Late winter is the only time to prune your grape vines. Grape vines should only be pruned when they are dormant to prevent fungal infections at the pruning sites, which means pruning must be done before the buds break in the spring. Grape vines will perform infinitely better if properly pruned yielding more fruit, and developing a stronger vine. I prune my grape vines every year in March. Invariably in the summer visitors to my house are stunned by the grape clusters on my vines. I am repeatedly asked what it is I do for the vines to get such great fruit production, and my answer is always the same – I do nothing other than prune the vines heavily in later winter.
Convincing folks to prune their own grapevines is not easy. I hear two main reasons for not pruning: 1) “I might prune the vine wrong” and 2) “I don’t want to hurt the vine by cutting it back.” Let’s take a look at each of these reasons for not pruning your grapevines. The first, that you might do it wrong, is true but ultimately unimportant. Yes, you can prune a grapevine wrong. You can make the vine awkward, you can encourage growth in the wrong direction, and you can ultimately limit the vines productivity. The alternate, not pruning at all, actually creates problems that are far worse. If you neglect to prune your grapes you will have no ability to direct growth, the vine will grow in all directions and “take over” the location where it is planted, and all of that wild growth will steal energy away from the vine for fruit production, bringing your yields down considerably. I understand the nervousness of hacking on a plant that you have been nurturing along, but leaving it to its own devices ultimately limits the vines ability to produce and makes for a weaker plant.
The second reason folks tell me they don’t prune their grapevines is because they don’t want to hurt the plant by cutting back so much of the plants “good” growth. My dear friend Tascha Yoder, owner of the Center for Powerful Living, once said that pruning is about directing energy. That is probably the best definition I have heard, be it for plants or even in my own life. When you limit the ability of growth in a direction, presumably the wrong direction, you allow for the availability of more energy for growth in the desired direction. It’s a bit like one door closes another door opens. When you clip the extra growth from a grapevine it then devotes its growing energy in a more compact manner, resulting in better fruit production and a stronger vine. Cutting the vine back gives it focus and resiliency – you are not hurting the vine when you prune. Indeed, you actually hurt the vine over time by not pruning.
Now that we know how beneficial pruning is for grapevines, how exactly do we go about cutting off canes in a manner that benefits the plant? There are many different methods for pruning grapevines, too many to talk about here. I will tell you that I have found a method that I like, and this method gives me good results. The method that I use involves counting the number of canes on a vine (canes are the long shoots that grow off of the main grape vine), and counting the number of buds on a cane. I limit each of my vines to between 6 – 8 canes, and I trim my canes down to 3 – 5 buds per cane.
The trick to getting an accurate bud count per cane is to first determine where each cane has died back from the cold winter weather. The canes will die from the tips back, and by tapping on the cane with your hand cutters you can hear the difference – the dead cane material will sound hollow when tapped. Cut off the dead ends first; some of these can go quite a ways back to the central part of the vine, so check the entire cane. Once the dead is cut off you know what part of the vine is alive, allowing you to make better decisions about where to cut.
Start making your bud counts from the heart of the vine toward the ends where you just cut off the dead material. You should have somewhere between 3 – 5 buds per cane, but also look for balance in the plant and the direction you would like to send growth for the coming season. Cut off the excess part of the vine that has growth on it beyond the 3 – 5 buds. When you make the cut, cut halfway between the last bud you are keeping and the first bud you are cutting off. The fresh cut should be green, an indication that you are working with live material. The reason for cutting halfway between the two buds is because the vine will die back slightly from where you cut, and you want the cut high enough that it won’t die back to the bud you intend to keep.
When you finish you will have a respectable pile of canes that have been removed from your vines, and your vines should look tidy and structured. Your vines should not look like they have been hacked down to nubs, but instead should look like they have space for new growth along with a solid foundation to support the plant through the coming season.
I have included a couple of videos that demonstrate the two most popular pruning methods – cane pruning and spur pruning. Also check out Double A Vineyards for great information; they have a Training and Pruning section on their web site that is loaded with links. Double A Vineyards also sells great stock – I order my grapevines from them exclusively. And, do a little Google-snooping on your own and see what other methods might also work for you, your grape varieties, and your ultimate goals for your vines. While it is possible to make pruning errors when working with your vines, remember that not pruning them is the ultimate error and will guarantee poor results for your vines. Vines (unlike fruit trees) recover from pruning errors readily, making them a great fruit to prune while honing your technique and steeling your resolve. Don’t be afraid to prune your grape vines – you can only help them in the long run. I promise.
Do you prune your grapevines? What method is your favorite? Leave a comment and let us know how you care for your vines. If you are just getting started in growing grapes and need a recommendation for specific varieties just let me know – I am happy to share what has worked well for me.