Landscape Designer Katie Ketelsen holds a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. Passionate about all things gardening, urban farming and opportunities where people can play in the dirt, she also is a freelance writer and blogger in West Des Moines.


Backyard Grape Growing for the Freshest Wines
by Katie Ketelsen - posted 05/07/14

‘Marquette’ has proven to be winter hardy in the Midwest.1

Surely you’ve seen — in envious awe just as I have — fields of grapes sprouting along the Iowa plains and taken mental notes to stop by a winery or two some day. Or maybe you’ve already traveled to the corners of the state, enjoying sips from all our proud vineyards.

You may have even wondered how our fellow Iowans manage to create such a picturesque landscape as if it were flown in from California. There is a sense of romance when daydreaming about carefully plucking grapes from your own backyard or mini-vineyard, only to stomp them with pleasure into the greatest tasting wine ever. A labor of love that could be passed onto generations to come; one that could win you awards at the county fair or get you highlighted in the local newspaper. Truly a labor you have to love.

After speaking with Mike Pence, owner of Heartland Harvest Winery in Fort Madison and Kurt Schade, owner of Schade Creek Vineyard and Winery in Waukee, I quickly learned what I’m calling the three P’s needed to grow grapes:

Patience — The grape seedling you plant today will not produce clusters of fruit for another three to five years. 

Pruning — It can keep your “patient” hands busy, but in reality, correct pruning ensures healthy and bountiful harvests for the future.

Passion — It is the fuel that complements your patience, keeps your pruning diligent and keeps you salivating for that first glass of wine.

Getting Started

Plant Them Right in the Right Space

Grapes do best when planted in the spring, as a bare-root specimen in well-drained soil in an area that faces south, east or southeast. Bare-root is simply a term for when a plant is removed from the soil while dormant (generally late fall) and stored in a cool space until spring.

If your soil isn’t the nutrient-filled, black composition you think it needs to be, send a sample to Iowa State University and have it tested to determine what’s missing. If you’re too impatient to wait the couple weeks for the results, plant away and apply a general fertilizer such as 10-10-10 around the base of plants after planting.

A southern or eastern exposure will allow leaves to absorb as much sunlight as possible and force early-morning dew to evaporate quickly.

Ensure your grapes get off to the right start by digging holes twice the size of the root span, mounding soil in the center of the hole and placing the base of the plant on top of the mound. Allow the roots to drape over the mound. Grape roots grow deep and wide—sometimes up to 40 feet deep reaching for moisture, making them essentially drought tolerant after the third year in the ground. You’d also be wise to fashion a trellis, arbor or espalier to support and manage the sprawling nature of the vine. 

Know Your Grapes

Certain varieties of grapes are good for jellies, jams, wine and straight-off-the-vine eating. A great grape to start with is ‘Concord’. Sometimes called the daylily of grapes (as in you can’t kill a daylily), ‘Concord’ is fairly forgiving. Purchase cold-climate varieties hardy to USDA Zone 4b or minus 20 F.


It takes three to five years before you can take a sip. It is more important for the plant to establish its roots and strong branching. Remember … patience.


Smart Tip from Kurt Schade:

Visit a local vineyard in January or February when vines are being pruned and ask for a few clippings to plant in your garden.

Pruning has to be the single most important task when growing grapes. Expect a single grape plant to grow 8 feet wide and approximately 4 to 5 feet tall, within three to five years. To get there, you must practice strategic pruning to retain the strongest shoots and train them appropriately.

Think of it as survival of the fittest. Between January and February, select a few branches to train for the following year’s growth, while removing all other branches and any poorly developed flower clusters. Work toward establishing two to three horizontal levels of branching. If you’re more of a visual learner, Ohio State University Extension’s Pruning Backyard Grapes in the First Three Years has great diagrams.

In late June, the grapevine’s canopy needs to be combed, which is the removal of horizontal shoots that compete for nutrients and sunlight. By late August, the vines are ready to be completely defoliated. This enables grape clusters to absorb sun, making them ready for harvest come fall.

Additionally, grapes will send out suckers at the base of the plant. Once a year, preferably late summer, prune the sprouts back to the ground to keep the plant tidy.


Protecting your plants from Iowa’s wildlife may become more of a chore than pruning. Deer, raccoon, turkey and even blackbirds all like to hang out among the grapevine.

Pence, who also is president of Iowa Wine Growers Association, suggests making your vine flashy. Anything that might make noise and reflect the sun can help deter most animals. But for the blackbirds, which can devour an entire vineyard in one day, covering your grapes with netting mid-August through harvest is highly suggested. Highly.

Finally! Harvest Time

Or is it? Don’t go stripping all your vines at once. Grapes won’t ripen or improve their taste after they’ve been removed from the vine. Sample a few here and there before plucking them all for consuming.


Q. How many grapes do you have to plant to enjoy a glass of wine - or five - on a hot summer afternoon? 

According to Mike Pence of Heartland Harvest Winery in Fort Madison, one grape plant produces 20 to 30 pounds of grapes and you need approximately 15 to 20 pounds to make one gallon of wine.

Grape-Growing Take Aways

But before you get started ... before you even begin to peruse catalogs of grape varieties and before squaring off space in the backyard, you must visit at least one established vineyard. I suggest three for good measure. By Schade’s own admission, vineyard owners love to talk about themselves — more specifically — about their grapes, their wine and the whole process. Some vineyards might even send you home with a few of their dormant clippings to root in your garden!


Iowa Wine Growers Association:

Iowa Small Fruit and Vegetable Association:

Iowa Wine Directory:

Midwest Wine Press:

Double A Vineyards:

Iowa State University, Viticulture:


From State-by-State Gardening May/June 2013. Photos courtesy of David L. Hansen, University of Minnesota.


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