A man and his wife walked up to my plant display at the local farmer’s market.
“What’s that plant?” he asked.
“That’s a chaya,” I replied. “Also known as Mexican tree spinach. A really easy perennial green for this area.”
He nodded. “And what about that?”
“That’s a Japanese persimmon… the fruit tastes like honey and sunshine. It’s also really easy to grow… much easier than citrus.”
Then his attention turned to a milk crate on the ground with a couple of potted vines in it.
“I know those… those are grapes.”
Before I could speak his wife piped up.
“We can’t grow grapes. We planted them and they all died.”
“Yeah,” the man jumped in, “They grew for about a year, then just died.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “You bought them from (insert name of large home improvement store here)? What were they? Concords? Champagne grapes?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said the husband. “I think they were some kind of champagne grape!”
The Bad News About Grapes
Every climate has its ups and downs. Chet has informed me that where he lives in the Pacific Northwest is a great place to grow potatoes.
My potatoes were eaten by fireants this year.
Another time, I watched a great video on YouTube where a guy was cleaning a big crop of Jacob’s Cattle beans and talking about how easy they were to grow.
Every time I try to grow dry beans they mold in their pods due to the heavy rains of summer.
Lesson: not all plants are created equal.
If you live in the humid, hot Southern United States, growing familiar varieties of grapes is an exercise in futility. It’s a game for a masochist. It’s like playing tetherball where the ball is a country ham and your opponent is a rabid Bengal tiger. On PCP. Except you still have a slim chance of winning that game.
Okay, it’s not THAT bad. But it is basically impossible, thanks to a particularly pernicious malady called Pierce’s Disease. Unfortunately, this disease is also spreading through California… and moving north.
Muscadines to the Rescue!
If you were to ask your local extension agent about good grapes for the south, he’d point you towards the shining example of all that’s good and right with viticulture: the muscadine grape.
Muscadines are a subspecies of grape, though some sciency folks think they should be classified as their own thing (the phrase “their own thing” is a technical term used by plant taxonomists with brainpower far beyond our own). Unlike regular grape varieties, they can shrug off Pierce’s Disease, not to mention high heat, ridiculous humidity and low chill hours.
Three years ago I planted six Southern Home grape vines on my property. They’re a newer self-fertile muscadine variety that includes a smattering of bunch grape genetics, though they act like pure-bred muscadine grapes. The vines are now loaded – and I mean loaded – with grapes. I barely water and rarely fertilize my vines and they thrive.
This makes sense, since wild muscadine grapes cover oak trees in my area. They’re sour and small, but grow like weeds. Every year my wife Rachel makes jam from the wild grapes – click here to see how she does it.
By cultivating improved versions of our native wild grapes, we’re working with nature rather than against it.
Muscadines are not the same as typical bunch grapes. For one thing, their skins are tougher – sometimes a lot tougher. Also, almost all muscadine grapes contain seeds, with a few small examples of applied breeding standing as the exception to the rule.
Seeds and skins shouldn’t be considered a deficit, however. Medical studies have shown that both grape skins and seeds are very medicinal. Grapes can be considered a superfood. And muscadines make growing grapes easy.
Here’s the kicker: the grapes that you buy from the store are among the most pesticide-contaminated foods in the produce section. The Environmental Working Group lists them as #3 in their “Dirty Dozen” list.
All the more reason to grow your own.
Growing Muscadine Grapes
Growing grapes doesn’t have to be a chore. Sure, a nice trellis or arbor is a great way to support the vines; however, a wire fence or even a tree will work fine. The main arguments for growing them on wires are as follows:
1. They’re easier to prune
2. They’re easier to harvest
3. Captain Picard grows his on wires
Muscadines will do well with wide spacing – 10′ is probably a good start. I planted some of my vines at 6′ apart and have regretted it since. The vines create an incredible thicket at such close spacing and it makes training and harvest harder than it should be.
The most important thing to remember with muscadine grapes is that they like a good pruning. And by a good pruning, I mean a SERIOUS chopping in the late winter or early spring before they leaf out.
I did this video over the winter showing you how I prune mine:
Basically, that’s it.
Find something to support your grapes… plant some… water them well until they’re established… prune them well… and you’ll be loaded with fruit in a few years.
The taste of muscadines is wonderfully complex, they can be used to make alcohol, they can be dried or made into jam, plus they’re easy to grow.
Pop some in. You can thank me later.
For more info on muscadine grapes, check out this publication by the University of Florida.