapes is that critters, from birds to deer, like them as much as we do. Jensen has watched by moonlight as a trio of possums gobbled his grapes. He says that when the birds start eating the fruit, you know it's ripe.
His solution is a tradeoff: Harvest the grapes a little bit early, when they only have about 12 percent sugar instead of the 15 he considers ideal for winemaking. Others wrap their vines in netting as the grapes approach ripeness, which will foil some creatures, though not all.
Will this year's hot, dry weather harm grapevines? Not well-established ones, Jensen says. In fact, dry years concentrate the sugar in the fruit. "This year," he says, "we should have spectacular grapes."
Here are some of the grape varieties that experts say are good for growing in Midwestern back yards.
`Concord': A tough, resilient 19th Century hybrid of wild American grapes that bears fragrant, blue-black fruits with a sweet-tart flavor in late September. Good for making jelly and juice, eating out of hand or winemaking, often in combination with other varieties. `Concord Seedless' bears smaller fruit.
`Fredonia': For jellymaking, Bill Shoemaker of the University of Illinois St. Charles Horticulture Research Center likes the floral notes of this grape better than `Concord.' Ripens about two weeks before `Concord.'
`Canadice': Big bunches of seedless red grapes are very sweet, Shoemaker says. Ripens in early September.
` Delaware': Small compact clusters of pale red fruits, good for wine or table use, are borne in early September. It may not be hardy in exposed Chicago yards.
`Marechal Foch': A hybrid of French grapes, it has blue-black fruits in early September that are primarily grown for wine.
`Niagara': Large greenish-gold sweet fruits are good for eating and wine. Ripens in September.
`Reliance': A red seedless grape for table use. Ripens in late August.
`Swenson Red': "A wonderful-tasting grape," says Shoemaker, for wine and table use. Ripens in mid-September.
Looking for grapevines or information about growing them? Here are some suggestions:
"The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture" by Lon Rombaugh (Chelsea Garden Publishing, 289 pages, $35)
The Chicago Botanic Garden: A fact sheet is available at chicagobotanic.org/plantinfo/pp/PPGrapevines.html, or call its Plant Information service, 847-835-0972.
HOPS, Homebrewers' Pride of the South Side: A group of home brewers and winemakers, including grape growers, meets at South Side taverns. See www.zlosk.com/hops.
Midwest Fruit Explorers: A garden club for back-yard fruit growers. See midfex.org or write Midwest Fruit Explorers, P.O. Box 93, Markham, IL 60426.
Greenwood NurseryMcMinnville, Tenn.800-426-0958greenwoodnursery.com
Indiana Berry & Plant Co.Huntingburg, Ind.800-295-2226inberry.com/index2.html
Miller NurseriesCanandaigua, N.Y.800-836-9630millernurseries.com
Raintree NurseryMorton, Wash.360-496-6400raintreenursery.com
Stark Bro's Nurseries & Orchards Co.
Louisiana, Mo.800-325-4180starkbros.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times