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Grow your own small fruit – red and white currants and gooseberries

They’ve been around forever, but always in the shadow of the stars of the berry world. Not for long! Currants and gooseberries are steadily carving out a share of the small fruits market. Great chefs are taking notice and updating the flavour profile of these forgotten gems, and garden centers now carry cultivars suited to our climate regions.

Red and white currants and gooseberries

Both gooseberry and currant plants are part of the Ribes genus. Easy to grow soft fruit that will thrive in a variety of soil conditions.

Red and white currants (Ribus rubrum)

Basically the same fruit: red berries are tart, whereas their albino cousins, the white berries, are milder, sweeter and less tart with beautiful translucent skin. Small, upright, compact shrubs, fruit grows in clusters (called strigs). Plants produce fruit mid-season.

Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa)

Shrubs are bushy and spiny, producing greenish to pink flowers in clusters of two or three. Oval berries are large and delicious, but do not hang in clusters. They can be whitish and translucent, red, yellow or green.

How to grow currant and gooseberry bushes

Planting is done in early spring or in the fall, around mid-October. Like most small bushes, gooseberry and currant plants can thrive both in the garden and in containers.

Exposure: sun and partial shade

Red and white currant bushes - loose soil, rich and well-drained (heavy feeder, moderately thirsty).
Height: 1.3 m - Length: 0.9 m
Longevity: 20 to 30 years
Plant spacing: 1.5 m

Gooseberry bushes - average soil, heavy or loose, and moist (thirsty plants).
Height: 1.3 m - Length: 0.9 m
Longevity: 20 to 25 years
Plant spacing: variable

Steps for planting in the garden

Bare-root plants are best for planting directly into the ground.

  1. Ideally, plant in early spring.
  2. Choose a location with lots of sun.
  3. Check whether the soil is clay, rich, fresh, moist and well-drained.
  4. Add a soil mix with high organic matter content.
  5. Turn over the earth and pull out weeds where you intend to plant and around the planting location.
  6. Dig a hole 3-5 cm deeper than the pot.
  7. Remove damaged and dead branches.
  8. Spread out the roots. Take care with new growth.
  9. Cover with earth and pat down.
  10. Water thoroughly and do not allow roots to dry out.
  11. Cut back shoots and branches between 10 and 15cm (for spring planting only).
  12. Add mulch around the base of each plant (for fall planting).
  13. Space plants between 1m and 1.25 m.

Steps for planting in containers

Small fruit plants are better grown directly in the ground, but certain cultivars are perfectly suited to container-growing, ideal for small yards or balconies.

  1. Choose a sunny location with a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of sun per day.
  2. Plant only when all risk of frost had passed.
  3. Choose a well-draining container at least 30 cm deep. Geotextile pots, such as Smart Pots, are excellent options.
  4. Prepare a half and half mix of soil and compost.
  5. Delicately spread out the roots in the container.
  6. Cover with earth, pat down, and water thoroughly.
  7. In the fall, either leave your plants in their geotextile bags or transplant them into the garden. It is also possible to protect the plant by covering the container with thermofoil...and snow!

Maintaining gooseberry and currant bushes

Gooseberries and red and white currants are relatively easy to grow and are very cold-hardy. Once established, an annual pruning will be sufficient.

Watering: Maintain moist soil while the plant is establishing itself and during fruit production. Wait until the soil has properly drained before watering again.

Mulching: Spread a 10 cm layer of mulch around your plants to help them conserve moisture.

Fertilizing: Compost and manure is beneficial and should be spread annually (half the dose for gooseberry plants).

Pruning: Regular maintenance is key. Always remove dead and damaged branches or branches touching the ground. Pruning should be done when plants are dormant, either late winter or early spring. Fruit is produced on 2-3-year-old branches. Remove 3-year old growth to promote new growth.

Protection: Put netting over your plants in the summer to keep the birds from feasting on your crop! Remove after harvest.

Insect pests: scale insects, gooseberry clear-wing moth, currant fruit fly, gooseberry aphids and sawflies.

Diseases: anthracnose, powdery mildew, and pine rust

Harvest and health benefits

Harvesting is done around mid-July. Be sure to wait until fruits are fully mature before picking. Gooseberries must be picked by hand one-by-one, whereas you'll need (pruning) shears to cut clusters of red and white currants. Currants are only removed from their stems directly before eating.

  • Red and white currants are rich in Vitamin C and an excellent source of antioxidants and potassium. They help to slow down the effects of aging and promote satiety. High levels of pectin give them a natural gelling agent, excellent for jams! Their tart flavour makes these berries a wonderful accompaniment to white cheese, poultry, game and meat roasts.
  • Gooseberries are rich in Vitamins A, B and C, in antioxidants and minerals (calcium, iron, potassium and phosphorous), all of which are great for boosting your immune system. Perfect with fish and duck.

Queens of jellies and jams, these berries are just as delicious when eaten fresh. In pies and verrines, with fish or meat: they do it all. They bring a salad to attention and are gorgeous on a scoop of ice cream.

There are several ways to enjoy red and white currants and gooseberries:

  • Fresh
  • Prepared (coulis, sorbets and smoothies)
  • Cooked (jams, jellies, pies)
  • Processed (juice, liqueurs, fruit wine)

Preserving red and white currants and gooseberries

Do you feel like something new for your summertime cooking? Try these wonderful red and white currants and gooseberries: you will not be disappointed! For maximum flavour enjoyment, put freshly harvested berries straight into the fridge. Or freeze them two to four hours after harvesting.

Refrigerated: Five to ten days.
Frozen: Rinse and dry. Spread out on a large tray and freeze. Put in a sealed bag or container. Freezing preserves the flavours. Defrost in a bain-marie, in the fridge or at room temperature.
Dried: Rinse fruit in a strainer. Spread out evenly on the dehydrator sheet. Set to 60oC and dry for a minimum of 10 to 12 hours.

Varieties to discover

Have we said they're easy to grow? They are! And not only do they taste good, the plants are attractive as well. Beautiful, bushy shrubs that will do any garden proud. Here are a few varieties that will grab attention on all fronts - from the gardener you are to the cook you aspire to become!

Cherry Red Currant:

Mid-season variety that produces large, bright red, glossy and delicious berries. Excellent resistance to disease and insect pests. A very pretty small shrub.

White Pearl Currant:

Hardy white currant that produces clusters of greenish-yellow flowers in the spring and long-hanging clusters of 'pearl white'or pinkish white juicy berries in July. Fragrant leaves. Self-pollinating. A prolific producer and a real treasure for any garden! Compact, upright shrubs also make a stunning ornamental hedge.

Hinnonmaki Red Gooseberry:

So delicious you'll want to eat them straight off the bush! Sweet on the inside but tart on the outside make for a unique flavour combination. Great yields of large, juicy, ruby-red berries ripen in mid-July. Self-pollinating plants are mildew-resistant and cold-hardy.