The taste of summer

Tangy and beautiful red currants

It can be difficult to decide what to grow at home. After all, some plants crop for a short time, some take up a lot of room and it can be tricky to know what will thrive in your area. Fruit is always worth growing, if you have room, and the most expensive to buy is soft fruit, the term we use for the delicious summer fruits including raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, gooseberries and red and black currants – those that don’t grow on trees.

All these grow on relatively small plants or bushes so can be grown in small gardens or even pots.

This week I want to concentrate on red currants and blackcurrants (- plus deal with a berry you may never have heard of at the end). Both are completely hardy and the bushes grow to about 1.2m high and wide. The reason to grow them is because the fruits are very expensive to buy in shops and they are easy to grow.

It can be difficult to grow large quantities of soft fruits but even a small crop is valuable. You can add a few to smoothies, breakfast cereals and yoghurts. You can add them to muffins or sponges instead of blueberries and a few will brighten up a fruit salad.

Although we talk of red currants and blackcurrants in the same breath, they are actually different plants and need slightly different pruning and treatment.


Blackcurrants are easy to grow and productive

Blackcurrants are just about the toughest of all fruits and will grow in almost any soil including clay and sandy soils, though it always pays to improve the soil. You can grow them in pots too – a pot at least 45cm deep and wide is best. Always use loam-based John Innes compost in pots. They will crop best, and the fruit will ripen more readily, if grown in full sun but they will tolerate a little shade – sun for at least half the day is best.

Flowers, and then fruit, are produced on shoots that grew the previous year. So it is best to prune out these shoots once the crop has been picked. There will then be new, pale, golden brown, shoots from near the base, that are left.

You can see the new shoot that will crop next year next to the older shoot that is full of currants

A convenient way to deal with this is to cut off the fruited shoots and take them to your garden table and pick off the currants. In this way the bushes will be more compact and upright – and you can pick the fruits in comfort. If you don’t prune then the plants will still crop but they will spread outwards and take up a lot of space.

There are many varieties but they don’t vary a lot apart from flowering and cropping time. But ‘Ebony’ and the new ‘Black ‘n’ Red’ with purple leaves (top photo) are notable for having large berries that are very sweet and even I can eat them raw!

Red currants

Red currants are rather different. They crop on old shoots and you simply prune back the new shoots by about half now. This is often helpful to remove the shoot tips with are frequently affected by red blister aphid (as seen above on my plants). Then you can pick the fruits and cut out a few of the crowded shoots to keep the plant neat and tidy in a month or so.

There are lots of varieties and also white and pink currants which tend to be (slightly) sweeter and less ‘tart’.

Whether you buy and plant a potted plant now or wait till autumn, you will get some fruits within a year or so and then each plant should produce a couple of kilos of currants a year – if the birds don’t get them first.

Something different – Honeyberries

I like to experiment and so I planted honeyberries when I started the garden here. Honeyberries are a kind of honeysuckle (Lonicera caerulea) native to Siberia so I thought they stood a good chance in my windswept garden. I wondered why they were called honey berries because they are not exactly sweet, but of course, they are related to honeysuckle. In the USA and Canada, where they are becoming very popular, they are called haskap berries.

The berries themselves are usually carried in pairs on the bushy plants and easy to pick and use (they don’t have the remains of the flower on the end like blackcurrants) and are similar in some ways to blueberries except they have a tangy taste. They also contain many times more antioxidants than any other purple berry. Even better, the seeds are tiny and the fruits ‘melt’ when cooked so they create a ‘smooth’ filling for pies and make the perfect purple ice cream and smoothies.

You are advised to plant two varieties to help fertilisation of the flowers but I am not sure if this is strictly necessary. However, I planted 18 plants in 6 varieties between my apple trees in rows. It was quite a gamble. But it is paying off.

Honeyberries are neat, bushy plants that don’t need much attention

Unlike blueberries, honeyberries are not fussy about soil and as long as the soil is not over chalk or waterlogged, they will grow. The small flowers are creamy white and open early in spring so are great for early-flying bees. They ripen in May and June, before most other fruits. The plants are free from pests and diseases and bushy and need no formal pruning. Mine are in rather heavy soil that lies wet in winter so have not grown as fast as they should but they are now about 80cm high and wide after four years and they should reach about 1.5m. You could grow them in a pot.

They will crop in the second year but this was the first year I had a good crop – enough to make 3 kg of jam (plus some frozen for smoothies later). The berries are a bit fiddly to pick and when really ripe they drop off but the plants are not spiny so take your time and enjoy your harvest. The fruits are full of pectin and my jam set well – simply made of just berries and sugar.

Muffins, butter and home made honey berry jam

I think the future is bright for these unusual and ‘new’ berries and I recommend them for many reasons. They are perfect for organic gardeners, for permaculture and if you care about the birds (yes the birds will take some) and the bees. If Nags Hall don’t have them in stock, ask them to get some in and tell them I told them to get some in stock!

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