An “IKEA vineyard”, or: making the most of a little patch of dirt

Making the most of a little space.

Making the most of a little space.

Over the course of this blog’s existence, I’ve been contacted by a few people in the area entertaining the idea of putting in a home vineyard on their properties.

Not everyone has a spacious lot around their house. However, it’s still possible to grow a small quantity of fruit for home winemaking.

Growing up in 1970s “socialist” Poland taught me to find ways to make do with, and the most of, very little. I hope to apply that trait to reconciling a desire to grow wine grapes with a limited available space.

Vines will grow and climb anywhere: up the side of a house, along a patio roof or a fence. This is fine for table grapes to be plucked on a warm afternoon. But this is not the best way to grow wine grapes. The vines need to be trained, given support and appropriate sun exposure.

One option is to try growing potted vines. I’ve written about this in the past. I would stress using 7-gallon pots, or larger. An 18-gallon rope handle tub like this one (at least 16 inches tall, so there is a little rim left to hold water) with some drainage holes punched out in the bottom can do the trick.

Ultimately, this setup will require more watering, more fertilization and it’s very possible that after a few years, the vines’ roots will outgrow the pot and the plants may die.

Back-up vine in a 7-gallon planter.

Back-up vine in a 7-gallon planter.

Nevertheless, if this is the only available solution, here are my tips and recommendations:

Put down a root barrier inside the planter, or thick plastic sheeting folded over several times and laid under the pots if the pots will stand on bare soil. The former method is recommended to keep soil from washing out of the planter.

Consider thicker-walled pots so the soil does not heat up and dry up too much. Lining the outside or inside of the pot with Styrofoam batting can help. Wrapping the outside of each planter in some sort of thermal (Styrofoam) padding that will insulate may also reflect light off dark planters.

It’s also a good idea to shield the planters from sunlight. Placing small plants around the planters (at least on the side where the hottest sun hits your vines) is another good way to block the heat of the sun.

Plastic sheeting will keep vines from rooting into the ground.

Plastic sheeting will keep vines from rooting into the ground.

Drought-resistant rootstock will likely perform better in this scenario.

It’s easiest to goblet-train potted vines, although a trellis system could be set up around potted plants. The head should not be trained too high, as this makes the potted plants tough to transport. A potted plant should have its head set at no higher than two to three feet off the ground.

The canopies will dictate spacing, but the plants should be no closer than 5′ from each other.  Adjustments maybe necessary but it’s probably better to set the vines up, space them out before budbreak and leave them be for the season.

It takes anywhere from 12 to 16 pounds of fruit to make a gallon of wine. A potted, goblet-trained vine may produce anywhere from two to six pounds of fruit. From my two potted back up-vines my son and I will end up with 1.5 l of wine – or two 750 ml or four 375 ml bottles.

Potted plants need more fertilizer and soil additives because these leech out with watering. See below for recommendations.

Of course, it goes without saying, that planting the vines in the ground is far superior to keeping them in planters.

Most residential lots in places like L.A. area are not very big. There is often just room for the house, the garage (if detached) and a small backyard. I would not recommend planting vines in the front yard – unless you want to give all the passersby a sweet treat.

This leaves small strips of dirt (easements) around the perimeter of a lot. These can be between your house and your neighbor’s, behind the garage, etc.

I use such a strip of land behind my garage for my nursery, where I keep back-up vines.

Options for vine spacing.

Options for vine spacing.

There are some important considerations to keep in mind when choosing the strip of dirt for the vines:

A strip five feet in width, at minimum, will be best.

Don’t just choose the biggest area, choose the biggest area with the most sun exposure.

Orientation is also a consideration. A North-South orientation is generally felt to be optimal for vine rows because it allows the canopy to collect a maximal amount of solar energy.

That said, vines will grow in any orientation as long as certain adjustments are made. This article is a good resource on this subject.

Make sure to leave room to work the vines: room to move on all sides to prune, train, pick, etc. In my diagram (above, right), I am leaving a 4′ space at the East end to give me room to move around the vines with a full canopy in place. The two feet along the length of the row are barely enough to squeeze in between the vines and the wall or the fence.

Styrofoam sheeting on fence next to vines.

Styrofoam sheeting on fence next to vines.

A tight space can also come with other problems: reduced sun exposure and radiant heat from walls and fences.

In my case, I dealt with these problems by lining the dark fence on the North side with Styrofoam batting to reflect the southern sun onto the canopies and reduce the heat radiating off the fence.

Speaking of fences: it is said that high fences make for good neighbors. I have learned that it is not the height of fences but an accurate delineation of, and diligent observance of property lines that lets neighbors abide in peace. Know where your property ends.

Tight spaces almost always require some sort of vertical trellising. This means allowing more room at the end of rows for end posts which will hold tension in the trellis wires. This document is a good resource on trellising vines. Another good source is here.

One doesn’t need permission from neighbors to grow things on their own property, but it’s good to know what kind of people the neighbors are. This is particularly true in hillside areas where an uphill neighbor may complain that the vines “block their view”… (even if that view is of the rooftop of a discount grocery store and onto an interstate – hell, people are weird).

Giving a bottle of wine to a cranky neighbor may placate their ire.

Finally: Do not dig before doing due diligence. Check before you dig and put in t-posts. It’s not uncommon for that stretch of dirt between two properties to be a sewer easement. There may also be telephone, power and gas lines in the ground. If you hit one of those, you’re gonna have a bad time.

Vines can be stake staked with 2″x2″ redwood posts, but these won’t last as long as t-posts. I recommend posts that are at least 6′ tall (driven in 18”). 8′ is better. T-posts with a blade at the end should be put in BEFORE planting the vines.

Gopher baskets are a must in areas with rodent activity. These can be made from 1″ chicken wire. Using pieces measuring 24″ by 36″ should give baskets with the following dimensions: a 12″ diameter, 18″ in-ground depth – after one end is folded into the center to create the bottom of the basket. This leaves about two inches or so to stick above ground. This lip is said to keep gophers from going over he rim of the basket.

I recommend putting in the baskets before the rainy season, then compacting the soil in the baskets (this is a handy tool for compacting in tight spaces). Let the rains compact the soil further. Wait for the rains to end and put in the t-posts and compact the soil around them. Plant the vines after that. Follow the nursery’s directions for planting (keep the graft union 4″ above ground, mound over the top of the graft with soil, straw or a mixture – especially in colder climates).

Irrigation systems are definitely a must in hotter, more arid regions. Hoses can be suspended along the posts or laid on the ground. A timer valve is strongly recommended. Set up water supply lines in such a way so that they are not in the way, do not get overgrown and then stepped or tripped on.

Setting the first bifurcation to be the arms of the vine.

Setting the first bifurcation to be the arms of the vine.

Fertilize if necessary.

A simple chemistry kit can give a rough idea of soil nutrients and pH. Samples can always be sent out for a more complex and expensive analysis. Some of these analyses can come with recommendations for amendments.

If this seems like too much to-do, the vines can be observed for vigor and signs of chlorosis over the first two years.

Epsom salts (1/2 tsp per vine) provide magnesium to combat chlorosis and lower pH of the soil. If soil pH is too low, a soil sweetener like this one may be appropriate. A 10-10-10 fertilizer – I like Lilly Miller – (1 tbs per vine, careful not to over fertilize). I do this before the rainy season on my vines in the ground and before pruning (and the heavy rains) and again at budbreak with my potted vines.

Trellised vines can produce around eight pounds of fruit each. Two vines, then, can produce at least one gallon of wine. So, in my behind-the-garage example (illustration above), 4-foot spacing can give me around 3.5 gallons, 5-foot spacing will yield about 3 gallons and six-foot spacing will give something on the order of two and a half gallons.

Good luck.

Feel free to make recommendations and ask questions in the comments below.



Father, husband, physician, amateur guitarist, wine lover, wine writer, wine grower and wine maker trying to do it all within eye shot of downtown Los Angeles.
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