Every man his vine, every man his fig tree
Sounds idyllic, but while figs aren’t hard to grow in Florida, it takes
a bit more planning and work to grow grapes in a Florida-type climate. It
CAN be done, though you’d better do your homework before you plant or you’ll
be in for disappointment and a lot of work. Over the next several columns
I’ll cover the basics of what you will have to deal with and what you can
grow, depending on how much work you want to put into your grapes.
The first big obstacle to growing grapes in Florida, or any warm, humid
part of the U.S., is disease.
The southeastern U.S. is where all the major fungal diseases of grapes
originated, including black rot, downy mildew, powdery mildew, anthracnose,
several kinds of blights and fruit rots, and more. Those diseases are
bad enough in the summers of northern areas, such as New York, but in the
hot, humid climate of the southeast, they start earlier, reproduce faster,
and have many more months to do their work. Even so, these diseases
only stunt and damage vines and destroy the crop, and then only if untreated.
Much more serious is the bacterial pest Pierce’s Disease, which can
kill vines altogether.
Pierce’s Disease (PD for short) is a bacterial disease. Instead
of attacking the outside of the vine, the way the fungal diseases do, it
gets into the vine where it reproduces at a rate that clogs the vascular
system of the vine, making it wilt and die, sometimes within a few days.
Severely affected vines will look like they were hit with a blowtorch, while
vines with resistance may not even show any obvious symptoms. In between
are such things as slowed growth of the vine, scorching of the leaf margins,
and death of some shoots. The important factor in PD is that, while
the fungal diseases spread by themselves, PD has to be spread by a carrier,
usually sucking insects such as leafhoppers. This gives one of the
means to stop the spread of PD, by stopping the leafhoppers that carry it.
Not an easy task in a climate where the leafhoppers can have three or more
generations a season, each larger than the last.
These pests are the main reason that unwary home growers who buy vines
of table grape varieties like Flame Seedless or wine grapes such as Chardonnay
and other types of the old world grape Vitis vinifera soon find they
made a serious mistake. Plant Vitis vinifera outdoors without a lot
of pest control and it will be a rare vine that survives its first
year. In this case, a lot can mean spray or other disease control applied
as much as three times a week.
American grapes such as Concord or other northern-bred grapes that have
a modicum of disease resistance may survive a little longer, but they will
succumb eventually, too, without a LOT of work controlling disease.
With these kinds of nasties to deal with, it may sound like growing grapes
in Florida may be more work than it’s worth. But take heart, there
are lots of ways to get grapes WITHOUT spending all your waking hours on pest
We'll start on a few next time.