Over recent years, grapes are becoming much more widely grown in the UK, with vineyards appearing on sunny hillsides in warmer regions, producing many award-winning wines. Grapevines (Vitis) also make an attractive feature in gardens, but for a successful crop of ripe grapes, they need a particularly warm, sheltered, sunny location or the protection of a greenhouse. Still, with our warming climate, the range of growing sites is ever expanding.
Grapevines are fast-growing climbing plants that need plenty of space. They will happily scramble over pergolas and arches, or can be trained along horizontal wires attached to sunny walls, fences or the internal framework of a greenhouse. To get the best crop, vines need regular attention throughout the growing season, including careful pruning, training and fruit thinning.
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There are two main types of grapes – dessert grapes (for eating) and wine grapes – although some varieties may be suitable for both uses.
Dessert grapes need warmer temperatures to ripen well, so usually need to be grown in a greenhouse in the UK. In very warm sites, especially in southern England, selected varieties may ripen outdoors too. Seeded grapes tend to fare better than seedless varieties
Wine grapes can be grown outdoors in milder regions. The grapes aren’t usually too good to eat – they tend to be small, often with lots of seeds and a tough skin. Winemaking can be fun to try, but it can take skill to achieve good results
Within the two categories there are many varieties, offering white, red or black fruits, seeded or seedless, with different flavours, levels of sweetness, ripening times, hardiness and resistance to disease.
Take care to select a variety to suit your local climate and growing conditions, whether indoors or outside. Look in particular for those with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
You can also see many fruits, including grapes, growing in the fruit and veg plots in all the RHS gardens, so do visit to see how they’re grown, compare different varieties and pick up useful tips.
What and where to buy
Grapevines are available in larger garden centres and from many online gardening retailers. For the widest choice of varieties, and the best advice on which varieties will suit your location, go to specialist fruit suppliers.
Grapevines are often sold as grafted plants, but rooted cuttings are also available. If intending to plant a larger number plants, to start a small vineyard for example, buy vines grafted on a rootstock best suited for your soil type. Seek advice form a specialist nursery.
They are sold as young plants, usually 30-60cm (1-2ft) tall, either container-grown or bare root (without a pot). Potted plants are available for most of the year, while bare-root vines are only available during the dormant season, from November to March, mainly from mail-order suppliers. Bare-root plants are usually cheaper than potted plants.
If planting your grapevine outside, choose in a very warm, sheltered, sunny site, at the base of a support such as sunny wall. Avoid sites prone to late frosts, which can damage new shoots in spring.
Most soil types are suitable, but grapevines need well-drained soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. If you have heavy or light soil, add plenty of well-rotted organic matter. Also check your soil’s pH – grapevines prefer a pH of 6.5 to 6.8.
Vines are best planted while dormant, between October and March, as long as the ground isn’t frozen. However, planting in spring preferable to avoid winter damage to the young plants.
Before planting, put a good support system in place and enrich the soil with home-made garden compost or well-rotted manure, plus a general purpose fertiliser at a rate of 100g (3oz) per square metre/yard.
Grapevines should be planted at the same depth they were in the pot. When planting against a wall or fence, position the vine at least 20cm (8in) away from its base to allow space for the roots to spread out.
When planting a bare-root vine, position it so the first roots are just below the soil surface – look for the soil mark at the base of the stem as a guide. If the plant is grafted, make sure the graft point on the stem is kept well above the soil surface
If planting more than one grapevine, space them 1.2m (4ft) apart. And if you have room for a mini-vineyard, ideally on a south-facing slope, space rows 1.5–1.8m (5–6ft) apart, running north to south.
After planting, mulch with well-rotted organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotted manure.
Planting in a greenhouse
The best option is to plant your grapevine just outside the greenhouse with its trunk and stems trained inside through a gap near ground level (as at Hampton Court Palace). Vines grown in this way rarely need extra watering and are easier to feed and manage. Vines can also be planted inside, directly into a greenhouse border or large container.
If planting inside, the best position is at the far end, so the stems can be trained along the side of the greenhouse, parallel to the roof ridge, running towards the door. One vine is plenty for a small greenhouse – if planting more in a larger greenhouse, allow 1m (3¼ft) between each one.
Planting in containers
When space is tight, you can plant a grapevine in a large container and train it as a standard, with one main stem and a rounded head, like a lollipop – see our guide to training grapevines for more details.
Choose a pot about 30–38cm (12–15in) wide and deep, and use soil-based compost such as John Innes No. 3. It can then be kept in a conservatory or greenhouse during the growing season if necessary, but should be moved outdoors in winter, as it needs a period of cold to induce dormancy.
To fruit well and ripen successfully, grapevines need regular attention throughout the growing season.
Water newly planted grapevines during dry spells during their first growing season to help them settle in.
Grapevines planted inside a greenhouse need more frequent watering than those with their roots outside, as do vines growing in containers, which can dry out rapidly in warm weather. Grapevines planted at the foot of a wall may be sheltered from rain, so may need extra watering too.
With outdoor vines, apply organic matter such as garden compost or well-rotted manure in late winter to suppress weeds and help to hold moisture in the soil. Apply when the soil is moist, in a layer 5–7.5cm (2–3in) deep.
With a greenhouse vine, mulch the rooting area with well-rotted manure or garden compost just before growth starts in spring.
Just before growth starts in early spring, feed grapevines with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or fish, blood and bone. Scatter half a handful per square metre/yard around the base. metre/yard.
With greenhouse vines and those in containers, start feeding a month after growth starts in the spring, using a high potassium liquid fertiliser, such as tomato feed, every two to three weeks. Once the vine is in full leaf, increase this feeding to weekly. Stop feeding when the grapes start to ripen and colour up, as extra feeding at this time may spoil their flavour.
Removing flowers and fruit thinning
On newly planted grapevines, for the first two years after planting, remove all the flowers so the plant’s energy goes into getting well established.
Then, in the third year, allow only three bunches of grapes to grow, and in the fourth year allow about five – or slightly more if the plant is growing well. After that, the vine should be well established and can crop fully.
The size, sweetness and quality of grapes can be improved by reducing the number of bunches on each stem, and even the number of grapes per bunch. The ideal amount of bunches per plant depends on the age of the vine and the training system you use – see our guide to pruning and training grapes.
Thinning out the grapes in each bunch encourages even ripening and improves air circulation, which reduces fungal diseases. But it’s a fiddly job, so is usually only worth doing on dessert greenhouse vines. Use vine scissors, which have long, narrow blades, or nail scissors, and carefully snip off about one in three grapes per bunch.
Afterwards, check the bunches two or three times a week and remove any grapes that are diseased or damaged.
Extra care for grapevines in greenhouses
Ventilation and temperature
Grapevines like well-ventilated, warm, dry conditions, to deter fungal diseases and improve pollination. So keep the vents open in summer and autumn, especially around flowering and fruiting time.
In September, gradually remove the leaves to expose the branches to sunlight and improve air circulation.
In winter, don’t heat the greenhouse and ventilate it freely in still, cold, dry weather until early spring, as dessert grapes need a period of cold to induce dormancy.
Greenhouse grapevines may need help with pollination. During flowering, at midday on a sunny day when the atmosphere is dry and the greenhouse is well ventilated, either shake the stems briskly but firmly, or stroke a cupped hand over each bunch of flowers, to transfer pollen between them. The latter is a more reliable method for early season Muscat-type grapes, where pollination can be temperamental.
Consider removing the tendrils of indoor vines as soon as they appear.
- Thre tendrils tend to get tangled up with the fruits.
- They enable the shoots to scramble off in wayward directions, making pruning and training more fiddly.
Grapevines often propagated by whip-and-tongue grafting on a rootstock. They can be grown from hardwood cuttings taken in late autumn or winter. Softwood and semi-ripe cuttings can also be taken from late spring to mid-summer.
While it is also possible to grow grapevines from pips, it’s a slow process and the resulting plant is likely to produce lower quality fruit than its parents.
Pruning and Training
The main pruning should be done in early winter, while vines are dormant, then regular maintenance (pinching out unwanted shoots, removing leaves shading the fruits, and fruit thinning) should be carried out throughout the growing season to keep them in good shape, healthy and fruiting well.
See our guides to pruning grapevines:
Grapes: pruning and training
Training a standard grape
Dessert grapes are ready for picking when they feel soft and taste sugary. The skin of white grapes often changes from deep green to translucent yellow and becomes much thinner. But the best way to tell when grapes are ripe is by tasting them – pick them only when they’re at their sweetest. They won’t ripen any further once picked.
Cut the whole bunch with the stalk still attached.
Dessert grapes are best eaten as soon as possible after harvesting, but they will keep for about two weeks if stored in the fridge.
Although wine grapes can be eaten fresh, they tend to be small, fairly acidic and have thicker skins, so they’re better pulped and made into wine.
You can also use young leaves in cooking, to make stuffed vine leaves, or dolmadas, and other similar dishes.
Grapevines are prone to several fungal diseases, including powdery mildew (especially in hot, dry weather or with poor air circulation), grey mould (Botrytis) and downy mildew. See our guide to grapevine diseases.
Birds and wasps can severely damage crops. Other potential pests include brown scale, woolly vine or currant scale and the fruit fly spotted wing drosophila (SWD).
Vines are also susceptible to nutrient deficiencies , particularly magnesium deficiency, and the physiological disorder shanking. Late frosts can also damage new shoots and reduce cropping.
If the grapes of dessert varieties are disappointingly small and pippy, then in future try reducing the number of bunches. This should lead to larger, better quality grapes.
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