Keen on Fruit: Gooseberries & Currants

Click to follow
THERE IS, I think, nothing to beat a ripe dessert gooseberry, picked off the bush and eaten in the sun. The early crops will do for a gooseberry fool or pie, but the point of growing this fruit is lost if it is not left to ripen.

Gooseberries can be grown almost anywhere and anyhow. Shade suits them well and they can be grown as a hedge - as they were in medieval gardens - or on a north wall. But best of all, they can be grown as standards. As bushes on legs, like a 4ft tree, they are easy to pick and prune and they occupy very little space. Their prickles, too, seem easier to avoid on standards and I also suspect that better air circulation around the elevated bush improves the plant's resistance to mildew.

All gooseberries are martyrs to mildew and Benlate will have to be used if they get it. Plants that are well fed and watered, but not waterlogged, stay healthier than undernourished ones.

Whether grown at ground level or in the air, gooseberries need to be pruned in the winter, early in their lives, to make a framework of strong branches to carry the enormous fruit that you will be growing. Cut out weak shoots and aim to keep the middle of the bush open in a bowl shape, cutting to buds which point upwards rather than down. In summer the tips of the side shoots from your chosen framework are shortened to five leaves. Wind can damage long new shoots, so this is important. The most delicious eaters are Whinhams Industry, which has a red berry, Whitesmith and Leveller, which are green.

Red and white currants are nearly as easy to please as gooseberries. They do not mind north walls and are pruned in a similar way, because the fruit is borne on old rather than new shoots. Strengthening the bush and shortening the side shoots to encourage more fruiting spurs is important. Redcurrants, which can be grown on walls and as cordons (single-stems trained on wires), can also be found occasionally as standards from specialist growers. If enough people were to ask for them at garden centres they might become more widely available; redcurrants and gooseberries grown as little trees in a small front garden would be both decorative and useful. The best all-purpose varieties of currant are probably Red Lake and White Grape.

Blackcurrants are less adaptable in small spaces. They like to grow in the sun and spread themselves into 5ft bushes, but a row of bushes might be a good alternative to a hedge. The leaves smell delicious in spring and the 'hedge' would not need clipping so much as pruning.

Blackcurrants, unlike gooseberries and redcurrants, fruit best on one-year-old shoots, so old stems need to be cut out each year. One way of doing this is to cut the whole shoot out with the fruit attached. This turns picking into an agreeable sitting-down job, which can be done at a table. This is much less exhausting than stooping to pick the bunches off the bush - and it gets the pruning done at the same time.

There is a gall mite which attacks buds and inflates them; unusually swollen buds larger than the fruiting ones should be picked off in spring, as they can cause a mortal disease. Blackcurrants are averse to frost, so in cold places avoid the early varieties like Boskoop and Laxtons Giants. Blackdown and Baldwin and the newer Ben Sarek seem to be good and fairly hardy sorts.

All currants and gooseberries root easily from cuttings, which should be taken in late summer or autumn. You can grow your own standards from these in a couple of years. In three, they could compete with the sort of plants on offer in good fruit nurseries for about pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)