Berry Different

A fruit farmer in New York state shares her knowledge of growing some of the best berries you've never tasted.

By Sue Smith-Heavenrich


Red currants are just one of the more usual, traditionally rare berries Creeger grows on her farm.Branching Out

After the brambles, Creeger planted red and black currants and two kinds of gooseberries. Now her customers enjoy a wider variety of fruit and an extended picking season.

Currants and gooseberries are both members of Ribes, a diverse genus with many species and varieties that range in color, size, shape, and even hairiness. The one thing all ribes have in common is that they’re cold-hardy and fairly easy to grow. And they’re heavy nitrogen feeders—a craving easily satisfied by mulching with grass clippings around the canes.

Currants like rich soil that can hold water. For gardeners with sandy soil, that means incorporating organic matter well ahead of planting. On the plus side, currants require less maintenance than brambles. Annual pruning in late winter or early spring is sufficient. For the first 3 years, that means thinning each plant to leave three or four each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year canes. By year 4, remove the oldest canes and thin the new growth.

Pruning is important for air circulation, too, says Marvin Pritts, Ph.D., chairman of Cornell University’s department of horticulture. Currants are susceptible to mildew, he says, and good site selection and pruning are essential for plant health. On the other hand, they don’t have special pH requirements and will fruit in partial shade, making them an easy-to-grow crop for most backyard gardens.

Creeger’s picks for currants are ‘Ben Sarek’ and ‘Titania’, disease-resistant black varieties, and ‘Rovada’, a red that produces up to 7 quarts of berries per plant.

While her currants are relatively pest-free, Creeger hasn’t been as lucky with the gooseberries. Two years ago, sawflies discovered the berry patch. Insecticidal soap controls the chewing larvae, but it has to be applied every 10 days. So last summer, Creeger switched tactics and sprayed Surround, a kaolin clay barrier.

Though she must reapply the clay after rain, it works pretty well as a feeding deterrent, she says. Given the damage sawflies inflict, Creeger is debating the merits of gooseberries as a commercial crop. But they are a good choice for the backyard garden. Creeger chose ‘Hinnonmaki Red’ and the larger ‘Tixia’ for flavor and color. Gooseberries are pruned in the same way as currants.

Ribes, adapted to cool climates, don’t do well in warmer areas and tend to drop fruit in hot and humid weather. They’re also alternate hosts for white pine blister rust, a fungus that must have both white pines and ribes in close proximity to complete its life cycle. For this reason, some states, among them Maine, North Carolina, and Massachusetts, prohibit black currants. In New York state, regulations vary by county, says Creeger, so it is best to check with the local Cooperative Extension office before planting black currants. There are fewer restrictions on red currants and gooseberries, but check with your state agriculture department or Cooperative Extension office before planting.