Today as we celebrate “Fathers’ Day” I can’t help but reflect a little bit on my own dad. Growing up on a small family farm, some of my earliest memories are of working with my dad …
Today as we celebrate “Fathers’ Day” I can’t help but reflect a little bit on my own dad. Growing up on a small family farm, some of my earliest memories are of working with my dad growing corn, cotton, and assorted vegetables that we sold at the farmers market on Finley Avenue in Birmingham in addition to herding and feeding our cow herd. Even before I got old enough to do “real farm work” I would spend virtually the entire spring sitting on Dad’s knee while he disked, planted, and cultivated our crops (he even let me operate the lift on the tractor when we got to the row ends). I still miss all the times we fed cows, made countless trips to the farmers market, and more importantly I miss all the time together, the conversations, and little life lessons that he taught me as we worked together.
Another great memory I had as a kid was when my Dad introduced me to muscadines, and I was literally amazed that we could find so many plump delicious “grapes” growing wild along the edges of the woods. My favorite vines were those growing adjacent to our cotton fields and I would often sneak off to pick some muscadines while I was supposed to be picking cotton.
For many years muscadine cultivars were simply wild selections of preserved and propagated vegetatively from the wild vines; however, with all the varieties now available this has certainly changed. The very first recognized muscadine cultivar was actually a bronze variety found prior to 1760 (well before the Declaration of Independence) in Tyrell County North Carolina. That selection is very historically important and is known as the first American grape variety. It was then known simply as “The Big White Grape” or Hickman’s Grape and was later given the familiar name that we all know and love…..Scuppernong! With the passage of time, scuppernong became a generic name for all bronze colored muscadines; however, not all bronze muscadines are actually scuppernongs. It is true to say (and I love to do this) that “all scuppernongs are simply muscadines but certainly not all muscadines are scuppernongs”!
Muscadines are very well adapted for growing here. If you want to grow grapes at home in our area, I certainly recommend using a muscadine variety as opposed to a bunch grape variety. Place your muscadines in a sunny location. I know that most of us remember going to the edge of the woods to pick them, but they will produce more larger fruit that is sweeter in taste if grown in a sunny location. The site should also be well drained and should be located if possible on an upward slope to avoid cold damage. Cold air settles into low lying areas, so muscadines planted in low areas or at the bottom of slopes are more prone to winter damage. Muscadines do tend to leaf out later than bunch grapes giving them a definite advantage when it comes to preventing frost damage.
A good trellis is a necessity for growing muscadines. I recommend a very minimum of twenty feet of trellis per vine. Remember that your muscadine vine can live for decades, so construct your trellis out of sturdy materials and treated lumber designed to last for many years. There are several trellis systems that you can use. Some have only one wire for the muscadines to run out while others have multiple wires. Whichever you choose, you must begin training your vines to run out the wire or wires at a very early age.
Muscadine varieties can be broken into four categories: two based upon fruit color (black or bronze) and two based upon flowering types (perfect flowering or self pollinating and female only). With regard to color there are varying shades that include purples, reds, and others. In my opinion flowering type is much more important than color. Self fertile varieties will fruit by themselves with no problem. Some varieties are female only and will require a male pollinator in order to produce fruit. You may also plant self fertile varieties with female only plants to provide pollination.
While fall of the year is actually the best time to plant your new muscadines, you can use the time now to plan and research varieties, soil test and lime your planting area, and get your trellises constructed ahead of planting time. If you have more than one row, place them at least 12 feet apart. Plant your muscadines in a hole that is a minimum of 2 ½ times the diameter of the root ball, Adjust the soil to a pH of 6 to 6.5 by adding ½ to one cup of dolomitic lime to the backfill dirt. Never apply fertilizer to the hole at planting.
Annual pruning is essential to maintain quality production on your muscadines. Since muscadines fruit on new shoots growing from last year’s growth, you should prune back the canes that grew last year leaving about three inches or so of growth to form the new fruiting spurs. A good rule of thumb is to leave two to four buds per cane to produce fruit. Late February is a great time to plan to prune your muscadines. Don’t be worried if the vines “bleed” at the points where you make the pruning cuts. This is normal and will not hurt the vine.
You also need to remove tendrils that wrap around the vine. Tendrils are finger-like structures that the muscadine uses to attach itself to the support structure. If tendrils are not removed, they can girdle the fruiting spurs and cause a reduction in your yield.
Fertilize your muscadines carefully the first year by using about ½ pound of 8-8-8 or equivalent after the plants have been settled in and established. Then apply about two ounces of ammonium nitrate or three ounces of calcium nitrate in late May and again in early July. Broadcast your fertilizer over a two foot circle around the plant. Do not dig holes and burry the fertilizer. Repeat this schedule for the second year. In the third year increase the fertilizer to 2 pounds of 8-8-8 per plant in early March and one pound in May broadcast in a six foot circle around the plant. For older plants use three or four pounds of 8-8-8 per plant in March then ½ pound ammonium nitrate or ¾ pound of calcium nitrate in June.
Properly maintained, your muscadines will provide you with many years of high quality grapes that can be used for eating fresh or for jams, jellies, and juice. Just don’t forget to share them!
So today as we enjoy time with our Dads or reflect on good memories of Dads who are no longer with us, I hope that we recognize the importance that they had in our lives and for all the time, care, and life lessons that they gave to us. It is my hope that one of these days my kids will also look back and reflect on some good memories that we have shared and maybe even grow to appreciate a life lesson or two.