Thinking about a new gardening adventure? Getting outside your comfort zone? Maxed out in the flower or veggie garden? Want to learn something new and different? Who doesn’t love the sweet pop of a juicy grape in their mouth or that staple of American lunches – the PB and J sandwich? Or perhaps you are interested in a little gardening chemistry and developing your own wine. Try viticulture in your backyard … or your front yard, if you can get away with it. Consider growing your grapes – it can be done in Denton County!
For backyard viticulture, or grape growing, gardeners look mostly for low input, low maintenance grapes that give high-quality fruit without constant attention. By selecting grapes that are self-fertile, you need only plant one vine and not be concerned whether or not you have a male pollinator vine. The addition of interesting, aesthetically pleasing vines to our gardens will beautify them as well. For the information in this month’s article, I had a delightful phone interview with our very own North Texas Viticulture Program Specialist, Michael Cook as he was traveling to a vineyard. He works with vineyards and grape growers across North Texas through the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension office in Denton County.
Cook relayed that at present, there are Earth-Kind® trials ongoing in eight counties across Texas where nine grape cultivars are being trialed. These include our neighbors, Collin, Dallas, and Johnson counties. The cultivars being evaluated are hybrid grapes which include some degree of American parentage in their genetics. This increases their adaptation to the harsh Texas environment. Many also have interesting historical backgrounds.
While there is currently no Earth-Kind trial in Denton County, AgriLife Extension and DCMGA have installed a teaching vineyard in The Grove at the Sandy Jacobs Government Center in Carrollton. In spring 2020, vines will be added in the remaining open spaces of the trellis. The public is welcome to attend. Look for more on this in the future along with other learning and volunteer opportunities.
Grape varieties for North Texas
For grape growing enthusiasts in Denton County, there are three types of grapes available for backyard use according to Cook. 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 eating, while Cabernet Sauvignon is known for wine. These grapes have very high fruit quality, however since they are not native, they are not adapted to our soils, heat, humidity, wet springs and autumns, or our mild winters and, therefore, need a great deal of care. Cook says the Achilles heel of all European grapes is their high susceptibility to Pierce’s Disease, a bacterial infection for which there is no cure currently. Once infected, the disease usually will kill vines within their first four years. These grapes need almost constant attention and frequent pesticide spraying. Cook does not normally recommend growing European style grapes in the backyard unless growers are prepared to spend many hours out in the vineyard.
The second option would be the Muscadine 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 the grapes. They have excellent pest and disease tolerance and a very unique flavor. Cook reported that at the trials of Muscadines being done at Myers Park in McKinney, where the soil’s pH is about 8.2, the vines suffer heavily from iron chlorosis. There are improved varieties, however, that show great promise for Denton County’s viticulturists. ‘Southern Home’ was released by the University of Florida and is tolerant of Pierce’s Disease – it will get the disease, but seems to not succumb to it. It is also pest and disease hardy – Cook says you never have to spray it. Additionally, it does not mind clay soil as long as it is not extremely alkaline. ‘Southern Home’ also has the advantage of being drought tolerant once it is established. It is a good eating or wine grape. It has the best ornamental value of any grape due to its leaves which resemble a Japanese maple. It is one of the only successful crosses between bunch type grapes and Muscadine. Cook says, “It’s a true gem.”
Grapes hybridized from American parentage are the third choice for Denton County growers. According to Cook, these cultivars are proving to be some of the best choices for backyard viticulturists. If you’ve ever tried to eat a wild Mustang grape you know their pucker power – they are bitter and quite acidic. T.V. Munson, famed North Texas viticulturist from the late 1880s, crossbred wild grapes with other native grapes as well as French grapes to achieve a table grape that would grow in North Texas. He created more than sixty hybrids, keeping the toughness and durability of the native grapes while improving the flavor. He was not able to get rid of those pesky seeds though, as losing the seeds also led to a loss of disease tolerance.
Munson is also celebrated for saving the French wine industry from complete annihilation in the late 19th century. The French government awarded Munson the French Legion of Honor Chevalier du Mérite Agricole in 1888. If you attend one of Michael Cook’s grape workshops you will learn more about this fascinating Texan. Cook’s upcoming home winemaking workshop will be October 4 at Carmella Winery in Celina.
Fortunately, the most highly recommended of these hybrids, ‘Champanel,’ is easy to find at local nurseries. ‘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 Concord grapes, which were used in the hybridization process – think Welch’s grape jelly. ‘Champanel’ makes a good table grape, is a good grape for sweet wine production and makes excellent jelly or jam. It has very low input requirements – low fertilizer, pesticide spray, disease spray – relative to other grapes. After it is established, each vine yields between fifteen and thirty pounds of grapes a year, coming on in late July to August. Cook says ‘Champanel’ is one of the best choices for our area. It is a large vine that thrives in heavy clay soil and often one vine will suffice. Interestingly, it has lots of white hairs on the undersides of the leaves which makes adds texture and contrast in the landscape.
Grape varieties for making wine
If you are mostly interested in grapes for wine-making, Munson’s ‘Lomanto’ is a top choice. While it bears less than ‘Champanel’ – ten to twelve pounds per vine – it is the first to ripen in the season, often in early to mid-July. ‘Lomanto’ is also heat tolerant and well adapted to shrink-and-swell clay soils. It is a lovely ornamental vine, producing a very dark inky-purple grape, with beautiful red color repeating in the shoots and tendrils of the vine. Take care in using over a patio or pergola as the dark purple will stain hard surfaces. ‘Lomanto’ makes an excellent wine, good juice, and a dark jelly. The canopy of this grape does not get as large as ‘Champanel’ so it works well in tighter, more limited spaces in the landscape.
‘Victoria Red’ has an interesting story. It was developed by the University of Arkansas where it did not do very well, but was trialed near Victoria, Texas where it thrived! So well in fact, that it has been named a Texas Superstar! It just wanted that special Texas touch! ‘Victoria Red’ is the closest to a “true” table grape we have here – it has seeds, but not many in each grape. The very large, pinkish-rose colored grapes grow in 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’s’ glossy, dark green foliage accompanies a heavy yield of green, seeded grapes that have a Moscato-like aroma and flavor, as Muscat grapes are in its parentage. 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 jelly, and a good wine.
In the last few weeks, Dr. Justin Scheiner from Texas A&M University has received a number of selections from breeding programs across the United States for trialing at the research vineyard on the A&M campus. Cook relays that this is exciting news as all of these selections are seedless table varieties having the potential to be adapted to our environment. The hope is to develop Pierce’s disease-tolerant, low-input seedless table grapes for backyard growers’ use over the next few years. Stay tuned!
If you have decided that you need grapes in your landscape, Cook says the best time to plant bare-root vines is late March to early April. If you buy vines that are already potted, the same time frame works but can be extended to the end of April. The grapes discussed here will give a light crop in their second year, a moderate crop in year three, and a full crop in their fourth year.
Photos and expertise in vitculture provided by Michael Cook, AgriLife Viticulture Program Specialist who can be contacted at email@example.com or 940.349.2896.
DCMGA is growing grapes
The Grove at Sandy Jacobs Government Center is a DCMGA project that works with Denton County leaders in the development and maintenance of a demonstration grove of fruits and nuts. The project focuses on educating the community on home fruit production through classes. These are the grape cultivars being grown at The Grove:
- Victoria Red
- Southern Home
- Black Spanish
- Blanc Du Bois
- Miss Blanc
- Lake Emerald