Growing grapes in the backyard

Tips and resources to help get you started on your own backyard vineyard.

The history of grape growing goes back more than a thousand years. The fruit would be eaten fresh, consumed as juice or wine, or dried (raisins). Grapes can be a challenging crop to grow and numerous animals such as raccoons, deer and birds love to eat them, but the potential problems should not discourage you from establishing and enjoying a small backyard vineyard. If you are a successful grower and lucky, maybe you can talk your spouse into celebrating by dangling a freshly picked cluster of grapes for your enjoyment as you recline on your favorite sofa. If that’s not likely, they are still fun to grow and eat.

Site requirements

Grapes grow best where winter temperatures don’t drop below -15 degrees Fahrenheit. One of the ways grapes are classified is by hardiness. There are grapes listed as very hardy, hardy, medium, tender and very tender. An example of a very hardy grape is concord. It falls into a group of grapes whose ancestry originated in the United States. They may survive temperatures as low as -30 F. On the other end of the scale are the European wine grapes that are hardy from 5 to -5 F.

Grapes grown closer to Lake Michigan are protected from winter temperature extremes due to the wind blowing across the warm waters. The reverse is true during the summer as the lakes are cooler from the winter months.

Growing grapes is more risky in mid-Michigan for less hardy varieties because the lake effect does not extend far inland; 20 miles is about the limit. Ideally, early maturing varieties need about 165 frost-free days. If new growth is not sufficiently mature before cold weather, injury to the vines is a likely result.

Grapes prefer well-drained, deep, fertile soils with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5. If soils are cold, wet and slow to drain, plants will not develop deep roots and vine development and fruit maturation will be slowed. In the long run, the vines will not thrive.

Grape vines can also have practical purposes in the landscape. When grown on a trellis, they can be used along a property border and can provide some privacy during the growing season. Your neighbors may feel welcome to help themselves to your bounty if your crop looks especially inviting. Grapes grown on an arbor can provide shade and a resting place on a hot day. Grape arbors can be quite attractive in a landscape, but they are a bit more difficult to maintain for fruit production than grapes grown on a traditional trellis

Smart gardeners begin the project with a soil test

Michigan State University Extension offers a soil test kit that can be obtained from the online MSU Extension Bookstore. Once at the site, select the Soil Test Kit Self-Mailer icon at the bottom, or type “soil test kit” in the search box.

After receiving the kit, follow the directions for collecting the sample and mailing for analysis. When the results have been returned, you will be directed to www.msusoiltest.com and select the “Understand Your Soil Test Results” bar for further instructions and recommendations

Materials needed to get started

There will be some material investments in growing grapes. You will need to purchase plants, although starting your own cuttings is not difficult. Posts and wire for the trellis will be needed. Hand-pruning shears, a sprayer and personal protective equipment, pest control products, netting to keep animals away from the crop, and fertilizer are some of the goodies to put on the shopping list if you don’t already them.

If all goes well, you can expect to start harvesting some grapes after three years with a consistent production in five to six years.

To get started, MSU Extension offers some excellent references on growing grapes in Michigan, including:

If you need additional assistance, contact your area MSU Extension horticulture educator by calling 888-678-3464 or visit the Gardening in Michigan website and submit your question to the Ask an Expert tool on the homepage.

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening articles, or to find out about smart gardening classes and events, visit www.migarden.msu.edu.

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