Pruning Grape Vines

After

Before

Why Prune?  Improves vine health which in turn improves yield and grape flavor.  Grapes are very susceptible to a number of fungal diseases.  Pruning plants to remove affected leaves/stems and to maintain air circulation greatly reduces disease.

Pruning grape vines can be like tackling the most complex twisting puzzle maze you've ever seen.  But, even for badly overgrown vines, applying a set of rules at each stage can turn it into a manageable process.

A commercial grower would cut this vine back to only 2 - 4 side "branches" or cordons.  I have not found this level of pruning to be necessary to make lots of delicious concord grape jelly from this single plant.  Once the plants on either side start producing, I may take the pruning further.  Also, unless you are a commercial operation, don't be afraid to be creative.  I love the shapes and forms that pruning grape vines can create.

On this page:

Tools

Grape Pruning Basics

Pruning Step by Step

Tools

Shown at right are from top to bottom are a

The larger tools cut larger vines.  For pruning grapes you usually only need the bottom one.

We rarely use this on grapes but it is helpful if you are doing pruning when the plant isn't dormant.  Heavy pruning when not dormant is only feasible with very healthy large established vines.  They will "bleed" (leak a watery sap) which can overly stress young plants.  Grape vines usually bleed the most in early summer.  The paint doesn't stop the bleeding completely but it will slow it down and help stop it sooner.

Grape Pruning Basics

When to Prune:  Best when dormant.  If you miss the window, and the plant is young, skip it this year.  They "bleed" when cut if they aren't dormant which is hard on young plants.  For mature vigorous plants its less of an issue.  I prune our concords from late winter until fall as it is necessary for disease prevention in the cool wet mountains of central PA.

Where to Cut:  As a general rule, I make all cuts before the 1st or 2nd node on a vine, numbering from the branch point out to the tip.   In the pic on the right the 1st node is circled.

< Left image is a cane with its branches pruned to the 1st node.  This method will produce more shoots.  If you want fewer shoots so there is less crowding, prune the first node off.  If the vines that are left at the end of this process don't have many buds, that's OK.  There are dormant nodes that will form new buds along the vine.

Which Vines are Healthy?  You want to cut away all dead or dying vines.  These are usually light grey to black in color and often splotchy.  Healthy vines are usually colored red to brown to grey brown for concord grapes but other varieties can be different.  Please remember that color is helpful but its not fool proof.  Use other characteristics such as brittleness or buds to evaluate the condition of the vines.

Grape Pruning Step by Step

Trace Cut Phase                            >

Trace the vines growing from the trunk out toward the ends of the arbor.  The objective is to shorten very long vines so they are no longer then the distance from the trunk to the end of the arbor or the grape plant next to the one you are pruning.

  1. Trace the main cordon branches until you reach a fold (change in direction) or the end of the arbor.  Cut at any fold.  Otherwise cut where the cordon reaches the end of the arbor (or midway between this grape plant and the next).
  2. Cut any branches that are growing out of other branches and go back toward the trunk (change direction).  Cut before or after the 1st node same as above.
  3. Remove any dead vines.

Note:  Young vines are flexible and can be repositioned to go in the direction you want, so if you don't want to cut it but its in a bad location, try to move it.  Be careful: There is a limit to how far they will move before they snap.

Fine Tuning Phase                         >

The objective at this point is to provide enough space for new growth.  Vines that are too close to each other can be either moved apart or one can be removed.

  1. Reposition branches to fill empty areas.  Try to get them roughly horizontal. 
             Like a Ŧ structure
    New canes will be trained to go upward, while grapes hang down. 
  2. As a guide, space at least 12 to 18 inches apart.  Secure to trellis with twist ties or wire.
  3. Cut off any vines that are still too close to another vine.  Keep the vines that are more horizontal and have good vigorous arms/spurs.
  4. Replace any broken or damaged trellis components.

This is a photo series showing the spur pruning of the overgrown concord grape on the left and below from start to finish.  Steps describe the thinking process involved in choosing what to cut and where.  I break the process down into 3 stages, hair cut, trace cut, and fine tuning.

< Hair Cut Phase

  1. Cut all the long new growth (canes) from last year back to the first node above the branch point (as described in the Pruning Basics section).

Left pic shows the vine with a hair cut on the bottom three quarters of the plant. I still have a lot to do on the top.

Sometimes it is a good idea to leave a few of last years canes, particularly if you are working with a young plant and are just developing its structure.  If you want to leave some, keep a cane or two that are coming off the trunk.  They will be future cordons (main horizontal branches).  Since this was so overgrown, all the canes were removed. 

It's hard to tell but vines that are running next to each other (see below) are actually separated by at least a foot because they bow out away from the center line of the arbor.

The vine on the ground was put there to start new grape plants.  See our page on propagation for more details on pruning grape vines and layering to create new plants.

New shoots will emerge from the nodes or joints.  Large nodes may produce many shoots, in which case, you will want to keep the one(s) that are growing in the direction you want and snap off the extras.  At this stage,  they break off very easily with your hands so no pruners are needed.

You may see new shoots coming up at the bottom or trunk of the vine.   Generally these are all to be removed.  Keep the energy of the plant directed up into the main trunk and cordons.  One exception to this is if you want to propagate more plants.  Shoots coming from the base of the vine are close to the ground and can be layered easily.  See our page on propagation  for more info.