Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Backyard Grape Growing: A Sweet Reward


By Michael Cook, Texas A&M Viticulture Program Specialist

For backyard viticulture, or grape growing, gardeners look mostly for low input, low maintenance grapes that serve two purposes. First to produce high quality fruit with little to no input and second to beautify their landscape. Often selecting grape varieties that are self-fertile is also of interest so you do not need to be concerned if you need a male pollinizer and can simply plant one vine if so desired. With thousands of varieties available it can be challenging to not only choose the one that best fits this criteria but also locating the plant material.

With over 13 wild grape species, the largest number in the nation, Texas has an interesting grape history from the very beginning. Franciscan missionaries in the late 1600s were the first to bring cultivated grapes to the state and from there people of all different cultural backgrounds have been experimenting with them. So just how do we wade through the plethora of cultivars that may be suited to backyard viticulture in North Texas? Currently, there are 8 identical Earth-Kind® vineyard trials ongoing across the state where nine grape cultivars are being trialed. These grapes must adhere to the criteria backyard growers are requesting and have received no pesticides, no fertilizers, water only at planting and during severe drought, and are mulched. The cultivars under evaluation are hybrid grapes where their genetic background includes American parentage to at least some degree. This increases adaptation to the harsh Texas environment. Many also have interesting historical backgrounds.

While there is currently no Earth-Kind Vineyard trial in Denton County due to the close proximity of a handful of these Earth-Kind research vineyards, AgriLife Extension has installed a teaching vineyard at the Sandy Jacobs Government Center’s Grove in Carrolton. This spring vines will be planted in the remaining open spaces of the trellis and all are welcome to attend. Other teaching and work opportunities exist. More information can be found by contacting the Denton County Master Gardeners.

For grape growing enthusiasts in Denton County there are three types of grapes available for backyard use.  The first option for Denton County is to plant grapes from solely European parentage.  Thompson Seedless and Flame Seedless may well be the best known of this type for fresh eating and Cabernet Sauvignon for wine.  These grapes have very high fruit quality but since they are not native they are not well adapted to our soils, heat, humidity, wet springs and autumns, pest and disease pressure, and need a great deal of care. The Achilles heel of all European grapes is their susceptibility to Pierce’s Disease, a bacterial infection with currently no cure that will usually kill vines within their first four years. They need almost constant attention and frequent pesticide spraying.  Many of the local wineries in Denton County will grow or source fruit from this group of grapes but must be managed very diligently. Because they are such high input, growing European style grapes in the backyard is often not recommended unless growers are prepared to spend many hours out in the vineyard.

The second option would be the Muscadines native to East Texas.  They love acidic soils – less than 7.0 or 6.5, with 5.5 to 6.0 being ideal.  They are considered to be the toughest and hardiest of all of the grapes. They have excellent pest and disease tolerance and a very unique flavor profile. There are improved varieties, however that show great promise for Denton County’s viticulturists.  ‘Southern Home’ is a release of the University of Florida and is tolerant of Pierce’s Disease and it does not mind clay soil as long as it’s not extremely alkaline.  ‘Southern Home’ also has the advantage of being drought tolerant once it is established.  It has good flavor and can also be used for wine. Its claim to fame is its beautiful sprawling shape and exotic leaves. It has the best ornamental value of any grape with leaves that resemble a Japanese maple. It is one of the only successful crosses between bunch type grapes and muscadine. It’s a true gem.

The third group of grapes to choose from are the American hybrids. These cultivars are proving to be some of the best to grow for backyard viticulturists.  T.V. Munson, famed North Texas viticulturist from the late 1800s, is one of the most well-known examples of someone who cross bred wild grapes with both other native grapes and also French grapes to achieve a table grape that would grow in North Texas. He created more than sixty hybrids and is also celebrated as saving the French wine industry from complete annihilation.  If you attend one of Michael Cooks grape workshops you will learn more about this fascinating man.

If you’ve ever tried to eat the unimproved wild Mustang grape you know they are sour and bitter even when turned purple. Munson’s grape hybrids kept the toughness and durability of native grapes while improving the flavor and productivity.

‘Champanel’ is a seeded purple grape bred by Munson that is tolerant of Pierce’s Disease, many pests, and the heat of North Texas summers.  It tastes similar to the Concord grape, which were used in the hybridization process – think Welch’s grape juice.  ‘Champanel’ makes for a good table grape, as well as a good grape for production of sweet wine, and excellent jelly and jam.  It has very low input requirements and thrives in our shrinking/swelling clay soil.  After it is established, each vine yields between fifteen and thirty pounds of grapes a year, coming on in late July to August. ‘Champanel’ is one of the best choices for our area. It is a large vine and often only one vine is needed. It has heavy white pubescence on the underside of its leaves which makes for a striking contrast out in the landscape.

‘Victoria Red’ has an interesting story.  It was developed by the University of Arkansas where it did not perform very well, but was trialed near Victoria, Texas where it thrived!  So well in fact, that it has been named a Texas Superstar plant!  It just wanted that special Texas touch, I think!  ‘Victoria Red’ is the closest to a “true” table grape that we have here – it has seeds, but not many in each grape.  The very large pinkish-rose colored grapes grow in long clusters, many up to a foot long.  These start maturing in mid-July to early August.  It is well adapted to our soil and heat, and while not immune to fungal disease, it is tolerant of Pierce’s Disease. Because of this ‘Victoria Red’ will do best when sprayed with a fungicide a few times a year.

For the lovers of green grapes, known in the viticulture trade as white grapes, (hence red wine and white wine) ‘Miss blanc’ is an extremely tough hybrid from Mississippi that does well in North Central Texas.  It loves heat and humidity, has low pest disease susceptibility. It does succumb to magnesium deficiency quite easily but often a dose of Epsom salt will take care of this. Miss blanc sports glossy, dark green foliage and yields heavily with fruit that has a Moscato-like aroma and flavor, which makes sense because Muscat grapes are in the parentage of ‘Miss blanc’.  This vine is a good one for growing over a pergola or trellis since the grapes won’t stain hard surfaces.  The green grapes turn amber gold when ripe in mid-July.  ‘Miss blanc’s’ grapes are smaller than other varieties mentioned here, giving them an intense, fruity flavor.  It makes excellent juice, a fruity clear jelly, and a good wine.

Within the past month, Dr. Justin Scheiner from Texas A&M University has received a quantity of numbered selections from breeding programs across the United States for trialing at the research vineyard on the A&M campus. The exciting news is that all of these selections are seedless table varieties that have the potential to be adapted to our environment. Over the next couple of years, it is our hope to find a Pierce’s disease-tolerant, low input, seedless table grapes for backyard growers’ use.  Stay tuned!

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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