Can you believe it was illegal to grow currants in America until relatively recently? The question is why – especially when they’re one of the easiest fruits to grow. Currants are a lot less hassle to grow than blueberries because they don’t require acidic soil, they’re easier to harvest than gooseberries – none of those vicious spines! – and they are often more prolific than raspberries.
We’ll shine a light on these incredible no-fuss fruits, reveal why they were once banned, and help you to plant, preen, prune and pick your way to a delicious crop of currants. Get ready to discover the currant trend in gardening!
Currants are well-known where I garden in the UK, but they’re still a source of mystery to many American gardeners. That’s because of a disease called white pine blister rust, a disease threatening the forest industry. Currants serve as an intermediary host for this disease. But while the effects on currants are minimal, the same can’t be said for white pines, which will often die from the disease.
It seems logical then that currants were banned from sale or growth. But after many decades, the ban has had little impact on the spread of the disease, so most states have now lifted it. Meanwhile, a lot of work is going into breeding white pine blister rust resistant trees.
For American gardeners this is great news, because it opens the delicious prospect of a whole new range of fruits to enjoy!
Types of Currants
Currants can be divided into two types. Blackcurrants are the very easiest to grow. The bushes prefer full sun but will tolerate a little shade and will give up their vitamin C-rich berries for many years to come. Use them in pies, jams or refreshing cordials.
Red and white currants have a similar growth habit to gooseberries, and it’s helpful to think of them almost as the same plant. These bushes prefer to grow in sun but cope admirably with partial shade. Unlike blackcurrants they can be trained as cordons or as standards. They grow well in containers too, making them the ideal choice for smaller gardens. Whitecurrants have a sweeter taste than redcurrants, which are perfect for cooking, making jams and jellies, and for elevating just about any dessert.
All currants like a moist yet well-drained soil that doesn’t get waterlogged. Blackcurrants grow best in rich, fertile soil and a more sheltered spot, while white and redcurrants will cope with a range of soil types.
Autumn is perhaps the best time of year to plant in most areas because the soil is still warm from the summer and your currants should settle in nicely before winter. Bare-root currants are cheaper than container-grown, and can be bought and planted from late autumn to spring. You can buy container-grown currants at any time of the year, but avoid planting during the very warmest months so you’re not a slave to watering them.
Before planting, dig over your growing area to clear weeds, taking care to remove as much of the weed roots as possible. If you're a no-till gardener, you could just smother the area with cardboard then mulch on top, leaving gaps for planting or cutting holes in the cardboard to plant through.
Add some compost to the growing area to enrich the soil, then dig your planting hole. Mix in a sprinkling of organic general-purpose fertilizer such as blood, fish and bone to the base of the hole to help the plant establish. When you plant red or whitecurrants, make sure the soil reaches to the same level as the potting mix did in its pot – you’ll see the soil mark on the stem. Blackcurrants can go a little deeper. Then backfill the hole, firming it in as you fill. Finish off with a good glug of water to settle the roots into place, then mulch with an inch (3cm) thick layer of well-rotted compost.
Currants can grow into fairly large shrubs, so if you’re planting multiple bushes leave at least 3ft (90cm) between them.
Caring for Currants
After planting, prune the plants to just 2-3in (5-7cm), making a cut just above an outward-facing bud. This stimulates strong new growth to form a good, strong framework to the bush.
Other than keeping newly planted bushes well-watered in dry weather, perhaps the key thing you can do is to keep plants well-mulched too. Use an organic mulch such as bark chippings which will eventually rot down to enrich the soil. Top up mulches in spring, but just before you do that sprinkle a balanced organic fertilizer over the soil surface to keep nutrients topped up and your bushes performing at their best.
Pruning Blackcurrants, Redcurrants and Whitecurrants
Proper pruning will also help you to get the most from your currants. Do this in winter, cutting out any dead or diseased wood, as well as badly placed branches – for example branches that are likely to sag to the ground under the weight of fruit, or branches that are crossing and rubbing.
On blackcurrants you can completely remove up to a third of the oldest canes at a time – usually the thickest and darkest ones – to stimulate vigorous replacements. Or, to keep it even simpler, just cut out all of the canes that have just fruited.
For red and white currants, aim to encourage an open, bowl-like shape. Prune back new growth by a half and cut the side shoots coming off the main stems to two buds. You also want to keep the short stem, or ‘leg’, that the branches emerge from clear of any shoots. Red- and whitecurrants will also benefit from a midsummer prune. Simply cut back side shoots that have grown that season to around three to five leaves.
Whatever you’re pruning, make sure all cuts are made just above a bud that faces out from the bush. This way you’ll get less growth directed into the bush and congesting it, which is a recipe for disease.
As soon as the berries start to form, cover your bushes with netting to keep birds off or – if you’re growing lots of fruit – consider setting up a fruit cage to keep all of your prized pickings secure.
Harvest the berries once they’ve taken up their final color. Currants are grouped in trusses called ‘strigs’. You can pick off individual currants, but you’ll find it a lot easier to pick or cut off an entire strig in one go. The simplest way to then get the berries off the stalk is to comb them off with a table fork.
Currants are precious jewels that won’t last long. They’ll store in the fridge for a few days, but like all berries, use them up as soon as you can. One of the real plus points of currants is that they are a breeze to freeze, and they are just magnificent in smoothies or turned into crumbles.