GARDENING / Keen on Fruit: Vines

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VINES apparently grew well in England before the Gulf Stream changed its course around 1350. Since then they have not been the reliable croppers they are in Mediterranean lands. But if our summers are warming up, vine-growing may make a comeback. Until that happens, there are grapes that will survive the sort of un-summer we usually suffer, although without warm, dry weather the fruit will be poor. Without protection, if frosts and blossom coincide, there will be no fruit at all.

Outdoor vines need warm walls. They can be grown in the open, but not at altitudes much higher than 100 metres (330 feet). Londoners and those who live on warm coasts will probably have the best results, but vine leaves are pretty, especially when grown through roses, so it is worth taking a chance on the weather. Ripening summers do occur and grapes are delicious when that happens. White grapes are more reliable than black ones, but the ornamental Brant, with leaves that colour well, will have small black grapes late in the year. Chasselas is an old-fashioned white variety that crops late but is, I think, more delicious to eat than the Muller Thurgau Riesling, which can be dull. Muscat-flavoured grapes are the best of all, but Muscat of Alexandria is not much good out of doors. It could, however, spend the summer outside in a pot and be brought indoors to ripen, followed by a winter in a conservatory or unheated greenhouse. Grown in pots, vines take up very little room; they make pretty little trees in 10-inch or 12-inch pots, which will in time produce as many as a dozen bunches of grapes.

Pot-grown vines need to have the central stem tied to a stake and the branches that form the head will probably need support from below, or to be tied in to the stake with raffia if the bunches are heavy.

Grapes need well prepared soil that has been dug deeply. Drainage should be good because roots go down a long way and do not like to meet standing water or solid clay a foot or two below the soil. Traditionally, greenhouse vines were planted outside the house and trained in through a hole in the wall (this can be seen at places such as Hampton Court). Old gardeners always claim that a donkey buried below the roots produces the best grapes, because vines are what gardeners call 'gross feeders'. However, modern growers do not over-indulge their outdoor vines. They seem to be better grown rather hard; manure and corpses are not vital unless the soil is very poor.

When it comes to water, vines are more demanding: they should not be allowed to dry out and young plants will need plenty in their first season. Pruning is not difficult once you understand that the vine (which is not self-supporting and will need to be tied in to wires) has a permanent framework. This can be formed how you like, as a fan or a cordon or a standard. The side shoots are pruned in winter, to two buds from the base. They also need controlling in summer, as vines grow fast and can quickly lose their shape. In a mature vine, the bunches of grapes are thinned to about a foot apart and as a counsel of perfection, dessert grapes should be thinned out in the bunches to encourage large fruit.

(Photograph omitted)