Grapevines can be a great addition to your home garden. American grapes can survive cold winters, while European grapes prefer a milder climate. But both grapes are fairly easy to grow and bear lots of fruit. And who doesn’t like grape jelly or wine?
But, without proper care, grapevines can become pretty unruly. What are the best ways to control overgrown grapevines? Keeping an eye on the vines is the first line of defense to protect grapevines from getting too out of control. But it’s not quite as simple as just watching them grow. Grapevines do require quite a bit of care through pruning, preventing and treating disease and pests, and providing proper growing conditions.
Do you have grapevines in your garden that are looking a little rough? Or, have you inherited some grapevines, and you’re just not sure exactly how to maintain them? If you answered yes to either of those, then stay right here. Read on for ten tips and tricks that will help you get those grapevines in check and under control.
What Makes Grapevines Go Crazy?
Before we can get into how to tame a grapevine, let’s discuss how they get to the point of almost no return. If you’ve seen the tangled mess of limbs and branches that come from a rogue grapevine, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you haven’t seen this in person, picture the most tangled mess of hair you can ever imagine, only with bendy branches. And, there’s zero visibility to determine where each branch came from. It’s just a hot, hot mess of vines. So, how exactly do they get like that?
Lack of Proper Pruning
If you’ve inherited grapevines with a new home or piece of land, you’re going to be stuck cleaning up someone else’s mess. Annoying, yes, but also very necessary. It’s more than likely that the grapevines haven’t been receiving the proper grooming for some time now, and depending on the level of overgrown-ness, you might be spending a lot of time pruning in the near future. More on how to prune later.
It’s an Invasive Wild Grapevine
There are wild grape vines that wrap around trees and act like a boa constrictor, eventually killing them. These aren’t the kind that you want to keep around. They’re not going to give you any beautiful grapes in the future, so these aren’t really ones that you’ll want to keep around, anyway.
The Vine is Muscadine or Other Naturally Unruly Type
Muscadine grapes grow well in soil that’s well-drained and in warmer and humid climates. Florida is an ideal climate for these grapevines to grow and live their best life. But they are very high maintenance. They require almost constant monitoring and a lot of pruning, as they can get out of control and take over your entire landscape really quick.
Taking Care of an Out-of-Control Grapevine
If you’re nodding your head and thinking that you’re in one of the above situations, you’re probably ready to take care of those out of control vines. Be mentally prepared, this is not going to be an easy chore. But, luckily for you, there are a few different ways that you’ll be able to fix the problem.
What You’ll Need
The correct tools for the job are really important for keeping grapevines from becoming overgrown. Here’s what you’ll need:
These long-handled shears are perfect for cutting through the tangled mess of extra trick branches. The length of the handles makes it a little easier to snip away at the mess without having to get way up in there. Some even come with telescoping handles that allow extra extension, and an added level of safety. These are a few available on Amazon that are highly recommended by other grape growers:
- Fiskars 28 Inch Bypass Lopper Black/Orange
- Spear & Jackson 8290RS Razorsharp Heavy Duty Telescopic Ratchet Anvil Loppers
- TABOR TOOLS GG12A Anvil Lopper with Compound Action
- GRÜNTEK Small and Sharp Anvil Pruning Loppers
- Rainbow Craft 25-1/2″~38-1/2″ Heavy Duty Telescopic Anvil Lopper
These little fellas will help you get in and more precise cuts, after the bigger and most unruly pieces of the grapevines have been removed. Although there are still plenty of pokey branches, so when using pruning shears, it’s important to be careful. Try one of these options (available from Amazon):
- Felco F-2 068780 Classic Manual Hand Pruner
- Fiskars Steel Bypass Pruning Shears
- VIVOSUN 6.5 Inch Gardening Hand Pruner Pruning Shear with Straight Stainless Steel Blades
- Garden Elite, Japanese Steel Razor Sharp Bypass Pruning Shears
- Power Drive Ratchet Anvil Hand Pruning Shears
This guy is for the heaviest of the heavy-duty cutting. The unruliest of all grapevines will have to endure some cutting at the trunk, for which you’ll need an actual saw. In severe cases, the grapevine will have to be cut at the trunk, almost all the way down to the ground, at the base of the vine. Shears aren’t able to cut anything of this sort of thickness, so one of these pruning saws will work best:
- Corona RazorTOOTH Folding Pruning Saw, 10 Inch Curved Blade
- Samurai Ichiban 13″ Curved Pruning Saw with Scabbard
- Fiskars 15 Inch Pruning Saw with Handle
- REXBETI Folding Saw, Heavy Duty Extra Long 11 Inch Blade
- KALIM Folding Hand Saw, Gardening/Camping/Pruning Saw with Rugged 7 Inch Blades
Bright-colored Fluorescent Tape
You’ll want something pretty durable because this will be used to mark branches to be saved. And, in the event that you’re pruning, and trimming is interrupted, it’s important that the branches remain marked until you get back. These have all been tested in the world of grapevines and have become go-to’s for home growers:
- Duck Brand 241798 Color Duct Tape, 1 Roll, 10 Yards, Fluorescent Lilac
- Professional Premium Grade Gaffers Tape
- Glow in Dark Tape | Heavy Duty Set of 4 Bright Colors
- Colored Masking Tape
- Gorilla High Visibility Duct Tape, 1.88″ x 35 yd, Blaze Orange
Rubbing Alcohol and Rags
Sanitizing the tools between cuts is incredibly important in preventing the spread of disease, as you’ll read about next. Since you’ll be doing this before starting, as well as between grapevines, it’s easiest to just keep a bottle of rubbing alcohol on hand during the process. You may even want to put it into a small spray bottle so you can give the shears a spurt and a wipe between cuts.
Before You Begin
Working with clean utensils is really important. This is one way to keep disease from spreading between grapevines. Sanitizing the tools before beginning is a must. Use rubbing alcohol to wipe down the blades and handle, then let them completely dry before use. Also, it’s necessary to do this when one plant is done being pruned, before moving on to the next one.
Get to Know Your Grapes
Grapevine grooming is largely dependent upon the type of grapes vines that you’re working with. There are typically three different breeds of grapes that are grown in-home or residential gardens, as opposed to commercially:
- American Grapes
- French-American Hybrid Grapes
- Vinifera Grapes
These are the most common grapevines that are grown at home. They are considered “winter hardy,” and in grape grower lingo, that means they’re able to survive during the winter months, even if it gets pretty chilly. This type of grapevine will need to be pruned more because of the amount of foliage it has.
French-American Hybrid Grapes
Next to American grapes, these grapes have quite a bit of vegetation. They have a lot more wood than can produce fruit. Similar to American Grapes, the French-American Hybrid version will also need to be carefully monitored and pruned more heavily, because of the amount of fruit-producing wood it carries.
These are for a more experienced grower or grown for local wineries, but that doesn’t mean they’re not found in home gardens. If you’ve moved into a new home or a new piece of land and you’ve found grapevines that don’t produce a ton of foliage, it might be that they’re Vinifera Grapes. These grapevines are also a little more sensitive to cold winters, so it’s less likely that you have these unless you’re in a warmer climate.
Before Pruning, Do a Little Math
Remember all of those times your teachers told you that math was important for everyday life – well, here’s one of those times! There is a fair amount of calculating to keep in mind before just pruning away with reckless abandon.
Grapevines will produce fruit after one year, but not past two years. If you’re unsure of your grapevines’ age, it’ll be easier to determine after the first fruiting season. Having said that, the amount of fruiting wood left post-prune is going to be determined by how much vegetation there was the season before. Again, unless you were witness to the previous growing season, this can be tricky.
Grape growers follow a 30+10+10 pruning system, and this will indicate how many buds are going to be left for the next season. This will factor in how many buds to keep on each grapevine by how much wood is pruned.
Picture this: If there’s a total of three pounds of pruned wood, there will be around 30 buds remaining for next season from the first round of wood (that’s where the 30 comes in), plus ten pounds each for two and three (and there’s the +10+10 part of the equation).
For mathy folk, this is a great technique for keeping track of how much needs to be pruned in order to make the most of the next fruiting season. However, grapevines create extra foliage if there’s not enough fruit stored in their branches (if it’s been pruned away). Therefore, a grapevine that’s been pruned properly won’t have all that much foliage.
In most plants, we identify their health by the leaves and how green they are, but grapevines are almost the opposite. An abundance of foliage is an indicator that there was an over-pruning. I’m going to walk you through the process so you will have that tangled mess in shape in no time.
Going from Out of Control to Under Control
You’ve got the supplies ready and cleaned, you know what kind of grapes you’re most likely dealing with, and you know your math. Now it’s time for the real fun. How to take those overgrown, unruly grapevines from unsightly brambly looking messes to actual fruitful and functional grapevines.
1. Cut the Trunk
Start here, at the trunk of the tree. Use the pruning saw to cut the trunk at about the five feet mark. Hold the pruning saw at, or as close as possible to, a 45-degree angle, upwards.
2. Remove Old Canes
Canes are the shoots that come from the trunk of the grapevine. They must be at least a year old. After they’ve reached this age, they don’t have a ton of leaves and have a fully developed bark.
You’ll be able to separate the old canes from the young ones, mostly by color. The ones that need to be removed are darker in brown and aren’t firmly attached to the wood anymore. Old bark is kind of shaggy, and shreds when it’s touched. There’s also a layer of cork under the bark when it’s gotten too old.
If you are aware of the age of the grapevines, or you know that the canes are more than two years old, then they’re considered old. Canes that are two-plus years old won’t produce fruit anymore. Again, cut at a 45-degree angle.
3. Mark New Canes
Use the fluorescent tape to mark three to five of the best canes that will produce fruit. These are going to be the thickest canes, without a lot of buds on them. Use the pruning shears to cut these back, leaving them with no less than 15 buds on each of the canes. The 45-degree angle is needed here, too. This will leave just the healthy part of the cane.
Cutting at a 45-degree angle protects the cane from taking in too much water when it rains.
4. Remove Unproductive Shoots
If there are any shoots that aren’t producing leaves or have less than 15 leaves, they can be clipped or pinched off. If at all possible, make sure there’s equal space between shoots. Again, this will take some level of monitoring, but it’s well worth it in the end. Getting rid of bad shoots just makes room for new ones to sprout during the next fruiting season.
5. Prune Remaining Shoots
Any of the shoots that weren’t taken away should be pruned. Clip away the shoots, so they’re only left with little leaf clusters, with just one or two leaves each. If one looks particularly like it’s in bad shape, cut it all the way down to where it meets the trunk. Remember, loose and crumbly bark is a major indicator.
6. Trim Wild Vines All the Way Down
Wild vines require a different approach since they’re so invasive and harder to control. They can take over your garden in the blink of an eye and hurt your other plants. These need to be cut all the way down. Down to the ground.
The goal is to keep them maintained and not allow them to get too out of control. Although, this can easily happen with these invasive wild species of grapes. Although it’s best not to use herbicides unless necessary, this might be one of those times. More on safe herbicides down below.
7. Use a Garden Trellis
A trellis provides support for the grapevine and helps to control its growth as much as possible. You can purchase a trellis, or if you’re handy, you can even make your own. The trellis will serve almost as a guide to encourage the grapevine to grow with the trellis. It can also help find where to trim when it’s time to prune again.
- 96 Inch High Individual Wire Rope Plant Trellis System for Vines
- Tower Obelisk Garden Trellis 6.3 Feet Tall Plant Support for Climbing Vines
- Dura-Trel 11172 Cambridge Trellis, White
- Master Garden Products Willow Expandable Trellis Fence, 36 by 72-Inch
- Panacea Products 36-Inch Fan Pot Trellis, Green
8. Or A Training System
If you have more than a couple of grapevines, it might be necessary to use a training system that can whip those grapevines into shape and have them standing up straight(ish) in no time.
While a garden trellis will work for just a few vines, as you’ll be able to take care of them regularly and monitor them closely, more plants can require a more serious intervention as a means to prevent unruliness from happening again.
- Trellis Anchor Plants, Vine, Trellis Design Kit 100-Piece Plant Anchors
- Tumax Plant Anchor Kit for Training Vines Roses and Garden Plants
- Practicool 98 feet Galvanised Garden Wire, Bonus 10 Vine Eye Screws
- 60 Pcs Plant Support Clips,Flower and Vine Clips
- Field Guardian 17-Guage Aluminum Wire, 1/4-Mile
9. Prune in the Winter
Since grapevines grow their new branches and produce fruit in the summer, the pruning needs to be done in the winter. Prune the grapevine as close to its natural shape as possible. Again, the trellis can help with this.
After pruning is when you’ll be spraying any fungicides if that’s going to be a necessary part of your grooming. More on that next.
10. Control with Safe Fungicides
Not all fungicides are bad news. If your grapevines are really out of control, it might be necessary to kick it up a notch in the preventative department, so consider using a fungicide that’s a safer alternative to other harsh chemical options.
Some grape gurus recommend spritzing pruned vines in the winter, right after cutting. Then again, once more in August, right before the buds pop for the season.
Keep in mind that fungicides will affect the grapes themselves, and they will retain some of the fungicide. This is why it’s important to use a natural and safe fungicide. These are a few fan faves amongst grape growers:
- Bonide 811 Copper 4E Fungicide 16oz
- Southern Ag – Liquid Copper Fungicide – Fungicide, 16oz
- Liqui-Cop Copper Fungicide Spray Qt Conc.
- Monterey LG3190 Liqui-Cop Copper Garden Spray Fungicide for Disease Prevention, 32 oz
- Crystal Blue Copper Sulfate Algaecide – Aquatic Grade Granular Pond Algae Control – 5 lbs
Problems with Overgrown Grapevines
Besides being unattractive, there are other problems that can come from having overgrown grapevines. Be on the lookout for any of these issues that can pop up.
When grapevines become overgrown, they are more susceptible to diseases. A sick grapevine is from either a fungus or bacteria. Most of the time, these are treatable ailments.
When grapevines become overgrown, it’s easier for the bacteria and fungi to find a way into the vines. Keeping them well-groomed forces the bacteria and fungi to at least work harder to get in.
Most of the diseases that affect grapevines are fungal in nature. Keeping the area around the grapevines clean and free of any old plant material is imperative in trying to keep fungal infections away. Old plant matter and unruly branches are the perfect hiding place for spores to hide.
If you notice any spotting on the grapevines or weird coating on the leaves, it’s possible there’s a fungus among us. This can even impair the grapevine’s ability to take in sunlight.
Bacterial infections are particularly dangerous, especially for grapevines in an orchard. They can quickly spread to other plants and take out an entire population of grapevines. But, if you’re not a winery or orchard owner, then this won’t really be a problem for you to worry about.
Contaminated soil is usually the culprit in spreading bacteria. The bacteria usually infiltrate the grapevines through the soil and will start to affect the roots first. Bacterial infections for grapevines can be deadly to the whole plant.
Bugs and other small critters love the sweetness of grapes. This makes grapes the perfect target for infestations from unwanted guests. Birds are also likely to damage grapevines in an attempt to find a snack.
Some bugs bore through grapevines, while others feed on the leaves. Either way, they’re no good. Allowing grapevines to become overgrown will only enable rodents and insects to infiltrate the grapevines easier.
Lack of Oxygen and Sunlight
A grapevine that’s overgrown starts to look like a forest in itself. The limbs can become so tightly wound together that it actually creates a barrier to sunshine and can even impede the amount of oxygen that’s reaching other parts of the plant. This poses a problem for other plants nearby, because it can create a mask for them, too.
Clearly, grapevines aren’t a plant that can be left alone to grow on its own. They’re a little bit needier than that. Many of the tactics listed above can also be preventative in nature. Keeping a well-pruned grapevine will, in turn, keep it healthy and fruitful. And prevent it from becoming overgrown and out of control.
While the monitoring and pruning is a lot of work, it’s much easier than letting the grapevines get too far gone that they require a giant overhaul. And, if you’re actually hoping to get fruit from them, proper care is a must.
But, in addition to what we already went over, there are a few other things you can do to keep yourself from having to do damage control on overgrown grapevines. And to keep them from making your landscape look like a haunted house.
Well-drained soil is of the utmost importance in grape growing. Soil that’s not draining properly can collect too much moisture, which leads to diseased and overgrown grapevines. Double whammy. To prevent this from happening, adding compost is a really great way to encourage well-drained soil.
Move Dead Plant Matter
Because grapevines are pretty tangly by nature, they do collect a fair amount of dead plant matter and other debris that blows around. After pruning, be sure to clean up your mess and either burn it or chop it up to put in the garbage. Leaving the trimmings will up the disease factor.
When in Doubt, Cut it Out
There really is no exact formula for how to prune grapevines. While the rule of thumb we discussed above is helpful, it’s not an exact science. Grapevines are fairly resilient when it comes to over-pruning. So, if you’re not sure whether or not something should be cut, just do it.
Also, there are times when a plant is just too far gone to be rescued. In this case, go ahead and cut it all the way down to the ground. This actually will not kill the plant, which is kind of crazy to imagine. Cutting it all the way down will allow the trunk to grow new, healthy branches.