Climbing & clambering vines (Grape, Kiwi, hardy passion, akebia)

To all intents and purposes there’s only one perennial vine for a kitchen garden, a grape-vine. All the rest pale into rightful insignificance by comparison. The kiwi and it’s relatives are fair croppers but the others are only of academic interest. Which is a shame as vine crops are convenient in small gardens where they can be trained up, and or affixed to perimeters, to catch most sun.

The only problem with all climbing vines is their sheer exuberance, they want to cover a huge tree or cliff face and not be cramped on a smaller one. Thus in a garden they can be rampaging monsters especially if ever left unpruned- I know, I can barely get to an old shed now thanks to a grapevine fighting it out with a kiwi.

Now it’s possible to prune and train Kiwis, neat fruitful espaliers have been made- but these were still massive, covering mansion sized walls. In a pot they may be more constrained and could be cropped by the diligent gardener. Do remember you need either one male to a half dozen female plants or a self fertile variety. But unless you really want them I’d only recommend Kiwis where you can let them romp over trees and sheds… or train them over large walls or fences. You will then get huge crops.

As to the others- there are several cropping vines for a frost free greenhouse but remarkably few hardy ones. The Passion fruits are often edible and the common blue P. caerula, and it’s similar P. caerula racemosa, have a profusion of orange pods with seeds scantily coated in an edible pulp- there ought to be an improved form. P. incarnata was sold as a similar treat but proved too tender. Akebia quinosa is a glorious spring flowering climber with scented purple flowers which produce wee sausage shaped pods full of a bland pulp covering the seeds, again in desperate need of improvement.

So we are back to grape vines. They are not only the most sensible vine but about the only crop plant where you really must prune regularly or you rapidly will lose control and have a lot of work to recover. Still on the plus side it’s very hard to kill an established vine and one can be cut back hard, even to a stump, in autumn and then be reworked from new shoots to crop the second autumn after.

Other than their need for ruthless regular pruning grapevines are not often chosen as they are considered unlikely of success. This is because poor, that is old, varieties were not good choices for outdoor crops, more recent ones are better. In practice throughout much of the UK a well placed well chosen variety has more garden potential than most other fruits as the cash value of fresh grapes is so high. Apples and plums are cheap by comparison.

Now outdoors in any reasonably warm sunny spot there are only a few varieties I can heartily recommend. I’ve grown over forty outdoors, and been unhappy with most of them. Now I’m not disputing that others may find different ones more or less suitable. But for a small garden with room for one or two then it has to be Siegerrebe and Boskoop Glory. The first is a spherical red pearl, sweet with an exquisite Muscat aroma. So early to ripen Siegerrebe catches wasp damage, this is delicious. The second, Boskoop Glory is incredibly reliable, rarely suffering disease, with open bunches not prone to mould. Not very seedy this has medium size black fruits which can be deliciously sweet grown in any fair spot. To be sure others are worth considering in bigger gardens. Some are productive but I’m not sure you’d like the fruits such as the Strawberry grape of North American origin. This is reliable and hugely productive of sweet purple berries but their flavour is mawkish- however the scent of them ripening is delightful. Their texture is weird- almost eyeball like, which appeals to some children- should be a marketing gimmick there….

Several outdoor wine varieties do well and are trouble free but although they can be juiced have little fresh dessert value such as Marshall Joffre and Leon Millot which crop well and reliably but of tiny red tinted-juice grapes intended for colouring wine. Cascade and Seibel 13053 are two other larger berried black grapes worth considering though likewise again more for wine and juicing. Oddly I find most white wine varieties, Madelaine Angevine, Madelaine Sylvaner, Riesling Sylaner come Mueller Thurgau, et al more prone to mildews and rots than most of the reds and blacks, which surprises me. Not one of these would I recommend for the smaller kitchen garden.

Some of the more recent introductions, such as Regent a new dark red, look promising, Phoenix a golden yellow which has that Muscat overtone I adore is also cropping well so far but prone to rot. Of course these are all outdoors. Indoors is another story. There are a huge number of more luscious and choice varieties that can be grown under cover mainly because they need a longer frost free season. Thus heated greenhouses produce the finest sorts all to perfection. Unfortunately few of us can afford a heated greenhouse large enough to house such vines. However there is a method* I will come to in a moment which gets round this. Anyway given this method and a greenhouse, polythene tunnel or even just a sunny conservatory you can grow some of the choicest grapes. Ones that are a far improvement above the commercial. The traditional choice is Black Hamburg, this is indeed big berried, sweet and with a fair flavour. And Muscat Hamburg is divine, a more oval grape with that wonderful Muscat flavour- slightly tricky though as unlike most other grapes this does more reliably with a pollinating partner. Madresfield Court is dark, luscious and unsurpassable. Muscat of Alexandria and Foster’s Seedling are good whites but not easy to crop well. Buckland Sweetwater and Golden Chasselas/D’Or are easy trouble free and pleasant but hardly fantastic. Flame is. Now sold in supermarkets this seedless variety is crunchy sweet and red turning into raisins on the plant. Other seedless grapes such as Himrod and Luccombe are harder to crop as reliably, Perlette is only lightly muscatted white but sweet and pleasant, Polo yellower and more so.

Now there are dozens and dozens of other interesting and tasty grapes, and even currants (for which you want the variety Zante). The problem is each will willingly and rapidly fill a huge volume if planted in the ground, inside or outside a greenhouse. But as mentioned above there is a method to circumvent this problem. *You can easily and productively grow grapes in large tubs. (five gallons or similar is good) This effectively restricts their growth reducing pruning considerably. This means in a small greenhouse that would house one vine at a push you can actually crop several. Of course this is exchanging pruning for more watering but the number of varieties fitted in is a huge advantage and spreads the harvest. And the tubs can be moved. Thus they can spend winter outdoors, come in during February and think they have moved to the South of France. Then with extra covering on cold spring nights they can be brought on very ealry, flowered and fruited under cover to ripen way sooner than any outdoors ever could. Indeed with a sunny autumn even the slower old varieties can have long enough to ripen. Not only is this so effective but also with several tubs of the same varieties as outdoors, that is especially Siegerrebe and Boskoop Glory, I have fresh grapes from before midsummer through, then the others crop and some hang till nearly Christmas.

So tub culture and bringing under cover is ideal and gives a huge choice of varieties. But tub culture is also worth while with outdoor vines just to keep them controllable. In essence it’s very simple- every young shoot is reduced to a short stub with a couple of buds at leaf fall. Excess and too tall shoots may be sacrificed entirely to keep the over-wintering ‘head’ squat. When it is brought under cover, or in spring, the buds sprout and as they lengthen can be tied to a vertical stout two metre cane. Surplus shoots from anywhere else but last years shoots are rubbed off unless wanted to replace the old head. As the shoots reach the top they are stopped, and any side shoots stopped too. Non flowering shoots can be stopped earlier. Each tub with an established vine can carry five or six shoots each with a bunch of grapes. Once they are harvested the plants go outdoors and are pruned hard back again at leaf fall. The moves and hard pruning also handicaps pests and diseases left nowhere to hide over winter.

Growing on wires or walls is similar except with the roots in the ground the vigour is greater so each vine can carry many more bunches. Thus lots of similar ‘heads’ or spurs are formed along frameworks of rods of permanent wood built up over a year or three. With wires on a fence or wall or under cover the young shoots are thinned to those suitably placed and tied to the wires to become rods in following years- keeping all rods from any vine at the same level. (Vines crop predominantly on the highest wood so better have two vines for high and low than one to cover both.) These shoots will break all along from buds to form many fruiting shoots, which are allowed to lengthen and bloom, then are thinned, and tipped when a few leaves past the flowers. Too many shoots with bunches left and they will not ripen well, so thin the shoots and reduce the bunches ruthlessly, especially in early years. These fruited shoots are then cut back to stubs of two or three buds apiece of young shoot coming from the now old rod. These stubs are renewed each year and build up into big spurs like heads, occasionally these can be replaced with a new shoot from lower down. (Be careful not to choose one from below a graft point if any though most vines in the UK are on their own roots.) Oh that’s the other point- any bit of a grape vine will root almost anytime. If you get one you soon have enough for a vineyard.