How to Grow Grapes for Jelly, Juice, and More

You don't have to own a California vineyard to grow your own grapes. Use these tips for choosing the right variety, planting, pruning, and harvesting the juiciest, most flavorful grapes. 

Learning how to grow grapes gives you the delight of picking a fresh treat off the vine, enjoying homemade jams and jellies, and even making your own Cabernet (or whatever your wine of choice is). When you bite into a grape warmed from the sun and bursting with flavor, store-bought bags will never again compare. To grow your own grapes successfully, you need to know which variety to select, based on your region and how you want to use them. Use this guide to get all the details, including tips on planting, growing conditions, harvesting, and pruning.

vitis canadice red grape vines
Matthew Benson

Growing Grapes from the Vine

Grapes will grow in almost any part of the country (Zones 5-9), but you need to choose a variety that suits your local climate conditions. Three main types of the vines can be grown in the home garden: American (Vitis labrusca), European (V. vinifera), and French-American hybrids. American varieties tend to be more hardy in cold and are best used for snacking, while European varieties (which like warmer, Mediterranean conditions), are better for wine. Your local nursery can suggest a specific variety, whether you're growing them for the table or for the bottle.

Grapes require full sun all day, no matter the region—they need heat to ripen the fruit—and deep, well-drained soil that's free of weeds and grass. You don't want your vines to have to compete for water and nutrients. Also make sure the foliage doesn't block any light. Aspire to recreate those pictures you've seen of the Italian hillside vineyards.

Planting Grapevines

Grapes grow upward, and therefore need support. You can use a trellis, arbor, fence, or any sort of post in the ground. You can decide which method fits your garden best, but be sure to have the supports in place before you plant the vines.

On a vertical trellis, select branches from the previous year's growth to grow along the wires. The buds along the stems will flower and set fruit. Just like a fence, the trellis can have two or three levels, and the center stem is left to grow up to the next level. If you'd like your grapes to hang overhead from an arbor, train your vines to grow that way. You'll still shorten the branches and select a few to secure to the metal or wood arbor.

Plant grapes in early spring, when you'll find bare-root varieties available. Before you plant, cut the existing roots back to 6 inches; this will encourage feeder roots to grow near the trunk. The root system of a grapevine can grow deep, so well-cultivated soil is best.

Your planting hole should be about 12 inches deep and 12 inches wide. Add 4 inches of soil in the center of the hole, then set in the bare-root vine on top. Fill in the rest of the hole with your remaining soil, making sure to keep the soil level below the graft (the swollen area of the main stem). Water immediately after planting. Allow your grapes to grow to the top of your support in the first year, and remove the top of the cane to force it to grow laterally (parallel to the ground) from there.

You will probably need to do some pruning at planting time, too. Prune off all except for one main stem, and look for the buds. Cut the stem back to two buds. For existing vines, you want to prune before growth starts in March.

How to Grow the Best Grapes

The first two or three years, each early spring, apply a nitrogen fertilizer. You may not have to do this as the vines mature, but it all depends on your observation. Do the vines look vigorous and healthy? If so, you don't need any fertilizer.

You can also apply compost around the base of the vines for the first 2 to 3 years each spring. Don't use mulch though, it keeps the heat- and sun-loving plant too cool.

Pruning Grapevines

To grow the most productive grapes, practice good pruning techniques. Pruning and training grapes may sound complicated, but it doesn't have to be. You should prune in early spring before the first growth. Remove canes that produced fruit the previous year. Keep a few strong stems, and train them on the wires or trellis. Shorten them to fit your space if needed, and prune everything else off. The amount you have to cut may shock you, but your grapes will grow better because of it. You'll see buds on the remaining growth and each of those buds will produce several shoots that grow leaves and flowers.

Watch out for overproducing vines, which leads to poor-quality fruit. Avoid this by thinning flower clusters that look misshapen and cutting off fruit clusters that develop poorly.

bunch of purple grapes being picked from vine
Johnny Quirin

How to Harvest Your Grapes

Harvesting season falls in September or October. After waiting all year to make your fresh homemade jelly, it's understandably difficult to hold off, but you don't want to pick too early. Grapes won't improve in taste after you remove them from the vine, so sample a couple before harvesting. Look for a rich color, juiciness, good flavor, and plumpness. They should also be easy to crush. If your grapes check all these boxes, it's time to get picking.

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