The period from late autumn until spring is quieter in the vegetable garden, so it’s the ideal time to lavish some attention on your fruiting plants – or include more in your garden!
Black, red and white currants are some of the most easy-going fruits to work with. If you’re keen to grow some undemanding yet rewarding crops on your plot, read on to find out how to plant and prune currants...
Planting Currant Bushes
During the cooler months while plants are dormant, currants are sold bare-rooted and in prime transplanting condition. In extremely cold regions it may be necessary to wait until spring before purchasing your bare-root plants. Currants burst into growth quite early in the season however, so it’s important not to delay planting for too long. The rest of us can go for it any time the soil is workable.
Currants can cope with partial shade but will crop more heavily and yield sweeter-tasting fruits in sunny spots, so bear this in mind when choosing a space to grow them. Currants, especially blackcurrants, prefer nutritious, slightly acidic soil that never dries out.
Soak bare-root plants in a bucket of water for a few hours before planting to rehydrate them. Then dig a hole about twice as big as the plant’s roots. The soil needs to be good and rich for currants, so mix a bucket of well-rotted compost or manure plus a handful of organic general fertiliser (for instance fish, blood and bone) with the excavated soil.
Plant the bush slightly lower than its previous soil level, indicated by the dark tan line on the stem. Backfill with the soil mix and firm it down with your foot, toes pointing towards the plant’s crown to avoid accidentally damaging it. Water well to further settle the soil. Cut all shoots back to one bud above soil level. Finally, mulch with more compost, manure or other organic matter such as wood chips or sawdust.
Taking Cuttings from Currants
This is also a good time to take hardwood cuttings to propagate more currant bushes. Currants are quite possibly the easiest of all woody plants to propagate from cuttings. It’s a simple process, and can be done while pruning to get two jobs out of the way at once.
Use secateurs to prune off a 15-30cm (6-12in) long shoot of recent growth. Trim off the soft tip, making the cut diagonally just above a bud to enable rain to drain off easily (and also to make it obvious which end is up when you plant it!). Cut horizontally just below a bud to form the base of the cutting. You can dip your cuttings into hormone rooting powder if you wish, but it’s not usually necessary for currants. Insert your cuttings into the soil, and then be patient!
Expect to wait two to three years for your first fruits from plants grown from cuttings, as opposed to one or two years from one-year-old purchased plants.
How to Prune Blackcurrants
Blackcurrants are grown as a ‘stool’, with most shoots arising from ground level or close to it. One-year-old shoots are the most productive. Two-year-old wood will produce some fruit but older wood becomes non-productive, so each year some stems need to be removed to make space for younger ones.
While winter is the usual time for pruning, smart gardeners can actually start the process early, at harvesting time. Cutting out the whole branch makes picking easier, and at the same time removes stems that will no longer be productive. This makes winter pruning faster and also helps improve air and light circulation.
Pruning any kind of woody plant first involves identifying and removing the 3Ds: dead, diseased and dying wood. Additionally, any stems that point inwards or hang close to the soil should be taken out. Prune strategically to prevent the centre of the bush becoming congested, as this can reduce airflow and encourage diseases such as powdery mildew. This may mean you need to remove some two-year-old wood – the greyish stems – as well as older wood. Retain eight to twelve of the best young stems for a good, healthy crop. Use secateurs, or loppers for thicker, older stems.
How to Prune Red and White Currants
Unlike blackcurrants, red and white currants are not normally grown as stools. Instead, they are grown on a short ‘leg’. Remove any buds or shoots sprouting from the first 10cm (4in) above the soil to maintain the leg.
Red and white currants will fruit at the base of shoots, known as ‘laterals’, that grow out from the main branches. Prune in winter to leave between eight and ten healthy, strong main branches each year.
On one-year-old bushes, prune back new shoots by half. Prune to an outward facing bud to influence the direction that the shoot grows, aiming for an open-centred goblet shape. If the branch droops low to the ground however, an upward-facing bud is a better choice than an outward-facing one. The following winter, shorten new leading shoots by half.
Once they’ve reached full size or filled their allotted space, pruning becomes simpler. Each year, prune all the previous year’s growth back to a single bud. Remove any branches that have become unproductive, and replace them with a new shoot that will help to keep the shape of the bush. Remove any branches that hang low to the ground, as the fruits on these may rot or be eaten by pests. And that’s it!