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Urban Gardener: Grapes Triumphant

Saturday, September 06, 2014


Harvest! All urban gardeners tend and nurture their spaces for homegrown bounty.  Is your garden a large flower pot on the fire escape or a community plot in “vacant” lot? Regardless of size there are plants for every opportunity. Urban gardeners enjoy the pleasures of growing their own, of fostering life among pavements, busy streets, the numerous quandaries of chance and opportunity. Don’t succumb to a sense the garden season is over. Far from it, Fall is an ideal time to hone garden skills as we gather in the harvest.

Grapes are the latest crop to succeed in the garden. These ancient symbols of civilization are the penultimate joys of garden success. Hardy over a wide range, grapes are a no nonsense vine that requires only sunshine, moderately fertile soils and plenty of sunshine. Grapes are vigorous climbers that grasp any support in their headlong hurtle skyward. Exploit this habit. Grapes have a small garden footprint. From their small base they grow ever taller. Urban gardeners are always in search of space. Grapes thrive in places suitable for few other plants, ignoring the pedestrian in their upward quest for more sunshine. Many neighborhood arbors testify to an ancient tradition kept alive through purpose.  A grape arbor over a driveway or as refuge in the backyard has many benefits. For urban gardeners, grapes are just right for found space.

Who hasn’t sat beneath a grape arbor in September? Aromatic ripe fruit dangle above, sweetness and flavor is strong, the fallen debris pungent. Fermenting fruit draws bees drunken upon the natural fermentation of the ripe fruit. Breath deep, enjoy the aroma. Let cares go, allow peace to surround you, gaze upon gardens past and present. Eat. Savor. This is the garden experience taken to ever stronger heights. Strengthened within, plan your grape arbor.

Grapes will mature into fruit bearing vines in as little as two years. Prepare a planting space by digging a modest hole and churn the soil with as much organic materials as possible. Grapes are modest in their demands: good drainage, compost, bone meal and ironite for trace elements suit them just fine. Provide support for upward growth towards abundant sunshine and you have the primary building blocks for success.

There are many cultivars. Table grapes are for fresh eating and preserving as jellies or raisins. Seedless grapes are available in early, mid and late season varieties for a long bearing season. One of each will yield surprisingly large crops. Bunches of grapes hanging overhead are among the hallmarks of prosperity. Their beauty is matched only by their flavor and goodness. Mid August into September are the high water seasons for the grape crop.  My garden includes a vine of Concord, red and green seedless grapes. Each is a winner.

The arbor is made of tree trunks salvaged from a homeowner’s clearance of overgrown arbor vitae. This decay resistant wood was saved from the landfill and much noisy cutting by trimming away branches and digging deep holes to anchor the tree trunk. The high tops were united by nailing in more salvaged limbs. The grape vines were planted in April next to the upright tree trunks and guided upwards. Lots of urban gardeners inherit or build arbors fabricated from iron pipes. They last for generations, so do the grapes.

The first year the grapes not only grew upward and out but also set down a good root system. The arbor looked promising but far from the green bower it is today. After a late winter pruning of water sprouts and any dead twigs I moved on to other garden chores. Grapes are fast growers. The large leaves are famously part of Greek cuisine. I look for more common uses, the classic table grape for eating out of hand.  Full foliage high above blocks unwanted views or rather provides green foliage where before windows or neighbors held sway. Grapes provide solace for the mind and peaceful solitude among the hordes. A large green leaf multiplied hundreds of times is the cure.

The dense green foliage is deceptive. From the exterior all is hidden within. Like many berries, grapes are best found by looking under the leaves. An overhead arbor ideally reveals the lovely harvest at a glance upward. This approach is best for all berry type garden plants: lift up canes or foliage that shelter the fruit from the birds and rascals that prowl the city streets. The foliage effectively hides the crops from casual observers.

By the second year the grapes overgrew the arbor. I guided the vines along a fence top. Some explored into a willow tree and found happiness among the willow branches. Ancient Romans cultivated grapes into trees with success and you can too. In the second season I knew bounty. At first I could not trust my luck, the grapes looked just like the colorful seed catalog and there were many bunches, not one or two. The birds, squirrels and opossums noticed too. As the grapes approached sweet ripeness excitement gathered momentum in the arbor. At last, samples became complete bunches of sweet flavor. Extending over an old asphalt driveway, the green grape vines found plenty of sunshine and offered shade where once there was sunbaked pavement. Cool shade and great eating from a once empty space. Better than found money!

Winter care is mainly trimming back the vines to sturdy old growth. New shoots will spring from the old vines and leap out of bounds. I fashion the pruned vines into large wreaths for the holidays and give away small jars of jelly to friends. This is a garden plant that provides nutritious fruit, comforting shelter from sun and rain, and a gentle web of vines for peaceful contemplation during cold weather. What is your hesitation? Grow grapes! 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence, RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees


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