More and more people are turning to backyard gardening with an eye to raising their own crops and becoming more self-sufficient. One area that has a seen a lot of growth is the organic backyard vineyard. Having a small-scale vineyard is a little different than growing a few clusters of table grapes though the practices are similar.
The process is initially labor intensive, as you will have to choose a location, prepare the soil and put the structures in place that will support the vineyard, but if you take great care during these steps, the end result will be more than worth it.
That said, growing a vineyard in your backyard is not as daunting as it may seem. Any labor of love requires a certain amount of research and work. While there are many books on the market that can help you with this endeavor, your time would be better spent talking to other local growers, learning what obstacles they have faced and what tricks they have learned. A trip to your local extension office can also be invaluable as they will have information on the types of grapes that grow best in your area. They will also have information on how to deal with local pests and diseases.
Growing an organic vineyard
The U.S. government has established guidelines for what is allowed in order for any food crop to be certified as organic. Some states may have their own regulations as well. Check with your own state legislation to find out what constitutes organic in your region. A vineyard will undergo a process of testing and approval before an organic certification can be granted. Generally speaking, you will have to avoid the use of any synthetic products including fertilizers, soil supplements, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. The soil where your vineyard grows will have to be free of these prohibited products for 3 or more years as these chemicals can leave long-lasting residues in the soil. No genetically modified seeds can be used and you’ll need to keep detailed records pertaining to your production methods and sales. If you are growing other, non-organic crops, they must be segregated from your organic crops. In order to obtain organic certification, you will be subjected to periodic testing and recertification to ensure you are still following organic practices. This can be a time-consuming and costly practice for the backyard gardener.
Growing a sustainable vineyard
Similar to but less rigid than organic growing certifications is the option of growing sustainably. This may be more suitable to most backyard vineyards as there is no legal definition or certification process involved. Organic methods can still be used but a sustainable vineyard also incorporates water and energy conservation practices as well as allowing the homeowner to make choices about what works best in his vineyard.
11 Steps To Starting Your Own Backyard Vineyard
1. Choosing a location.
There are many things that go into choosing the right location for your vineyard. The most important factor is that the entire vineyard be able to receive at least 8 hours of sunlight each day. Look for obstacles such as trees, hedges and buildings that might impede this requirement. Without the full 8 hours of sunshine, the plants won’t thrive and the grapes will be fewer and of inferior quality. While the grapevines in your organic backyard vineyard may grow well on a hilly terrain, it will make harvesting, pruning, and maintenance more challenging. Try to choose a flat piece of land to facilitate care of your plants.
2. Check the soil.
Grapes aren’t overly particular about the soil they grow in, but to make the most of your organic vineyard, you’ll want to check out the soil type and its pH. Grapevines prefer a neutral soil. That’s a soil with a pH of about 7. You can dig a hole in the area where you intend to plant and then take scrapings from the sides of the hole. Place them in a plastic zipper, sandwich-type bag. A home soil test kit can let you know pretty quickly what your pH level is or you can contact your agricultural extension office for recommendations on a local soil testing lab. Once you have the results, the extension office can help you with recommendations on any soil treatments you might need to bring the soil pH into alignment with what you need. You’ll also want to avoid very stone-laden or clay-type soils as grapes do not perform well in these soils. If the area has been able to produce healthy vegetation in the past, your grapevines are probably going to be fine.
3. The size of the vineyard.
The size of any organic backyard vineyard is subjective, but remember it takes quite a few grapes to make a single bottle of wine. It will take roughly 120 vines to produce enough wine to fill a 60-gallon barrel. In order to achieve this volume, you will need an area of about 50’ by 50’ that meets the sun and soil conditions described above.
4. Choosing the grape variety.
In order to make wine, you will need to choose one or two varieties of grapes that you want to grow. The most important factor to consider here is the climate where your grapes will grow. In places where the growing season is cooler with average temperatures of 50˚ – 60˚ F, Riesling grapes do well. Conversely, in hotter climates where the average temps are 85˚ – 95˚, Cabernets and Zinfandels do best. In moderate climates where temps range between 60˚ and 85˚, Merlot, Cabernet or Chardonnay is likely to thrive.
5. Install the trellis system of your choice.
A trellis is a structural support for the grapevine. The type of trellis you choose depends on the location, soil type, growth habits and the number of vines and the spacing between plants. The goal of the trellis is to provide all the vines access to the sun for the full 8 hours they need and good air flow between the vines. A fence-style trellis is most popular with backyard grape growers. It allows the vines to wrap easily around the posts and rails. The fence needs to provide ample room between rails and posts so that as the vine winds its way around them, it still has access to the sunlight and water. Pruning and harvesting are easily accomplished with this design because you can work from both sides of the trellis.
6. Water supply.
Grapevines will need to be watered regularly. The water from your garden hose is sufficient in most cases but if you are going for true organic, you may want to have the water tested. A drip irrigation system is the most efficient and effective way of making sure your organic backyard vineyard receives the right amount of water at the right time. A drip irrigation system will deliver water to the roots where it is most needed and leave the vines and fruit dry thereby avoiding mold, mildew and rot problems.
7. Plant your vines.
The hole for planting your new vines in is fairly universal across all types of grapes at about 8 inches deep. The spacing between plants is a little more complex. Keeping in mind that the plants need room to grow so they can receive good airflow and sunlight at all times, the only other determining factor is soil type. In a dry, arid region, the plants can be 4 to 6 feet apart in their rows. If the soil is fertile and the climate is hot with plenty of water, there will be more vigorous growth and you will need 6 to 8 feet between plants in the same row. The spacing of rows has to do with maneuverability and preserving those 8 hours of sunshine. If your trellis is 6 feet tall, for example, you will need a minimum of 5 feet between rows to prevent one row from casting a shadow on the next. This distance also allows you to have free movement between the rows for harvest and maintenance purposes.
8. Training the grapevines.
Once the vines are planted, the next step is training them to grow on the trellis. The grapevine needs a strong and upright trunk and a healthy root system. As it grows toward the sky, wooden stakes can be used to support the young vine. Snipping off weaker shoots will allow the plant to put more energy into growing the trunk straight and strong. Do not tie the main trunk to anything as the string or plastic ties can become embedded in the trunk as it grows. As the vine reaches the fence lines, new shoots can be gently tied to the rails or wires to encourage them to spiral around the supports. Once they are clinging, the strings or plastic ties can be removed.
9. Pruning your vines.
The first year is the most important for the organic backyard vineyard when it comes to pruning. This is when the permanent shaping is created. New plants usually come with 2 to 3 active shoots. Some growers prefer to let the grapevine grow naturally for the first year so they have more of a selection the following year when picking vines to keep or prune. A possible drawback is that the plant can become bushy during the first year and not get the proper air and sunlight. Use discretion when pruning during the first growing season.
During winter, the vines will lose all their leaves and go dormant. From then on, the vines are referred to as canes. One of these will be chosen to establish the main trunk. About a month before spring arrives, trim the plant back so that it has only 1 or 2 strong canes. Secure your trunk cane to the training post and trim away any weak or unwanted shoots. This season, you will need to let 4 to 6 healthy shoots develop.
During the dormant period of the next year, you will trim these canes back to just 2 and train them horizontally along the fruiting wire or rail. These two canes should produce 8 to 10 new shoots that should be trained to the other 3 wires or rails. Potentially, these could bear fruit the following season. After this, you will only have to monitor them for damage or disease and prune accordingly. A good pruning should be done about once every three years after that.
10. Pest and disease control.
Pests and diseases will vary from one part of the country to another. During the first few years, before fruiting begins, this isn’t too much of a problem. Both issues can be dealt with by practicing good canopy management. All of the stems, leaves, and clusters of grapes that grow from the main 2 canes make up the canopy. Throughout the summer, you will want to thin and position these components so that the whole canopy has good air flow and receives the proper amount of light. This can prevent many fungal diseases that can take hold when the vines are overcrowded.
Check with local growers and your extension office for organic measures to use to combat the local insect populations. Remember not all insects are bad. You will need to assess their presence and determine if their numbers are excessive or causing damage. When it comes to birds, netting over the vines can protect your fruit.
11. Harvesting the grapes.
As a new organic backyard vineyard grower, it will be a few years until you make your first harvest but those first sweet grapes will be the reward for your years of labor. Winemakers should plan to be harvesting clusters of grapes that are fully ripened and disease-free in the early morning hours during the month of August. You will need to keep the container you put the harvested grapes into free from leaves, twigs and other debris that could damage the fruit. In order to bring the harvest in all at the same time, you may want to invite a few friends and family members to help you out. Store the harvest in a cool, shady place until you are ready to make your wine.