How to Build Your Own Organic Backyard Vineyard
Tom Powers is the author of “The Organic Vineyard: A Step-by-Step Guide for Growing Your Own Grapes,” a how-to guide that outlines everything that the novice grower needs to know about planting their own vineyard. Powers, who owns and operates his own farm and commercial winery in Central California, is adamant in his belief that organic grape growing is a healthy and rewarding pastime that almost anyone can pursue—even if they only have a tiny backyard. “There are a couple reasons why you should start a backyard vineyard,” says Powers, “One is that it’s a unique type of landscaping that doesn’t cost as much as a traditional landscaping, and two is that you can actually do something with it: you can’t eat nasturtiums, but [by planting grapes] you actually end up with a product in your own backyard.”
Planning Your Vineyard
When you’re going through the initial process of planning the layout of your vineyard, remember to keep a few key things in mind. First off, your grapes are going to need at least eight hours of sun per day, so plan accordingly. “You need a clear area [for planting]...free of trees and [shade] obstructions for eight hours a day,” says Powers. Secondly, you need to make sure that your soil isn’t too stony, is well aerated and that you have access to a reliable source of water. Per the size of your vineyard, Powers suggests constructing one that can incorporate at least 120 vines—which could provide you with enough wine to fill a 60-gallon barrel. He also notes that you can grow your grapes in an “area of about 1/16th of an acre, which is a typical backyard size of 50-by-50 square feet in diameter.”
Building Your Vineyard
Once you’ve planned where you’re going to build your vineyard, it’s time to decide what variety of grapes you’re going to use. If you’d like to grow wine grapes, then it’s important to take into account what kind of climate you live in. “If you’re in a moderate climate (60°-85°F), some of the grapes that are popular such as Merlot, Cabernet or Chardonnay are easiest to grow,” says Powers. “For more extreme climates, for instance like cooler climates (50°-60°F), Riesling and Gewürztraminer grow well in cold climates like Germany.” He also notes that in hotter climates (85°-95°F), like the American Southwest, grape varietals like Cabernet and Zinfandel tend to do best.
Clear your land of any weeds, and then test the soil to ensure it has the proper level of nutrients and pH levels—the best time of year to do this is around fall or early spring. Then, construct a trellis system to support your vines and irrigation lines. Your vineyard should consist of four rows of trellises that are spaced six to seven feet from one another (the space between the vines should be around four to six feet). You can make an irrigation system by simply placing drip irrigation tubes on the trellis system and connecting them to an underground PVC water pipe.
After you’ve finally built your vineyard, it’s time to establish a maintenance routine. First off, make sure to fertilize your vineyards on a consistent basis. Powers notes that fertilizers that use organic materials such as bone meal or fish emulsion are best, but if you aren’t able to get a hold of store brand that uses those materials, you can add them yourself.
Pruning is critical, as it’s an important part of what Powers calls “training your grapes.” When you first plant your grapes, you’ll have to prune them so that they’ll begin to climb up and over their respective trellises. Once the vines are established, you’ll have to trim them back around every three years or so to make sure they don’t overextend themselves. “The yearly pruning after maturity is done in order [to] provide what we call ‘new wood,’” says Powers. The so-called new wood produces the highly productive green shoots that will help you increase the size of your plant.
However, keep in mind that hungry critters of all sorts will probably be eyeing your vines, so it’s best to be on your toes. “Birds are typical, especially if you’re doing a backyard vineyard and there are a lot of trees in the area,” says Powers, “If you have high bird density you’re going to have to put netting around the grapes.” Other animals, such as deer, can be deterred with a high fence. Gophers, though, are another matter entirely, “For gophers you just have to do it the ol’ fashioned way: dig deep and trap the gophers to keep them under control.”
In addition to pruning, it’s important that you water your vines daily, and regularly check the pH and nutrient levels of your soil. Also, keep an eye out for bothersome weeds, insects (like spider mites) or any invading fungal diseases.
This is where all of your hard work pays off. Remember, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere you’ll begin your harvesting in August; however, if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere (i.e. south of the equator), you’ll actually start harvesting later in the year (typically around December). Powers notes that if you’re making wine, make sure to pick your grapes early in the day—only pick the ones that look full, ripe and disease-free—and do your best to keep your harvesting containers free from leaves and debris. Also, make sure to store your harvest in a cool, shaded area—wine often goes bad due to unsanitary conditions in grape handling.
“With backyards vineyards I would say invite your neighbors and friends to bring a container and a pair of pruning shears,” says Powers. “After they’ve harvested…have a taste of wine from the previous year.”
The Fruits of One’s Labor
A backyard vineyard is a wonderful way to relieve stress. “[Growing grapes] is kind of a soothing, simple life that allows you to contemplate the realities of life and of nature and those sorts of things,” says Powers. “Our lives are so complicated that it’s a nice change with grapes that you grow, pick and then finally pour into a glass that you can share with your friends. It’s a very satisfying way to relax in life and see completion.”