Care and Cultivation of Currants and Gooseberries
What to do first
After unpacking, inspect the roots and, if dry, stand the plants in a bucket of water for up to an hour to moisten the root system thoroughly. Plant as soon as possible but, if ground is not ready or too wet, temporarily ‘heel’ the plants into a shallow trench on a spare patch of ground, covering the roots with moist soil. Alternatively, if there’s no ground available in a workable condition, wrap the roots in damp hessian or newspaper to protect them from drying and stand the plants in a cool shed or garage until conditions improve.
Soil Preparation and Planting
As these bushes will remain in the same patch of soil for many years, careful siting and good preparation are important. Given this, they are easily grown and will crop successfully on a wide range of soils.
Choose a sheltered area of the garden, avoiding exposed sites. Both currants and gooseberries do best in full sun but will also fruit reasonably well in partial shade.
For best results, a fertile, moisture-retentive but well-drained soil is needed, so dig in plenty of well-rotted organic matter like farmyard manure. Generous manuring is particularly important for blackcurrants.
Be sure to remove all perennial weeds as you dig and, just before planting, rake in a dressing of balanced fertiliser, such as growmore or blood, fish and bone, to give the plants a boost this season. Plant blackcurrants so that the bases of the shoots are at or slightly below soil level. Look for the mark on the stem that shows the soil level in the nursery and plant about 5cm (2in) deeper than this.
Gooseberries and other currants are generally grown on a short main stem or ‘leg’. Remove any sideshoots from this and plant to about the same depth as in the nursery.
All varieties can be planted in rows 1.5-1.8m (5-6ft) apart, with plants 1.5m (5ft) apart in the rows. Spread the roots out carefully in each planting hole and, after refilling, tread the soil thoroughly to firm the bushes in.
After planting, cut all shoots of blackcurrants back to about 5cm (2in) or two buds above ground level. Since many soft fruits can be attacked by birds, particularly when grown on allotments, take this opportunity to provide supports for bird-proof netting. A permanent fruit cage, though initially expensive, is the easiest to manage.
Your bushes will benefit from an annual mulch of organic matter, like well-rotted manure or good quality, weed-free garden compost, to suppress weeds and conserve soil moisture. Spread it thickly every spring on the surface of the ground while the soil is still moist from winter rain. Gradually over the years it will improve the soil’s structure, drainage qualities and ability to hold plant nutrients in the root zone.
Each year in March, at the same time as you mulch, top-dress the plants with some balanced compound fertiliser and a high potash fertiliser to encourage flowering and fruiting. Blackcurrants also benefit from a high nitrogen feed at this time.
When you weed around your bushes, be careful with the hoe, since these are shallow-rooting plants which are easily damaged by an over-enthusiastic hand. In dry weather, especially on light soils, give bushes a generous watering about every two weeks.
Blackcurrants fruit best on one-year-old wood and the aim of pruning is to ensure that the oldest wood is continuously replaced with vigorous new growths. At the end of the first growing season the only pruning needed is to cut out to the base any very thin or weak shoots less than 30cm (12in) long that may have been produced.
In later years, pruning consists or removing any straggly and broken branches and between one quarter and one third of the oldest growth, depending on how much new wood there is. New wood is easily distinguished by its lighter colour and pruning can either be carried out after fruiting or in the autumn.
Gooseberries, red and white currants fruit mostly on old wood and pruning aims to control the shape of the bush, keep the centre open and increase the number of fruiting branches. After planting and each winter thereafter, cut back all main shoots by about half and lateral shoots to about 2 or 3 buds. At the same time remove any broken, very weak or crossing shoots, any suckers that might have developed from the ‘leg’ and any branches crowding the centre.
Make each cut to an outward-facing bud, unless you are pruning a gooseberry that has a rather drooping habit, in which case cut to an upward pointing bud. The formation of fruit buds will be encouraged if you also summer prune lateral shoots to 5 leaves at the end of June.