by Judy Heyer
Black currants (Ribes nigrum) have a distinct, heady aroma, quite unlike red currants. Rub a leaf between your fingers and the air is immediately filled with a heady, aromatic scent - almost clove-like.
Unlike red currants where the branches grow from a main stem, black currant shoots grow upwards from just below soil level. The bushes have an aggressive growth habit and can easily reach a height of 6 feet. If this sounds daunting for a small yard - don't despair as the bush can be grown cordon-style and kept fairly compact and controlled.
Given proper care, black currant bushes will produce for 15 years or more. Considering that an established bush may yield 12 - 14 pounds of berries, this soft fruit deserves a spot in your garden.
Cultural requirements for red and black currants are similar. However, black currants are heavier feeders than red currant, so it is beneficial to add a side dressing of compost or aged manure before planting, and again during summer. Black currants also tolerate more standing water than red currants.
Black currants bear heaviest crops on one year old wood, with a lighter crop on second and third year growth. It is therefore important to ensure there is a plentiful supply of new growth to provide the following year's crop. In late autumn, prune back all shoots more than three years old. Also remove bent or broken branches, and those growing too close to the ground. As with red currants, remove all perennial weeds before planting, and keep weed free to control insects and diseases.
Black currants are self-pollinating but will yield more heavily if a cross-pollinator is nearby.
Purchase two year old bushes with three or four strong shoots from a nursery or garden centre. Plant the bush 2 inches lower than it was in the nursery. Remove any weak shoots, and cut the remainder back to three buds. This sounds like drastic action, but will promote new growth, and produce a strong root system.
Follow a similar spraying program as with the red or white currant. Aphids and red spider mite may attack the black currant. Remove these with a good strong spray or water, or an organic insecticide. The currant worm is not as troublesome for the black currant as it is for the red or white currant.
European currant rust may be problematic. Orange clusters form on the underside of the leaves, and the foliage eventually dries and falls off. Ensure you purchase a rust-resistant variety.
Some currants are host to the White pine blister rust, and should not be planted near white pines.
To propagate, follow the same procedure as with red currants - take cuttings in late fall or early spring, or propagate by layering.
Black currants have very high concentrations of Vitamin C, and juice made from these berries is an effective remedy for colds.
Black currants also make wonderful jelly, juice or wine, and the dried leaves make an excellent aromatic tea.
Bred in Germany, Jostaberry is a vigorous hybrid cross between the black currant and gooseberry. It is a hybrid that tends to a rapid, rangy growth and will easily reach a height of 7 feet or more. Unless you have a large garden area, it will be necessary to tie or prop the branches up and out of the way.
Mature bushes bear heavy crops - usually in the fourth or fifth year. Fruits are larger than the black currant; however, lack its heady, aromatic flavour. Berry clusters are large, though not as densely packed as red or black currant clusters.
Cultural requirements are the same as other currants. Uses are mainly for wine, fruit sauce, jelly, or fresh fruit.
Gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa) is a wonderful soft fruit that will grow in zones 3 - 8. There are several varieties of berries available - green, yellow, and red, with taste varying from tart to sweet. Some berries are small - others as big as quarters. Some have a smooth skin - others are slightly hairy.
Soil and cultural requirements are similar to the red currant. Before planting, ensure that the area is clear of perennial weeds as it is extremely difficult to weed under the thorny gooseberry branches.
Gooseberry canes have an arching habit. Keep the centre of the bush pruned to an open frame to improve air circulation, to help ripen fruit, and for easier picking. The berries are borne on year old canes, and on two and three year old spurs. Like the currant, no pollinator is required, although higher yields and larger fruits may be achieved with a cross-pollinator.
Remove canes from the centre, as well as any broken wood, or lateral shoots that cross over. Gooseberries ripen in late June or early July. For larger berries, cull out every second or third berry early in the season.
Given optimum care, a gooseberry bush will grow to a height of 5 feet, yielding 7 - 8 lbs of fruit. It can also be grown as a standard, trained to a 2 foot stem. Remove all lower branches in fall, and train it until you attain the shape you desire. As with the currant, fruit is susceptible to sun scalding, so provide some shade.
Fruit is born at the base of year old growth, and on spurs of two and three year old wood. A constant supply of fruit depends on thinning out all four year old wood and renewing it yearly with vigorous new growth. Thin out the old wood in fall, and prune back all weak, crossed or diseased growth. Remove branches that grow too low to the ground, and shorten young shoots by half. A strong framework is required to carry heavy yields.
Powdery mildew may affect gooseberry leaves - plant where there is good air circulation. To avoid damage from the currant worm and currant fruit fly follow a regular spraying program.
For propagating, follow the same procedure as with currants.
To harvest, strip the berries carefully from the plant.
Nutritionally gooseberries contain Vitamin A, C and trace minerals.
Great for preserving or for baking pies, pick the fruit when slightly under-ripe. Immature fruit has the highest pectin content, and makes the best jam. The fruit is lovely stewed - red and yellow berries are best eaten fresh - the green for preserving.