SEEDLESS GRAPES IN WISCONSIN? MAYBE.

I like dried fruit.  It’s a great way to enjoy fruit all year long with minimal energy expenditure.  Doug and I have been hoping that we will be able to grow seedless grapes on our south-facing slope, solar dry them and put some local raisins into our foodshed.

Last night I took the first step toward figuring out how to just that by attending an advanced master gardener class on growing grapes in Wisconsin.

My hands were sweating and my teeth were gritting as I  drove to the class.  Recently, when we called the county building inspector to learn what would be required to put a tiny cabin on our land as a prelude to building our little house, we were told in no uncertain terms that we could NOT build in the place we had been dreaming about.  (Not fire truck accessible—too steep.)  That was a momentarily crushing disappointment.  We have come up with a new and better location.

But I did not want to hear the expert on growing grapes in Wisconsin tell me that seedless grapes can’t grow here.  I know seeded grapes can grow here.  There is a little vineyard just over the ridge, and the famous Wollersheim Winery where they have successfully grown grapes since the Civil War is only an hour’s drive.  But seedless grapes seem to be more finicky. In California, where most seedless grapes are grown, some take as long as 240 days to ripen.

So I went hoping not to have my hopes dashed.

My hopes remain undashed, but they are perhaps a little daunted.

There are seedless grapes that grow here, alright.  At the workshop tonight, I walked along a row of young test vines.  That was encouraging.  What was discouraging was the seeded vines growing nearby that seemed about twice as vigorous.

Bob Tomesh, senior lecturer for cooperative extension, has started growing test plots of seedless grapes at the UW Extension test gardens.

Tomesh said he didn’t even try growing seedless grapes here until recently because he didn’t think they were worth the trouble.  Then he learned of a new technique from Minnesota where they cut the young plants back down to the ground the first year and let them build up their roots an extra year before they start supporting vines.

Now he is growing them in his test plots with some success. The strongest contender is a variety called by the encouraging name of Reliance.

So — it IS possible!

I now know that the most likely seedless variety for this area is a mid-season red.

Evidently, this grape was developed at the University of Arkansas in 1982, which describes Reliance as producing large clusters of round, red, medium-sized berries.  The skins are tender and the flesh is melting in texture, with a sweet labrusca flavor, which is best imagined as the “foxy” musk of the Concord grape. Coloring may be poor in some years, and fruit often crack in wet seasons.  But its cold hardiness is among the highest of the seedless varieties.

...There we are, the little white cross in the south west corner. By rights, seedless grapes should be growing in on of the tiny dark, green patches along Lake Michigan.

My own Wisconsin extension publication says that Reliance is moderately sweet when fully mature, good for table use and very susceptible to black rot and downy mildew.  It ripens in this state in September.

So it looks like an arranged marriage to a temperamental mate. Of all the possible easy-going grapes that grow in Wisconsin, if we want seedless, then we want Reliance.  Hello, Reliance.  A pleasure to meet you.  I hope we will learn to love each other.

We originally got the idea to grow grapes because we have a southern slope on our land that seemed to us to be crying out for a vineyard.  Tomesh said that a sloping site is not necessary for grapes, that grapes are traditionally grown on steep ground because most other things won’t grow there.  But it seems like, if we not quite in the preferred zone, then a south-facing slope has got to be good.

The challenges of growing grapes in Wisconsin involve too cold winters.  The buds that grow into next summer’s grapes can be killed by temperatures between -10 and -25 F.  But then there is that little matter of climate change.  How many more -10 nights are we going to see?

So, we’ll set up a trial arbor next summer and see what happens.

ANYBODY OUT THERE GROWING SEEDLESS GRAPES — HELP!

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8 replies

  1. We are growing ordinary grapes in our polytunnel to protect from the intense cold we get here in winters. We will dry the whole grape with seeds as we got to quite like the crunchy raisins in Cyprus. I suppose we had better watch our teeth though but the grape seeds I believe are good for you anyway.

    One thing I think we can’t be sure about as regards climate change is exactly what will happen. Overall there could be warming if some unknown mechanism doesn’t kick in in the meantime but what is more likely is unpredictable weather patterns and so some places may get warmer and some colder, particularly if sea movements change like the gulf stream. Best to prepare to be adaptable I think.

    • Two very good points, Joana.
      I am actually thinking of growing some seede grapes as well. I’m sure I will have a lot to learn from them, and I can only dream about what a technicolor, taste extravaganza grape jam made from home-grown grapes will be compared with Welche’s.
      But the idea of drying them and eating them, seeds and all is a revelation to me that I will want to check out.
      I agree that seeds tend to be little powerhouses of nutrition and fiber and (as Lydia said in Pride and Prejudice) “every good thing”. Whether I actually like crunchy raisins remains to be seen.
      Secondly climate change. Yes. I’m very familiar with what is being extrapolated for my part of the world. I’ve written about it several times and blogged about it too. And at this exact moment in time, I am reading an excellent book that I think I’ll post about when I finish it —
      Weather of the future : heat waves, extreme storms, and other scenes from a climate-changed planet
      by Heidi Cullen.

      I’ve read a lot about climate change, but Heidi is both knowledgable and articulate. She is bringing the whole process of not only what is going on but how we have learned to understand this process in such readable prose, that I would call it an actual page turner. (Mind — I’m a voracious reader, and most of the books I pick up fall into that category.)
      In this part of Wisconsin the average temperature is rising, not so much because the days are getting hotter but because the nights are getting warmer. That may work to our advantage as we try to coax a tropical plant to fruit in what used to be Winter Wonderland.
      Denise

  2. You might want to try Elmer Swenson’s variety Somerset. It’s hardy to 25 to 30 below, good disease resistence & productive once the vines mature. Northeast Vine Supply sells vines.

    • Hey, thanks for the suggestion. I will sure look into it. Your website looks very interesting. Where is your place? Are you in Wisconsin? The photos of the barn look like it could be a Wisconsin barn.
      It’s exciting to feel like a little bit of a seedless grape pioneer in this area. But we are going to need all the help we can get.
      So, thanks again for the idea. I’ll be looking for this one.
      Denise

    • Grape and gooseberry sounds like an intriguing combo. I’m going to have to try it. I have a lot of wild gooseberries on my land.
      What do you use for a thickener?
      Denise

  3. We have a seedless table grape trial at the West Madison Ag. Research Station. All varieties were planted during the summer of 2007. Four summers of trial have proven that there are more seedless table grapes than Reliance hardy in Wisconsin.

    We are also working on a wine research project. Twelve varieties of wine grapes are included in our research project. These selections were planted in 2008. The summer of 2011 will be the year that preliminary results from the research will be released.

    We will be releasing a report on seedless table grape trial in early January. Check out our blog http://universitydisplaygarden in late December or early January. We will be posting the methods we are using for growing the wine and table grapes that we are trialing, and researching, and the results of our trials. Student interns, Brian Emerson and I have been working on these projects for over four years along with grape growers in Wisconsin to develop new methods for growing, training and maintaining the varieties in the trial and research project.

    All of the wine grape research plots and the seedless table grape trials can be viewed at our University Display Garden, 8502 Mineral Point Road, Verona, WI – West Madison Ag. Research Station. In early spring we will be holding a seminar on seedless table grape and wine grape production.

    • Thank you SO much for your comment, Judith. This is incredibly cool. Doug and I will definitely be at your seminar next spring, and I will be hoping to talk before then too. We are eager to enter the ranks of Wisconsin seedless grape growers.
      We did go out and look at the grape vines after I attended the workshop this fall. At that point, it was hard to make any judgement on which grapes looked like they were doing best.
      What a wonderful resource the display garden and the researchers behind it are.
      Denise

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