Grapes, Vitis vinifera, are often thought of as not suited to the UK climate, but there are many varieties that will flourish in warmer parts of the country. They can, of course, also be grown successfully in greenhouses – dessert grapes give better results under cover, as the fruit needs plenty of warmth to ripen fully.
Whether fruitful or not, a grapevine makes an attractive climber for walls and fences, with distinctive foliage that often colours up beautifully in the autumn. Both wine-producing and dessert grapevines are available, and if you’re looking for a new gardening challenge, they’re worth the effort.
How to plant and grow grapes
Grapevines are grafted onto rootstock. When you buy a grapevine, the join will be clearly visible, above the line of the soil in the pot. When you plant out your vine, this should remain above the soil.
Choose a warm and sunny site, either against a wall or fence, or with some other support. Vines will grow on most free-draining soils, provided they get plenty of sunlight. They can be grown successfully outdoors but some varieties will crop more reliably if they have the heat and shelter of a greenhouse.
The roots need plenty of space and good drainage – cold won’t affect growth, but damp roots will not make for a happy grapevine. So whether you are growing outdoors or indoors, prepare the soil well, digging a generous hole and adding extra crocks and grit for drainage, plus a good helping of well-rotted manure or garden compost. If you’re growing outdoors, leave approximately 15cm between the vine and the wall or fence that it will grow against.
If you want to try your hand at winemaking, plant vines 1.5m apart in rows 1.5-2m apart.
Watch Monty Don planting a grapevine in a greenhouse:
How to care for grapevines
Grapes shouldn’t need much watering if grown outdoors, except in very dry conditions. But they’re hungry plants. They benefit from a generous annual mulch of well rotted horse manure in early spring, with a scattering of blood fish and bone mix before they start growing. Through the early part of the summer use a tomato feed every few weeks. If you’re growing dessert grapes, feed weekly until the grapes start to ripen.
For newly planted grapevines, remove any flowers for the first two years. In the following three years, leave only a few bunches of grapes on the vine until it’s established, at around five years old.
Grapevines can be trained up walls, on trellis or over arches and need very little space on the ground if pruned carefully. In the first year, restrict growth to only three vertical stems. Tie in the stems to the training wires in autumn, pruning one back to encourage growth the following year. Keep your stems well spaced to encourage plenty of air to circulate and room for fruits to ripen.
Pinch out the side shoots as required in the spring. In midsummer, any fruits need to be thinned too, with special long scissors.
Grapevines can also be trained to produce fruit along two horizontal branches or as cordons or espaliers.
Watch Monty Don’s advice on pruning a greenhouse-grown grapevine:
It’s not so much the cold weather that affects grapes, but the lack of sunshine for ripening the fruit. Remove any fruits that are going mouldy. Generally, if you have a good summer, grapes will be ready to pick from September to October. You’ll know grapes are ready to pick by the colour and taste – it won’t hurt to sample a few.
Grapes for eating should be consumed fairly soon after picking, although they will retain flavour for a week or so in a cool storage area, or fridge. Browse ways of serving grapes from our friends at Olive Magazine.
Growing grapevines: problem solving
Grey mould can occur in wet conditions or where there is not enough movement of air around plants. It affects buds, leaves flowers and fruit, and affects the overall growth and health of the plant, and can be fatal for weak or damaged plants. If spotted, remove the affected areas of the plant and burn.
Powdery mildew will appear on the surface of leaves affecting the growth of the vine. Some varieties are mildew resistant.
In the greenhouse, red spider mite can cause leaves to become pale, and covered in webbing and to drop. Biological controls are available.
Five grape varieties to grow
- Vitis vinifera ‘Black Hamburg’ – produces delicious dark dessert grapes, but is best grown in a greenhouse
- Vitis ‘Brant’ – a tough and vigorous variety suitable for outdoor growing. It is easily available, but does not produce the best quality grapes for eating
- Vitis vinifera ‘Muscat Saint Vallier’ – a self-fertile, seeded hybrid grape, better suited to eating than being used for wine
- Vitis vinifera ‘Poloske muscat’ – a green grape variety that can be grown outdoors in most of the UK. It’s mildew resistant and produces lots of fruit with a sweet flavour
- Vitis vinifera ‘Muscat Bleu’ – a very dark, almost black grape. Bred to be very disease-resistant and produce high quality fruit outdoors