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“A Rough Patch” – Grape Juice

Written By Teresa Howell |

My friend Dixie made me a gift of two grape vines, and a few days later, she stopped by to check up on them. Dixie is a teacher, and realizes the importance of monitoring a wayward pupil. She approved my efforts, and we moved to the shade for a chat.

“You know,” she said, “you could use some support. I recommend panty hose. They’ll keep things up where they belong.”

“Nobody wears pantyhose these days,” I countered.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I have some I can give you that would be perfect for your needs. They’d allow for growth, and wouldn’t pinch tender limbs. Plus, they’re nearly invisible.”

“I don’t care how they look,” I mumbled, “and you’ll never convince me they don’t pinch. Thanks, but I’m not interested.”

I didn’t say it, but I knew I’d never fit into anything Dixie wore. I’m not sure what size she wears, but I think it’s not much more than the square root of mine.

A day later she stopped by with a batch of old knee-highs. I’d cobbled together a trellis with steel t-posts and willow branches for the vines, and Dixie showed me how to tie the vines to the trellis using the pantyhose. Sure enough, they didn’t pinch, the way the garden twine I used before did. I had to prune off a bit of vine that broke where the wind abraded it against the support.

Dixie has seen me searching for my reading glasses often enough to know my organizational skills, or lack thereof, so she told me I should remember where I put my pruners because I’d need them this winter to prune the grapes.

Many grape varieties are vigorous growers, and some very old vines can cover the better part of an acre. It takes lots of room and careful management to keep a vine of that size in order. Grapes produce on wood from the previous year, and if too much of the previous year’s wood is left, the crop will be heavier than the vine can feed, resulting in small, sour grapes. Some experts recommend pruning off up to ninety percent of the year’s growth.

There are lots of different ways to train grapes. Growers will need to take into account their own skill level, growing conditions, and their own preferences in determining how to prune. Not surprisingly, the easiest methods don’t result in the highest yield. The Internet or the local county extension office can give you information on methods of pruning.

Unlike fruit trees, grapes won’t heal after you prune them, so care has to be taken not to leave a wound that might allow pathogens in. Partially because of this, grapes are subject to a variety of fungal diseases. Many of these diseases can be prevented by properly disposing of pruned branches and general cleanliness.

Pests include several varieties of caterpillars, leaf-hoppers, and mites. Organic controls are available for many of these pests, and lady-bugs, dragonflies, and wasps can help with control.

Dixie is a wise friend, so she chose for me two varieties that will do well here in the high desert. We need grapes that can stand short seasons, cold winters, hot summers, alkali, and drought. Most reputable nurseries know and carry well-adapted species and can help you select a grape that will suit your needs, whether you’re after wine or fruit.

Although some sources I consulted suggest grapes are “heavy feeders,” in trials, UNR included a small amount of fertilizer at planting, and none thereafter, with excellent results. After all, grapes grow in Greece, which is scarcely known for its fertile soil. Just to be on the safe side, I mulched mine with manure, as I did the four vines I planted previously.

Which brings me to the one thing I know about grapes for sure–they are tough. I planted those four grapevines three springs ago. I gave them a little supplemental water, but they didn’t seem to be doing much.

The next spring, when nothing came up, I ignored them, except for trying to pull out one of the protruding stalks. It didn’t give, so I added “dig up grape plants” to my steadily growing to-do list. Then in mid-June, three of the vines popped up out of bone-dry ground: a Candice, a Himrod, and another variety. Only the fourth, a type that’s marginal in our area, died.

This year, their third summer in the ground, the Candice, which is the least vigorous, is growing nicely, and the other two will give me a few little bunches of grapes. Despite its unfortunate name, Himrod will be my best producer. It is an excellent grape for our area.

So are the two that Dixie brought me. If the Thompson Seedless she gave me performs up to expectations, I may have to take up wearing pantyhose.

When Teresa Howell isn’t playing dress-up with her plants, she teaches English at Great Basin College in Winnemucca, Nevada.