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How to Grow: Currants and Gooseberries
Learn about gooseberry and currant varieties and how to grow these under utilized berries in your yard.
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Here are two related fruits that are loved by Europeans and Brits, but rarely grown in this country. But that’s changing. Currants and gooseberries (Ribes) grow easily in our climate, need only one bush to fruit, produce an abundance of tasty fruits for fresh eating or making jams, jellies, and preserves, and are mostly problem free. What else can you ask for in a fruiting bush?
Currants come in white, red, or black colored fruits. Red and white varieties are great for fresh eating, while black currants make a healthful juice and are used for making the French liquor Cassis. Gooseberries have green or red colored fruits for fresh eating or making pies and preserves.
One reason gardeners haven’t grown currants and gooseberries in the Northeast is these plants carry the white pine blister rust disease that is not lethal to currants and gooseberries, but is fatal to white pine and related trees. However, newer varieties are resistant to the disease and while bans on growing these berries have been lifted in many areas, check your state Department of Agriculture about buying and growing currants and gooseberries in your state.
When to Plant
Plant currants and gooseberries in late spring or early summer as soon as the ground can be worked. Purchase bare root plants if growing many shrubs, or local container plants if just growing a few plants.
Where to Plant
Currants and gooseberries grow best in full sun on well-drained, slightly acidic soil. They don’t tolerate wet soils. If late spring frosts are a problem in your area, consider planting them on a north-facing slope to delay the opening of their flowers in spring. Currants and gooseberries make excellent edible landscape shrubs, so consider planting them along a house or garage with other flowering shrubs.
How to Plant
Amend the soil with compost and plant shrubs 4- to 6-feet apart in rows spaced 6 feet apart. Plant at the same depth as the shrub was in the pot. Currants and gooseberries have shallow roots, so water regularly, and mulch with a 2- to 4-inch thick layer of straw or bark mulch to keep weeds away and the soil moist.
Care and Maintenance
Add compost and a one cup of organic fertilizer per shrub in spring to keep the plants growing well. Prune to create 3 to 4 main canes evenly spaced around the plant. Remove small twiggy growth, dead, diseased, broken canes or canes older than 4 years old. Currants and gooseberries fruit best on 2-year old canes.
Currants and gooseberries have few pests. I’ve noticed currant worms on my bushes, but sprays of Bt (Bacillus thuriengensis) usually controls them. Watch for aphids and spray insecticidal soap to control this pest. Chipmunks sometimes like eating my gooseberries, but I just share them since I get so many. If you aren’t so generous, using fencing to keep them out. Look for disease resistant varieties to avoid powdery mildew and white pine blister rust.
Harvest currants and gooseberries in late summer when the clusters of berries are fully colored. If you allow them to stay a few more days on the bush after full coloring, they taste even sweeter. Wear gloves where harvesting gooseberries if your varieties have thorns on the canes.
‘Hinnomaki Red’ and ‘Hinnomaki Yellow’ are two favorite gooseberry varieties. They are both powdery mildew resistant. ‘Pixwell’ has smaller thorns and green fruits. ‘Pink Champagne’ is a delicious white currant and ‘Red Lake’ a common red variety. ‘Titania’, ‘Ben Sarek’, and ‘Consort’ are all disease resistant varieties of black currants.
Text excepted from the Northeast Vegetable and Fruit Gardening book.
Most Americans may have heard of currants and gooseberries, but few have ever eaten them. That’s a far cry from the early 1800s when a gooseberry craze hit America and England. Gooseberry Garden Clubs formed and there were competitions to see who could grow the largest fruit. Some fruits were the size of plums. Alas, like all crazes, it died down and gooseberries and currants returned to obscurity. But there’s new interest in bringing these fruits back. Let me tell you why.
Gooseberries and currants are in the Ribes family and are perfect edible landscape plants. You only need one plant to get fruit, the plants are tame growing 3 to 6 feet tall and wide and most varieties available are resistant to the dreaded white pine blister rust which forced the banning of growing these berries for years. However, some states still have restrictions in place. Gooseberries are indigenous to the Americans and some varieties have thorns, making this a nice barrier plant to keep animals out of the garden. Gooseberries form grape-sized oval, red, yellow, white or green fruits depending on the variety. They’re great for making pies and desserts. Currant fruits come in white, pink, or red and are great for for fresh eating. I love ‘Pink Champagne’ in particular because it forms necklaces of blushed pink fruits with a hint of champagne flavor. For juice and jam, grow black currants. Select disease resistant varieties such as ‘Ben Sarek, and ‘Titania’. Black currant plants are larger and less refined than their cousins, but they make a healthful juice that’s high in anti-oxidants and are used to make the French liquor cassis.
Grow your gooseberries and currants in a full to part sun location on well-drained soil. Keep the plants mulched and add compost in spring. They will start producing in a few years.