The RHS Harvest Festival Show is well worth visiting if you ever have the chance. Held in early October in the impressive Lindley Hall in Westminster, it is probably the grandest village show in the country. Crates of apples were for sale - but not just any old apples, these were a huge range of heritage varieties from the trees at RHS Wisley. Much like any other local show, there were tables of fruit and veg competing in various classes. The standard, as you might expect from RHS members, was very high. None more so that in the various grape classes, where the Dukes of Marlborough and Devonshire were the main contenders, with picture perfect bunches of black and white grapes.
This seems to reinforce the stereotype that you need heated glasshouses (and a Head Gardener) to be able to grow grapes well. Or perhaps a couple of acres in the Loire valley. Grapes have a reputation for being difficult to grow in the U.K., especially further north. But if you pick the right variety, in the right place, it’s actually a realistic proposition for almost all of us.
Vineyards have existed in this country for over a thousand years. The Doomsday Book of 1087 reports around 50 vineyards in existence, all of which were in the south. By the time Henry VIII came to the throne, there were 139 large vineyards in England and Wales in large estates and monasteries. Grape growing then entered a long period of decline, as increased trading made the vastly superior French wines more readily available, until there were no U.K. vineyards producing wine between the First and Second World Wars. Fortunately, the past 50 years have seen a huge renaissance, such that over 400 commercial vineyards now operate, making some fantastic wine.
So, how to grow a grape in your own garden or allotment? The first thing to decide is the amount of space you are willing to devote to your vine. Vines can easily cover the side of a house if left unpruned, and if you have a sunny wall or trellis that you would like to cover with a highly ornamental plant, a grape is as good an option as a clematis or climbing rose. The lush foliage can create a tropical feeling, and if grown over a pergola can give welcome shade over the summer ( especially if in a summer like the current one.) The autumn foliage changes to spectacular shades of red and purple, and there is the added bonus of useable fruit. Birds and wasps may compete for your produce, but it is an easy way to grow a grape if looks are as important as the crop.
If you are lucky enough to have a greenhouse with soil beds, you can plant a vine into the ground and train the growth. The soil does need to be deep, so if this isn’t the case you may be better off planting the vine outside and training the growth inside through a small hole. Glasshouse vines can be more susceptible to pest and disease however, so good hygiene is a must if you want to avoid crops being decimated by mildew and botrytis.
If space is tight, or if you are looking to grow the highest quality of fruit, then growing in a pot is probably the best way to grow vines. Grapes need a period of winter chill to crop well, but also need warmth in the spring and summer to produce the sweetest fruit. Growing in a pot allows you to move them in and out of a greenhouse or poly tunnel as required, and expands the range of varieties you can grow - you could even try a seedless variety, which are normally too difficult to grow in most of the country.
Anthony Roger, son of RV Roger, when asked about planting a vine would always reply “First, bury a dead lamb”. Not always a viable option for most people! However, the point is that grapes are hungry and thirsty, so good soil preparation is essential. Dig deeply and incorporate as much organic matter as possible, so you can get good growth to train as a permanent framework of branches ( called ‘rods’). If planting in containers, use a mix of multipurpose compost and John Innes No 3. Drainage needs to be good, so plenty of crocks at the bottom and raise the pot off the ground on feet or bricks.
Grapevines will almost always be supplied in pots. The best times to plant are early winter and early spring, when the ground is moist. On planting prune the existing stems back by half, to encourage new growth.
Pruning and training.
In the first few years, the aim is to create a permanent framework of branches, whether that is several to cover a wall, or just one main stem if growing up a cane in a pot. As these rods develop, they will start to produce side shoots, which is where fruit will develop in subsequent years. Side shoots should be prune back to two buds, and this should be done in the coldest days in winter. (The cold will stop the vines from bleeding from the pruning cuts).
As the weather warms up, growth will start from these short side spurs. Normally they produce three or for leaves and then a truss of flowers. Pollination is not normally an issue, but if it doubt give the branch a shake to help the pollen fly. Once the grapes have set, you then need to let a couple of leaves develop, before pruning the tip off the side branch. This stops the vine putting wasted energy into new growth and instead concentrate on the fruit. You will need to do this every few weeks over the summer, as the plant will continue to try and grow. It’s at this point an Under Gardener comes in very handy!
If you want to compete with the Duke of Devonshire, you will need to thin the fruit. This allows the remaining fruit to get to a good size and reduces the chances of mildew. You can buy specific tools for this, but a pair of (clean!) nail scissors does the job just as well. You can remove as many as half of the pea-sized fruit. Try not to touch the fruit as you do this, as they are very easily bruised.
Summer feeding is essential. A couple of doses of blood fish and bone is enough, but vines will thank you for the occasional seaweed foliage feed too. If growing in pots, you can also give them any leftover tomato feed.
For a reliable vine, able to cope with being grown outdoors in much of the UK, 'Boskoop Glory' is hard to beat. Large bunches of superb blue-black fruit. Cold-hardy, disease-resistant, and with wonderful autumn foliage colour too.
For a very sheltered spot, or a greenhouse or polytunnel, it is worth trying one of the seedless varieties. 'Lakemont' produces large bunches of sweet, pale yellow fruits with a delightful muscat flavour, whilst 'Crimson Seedless' is a classic supermarket variety - beautiful pale pinky red fruit, crisp and sweet.