Currant bushes are a great addition to the edible landscape or permaculture garden. Here’s how to grow currants and use them in the kitchen.
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Currant (Ribes) is a thornless understory shrub that grows in hardiness zones 3-8. Currant bushes can grow up to 3-6 feet wide and tall, and can range from red, white, or pink, to black. There is even a clove currant (Ribes odoratum), which is very fragrant. All currants have attractive flowers and maplelike leaves that make them desirable in the edible landscape and are important understory plantings in the permaculture food forest or hedgerow. They are one of many perennial crops that can tolerate moist areas.
Currants: Edible Landscape for Shady Areas
There aren’t a lot of options for growing edible plants in the shade, so when I learned that currants can be full and productive in the shade, it was love at first sight. We replaced the traditional yew bushes lining our front porch with a row of currant bushes. Being on the north side of the house, they are almost completely shaded.
I can’t believe how little they were at the time of planting:
We couldn’t decide on what kind of currants to plant, so we planted two each of ‘Red Lake’ red currants and ‘Consort’ black currants. In hindsight, we should have chosen only one variety for a uniform look to the hedge. This is a basic landscape design principle called “unity“.
We live and learn, don’t we?
Currants are understory bushes that naturally grow in dappled shade. In shade, they’ll produce more vibrant, darker foliage, which is good news for an edible landscape. On the other hand, currants will be more productive in full sun. Keep in mind that with more sun, the shallow roots will require more watering during the hot summer and may be more susceptible to pests.
When we planted our currants in 2010 in the shade, we weren’t sure how productive they would be. However, there are plenty of options for fruits to grow in the sun, so we thought, “why not take advantage of their shade-loving trait?”
How to Use Currant Bushes in the Landscape
- As the main ornamental hedge such as ours bordering our front porch. The spring flowers are decorative in the spring, and the berries dangle like a bunch of grapes in early summer.
- In a shady, unused spot. Try planting them under oak, walnut, or apple trees, according to Gaia’s Garden
- In a wildlife hedge. Birds love currants. They are said to be deer-resistant, but I’m not so sure about that.
- In a poultry foraging area. Chickens like currants, too.
- At the edges of open woods and in dappled shade in the woods, as in a food forest
- In a pollination garden. The tiny flowers provide nectar for both hummingbirds and a menagerie of other insects.
- In your medicinal garden. Black currant leaves are known for curing quite a large array of symptoms and illnesses, from arthritis to colds and coughs. All currants are high in vitamin C and can be dried and eaten as a supplement during the winter months.
- In a jelly garden. While I think currants are a bit tart when eaten fresh, they transform into a sweet and mellow taste when made into jelly.
Aesthetics in the Edible Landscape
Black currants are more vigorous than red currants. They are more full and upright with straighter branches, and grow to 5-6 feet tall and wide. The leaves are bigger and the branches provide more interest in the winter because the red buds are bigger.
The red currant bushes are smaller (3-5 feet tall and wide) and a little more scraggly-looking. But that’s kind of a neat look, too, with the gnarled branches. I guess it depends on what you’re looking for.
Both need pruned in the late winter for good berry production, and they can be shaped into a tidy hedge shape if that’s your thing.
Yield, Harvest, and Pruning
Yield: Annually, each of my red currant bushes produce about 2 pounds of berries, while my black currant bushes each produce about 4 pounds of berries. Keep in mind that my bushes are shade-grown, so bushes in full sun may produce more berries.
Harvest Season: Currants are harvested in the early summer. My shade-grown red currant bushes in hardiness zone 6a are ready to harvest first in late May to early June while the black currants come into harvest about 2-3 weeks later. They’re both harvestable for about a month.
How to Harvest: When the entire bunch of berries is ripe (like a bunch of grapes), harvest the whole bunch. Once harvested, pick each berry off the stem before eating or processing.
Pests and Diseases: Currants are susceptible to aphids and white pine rust, and shouldn’t be planted near white pines because they can pass on the disease. Currants are prohibited in some states because of their ability to carry the white pine disease. The nursery will be able to tell you if they’re prohibited altogether where you live, or if only certain varieties are prohibited. We haven’t experienced any pests or disease in our currant hedge.
Pruning: Prune in late winter when the bushes are dormant. Cut back any stems that are touching the ground or that appear to be diseased or broken. Red currants produce most heavily on 2- to 3-year old stems, while black currants bear more heavily on 1-year-old stems. Older, less-productive stems should be removed as the plants get older. Too many stems will cause overcrowding and reduce productivity, so each year keep 10-12 of the most vigorous, younger stems (1-, 2-, and 3-year old stems) and prune the rest back.
Would you like to learn more about growing fruit in the permaculture landscape?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
- Midwest Home Fruit Production Guide, The Ohio State University
- Landscaping with Fruit, Lee Reich
- Edible Landscaping, Rosalind Creasy
- Edible Forest Garden, Vol. 2, Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier
- The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross (shameless plug!)
Taste and Uses for Currants
Both black and red currants are very tart when eaten fresh, and both have seeds. But they’re high in vitamin C and antioxidants (good-for-you stuff!).
I’ve found loads of ways that I enjoy eating them. I start by freezing all berries immediately after harvesting.
The frozen berries are delicious in my morning smoothies with coconut milk and a splash of vanilla. I mix equal parts of red currants, black currants, and strawberries together. The strawberries cut the tartness of the currants, but I get to take full advantage of their high vitamin C content.
The most expensive preserves in the world are called Bar-le-Duc red currant preserves. This delicacy hails from a small village in Northeastern France where it’s been made since at least the 1500s. The trade is passed down from women to daughters, where they use goose quills to painstakingly extract the seed from each berry without causing damage.
I tried to make a version of this, but the recipe for regular people like me includes the seeds, which I didn’t like. Tasted great, too many seeds.
So now I make a jelly rather than preserves because it’s seedless. My mixed berries jelly, which often includes red currants, black currants, and black raspberries, is divine. Pomona’s pectin is a great way to turn your own homegrown combination of berries into a unique jelly. It would’ve even been good without the black raspberries because currants have a lovely mellow taste when cooked.
3. Currant Vinegar
I like to make a berry-infused vinegar with the leftover pulp from making jelly. The pulp includes berry seeds and skin, which still have plenty of flavor. Use regular berries mashed with a potato masher if you don’t have pulp from jelly.
4. Currant Liqueur
Infusing berries in vodka is really easy! I infused black currants to make a famous French liqueur called creme de cassis. Currants are more popular in Europe, thus, they have more traditional uses for the berries. Here’s how I made the black currant liqueur and how I use it.
Whether you choose red or black currants for your landscape or culinary adventures, you can’t go wrong. They’re both beautiful and tasty!
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- All About Aronia: Grow Your Own Superfood Berries
- What is Permaculture?
- Front Yard Rainwater Catchment
Are you growing currants on your homestead?