Hops and grapes, both edible and ornamental, are great additions to any home garden, offering leafy screens, color and lovely fruit to the scene.
You don’t have to live in Napa to ripen grapes in your garden. Maybe I’ve read too much Frances Mayes about her idyll in Italy, but there’s something so Mediterranean about growing grapes. The idea is kind of intoxicating, and not just because grapes have that bacchanal history.
Even ornamental grapes and hops, grown for their wide, handsomely lobed leaves and vigorous twining, bring a feeling of warm nights and dining alfresco to the garden. If you’re more interested in the look than the fruit, the purple-leafed grape vine (Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’) and its cousin, golden hops (Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’) are the showiest of vines. The hops will grow in partial shade, where its bright yellow-green leaves look their best. It needs moist, rich soil and a sturdy fence or arbor because golden hops really take off once established. They die back in winter, so cut the bare leavings back to the soil. In springtime, this baby bursts from the ground and grows back 15 to 20 feet in no time.
Papery little hops, looking like doll-sized artichokes or the layered blooms on ornamental oregano, develop on the vines without a pollinator.
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The foliage of purple-leafed grapes starts out green but quickly turns bronze, shading to, well . . . the color of grapes, and wine red by late autumn. With such changeable coloration, this beauty is ideal to grow over trellises and arbors, up big trees or intertwined with edible grapes to liven up the all-green scene. It has clusters of edible little grapes, but just because you can eat them doesn’t mean you’ll want to; they’re tough and not very sweet. I’ve grown a purple-leafed grape in a pot for four years, where it seems perfectly happy, if not quite as large as it would grow if planted in the ground.
Vines that bear edible fruit may not be as colorful, but they have the same bold, lobed leaves, and grow quickly to shade a deck or an arbor. And late in the summer, they dangle tempting, delicious bunches of juicy fruit so perfect-looking it’s hard to believe they’re real.
The trick is to choose kinds that mature early, which means they have a decent chance of maturing at all in a summer like this last one. Grape sweetness is totally dependent on heat units — and how many of those do you remember from last August?
All grapes need full sun, good drainage and moderately fertile soil. They grow best protected from wind in a southern or western exposure to maximize every last bit of heat and ray of sun. Find the right spot, and grapes grow quickly into a leafy screen. They’re as effective as a wisteria in transforming a chain-link fence into a solid, leafy-green wall. Take a cue from tomato-ripening techniques and cover the ground beneath your grape vines with black mulching material or dark river rocks to use the reflection to up the heat quotient. And take heart in the fact that to taste great, table grapes don’t need to develop the extreme sugar content required by wine grapes.
As with any vigorous vine, grapes have pruning issues. For a thorough discussion, check out the Web site for the Washington State University Mount Vernon Extension and Research Station, which tests table grapes (www.mtvernon.wsu.edu). Here’s the gist: Each year, in early spring, grape vines should be cut back by about 90 percent. If that sounds scary, remember that grape vines have been around since the days of Rome, so they have plenty of life force to recover no matter how you butcher them. So cut away, pick, eat and enjoy.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Her e-mail address is email@example.com. Jacqueline Koch is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.