Blackcurrants for your Garden
Written in 2001 by the Late Cyril Marsters
Blackcurrants for your Garden –
I admit to having a great liking for growing blackcurrant bushes. I’ve propagated them, planted them, tended them and harvested the fruit from them, ever since I was a lad working on Chivers fruit farms at Histon. My wife believes that I have a fixation for blackcurrant growing – though she is always pleased with the produce! So, take your choice, call it a liking or a fixation, I don’t mind – it’s my personal reason. Anyway, I can give you at least four good reasons why you should grow them in your garden.
1. We are constantly being told these days that we should eat more fresh fruit; you can’t get any fresher fruit than that which you grow in your garden. 2. Blackcurrants are a well-known soother of sore throats and, according to Readers Digest, they can also combat bacterial stomach infections and, weight for weight contain four times more vitamin C than oranges. 3. They are much easier and simpler to grow and to train than redcurrants, white currants, or gooseberries. 4. Furthermore, using my methods (more about that later) they are far less laborious to pick, believe it or not!
Blackcurrant Basics: “Just how are they different from and easier to grow than other fruits?” you ask. The answer lies in their habit of producing virtually the whole of their fruit on young wood of the previous year’s growth. For the other fruits, red and white currants and gooseberries, the aim of pruning is to build up a permanent framework of evenly spaced branches and to train the lateral shoots from these to form permanent fruiting spurs – this growth having to be dealt with each year, requiring quite a lot of attention to detail. In complete contrast, it is neither necessary nor desirable to train up a permanent bush of ageing branches and spurs for blackcurrants. Here the aim is merely to ensure that the bush grows an abundant supply of young growth each year, which is a lot simpler than the training of a permanent bush. The rule to remember for blackcurrants is to ‘Keep them young at heart’ (full details below).
Getting Started: You decide, say, to go in for half a dozen bushes – so what do you do? Well, there are two ways of going about it, depending on your requirements, your patience and your purse. Either way, you mustn’t expect any fruit in the first year after planting; so, if you are in a hurry for your first results, and you don’t mind the cost, then buy your six bushes at once. If, like me, you prefer to economise, then simply purchase one bush now and I’ll tell you below how to ‘propagate’ the other five bushes from the first one. Whichever you decide, make sure your purchases are from a reliable supplier and are good specimens. Look for a bush which has at least six, strong, straightish, young (light coloured) stems as thick as your little finger, each about 45cm long and arising from low down at the base of the plant. If you are lucky enough to find some with more than six stems, then that is a bonus! Whatever you do, DON’T accept bushes which have lengths of older (darker coloured) stems at the bottom of the plant with some weaker, younger growths from their tops. I have seen this kind of plant offered by more than one garden centre, which very much suggested that the supplier didn’t know the way a blackcurrant should be pruned! The bush you are looking for MUST have only good strong growth right from the bottom of the plant. My recommended variety for compact bushes and big, juicy currants is: Ben Sarek.
Planting: Blackcurrants will grow in any well-drained soil. During the growing season they need plenty of moisture so do best in a soil containing plenty of humus. A soil that has previously had plenty of compost, farm-yard manure, or suchlike organic matter worked in is ideal. The best month for planting is November. Make sure of course to remove any deep rooting perennial weeds before planting your bushes. As one of our aims is to keep the bushes young and to encourage young growth from as low down as possible, it is a good idea to plant them slightly lower than their original level – say about 3cm below the old soil mark, discernible at the base of the plant. Whilst the bushes enjoy full sun, they will be fairly happy in partial shade. They appreciate a bit of shelter from cold winds, especially during blossoming time in the spring – this helps the insects on which they rely for pollination. Un-like many apple varieties, blackcurrants are self-fertile in the sense that they do not need to have a different variety nearby for pollination. As to distances between the bushes, the recommended spacing for some of the older varieties was 5 feet apart. For my recommended variety, Ben Sarek, I would suggest a distance of about 3 feet (90cm) is about right.
Initial Treatment: Immediately after planting the bushes all the stems should be cut down to about 3 or 4 cm above ground level, cutting each stem just above an outward pointing bud. This sounds rather drastic but is necessary in order to establish strong bushes with the potential for long and productive lives. In the next growing season, each bush will do just one thing – produce a flush of strong new stems, at least double the number of the ones you have cut down, and probably more – all growing from near or below ground level. Then, in the November of this same year we inspect these shoots and thin them out by cutting a proportion of them down to near ground level – exactly as we did with the original stems when they were planted. The remainder should be left, evenly spaced around the bush. Having done this, we can expect in the following year, two things to happen: a) the cut down stems will provide a continuing supply of more young growth and b) the stems which you left full length will provide you with your first year’s fruit crop. At this stage you can regard your bushes as truly established and as long as you give them the simple routine care which they require, you can expect many years of productive life from them.
Manuring: As with any other plant, you cannot get the best out of your blackcurrants unless they get the necessary feed. I find that the linchpin of this is good mulching. A 3cm thickness of compost, farmyard manure, cocoa shell, or some other organic materials spread over the soil in early spring does three things: it saves work by keeping down most of the weeds, it improves the texture of the soil as the worms gradually pull it in – steadily releasing its nutrients at the same time, and, it helps to conserve moisture in the soil. This can be supplemented each year with a light application of a balanced fertiliser, preferably an organic one which will release its nutrients over a longer period than an ‘artificial’. Scatter the fertiliser over the old mulch and then lightly hoe around the bushes with a Dutch hoe – don’t dig or fork round them as blackcurrants are fairly shallow rooting – then top up the mulching material to the required thickness. With this early spring job done, you can virtually leave your bushes to get on with things themselves for the next three months, apart from pulling up the few spindly weeds which might struggle through the mulch, you will have nothing to do!
Harvesting & Pruning: This is the rewarding bit, the goal at which our previous operations have been aimed – picking the fruit of our labours. Talking of labour, you might be forgiven for saying: “By the time I have bent over six bushes and picked all the fruit off, I am going to have an uncomfortable crick in my back!” Yes, no doubt you would. But trust me – did I not tell you above that blackcurrants are far less laborious to pick than other bush fruits? Note that the heading to this section is not simply ‘Harvesting’ but ‘Harvesting & Pruning’ – my method is to do both jobs together! You will find that some books on fruit growing will recommend that you prune your bushes immediately after picking the fruit. So sometime back I said to myself “If it is good to prune the bushes immediately after picking, it must be a better idea to prune them at the same time!” and I have done this ever since. Bearing in mind that pruning is aimed at encouraging as much new growth as possible, the usual recommendation is to cut out one-third to one-half of the old fruited branches each year. Now, if you have grown the bushes as you should, you will have vigorous bushes bearing fruit on the previous year’s branches, plus a plentiful supply of young growth for the following year’s crop! Thus, my method is to cut out not just one-third but ALL of the fruited branches – enabling me to place them carefully on my wheelbarrow, take them to a shady spot in the garden, and to sit down and pick them in comfort!!
If you grow my recommended variety, Ben Sarek, your currants should be ready round about the end of June/early July, the exact time depending on the weather. Just a couple of tips about the picking: a) don’t pick immediately the currants start to turn black, wait a week after they have turned colour to be sure they are properly ripe. b) don’t bother to take all the individual berries off the ‘strings’ as you pick, this is best left for doing in the kitchen when preparing them for eating. My wife even leaves the strings on the ones which she freezes, finding that the currants can be taken off the strings quite easily with a fork when they come out of the freezer.
Final comments on pruning: Having removed all the fruiting branches as suggested above, you have done 90% of the pruning. All the energies of the bushes can now go into developing and maturing all the young branches until the autumn. Then give them their final treatment for the year. Leaving about ten or a dozen nicely spaced strong branches around the bush, cut down all the intermediate ones to just above ground level as described earlier. This completes the pruning. Don’t throw away the branches you have cut off, either use them for propagating more bushes, or recycle them by using them as shreddings (they make an excellent ingredient for your mulches!).
Propagation: Blackcurrants are very easily propagated, using the young stems which have been removed during the autumn pruning. Select some well-ripened specimens and make some 9in (23cm) ‘cuttings’ by cutting them just above a bud at the top and just below a bud at the bottom. Leave all the buds on and ‘insert’ them upright in a narrow trench about 7 or 8 in (18 or 19 cm) deep, leaving the top 2 buds above ground level. Firm them in well and leave them until the autumn of the following year, when they can be lifted and planted in their permanent positions.
Best of luck with your growing and have fun! Cyril Marsters