Grapes make up the biggest single fruit crop in the world. Given the amount of liquid that finds its way down the throats of wine buffs each year, this is perhaps not surprising. But gardeners may not be growing grapes primarily for their alcoholic potential. Vines are blessed with an elegant, venerable habit of growth and excellent, shading foliage. Trained over a seat or an arbour, a vine gives just the right air of productive ease in a garden.
Combined with clematis, they are ideal plants to decorate a pergola. In hot spots they can be trained to make a shaded lattice roof over a terrace where you can sit in dappled light under the shifting leaves. In conservatories, a vine carefully tied in to wires strung underneath the glass of the roof will provide useful summer shading for the plants inside. Choosing the right variety is important. Some are more tolerant of cold conditions than others.
We planted a couple of grape vines when we first went to our old house, and trained them on wires along one side of a vegetable plot. My husband hoped to be able to produce vintage brews from these, but they were a failure. I now know that we got the wrong sort of vines: Reisling x Sylvaner (Müller-Thurgau). It's one of the most widely planted white wine grapes in the country, but with us it was very prone to rot and mildew. You can spray, of course, but I want to drink wine, not cocktails of copper and sulphur.
When we came to our present house, we inherited a grape vine, planted on the front of the house, which faces south. I'm guessing it is the popular variety 'Brant', for the leaves turn wonderful fiery colours in autumn. The grapes are black, very small, but sweet, if the blackbirds ever leave enough for us to eat. Between skin and pip, there's not much you could call a mouthful, but it has never occurred to me to replace it with a more productive variety. It's there for its looks, the curtains of leaves that sway in front of the windows in summer, its happy acceptance of the clematis that scramble up through it. And for its winter structure – the stems with their flaky bark now trained out horizontally on parallel wires along the stone front.
Proper dessert grapes such as 'Muscat of Alexandria', an old variety unparalleled for taste, need heat, which means a greenhouse and plenty of room. But there are other kinds, capaciously called 'dual purpose' that you can eat, if the summer has been kind, or use for wine, if you are determined to join the boom in English vintages. Among the reds, the Royal Horticultural Society recommends 'Pinot Noir', 'Regent Red' and 'Boskoop Glory'. For whites, you might try 'Phoenix', a muscat-flavoured almost seedless grape, 'Siegerrebe', a dual-purpose grape producing sweet muscat-like fruit, or 'Chardonnay'.
Whatever the variety, in winter, you'll have to prune, for in our climate and soil, vines grow vigorously and have to be reminded that it is fruit rather than leaves that we are after. The accepted rule of thumb is to prune before the turn of the year. If you leave it until spring when the sap is rising, the vine bleeds copiously.
Pruning is not difficult once you understand why you are doing it. It can be rather like wine drinking, though. Some people think it is more fun to baffle newcomers than to enlighten them. And (again like drinking wine) you learn fastest about the subject by doing it, rather than reading about it.
You must have some kind of support to train the vine on. When we were trying to produce wine, at the old house, we tied in each vine as it grew and then spur-pruned it each winter. A spur is the name for the point where a side branch breaks away from the main stem. You need to cut back the side branches, leaving just two buds-worth of each branch at each spur. The grapes will be produced on the canes that grow from these spurs in the following season.
In summer, the pruning need not be so calculated. You just chop back leafy growth where it is over-exuberant, so that light and air can get through to the fruit. In commercial vineyards, this > is now done with mechanical hedge cutters. Take heart from that and remember it the next time you open a book and panic at the sight of Guyot, double-Guyot, Geneva double curtains, Kniffen, and multiple cordon pruning systems for vines. Pruning is a game, gardener against plant, and experienced players like finding ever more complicated ways of playing it.
When we arrived at our present house, the vine was tumbling around all over the place, mixed with an equally ambitious kiwi fruit and Clematis armandii, both of which we got rid of. A few random hooks attached the vine to the house. We pruned it back hard, the first winter, and set up wires 45cm/18in apart in parallel lines to act as supports. As new growth broke out from the main trunk in spring, we tied well-placed ones along the horizontal wires and cut away growths that had nowhere to go.
Now, because the vine has a strong basic skeleton, pruning is easy. After the leaves have fallen, we just cut back all the new growth coming from the parallel tied-in branches. And the following year, the front of the house is covered all over again with the beautiful foliage and tendrils which, in the wild, enable the vine to scramble up through trees into the light.
The strawberry vine, Vitis vinifera 'Fragola' would be equally decorative. Like 'Brant' it is healthy, would never need spraying, but unlike 'Brant' does not produce leaves suitable for stuffing. They are rather thick and felted. As the grapes ripen, the foliage turns yellow, with the veins standing out prominently in green.
Although they are hardy, vines will ripen their crop most successfully in areas where the summers are long and warm. In England, grapes will rarely succeed outside north of a line drawn from Gloucester to the Wash. Even in the south, they do best on a sheltered sunny wall and in fertile, well-drained soil. If you are growing a vine in a greenhouse or conservatory, you need to make up a planting bed of loam mixed with farmyard manure. Or you can plant the vine outside and feed the main stem through to the inside of the house, so that subsequent growth is sheltered by the glass. Outside, vines are best planted between mid autumn and late winter.
The biggest collection of vines in this country is held at the Sunnybank Vine Nursery, Cwm Barn, King Street, Ewyas Harold, Rowlestone, Herefordshire HR2 0EE, 01981 240256, sunnybankvines.co.uk. Catalogue online only. Mail order only. Small quantities of rooted plants of about 70 varieties are available, as well as hardwood cuttings for customers to grow on for themselves.
WHAT TO DO
* Prune cultivated blackberries when all the fruit has been picked, cutting out the old fruited canes at the base of the plant and tying in the fresh new canes to supports. The variety 'Himalayan Giant' does not produce as much new wood as some other varieties. Leave some of the old stems to fruit again next year.
* Privet hedges will probably need a second clip this month after the late spring trim in May. It takes them into winter looking svelte and orderly.
* Box hedges, edges and topiary should already have been clipped to shape. If not, do it NOW.
WHAT TO SEE
* The long, hot summer has focused the mind on watering and on the desirability of having as many sources of water available in the garden as possible. Vintage Archive have good-looking heavy-gauge metal drums imported from India, some pressed with a rib design, others painted turquoise or rusty red. Any of the larger ones would make handsome water butts. Prices start at £75. For more details go to vintagearchive.co.uk, or call 07572 501501