To get a backyard vineyard, you need plants that are tough, strong and able to live where the grapes can survive the Front Range.
Rollercoaster temperatures in spring, blast furnace-like heat in summer, bone numbing winter chill, and water – or not – in the season, separates the weak from the strong, and not all grapes can thrive in those conditions.
Getting full harvests from grapes takes five years or more, yet few European wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are hardy for extended years here. If you’re lucky to have a protected site, try merlots or muscats; the rest of us will have better success with hybrid grapes that are hardier.
A little planning goes a long way before you plant these vines, which can live to be 100 years old. Choose a sunny location with well draining soil, avoiding areas that pool spring frost when the shoots are just emerging. South to southwest facing slopes are ideal.
If you’re planting several grapes in rows, run them north to south to take advantage of more sunlight along the vines, and space them seven feet apart.
For a Mediterranean look, grapes can be trained to arbor for shade and ornamental decor, especially if combining red, purple and white fruiting plants. But because the vines aren’t pruned as often, fruit production is less than those grown on wire trellises.
Consider putting in arbors carefully, as there are a few drawbacks to them. Anytime you plant a juicy, sugary fruit to dangle over seating areas you risk surprising guests who sit before checking for dropped fruit. Birds can be problematic and if raccoons discover the fruit, you’re in for a battle.
Plant one grape at each leg of the arbor and prune them back to have only two buds. Once the vine starts growing, choose the stronger of the two and train it by tying it to the outside of the leg as it grows upward. Nip off the tip of the other shoot, and any other side shoot, to force the plant’s energies in to the main vine.
Grapes to try for wine:
- Chancellor, a prolifically fruiting red grape that makes excellent wine, is an ideal choice for home vineyards. Budding out later in spring helps dodge problems from frost, but chancellor ripens later, so protect it in fall.
- St. Croix. With Cabernet Sauvignon as its parents, this red grape is a reliable producer of sweet clusters for good quality juice or a nice blending wine. It ripens in September.
- Seyval Blanc, for white wine connoisseurs, makes a lovely, light wine. For top quality fruit, reign in this overachiever by thinning the clusters. It ripens in October.
Don’t want to make wine, but ready for a break from Concord grapes? Try these for your table:
- St. Theresa seedless, a tough, slip-skin purple grape, is hardy at elevations to 8,000 feet. Early ripening helps this fruit escape early season snows. Growing 15 to 20 feet tall, St. Theresa is a perfect arbor grape and shrugs off our alkaline soils.
- Reliance, a red blush of color that ripens in August, gives loads of intensely sweet, seedless grapes for desserts or jellies.
- Himrod is the ideal choice for white grape lovers wanting plump, juicy fruit that’s easy to de-stem. If planning an arbor, Himrod is not for you – it sheds fruit easily and will be a nuisance mess in your seating area.
Check out the Colorado Grape Growers Guide at extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/garden/550a.pdf, for step-by-step instructions on grape growing.
By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension. CSU Extension together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Colorado State University Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.