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Celebrating Georgia’s Native Grape

Spring is a time of rebirth.  The landscape is beginning to burst into bloom and pollen season is in full force.  My favorite pollinator, the southeastern blueberry bee is tirelessly working the blueberry blooms while the European honey bee dutifully hums to and fro whatever forage she can find. On warm, spring days, it’s easy to let your imagination carry you away. As I walk amid my garden, I’m already imagining how late-summer days bring vines filled with muscadines, their perfume sweetening the air. This is a joyous time because each season my mother and I make muscadine jelly – a family staple.

Are you enjoying muscadines in your landscape?  If not, you may want to try a vine or two. The South’s favorite grape is tasty, easy to grow, long-lived, and beautiful, with big, round fruit in shades of purple, black, pink, red, green, or bronze. Delicious in juice, jelly, wine, or cobblers, this thick-skinned, seeded treat is also rich in antioxidants, making it a very healthy snack straight from your garden. Prized for a unique flavor profile and culinary qualities, muscadines are also valued landscape plants. Their thick, bold foliage provides shade in the summer, cheerful yellow fall color, and the fibrous, gnarly trunk is eye-catching in the winter when the landscape is barren.

While fall is a great time to plant, you could still do an early spring muscadine planting. Muscadines are ideal for backyard gardens because a single grapevine can produce enough new growth every year to arch over a walk, roof an arbor, form a leafy wall, or provide an umbrella of shade over deck or terrace. Like any fruit, muscadines do best when they are in full sun for most of the day, which is at least 8 hours, so be mindful of that requirement as you comb through your yard for the perfect spot. Muscadines can handle a wide array of soil types, though they do not tolerate having “wet feet,” so do not plant them in a spot where water stands after a heavy rain.

Being a heat-loving plant, muscadines are most widely grown further south. Thus, they may be prone to some frost damage in far North Georgia. Avoid planting in low, recessed areas where cool air gathers. Such areas are called “frost pockets” and they should be avoided in fruit plantings. Some varieties will be more suitable to our area than others. Once you have found a sunny spot with good drainage, you will need to build a trellis to support the vine as it grows and bears fruit.  Muscadine vines may live for decades, so you want a strong supporting structure made of materials that will last for many years.  The simplest way to grow muscadines is on a “single wire trellis.” This requires a little effort on the front end, but once you get your trellis built and your vines growing, they’ll be easy to maintain.

‘Supreme’ muscadine grape.

Proper site selection and a study trellis are integral components that will set our planting up for success, but selecting high quality plant material is just as important. When selecting your plants, it is important to understand that muscadine varieties are separated into multiple categories. First, categories are based on fruit color. The other categories concern flower type, as muscadines are either perfect-flowered, meaning they are self-pollinating, or they are strictly female, meaning they will require a different variety to serve as a pollinator.

Muscadine grapes are well adapted to a hot, humid climate and they do not tend to tolerate temperatures below 10o F. For this reason, they should be grown with caution in the mountains, foothills, and areas of the upper piedmont where there is a high probability of winter temperatures below 10o F. Even in traditional muscadine production areas, cold injury may occur if less cold-hardy varieties are grown. But, with some planning, home gardeners can still have some success with muscadine in our area.

Five of the most consistently cold-hardy cultivars are Carlos, Magnolia, Nesbitt, Noble, and Sterling. Though, even cultivars with good cold hardiness may be prone to spring frost/freeze injury if they tend to break bud early in the spring. Other muscadines, such as the female variety, ‘Summit,’ should be planted near self-fruitful selections to cross-pollinate and bear fruit. You can purchase muscadine vines at a local nursery, or order them from an online source, just make sure they are a reputable nursery that offers recommended varieties for your area.

Growing fruit takes effort and while the muscadine is slated as one of our most resilient fruits, that does not mean it is “maintenance free.”  For high-quality fruit you will need to choose a type that fits your climate, maintain proper fertility, train it carefully, and prune it regularly. Grapes are produced in late summer and fall on stems that develop from 1-year-old wood—stems that formed the previous season. These stems have smooth bark; older ones have rough, shaggy bark.

Pruning is done to limit the amount of potential fruiting wood, so the plant doesn’t produce too much fruit and that the fruit it does bear is of good quality. The two most widely used methods are spur pruning and cane pruning. Either technique can be used for training grapes on arbors. Whichever method you choose, the initial steps—planting and creating a framework—are the same. Pruning should be done in winter or earliest spring, before the buds swell.