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Larry Sagers
Jay Cooper grows three American grape varieties and two European-American hybrids.

The fruit of the vine is one of the great treats of fall.

Grapes are important worldwide, and gardeners here love them for fresh eating, jams, jellies, juices, raisins and many other products.

One Tooele County gardener started a quest by growing in his personal vineyard. Jay Cooper and his wife, Maggie, are transplants from Arizona, where he first got interested in growing grapes.

His gardening interests got a boost when as a college student he served as a lab assistant and took care of the college greenhouse. Later, friends showed him some of the finer points of successfully growing grapes.

"Somewhere along there, I met a friend from Mexico through AlphaGraphics that had commercial interests in table grape vineyards in Mexico," Cooper said. "He gave me some insights on trellis and support systems, irrigation, and pest control."

"When we started landscaping our place and integrating both ornamental and food-producing plants, I knew that I had to add grapes to the mix!"

"They've turned out to a great addition. They are low maintenance, produce dependably, don't take a lot of water and fertilizer, are cold-hardy, and the varieties I've chosen all seem to thrive in my Erda soil."

Choosing the right kinds of grapes is very important.

In the West, we grow three common types.

European grapes are the traditional table grapes that you would buy at local markets. These are large, sweet and usually seedless, and they have the skin firmly attached to the flesh. Unfortunately, they are not cold hardy in most areas of Utah.

American grapes usually have seeds, are not as sweet as the European varieties, and they have a skin that readily separates from the flesh. These are cold hardy and grow well in most locations in Utah.

For the best of both types, we use the European-American hybrids. These grow and taste more like the table grapes and are usually seedless. They are cold hardy, so they survive our winters.

Cooper is growing three American grapes, Seedless Concord, Niagara and Catawba. He also has Himrod and Canadice, which are European-American hybrids.

Other excellent seedless hybrids for Utah are Interlaken and Lakemont, which are green cultivars, Suffolk Red is a red grape, and Venus and Glenora are dark blue cultivars.

Cooper admits that it was a challenge to know what varieties to choose.

"I may not stay with what I've got ultimately. Seedless is definitely handy for making raisins and eating fresh. On the other hand, there is nothing that compares to fresh Concord grape juice and jelly!"

"Of course, taste makes a big difference, as does appearance. I'd have to say that overall for appearance, sweetness, size and great taste, the favorite in my vineyard is Canadice. The Catawba is smaller, but intensely sweet, so I like it a lot as well."

Pruning and training grapes is critical, and Cooper has learned to do that well. He invested the time and money to install a trellis system that supports the grapes and helps them produce well.

Most homeowners do not realize how heavy the grapes get when they are fruiting and so the trellises often break or sag, leaving the grapes sprawling along the ground. This makes them hard to care for and to pick and increases their susceptibility to insects.

I asked Cooper what he considered his greatest challenges when growing grapes.

"They have ranged from my own inexperience to weed control and keeping wasps from devouring the harvest," he said.

"The major problem is controlling wasps that have the irritating habit of showing up just as the grapes are getting ripe and stripping as many grape clusters as I will let them. I've learned that the wasps are so busy eating and are so engorged that they pretty much ignore you."

His solution is to fill a spray bottle with a half-half mix of water and low sudsing soap. He applies this to the grape clusters three or four times a week to diminish the wasp population and increase his harvest.

After picking, he rinses the grapes to remove the residue and soapy taste.

"I've began utilizing proven production pruning methods and have seen both the overall size of the vines contained into 8-foot spaces, and a remarkable increase in grape production," he said.

"I've not had any major pest issues, such as 'skeletonizers.' In fact, that problem hasn't happened at all. Nor — at least until now — have any deer visited. Gophers sometimes make their way into the area, and I control them rapidly."

He handles weeds by tilling the open areas and mulching around the bases.

The irrigation lines run along the bottom support wire to assure that they are up and out of the way for tilling.

Grapes might be a great plant for your garden. Select the right cultivars, build good trellises and give them the right care. Your reward will be a bountiful harvest with some of the tastiest treats you can imagine from your garden.

Garden tips

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Wasatch Community Gardens is holding a winter composting class on Oct. 22, 10 a.m.-noon, at the Grateful Tomato Garden, 800 South and 600 East. Fall is a great time to clean up gardens and to start composting. Registration required at wasatchgardens.org.

The Utah Orchid Society's fall show is set for Nov. 5 and 6, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., at the Red Butte Garden Orangerie.

In addition to all the vendors on hand, there will be an open forum discussion on the culture and care of orchids on Nov. 5 at 2:30 p.m.

Regular garden admission applies; members get in free.

Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist for the Utah State University Extension Service at Thanksgiving Point.