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Gooseberries and Currants
Ribes, spp
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Black Currant
Black Currant


Red Currant Red Currant


White Currant
White Currant


Currants Currants


Gooseberries
Gooseberries

Although many people today are unfamiliar with these fruits, New Yorkers grew 2,700 acres of them in the 1920s.

Legalities of Growing

In the early 1900s, the federal and state governments outlawed the growing of currants and gooseberries to prevent the spread white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). This fungal disease attacks both Ribes and white pines, which must live in close proximity for the blister rust fungus to complete its life cycle.

Black currants (Ribes nigrum) and white pines (Pinus strobus) are extremely susceptible, and red currants and gooseberries exhibit varying degrees of susceptibility.

Although the federal ban was rescinded in 1966, some northern states still prohibit the planting or cultivation of black currants. In 2003 though, New York State passed a law that modified its ban to allow commercial growers and home gardeners to legally grow red currants, gooseberries and immune or resistant cultivars of black currants throughout New York State.

Some black currant types, such as the cultivars 'Consort', 'Crusader', and 'Titania' are hybrids that are resistant to the blister rust fungus. They can be planted in areas where other currants and gooseberries are permitted.

Choosing cultivars
Ribes are a very diverse genus with hundreds of different varieties that differ in plant size and form, and fruit flavor, shape, texture, color and hairiness. While most are hardy to Zone 3 or Zone 4, a few are hardy to Zone 2. Several types of interest to home gardeners include:

Red currants (Ribes rubrum, R. sativum and R. petraeum): Fruits range in color from dark red to pink, yellow, white and beige, and they continue to sweeten on the bush even after they appear to be in full color. Many people consider 'Rovada' to be the best red currant cultivar. Plants are dependable, vigorous, late ripening, and very productive, bearing long-stemmed clusters of large red berries that are easy to pick.

White currants: A type of red currant, white currant cultivars are sold less frequently by nurseries. 'Blanka' is most commonly available. Berries are large and mild in flavor with a pale yellow color. Most people prefer 'White Imperial' or 'Primus' if they are available.

Black currants (Ribes nigrum): Black currants cultivars such as 'Consort', 'Crusader', and 'Titania' -- which are immune or resistant to white pine blister rust -- are now legal to grow in New York.

Gooseberries:
There are two types of gooseberry plants -- American (Ribes hirtellum) and European (Ribes uva-crispa).

Cultivars of the American type are smaller but more resistant to mildew. They tend to be healthier and more productive. American cultivars include:

  • 'Poorman' - One of the largest of the American cultivars. Productive and vigorous, with medium-sized but high-quality fruit. It is a good cultivar for the home garden.
  • 'Oregon Champion' - Medium to large yellow-green berries. Excellent for processing.
  • 'Hinnonmaki Red' and 'Hinnonmaki Yellow' - Medium-sized red and green fruit, respectively.
  • 'Captivator' - A cross of American and European cultivars, has red, tear-drop-shaped fruit. Nearly thornless and mildew-resistant.
  • 'Pixwell' - Easy to propagate, commonly sold and very productive cultivar developed in North Dakota in 1932. Low, 3-foot bushes with small thorns are very hardy and bear medium-sized fruit that starts out green and turns purple upon ripening.

The fruits of the European cultivars are larger and better flavored. They include:

  • 'Invicta' - Considered by some to be the best gooseberry available in North America. Resistant to mildew, but susceptible to leaf spot. Very large fruit with bland flavor.
  • 'Leveller' and 'Careless' - The standards for British fruit production. Yellow- and green-fruited respectively.
  • 'Early Sulfur' - Yellow, hairy fruit with good flavor, but susceptible to mildew.
  • 'Catherina' - Large green fruit.
  • 'Achilles' - Large red fruit.
See also Ribes cultivar review.

Sources of gooseberry and currant plants can be found at http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/berry/nurseries/.

Site Selection and Soil Preparation
Unlike most other fruit crops, currants and gooseberries tolerate partial shade and prefer a cool, moist growing area. Northern slopes with protection from direct sun are ideal. Planting along the side of a building or shady arbor is suitable as well.

Avoid sites with poor air circulation, which increases the incidence of powdery mildew. Sloping ground alleviates this condition. Also avoid light-textured, sandy soils. Rich, well drained soils that have a high moisture holding capacity are best. Incorporate organic matter (compost, peat, or manure) to improve the soil, particularly if it is somewhat sandy. The ideal soil pH is about 6.5.

Planting
Purchase strong, well-rooted plants from a reliable nursery, selecting either one- or two-year-old vigorous stock. Because currants and gooseberries begin growth very early in the spring, you should plant them in the early fall or very early in spring, before the plants begin to grow.

Before planting, remove damaged roots and head back the tops to 6 to 10 inches. Do not allow the root systems to dry out. Set plants as soon as possible in properly prepared soil, slightly deeper than they grew in the nursery. Firm the soil around the roots. Space plants according to the vigor of the cultivar, keeping in mind that plants are more vigorous on very fertile soil. As a general rule, plants should be spaced 3 to 5 feet apart in the row with 8 to 10 feet between rows.

Trellising gooseberries increases air circulation (decreasing disease problems), makes fruit easier to harvest, and allows you to grow more plants in less space. Gooseberries are easily propagated through tip layering or stool bedding (mound layering).

Fertilizing
Currant and gooseberry plants are heavy nitrogen feeders. To give the plants a healthy start, work manure into the soil before planting. Annual top-dressings of composted manure are beneficial as well. If plants are not vigorous, lightly broadcast about .25 to .5 pound of 10-10-10 per plant. Avoid fertilizers containing muriate of potash (potassium chloride).

Mulching
Mulch keeps the soil cool in the summer, retains moisture, and controls weeds. Spread 2 to 3 inches of mulch around plants and replenish it yearly. Suitable mulches include straw, lawn rakings, composted manure, compost, wood chips, or similar materials. Grass clippings make excellent mulch. If you use fresh straw or sawdust, you may need to apply nitrogen fertilizer because these high-carbon mulches tie up nitrogen while they decompose.

Harvest
Remove any flowers so that plants don't develop fruit during their first season of growth. Expect a light crop the second year and a full crop by the third. Currants and gooseberries ripen over a two-week period in June. Berries do not drop immediately upon ripening, so they usually can be harvested in one or two pickings. Currants can be picked in clusters, and gooseberries are picked as individual fruits. Expect mature plants to yield about 90 to 150 pounds per 100 feet of row. Wait for fruit to turn color before picking. Gooseberries come off easily when they are ripe. Currants require some trial and error to determine the right time.

Pruning
Prune currants and gooseberries when the plants are dormant in late winter or early spring. Remove any branches that lie along the ground as well as branches that are diseased or broken. Ribes species produce fruit at the base of one year old wood. Fruiting is strongest on spurs of two and three year old wood.

After the first year of growth, remove all but six to eight of the most vigorous shoots. At the end of the second growing season, leave the 4 or 5 best one-year-old shoots and up to 3 or 4 two-year-old canes. At the end of the third year, prune so that approximately 3 or 4 canes of each age class should remain. By the fourth year, the oldest set of canes should be removed and the new canes allowed to grow. This system of renewal ensures that the plants remain productive because young canes always replace those that are removed. A strong, healthy, mature plant should have about eight bearing canes, with younger canes eventually replacing the oldest.

Diseases and pests
Visit http://www.fruit.cornell.edu/berrytool/ for assistance in diagnosing problems with currants and gooseberries.

Currant aphids, leaf spot and powdery mildew are the most common problems that plague currant and gooseberry plantings. All disfigure or damage leaves, and can cause defoliation.

Currant aphids - These tiny, soft-bodied insects feed under young leaves toward the shoot tips, causing affected leaves to curl downward, blister, and become reddish. In severe cases, leaves become excessively distorted and fall off and the fruit does not ripen properly. Insecticidal soap and certain horticultural oils (check labels) can help control aphids.

Powdery mildew
- This fungal disease is a problem particularly on European gooseberries. In early summer, a whitish, powdery growth appears on the surface of leaves, shoots, and branch tips. If left unchecked, the fungus can progress to the berries themselves. Later in summer, the growth may turn from white to brown. Warm, humid conditions with poor air circulation favor powdery mildew. Prune and dispose of infected branch and shoot tips in early spring. Some homeowners are experimenting with trellising gooseberries because it improves disease management and harvestability. Certain horticultural oils (check labels) applied at first sign of mildew can prevent spread.

Anthracnose and leaf spot
- These disease can both become serious problems, especially in wet, humid years. Symptoms range from brown spots and yellowing on leaves, young shoots, and stems to early defoliation. Destroy -affected leaves, and apply mulch -after leaf drop.

San Jose Scale
- These insects occasionally infest currant and gooseberry plants. They feed by sucking valuable plant juices, and in severe cases they affect the fruit as well. Scale insects are easily seen on the dormant wood. Prune out and destroy infested canes before new growth begins in the spring. Certain horticultural oils (check labels) can help reduce infestations.

Currant borers
- These moth larvae burrow in the pith of currant and gooseberry canes. Infested canes do not die in the fall, but put out sickly growth in the spring. The adult, a clear-winged moth, appears in June and lays eggs in leaf axils. To prevent the next genera-tion of moths from emerging, remove and destroy infested canes before June 1. Proper pruning to remove old canes is the best control.

Currant stem girdler
- This immature sawfly eats around, or girdles, the tips of new shoots, which eventually die and fall off. Cut off affected tips in May or June about 3 to 4 inches below the girdle, or if left until later in the season, about 8 inches below the girdle. Imported currantworm and other sawflies. As soon as leaves expand in spring, adults deposit eggs on the undersides of leaves along the major veins. A week to ten days later, tiny larvae emerge and begin eating holes in the leaves. If numerous, they can strip a bush of its foliage in a few days. Remove leaves harboring eggs by hand.

Gooseberry fruitworm
- This greenish caterpillar feeds in fruit causing it to color prematurely and fall off. The adult moth lays eggs on the fruit, and the larvae enter the developing berries and feed on the pulp, moving from one fruit to another. Several berries may be tied together by a silken webbing. Handpick infested berries before larvae move to adjacent ones.




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Craig Cramer cdc25@cornell.edu