DC ‘Dines! Grapes To Grow, Savor


That’s about how many grapes I just harvested from the muscadine vine in my front yard. After four barren years of tending and frustration, the slight production could have come as an anti-climax. Except it didn’t.

It came as a wonder, a luscious and aromatic sweetness invisibly condensing into spherical bronze skins that swelled with gel, seed and juice.

The vine, a self-fertile variety called Carlos, arrived in the mail from Georgia in November 2012. Georgia is more like it for muscadines, a southern comfort. Washington, DC, where I live, gets cold enough in winter to push the tolerance of muscadine grapes, which otherwise are figuratively and actually pretty thick-skinned when it comes to insects and plant diseases.


MUSCADINE SKY: Grapes from a 4-year-old vine of Carlos muscadines turn bronze under the sunshine. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

The delivery was a thin whip, maybe four feet long, with roots. It was packed in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box. Instructions were included, a couple of pages, with references for more information. I had never grown grapes.

And I immediately handicapped the vine’s chances of success. Instead of planting in a place with full sun exposure, as advised, I planted under the canopy of an enormous oak tree that shrouds most of my backyard. Most, but not all.


SLICED JUICE: Muscadine grapes, including Carlos, offer sweetness with wild and woodsy notes. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

I imagined that if I could get the vine to grow from the ground up to the rails of my deck, enough light would come through the slender rectangle of clear sky to serve my purposes of design and convenience.

I added fine gravel to the planting hole to aid drainage; I fertilized; I watered — all more or less per the instructions. The vine stretched itself to the deck in its first summer. I trained two arms in opposite directions on a wire. The second summer I had an 8-foot tall “T”, with leafy, 4-foot laterals. It appeared the vine and I might cheat photosynthesis and still win.

There was no flowering the first year, and none the second. By the start of the third summer, the vine had stalled, seemingly morose.

I dug it up. I moved it east, to the other side of the house, not to full sun but to much more sun, to the morning sun that muscadines, if they must choose, are said to prefer to evening sun.

The vine did more than survive the move. It grew strong. But it produced nothing but leaves.

The following spring, late as I knew was to be expected, it budded and sprung to life. It started to look like a real muscadine grape vine, the kind whose fruit I had imbibed and been inspired by on a visit around the turn of the century to the horticulture field station at the University of Arkansas.

The newcomer plant did not go unnoticed. The grape leaves looked like free food to deer, which often stray from the nearby woods. Soon, what the vine had gained with more sunlight was being gobbled up at night.

None of my deer deterrents worked. So instead of trying to keep the deer away from the vines, I tried to keep the vines away from the deer. I bought window screening fabric and draped it over the vine cordon every night, removing it every morning. Sometimes, despite notes stuck strategically around the house, I forgot the nightly drape. With the miscue coming to me upon awakening, I would run out to check the vine in fear of what I would find. But the luck was with the vine.


DRAPED GRAPES: Window screening fabric pulled over this cordon of muscadines protected the vines from hungry deer. Photo Credit: John A. Bray

Eventually, I just kept the vine draped, partly to save labor and partly because the deer were starting to show up during the day, too. For whatever reason, the curtain proved an effective protection from deer, while allowing air, sunlight, rain and insects to pass.

By October, the vine had surged, flowered and produced its virgin vintage, providing an especially delicious and uncommon crop, and making 2016 a very good year in my muscadine mind.


Photo Credit: John A. Bray

© 2016 John A. Bray