We have always been rather surprised at how successful we have been at growing grapes outdoors in the garden here at Honey Pot Flowers. Anna Pavord in her Independent article suggests that it is difficult to grow them north of a line between Gloucester and The Wash so here in Warwick we must be pushing our luck a little.
We have two vines, one of red dessert grapes and one of white dessert grapes. They have been in place for about 12 years now but unfortunately the variety names have become detached along the way. Year in, year out they produce a good crop of sweet and tasty grapes and it feels rather special when it comes to harvest time.
In November/December we prune the vines ready for next year. Writers indicate that if you leave this until the spring when the sap is beginning to rise there is a tendency for the cut ends to weep.
Next year’s grapes are produced on the laterals formed in the current year. The plants grow very vigorously in the spring and can produce a huge number of floating laterals with many spectacular large fresh green vines leaves. The aim of the pruning is to not allow the plant to produce too many laterals and encourage the plant to put its efforts into a smaller number of larger bunches of grapes.
Having said this we nearly always have to prune out some laterals next year as well as thin out the number of bunches of grapes on the plant as a whole. In this way we get larger, juicy grapes.
Grape vines are very attractive climbing plants and we grow our vines up the same trellis supports as our climbing roses. The main leader is trained in a spiral up one of the main uprights and allowed to clamber across the top so that the grapes hang down and can be picked as you walk through the arch. A lovely thing to do when you are taking a gentle evening meander around the garden to appreciate your days work.
At this time of year (December) we cut back the leader by about a third and shorten last year’s fruiting laterals back to 2 or 3 buds. These buds will create next year’s fruiting laterals. Any unwanted, broken or crossing laterals are also removed to create a nice tight structure that is firmly tied into the supports. It is very important to take time to tie in carefully and robustly so there is minimal chance of damage from the winter winds over the next few months.
All of this work now will pay dividends next year. In September/October next year the grapes will begin to ripen and be ready for picking. Surprisingly we get very little bird damage and without netting we get a good crop for ourselves and also enough to share. Despite being outside they are sweet enough to eat fresh but one of our preferred methods is to make juice (there is not usually enough to make any sensible amount of wine).
Making the juice is a very simple process. Pick and rinse the grapes and give them a very quick pulse in the food processor. This should be just enough to break up the grapes and release the juice but leave the pips intact. Strain the resulting pulp through a course plastic sieve into a jug and store in the fridge until you need it. Avoid using a metal sieve as this may impart a metallic taint to the juice. No sugar needs to be added and the juice will keep at least 2 or 3 days by which time the family have guzzled the lot.
Drinking your own freshly pressed grape juice from your own grape vines is such a pleasure and a real taste of summer.
Further reading: “Pruning” by Christopher Brickell (RHS) (ISBN: 1-85732-902-3)