How to Take Care of Your Muscadine Vineyard All Year
Growing muscadine grapes is a fun and rewarding experience for my family. These hearty grapes are great for eating fresh as well as a wide variety of easily preserved foods and beverages that can be stored in the pantry (my preference) or freezer. This season, I'm looking forward to trying muscadine wine, juices, jellies, breads, and many desserts. They are relatively easy to take care of and have several health benefits such as antioxidants to boost heart health, fiber, and the ability to improve insulin sensitivity. Here are the basics for the year ahead that may help with your future vineyard or make your care more efficient. We are in zone 7B but depending on where you maintain your vineyard within their native range (zone 6-10), you may need to modify the timing or care required.
In the fall, it is time to harvest your muscadines. Right now, we are wrapping up the harvest season. The vines are still producing fresh new grapes but some of the ones that we are falling behind on harvesting are starting to raisin on the vine. This can still be okay for harvesting but the sugar content can be much higher, causing changes in flavor and chemistry for wine and other preserved foods that require sugar/acid balance.
For our friends with commercial-scale vineyards for wine, mechanical harvesters can be used, but most still harvest by hand. Green grapes can have the stems mixed in as they are not involved in the process of making white wine but red grapes (ideally) do not have the stems included. If you are harvesting for consumption as food, keeping them on the stem will help them stay fresher longer. Once the grapes are harvested, you of course can eat them as is, but there are a lot of ways to preserve them, like my favorite is jelly. I make enough for our family for the year and it is our go-to gift to share around the holidays or bring to a get together.
After harvest, to prevent disease and to set your vines up for the most success for the next growing season, it is best to remove all unharvested fruit and dead leaves.
The winter months are relatively dormant for muscadine vines, making it the best time to conduct any necessary trellis maintenance. It is better to address things like this sooner than later because this is the foundation of your vineyard. If your vineyard needs any nutrients or fertilizer, now is a great time to apply to your vines so they will be healthy and productive come springtime. Be aware of other herbicides that may be used on other parts of your homestead or on neighboring property. The pasture next to our vineyard was leased out to grow animal-grade corn for one year and whatever chemical was used in the treatment of that crop killed about half of the 8-year-old, 2 acre vineyard.
This season can also be a great time to clean and store your harvest tools and containers. It is likely, if you made wine, that you will still be caring for fermenting buckets and bottling, storing wine so keeping those supplies tidy will be helpful. Sharpen any pruning shears, schedule maintenance on lawn care equipment, map out the next few months of care as you look at the year ahead. We learned to have a couple harvest weekends with our entire neighborhood and often will offer entire weeks to a family of our friends for them to harvest as much as they’d like as homesteading is for building up the community (in our opinion) and we could never use all of the bounty that vineyard can produce.
In the springtime, when you are desperate to get outside on warm days, it’s best to start by pruning your muscadine vines. I use simple pruning shears, like these, that help reduce hand fatigue and cramping. Pruning will help improve air circulation and prevent fungal diseases. Depending on the age of the vine it is a good rule of thumb to prune anything less than the width of a pencil, as well as any inactive or dead vines. Like many other fruiting vines, bushes, and trees, it will encourage the vines to produce more fruit rather than invest more energy in vine and leaf growth. While I do not do this in my vineyard, after pruning, some vineyard owners apply a layer of mulch around the base of the plants to help retain moisture and keep weeds at bay but not necessary.
Irrigation will be dependent on your area, here in zone 7B we typically have enough rain that we do not need to supplement water for the vineyard. If you are in an area or they are planted in full sun you can add drip irrigation, but remember that the soil must be well draining as muscadines do not fare well in standing water even for a short period of time. Be on the lookout for pests and diseases such as powdery mildew and aphids. Treat these problems immediately if you notice them especially if you have a young vineyard. For some vineyards, especially commercial scale wineries, you may see the entire vineyard covered in netting to prevent birds and pests from eating the grapes, or bags on the actual clusters of fruit. You will also see indicator flowering plants at the ends of the vineyard rows that are very desirable for vineyard pests so that it is easier to observe, treat and maintain control over the issue.
By following these simple tips, you can take care of your muscadine vineyard all year round! With a little effort, you will be rewarded with fresh grapes for making any and all recipes you like. I will continue to post recipes as I make and preserve this season. The pleasure in enjoying these grapes fresh or in a recipe is extra sweet with the added satisfaction of knowing you grew them yourself!