Winter is the perfect time to plan and I'd like to put forward Gregarious Grapes as my recommendation for the coming year.
There's an undercurrent of fear when you suggest planting a grapevine, doesn't it need a glass house? How complicated is it to prune? Isn't it a warm climate plant? But I want to reassure you that it's not that difficult, really, it's not.
Vineyards have existed for centuries and manage their vines carefully to produce the highest yields possible but, if we're prepared to accept a smaller harvest, there's no reason why we shouldn't also enjoy the display and fruits by growing a vine or two at home, on the allotment or in containers.
In a way, containers actually make it easier, as your soil type affects the fruit, so a cared-for container will give you a greater chance to grow your preferred variety.
Containers need to be larger than 15 gallons, or 45cm across, to give your vine enough root space, and heavy enough to support the top growth and not fall over with the weight of all those lovely grapes.
If possible, try to avoid black plastic pots, as they overheat in direct sunlight, which the roots really don't like. Wood or terracotta pots are good alternatives but, if weight is an issue, try to position the container in the shade with the vine in the sun.
Good drainage is really important so a layer of stones at the bottom of the container is advised, especially as putting feet under the pot in winter is likely to be unachievable due to the weight.
Most vines prefer a sandy loam soil, so avoid composts composed of lots of organic matter rather look for a blended loam topsoil, which will be light but moisture retentive. Unfortunately, it compacts easily, so loosen it up before adding it to the container. Mulch the surface after planting.
You will need a strong support. Hopefully, it's going to have to hold up a lot of plant, but it can be made of any material and made to fit the space you've got available. If you're lucky enough to have a brick wall to grow it up against, use vine eyes and wires. Try your local trade builders merchant for cheaper options.
On my allotment, it's allowed to run along the dividing fence and scramble up through a buddleia.
Picking the variety
We can adjust the soil conditions to suit individual plants but the weather is something we can't change, so we do need to choose varieties which will suit our location. Thankfully, there are quite a few that do well here in the UK and I've listed a few that I think will cope in most gardens.
- Vitis vinifer 'Purpurea' is frequently chosen for its glorious deep crimson autumn colour. It does produce edible deep purple grapes but they are frequently left for their ornamental value.
- Vitis 'Black Hamburg' produces masses of black grapes that can be eaten or made into wine. Prefers being inside, but when grown outdoors it will produce fruit after a long, hot summer. I grew this outside near the coast when I lived in N. Devon and had moderate crops.
- Vitis 'Brant'. Awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit, it produces edible grapes (but full of pips) which give off a lovely aromatic scent through the summer. Its leaves develop beautiful red and orange colours in autumn.
- Vitis 'Vroege van der Laan'. This sweet tasting white grape is one of the hardiest varieties and can be eaten as a dessert grape or pressed for wine.
If you're growing your vine outdoors, try to choose a warm sunny south or southwest facing sheltered wall, fence or pagoda to plant against.
If you're lucky enough to have a conservatory or greenhouse, plant the vine outside, training the trunk and stems to grow inside. This reduces the need to water and makes managing them a lot easier.
If you're very lucky and have enough space for a row or rows of vines, a south facing slope with rows running north to south is advised.
Grapes can be planted any time between October and March, as long as the ground isn't frozen or water-logged. If you are planting directly into the ground, make sure the area is weed-free and position it 12 to 14cm (9-10") away from the support (wall, fence or trellis) and if you're planting more than one, 1.2m (4') apart.
Thoroughly dig over the area, breaking up any compaction and adding compost, to improve drainage. Try to pick plants whose roots aren't pot-bound, as these will have had their growth checked, due to the lack of nutrients and will take longer to establish.
Grape vines need a couple of years before they start producing fruit, so leave the vine to grow during its first year. By the second year, you will hopefully have a few bunches of grapes ready to harvest. Cut bunches with their stalks attached. They can be stored in the fridge for a couple of weeks but taste best if eaten straight away still warm from the sun.
As a child, I remember leaning out of my parent's bathroom window, trying to pick the very seedy grapes before the blackbird had them all. Now, I reward myself with a bunch from my allotment grape after a morning's work.
I've yet to get enough to make wine but the few bunches I do get are definitely worth it! So, if you're only planning to plant one thing this spring, make it a grape!