Growing grapes in a cold climate presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. While grapes are incredibly rewarding to grow—both for their delicious taste and the joy they bring to gardening—the varieties that can withstand the severe cold of our local climate are distinct from the types you’d find in places like California. Nevertheless, cold-hardy grapes are viable even in Zone 3, so let’s delve into the nuances of this endeavor.
Varieties of cold hardy grapes
First and foremost, when considering the cultivation of grapes in a cold climate, it’s crucial to select a variety that can handle your specific weather conditions. Some tried-and-true varieties have been passed down through generations; for instance, Steve from Alberta Urban Garden cultivates cold-hardy Frontenac and Concord grapes, which he inherited from his grandfather along with invaluable care tips.
We began our grape-growing journey with Valiant grapes, reputed for their remarkable cold-hardiness. Following that, we planted Somerset, another sturdy seedless variety that has won our hearts. Other varieties worth trying include Emerald Ice, Marquette, and Lois Swenson. You can find all these varieties at T&T Seeds, while Kay Gray Grape and Somerset are available through Prairie Hardy Nursery. Prairie Star grapevines are sold by Hardy Fruit Trees.
While these grapes are considered resilient, they still require a sunny spot and adequate winter protection.
Location for growing grapes
In cold climates, microclimates can be a game-changer. A sunny and warm location is ideal for grape cultivation. Grapes are quite adaptable to various soil types but thrive best in well-drained, loamy or sandy loam soil.
For optimal fruit production, grapes should be grown vertically, preferably on the south-facing side of a structure like a fence, shed, or even an arbor, lattice, or pergola. South-facing slopes can also be excellent locations, allowing the vines to be pruned close to the ground, where they benefit from the sun’s heat and the warm soil.
Another option is growing grapes in a greenhouse. We have one vine in our geodesic dome, and those grapes tend to be slightly larger than the ones grown outdoors. If you go this route, plant the vine’s root near the outer wall to capture moisture but allow the vine to grow into the greenhouse.
Most grapevines are self-fertile, primarily wind-pollinated, but benefit from cross-pollination with different cultivars for increased fruit production.
Pruning Cold-Hardy Grapes
For optimal yield, it’s imperative to prune grapevines properly each year, ideally during their dormant period in the fall or winter. Begin by identifying the strongest stem emerging from the ground as your main stem and remove any other shoots. On this primary stem, select two robust branches from each side. Use wires for support if necessary, choosing branches closest to the wire for easy support. Trim all other branches to about a half-inch from the stem and shorten each of the four primary branches to between the second and third buds.
In late fall, after pruning but before the first hard frost, lay down the vines and cover them with leaves for insulation. We use plastic bags filled with leaves, which not only protect the vines during winter but also serve as excellent brown material for composting in the summer. Also, don’t forget to water the plants before covering the plants as part of your winter preparation.
Leave the plants covered till all danger of hard frost is over. We usually also leave the vines on the ground till late May. This way they are warmer and set fruit earlier and it is also easier to cover should an unexpected late frost occur.
Grapes are easy to propagate. Leave a few branches that you would normally prune, so you can take cuttings in the spring. Choose a cutting with a few healthy bads. Insert the cuttings into moist soil and keep it watered; they will soon grow roots, giving you new plants to cultivate.
Harvesting and Enjoying the Fruit
Cold-hardy grapes ripen from late summer through fall, becoming sweeter as they mature. Seedles somerset can be considered a table grape even though its fruit is smaller. Other varieties make excellent juices, wines, and jellies.
Maintaining healthy grapevines requires meticulous care. One common issue is powdery mildew, often resulting from overcrowded vines with poor air circulation. Thinning can mitigate this problem. However, avoid using herbicides, particularly 2-4-D, as even a small amount can distort the leaves. Fortunately, this does not seem to affect fruit production, and normal leaf growth usually resumes the following year.
Grow yourself some grapes!