Pruning Muscadine Grapes

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Pruning grape vines is an essential chore if you wish to produce an abundant crop for many years. Vines left to grow unchecked will produce greater amounts of vegetative wood that eventually becomes weak and less productive. Pruning brings a balance to fruit and foliage, which results in better quality of fruit and increased productivity.

Image of a grape vine after it has been pruned

Muscadine grapes are the native grape species in Eastern NC. These grapes can be found growing wild on most properties and range in color from bronze-green, sometimes referred to as Scuppernong, to dark purple varieties known for their sweetness. These grapes have their own distinct flavor, thick skins, and seeds. Popular muscadine varieties include ‘Carlos’, ‘Nesbit’, and ‘Noble’. Other grape varieties classified as bunch grapes or table grapes include Fox grapes and wine grapes. Bunch and Fox grape varieties are typically grown in the Piedmont and Mountain regions, as Pierce’s disease prevalent in the Coastal Plain region can shorten the lifespan of bunch grapes. If you wish to try growing bunch grapes in Pamlico County, you may have limited success. Be conservative in your planting and follow recommended management practices found in the Extension publication Bunch Grapes in the Home Garden.

As for muscadines, pruning and management is a little easier than bunch grapes. The best growing site for grapes is sunny locations with good internal drainage. Wetness is the greatest limiting factor in Pamlico County. If your soil has standing water after a rain, then either choose another site or consider creating a raised planting site. A raised planting bed of 6-8” with a diameter of 5-6’ would be ideal for wet conditions.

A diagram showing the different parts of a grape vine before and after it has been pruned.

Training of grapes is important, and the standard trellis system recommended for home growers is the single wire trellis. With this system, plants are planted between two poles 20’ apart, with a single wire stretched between each pole. This allows for the formation of two permanent fruiting arms, called cordons, to grow outwardly towards your poles. These cordons are maintained throughout the life of the planting, and from here all the fruiting wood is formed. When buds from the cordons begin to grow, they will produce the vegetative and fruiting wood for the new year. All fruit is born on 1-year old wood, and pruning is used to reduce the total number of fruiting buds that grow on these canes.

Start your pruning efforts by identifying 1-year old wood, which is typically smooth and shiny and near pencil width in diameter. Cut back vigorous growth towards the cordon (often times several feet of canes), leaving about 7-8 buds per cane. The transitional area between these 1-year-old canes and the permanent cordon is called a spur. By pruning back towards this same location every year, you can develop fruiting spurs with spacing about 4-6” apart. This will help to create a balanced number of buds along the length of the vine that will maximize production.

A diagram showing the parts of a grape vine - older wood and 1 year wood

After several years of pruning, you will notice that the fruiting spurs will grow further and further from the cordon. By selectively removing a few of the spurs each year, old dormant buds on the cordon will begin to grow, replacing these spurs and allowing fruiting wood to form closer to the cordon.

February is a good time to prune muscadine vines, but any time after leaf fall and before buds begin growth in the spring is acceptable. “Bleeding” of water from pruning cuts will occur, but there is no harm to the vine. Remember to remove old canes that you have pruned and perform a general cleanup of the grape vine by raking fallen leaves and old fruit. If old diseased fruit remains around the vine, this can be a source of infection for the new season. Muscadines are tolerant of most pests and diseases and general sanitation from year to year is usually all that is needed to maintain healthy vines. Fertilize mature vines in March with about a 1 pound of 10-10-10 scattered around the vine, but no closer than 21” from the vine. Another application in June may be needed if growth is slow. If vine growth appears vigorous or exceeds 3-4’ during the season, reduce your fertilizer rate. Remove weeds and turf from under vines to reduce competition and water when needed.

For more information on pruning muscadines, review the Extension publication A Step By Step Approach to Pruning Carlos Muscadine Grapes.

You can also contact Daniel Simpson at 252-745-4121 or if you have further questions.