If you live in a cold climate, and enjoy making pies and jellies, you really might want to consider growing currants in your garden. Currant bushes are fairly well behaved (no runners to deal with, as many of us who grow strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries must contend with, though they do produce suckers) and attractive. And if you're interested in growing organically, currants are a good choice because modern varieties are rarely bothered by pests or diseases.
Where to Plant Currants
Currants need moist, well-drained soil. They do best in full sun, but will also produce well with partial shade. You'll want to plant your currants in a place where they will have at least three feet all around to spread out.
It's a good idea to add a topdressing of compost or composted manure to your currants at planting, and every year thereafter.
How to Grow Currants
Currants are really quite easy to grow. The main thing you'll need to worry about is training or shaping the plant for ease of harvest. You'll want the plant to be kind of "goblet-shaped," meaning that the center is open for air circulation, and all of the fruiting branches are on the outer edges so you can reach fruit easier. You don't absolutely have to do this -- I don't bother in my own garden. But it would definitely make harvesting a little easier.
It's also a good idea to prune out any suckers that form around the plant. Do this each spring, and cut back each of the branches on the plant by about one-third. This will help keep your currants productive and prevent them from becoming too overgrown.
After they're done fruiting, in June or so for most of us, prune side shoots back to about half their length. Do one more pruning in winter, so that each branch has two to three buds on it. Again, this will keep your currant plants productive and attractive.
Currant Pests and Problems
Currants really don't have many pest or disease issues. Your main issue will likely be birds, who will either go after the forming buds in early spring, or, occasionally, the ripening berries. There are several things you can do to protect berries from birds, but the easiest is to cover your plants with netting or row covers.
Currants can be harvested for pies when they are still green, but if you want them for jelly or jam, best wait until they're red.
There are a couple of ways to harvest currants. You can use pruners or garden shears to cut off each cluster of currants, then take them inside and pick each berry off of the stems. Or (and this is my preferred method) you can just run your hand along the cluster, pulling from the top to the bottom, and catching any berries in your hand. This is much faster, and it allows you to leave any unripe currants on the plant to continue ripening.
Unlike raspberries or strawberries, you can leave ripe currants on the bush for a couple of weeks with no ill effect. They won't lose quality or get mushy, so if you'd rather wait for most of your currants to ripen before you start harvesting, you can do so.
So, what can you do with currants? Here are a few ideas from around About.com:
- Irish Soda Bread with Currants
- Strawberry-Red Currant Preserves
- Red Currant Jam
- Red Currant Jelly
- Currant Sauce
Currants are easy, cold-tolerant fruits that just about any Northern gardener can grow. Consider adding one or two to your landscape, and you'll have an attractive and fruitful landscape.