It is around this time of the year that I like to start one of my favourite gardening activities – dreaming about next year! As the garden starts to slow down for the approaching winter, catalogues appear through the letterbox at an ever increasing rate and looking through them helps distract my attention from dismal weather and lack of daylight. I particularly like pictures promising huge harvests of fruit from perfectly pruned bushes. The only problem is the cost of buying in the new bushes and trees. But there is one type of fruit that comes to the rescue... currant bushes.
Currants are the forgotten treasure of productive gardens. If you had to weigh up the amount of harvest against the effort, space and expense of many edible plants then I think currants would come near the top of the list. Black currant, red currant and white currant bushes all yield copious clusters of berries which are rich in vitamin C as well as having a high pectin content which makes them ideal for jams and jellies.
Their fruit are so flavoursome and require so little work that I think every garden should include a currant bush. OK, so I am rather biased: I have fond memories of blackcurrant and apple crumble with custard, redcurrant jelly and fruit compote that I can still taste from my childhood. Plus I love the smell of currant bushes and the berries freeze very well for use right through winter. But there is more: they are one of the few productive plants that grow well in semi-shaded or damp conditions which makes them ideal for those unproductive corners of a garden where other plants struggle. As long as the soil is reasonably good quality and not alkaline they will usually do well.
In the catalogues currants are usually bought bare-rooted to be planted during the dormant season from late autumn/fall to early spring. There are wonderful varieties to choose from but once you have one thriving bush (or know someone who has) you don’t even need to pay for the rest as they are so simple to propagate. Take 30cm (12") cuttings from the one-year old stems and you have all you need for new plants. Simply stick them into the ground in early spring and let nature do the rest.
These cuttings are often made when pruning the plant, which is commonly done in early spring. Although they have productive lives of ten or more years, currants need to have the older branches thinning out to ‘open up’ the bush in order to get the best crop. One year old branches are left as they will bear fruit next year. Some two and three-year old branches should also remain and the rest are pruned back, especially those that might touch the ground since mosaic disease can spread this way.
Last year I took four such cuttings and stuck them into a fairly shady part of my garden with not-the-best soil. To my delight three of the four took root, one even producing enough crop to make a delicious dessert when stewed with apple. Having spent their first year rooting, they are now ready for transplanting to their final position in my garden – three healthy plants and for no more effort than pruning the bush they came from. So, whilst I love looking through the catalogues at their wonderful fruit collections I also have to smile at the three new bushes of one of my favourite fruits which cost me absolutely nothing!
[NB: In America, currant bushes were banned for many years as they can host white pine blister rust which affects the timber industry. Although the federal ban was lifted in 1966 some states still prohibit cultivation of black currants]