Living in San Francisco is enjoyable and exciting but sometimes you need to get out and explore the outlying areas. We are blessed with the fact that no matter in which direction we drive we will not be disappointed. This past weekend I headed north to the Napa Valley. The drive through the Valley holds a particular charm this time of year. The light is clear and intense, highlighting the stark contrast between the meticulously pruned grapevines running through a carpet of the neon yellow mustard. You can’t help but be calmed by the rhythm of a vineyard as it glides along the surface of the hills and valleys.
Capturing this feeling at any scale is feasible. With careful planning, a small vineyard is possible even in a residential garden or suburban hillside. Following a few basic guidelines will allow you to enjoy the beauty of a small vineyard and also provide you with grapes for eating or wine making.
Grapevines do best in full sun, which means about 7 to 8 hours per day. Less light can lead to a multitude of problems including lower fruit production, poorer fruit quality or increased powdery mildew. The site should have good airflow and a southern exposure. A gently sloping site with southern exposure is ideal as this typically has the warmest temperatures.
Grapevines will grow and produce fruit on a wide range of soil types. If it is wine you are after, the best wine quality often comes from vines that are grown on less fertile and rocky soils. This is because less fertile soils often produce smaller grapes. This is desired for winemaking because it gives a greater skin to juice ratio. For table grapes, where large fruit is desirable, deep, rich soils are preferred. Keep in mind that rich soils will also produce rampant vegetative growth.
Just as important is good drainage. Avoid heavy clay or waterlogged sites. Roots tend to grow deep; some can reach 15 feet deep, although most of the roots can be found in the top 3 feet of soil. Before planting, you may want to have a soil test done to check pH and organic matter levels. Apply the recommended soil amendments as needed.
One of the first questions to ask, if you are looking for more that just a few vines, is “How much space do I need?” Grapevines are planted in rows that can be as little as 8 feet apart. Vine (post) spacing within the row can be 6 to 9 feet apart. North-south rows maximize sun exposure. Northeast-southeast rows reduce sunburn problems in warm climates.
The best time to plant the vines is in early spring. The vines can be purchased as bare-root or as potted plants. Planting holes should be dug 1 – 1 ½ feet away from the post. If you are planting potted plants, before you place the plant in the hole, gently pull and straighten the roots so that they will spread out inside the hole. The top growth of the plant should be cut back so that it has 2 or 3 buds and positioned at an angle towards the post.
Due to the fact that grape leaves are prone to fungal diseases, it is best to water the vines at the soil line and not overhead. Drip irrigation is the best choice. Set up a drip irrigation emitter at the base of each plant. With the water supplied directly to the root zone, there will be less water lost to evaporation.
Remove weeds from around the base of plants by either hand pulling or with a garden hoe. Keep at least a two-foot area weed-free around the trunk. If using a string trimmer for weeding, be sure not to get too close and cause damage to the trunk.
Don’t expect fruit right away. During the first three years after planting, the vines are establishing their roots and growing the stems. Fruit production generally occurs in the fourth or fifth year after planting. The vines should be allowed to grow wild during the first year. Pruning should begin the second season and take place in the winter or very early spring, before the buds begin to swell. Properly pruning the vines is important in order to get maximum fruit production. Since fruit is produced on new growth you should prune the old wood to two to three buds every year. This will stimulate the new growth. In a small garden, restricting the size of the plant can be important.
Three types or species of grapes are available today:
- American varieties (Vitis labrusca), such as Concord and Niagara
- European varieties (Vitis vinifera), which for the most part are the wine, table and raisin cultivars grown in California
- American hybrids, which are crosses of European and American species
In general, American types are more cold-hardy than European varieties. European varieties generally require a longer growing season to mature their fruit, making them ideal for California gardens. However, most grape varieties need some summer heat to produce good quality fruit.
We have all seen the yellow mustard plants in-between the rows of grapes or the roses planted at the edge of a vineyard and wondered why. The reasons are that the mustard plants are there to help add vital supplements to the soil. Mustards also contain high levels of “biofumigants” that suppress nematode populations. Roses planted at the end of the vine rows are there to give early warning of mildew problems.
If you have always wanted to have a vineyard on your property or maybe just a few grapevines contact Lazar Landscape. We will guide you through the process of selecting the best site, proper installation and maintenance of the vines. Nothing says ‘California Lifestyle’ better than serving table grapes or a bottle of wine that originated from your own garden.