Blackcurrants – easy to grow and extremely good for you
Labelled as the ‘mini marvel’, British blackcurrants are possibly one of the healthiest fruits you can eat. They’re packed full of vitamins and minerals and have many health benefits. Modern breeding methods mean that blackcurrant plants are better able to tolerate frost, especially at the crucial flowering time and they also have better resistance to pests and diseases.
Some blackcurrant facts…
– they’re high in anthocyanins, antioxidants that fight disease. These may protect the body against ageing, cardiovascular disease, eyestrain, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, joint inflammation and MRSA
– they have grown in the British Isles for over 500 years
– they have been used by herbalists since middle ages to treat many ailments, including bladder stones, liver disorders and coughs
– they contain more vitamin C than any other natural food source
– they contain high levels of potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, vitamins A and B and more…
– they can reduce muscle damage during exercise, help to reduce inflammation and even boost natural immunity
– epigallocatechin, an antioxidant present in blackcurrants, has been shown to reduce inflammation in lung tissue, helping to control allergy-induced asthma
– new research led by the Horticulture and Food Research Institute of New Zealand suggests that “British blackcurrants are the secret weapon in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.” (Quote source: The Blackcurrant Foundation)
Commercial growers have to be very selective when choosing a growing site – the plants are susceptible to spring frosts and summer wind can strip the flowers and fruit (plantations often sited next to woodland, otherwise natural windbreaks are grown using alder for planting in the field, but not common alder). Other suitable trees are pine, alder or birch for perimeter protection. They need to be planted on hill so that cold air filters downhill. Several other factors have to be considered to ensure the highest yield, such
However, home gardeners needn’t be quite so picky. You do need to site your blackcurrant bushes in a sheltered spot and protect them from frost, but they’re still very easy to grow. They prefer full sun, but will cope with shade for some of the day. Blackcurrant plants grow best in fertile soil, so dig in plenty of well-rotted manure or compost and plant them 5cm lower than the soil mark on the stem. This will encourage extra stems to grow from below ground level.
Blackcurrant Ebony – so sweet, you can eat it straight from the plant
Thompson & Morgan supplies established, 1-year old pre-pruned plants. If you buy blackcurrant bushes that haven’t been pre-pruned, it’s a good idea to cut them down to 2 buds above ground level after you’ve planted them, so as to encourage new growth. Keep your blackcurrant plants well watered during dry periods and especially when the fruit is developing. Prune out any thin or weak shoots after the first season. In following years you should prune out any weak or damaged stems and also cut back 20% of the remaining stems to create an ‘open’ bush and encourage new growth.
Blackcurrants are ready to harvest from July, so if you’re already growing some, now is the time to get picking!
Jams and pies are probably the best known use of blackcurrants, but there are many other ways to use them. Some of the sweeter varieties such as Ebony are delicious eaten straight from the plant. Take a look at The Blackcurrant Foundation’s website for some tasty recipes, including blackcurrant ice cream, smoothies, salads (fruit and savoury), chocolate and blackcurrant torte and many more.
Blackcurrants freeze well, so if you find yourself with a bumper crop, simply wash them gently and put them into freezer bags and containers. A good tip is to freeze them on trays so that they don’t clump together – once they’ve frozen decant them into bags or containers and pop them back into the freezer. They’ll keep for months.
What’s your favourite recipe? You can send recipes to us to be featured on the Thompson & Morgan website – click here for more details. http://www.thompson-morgan.com/recipes
Blackcurrant Ben Connan – resistant to blackcurrant gall midge
Pests and diseases
Birds are the biggest threat to your crops – cover your blackcurrant bushes with nets to protect the fruit from birds, so that you can start harvesting them from July.
Watch out for blackcurrant gall midge, where tiny white maggots feed on shoot tips. You’ll be able to see the maggots and, if you spot them early enough, you should be able to remove the infested leaves. Be careful that you don’t remove too many, otherwise you’ll reduce the harvest. Blackcurrant Ben Connan is resistant to gall midge.
Big bud mite can also be a problem for blackcurrants. You’re most likely to see evidence of it in the winter – infested buds will be abnormally swollen, whereas healthy buds are pointed and long. There are no chemical controls against big bud mite and any infected plants should be destroyed and replaced with new ‘certified stock’ plants.
Blackcurrant plants affected by American gooseberry mildew have powdery grey and white fungus on the leaves, which can also spread to the fruits. It’s made worse by poor air circulation, so make sure your plants are spaced well apart. Infected stems or leaves should be cut out and destroyed straight away.
By the end of May, all the bedding plants were put in the borders and watered in for a few nights. Last weekend after some heavy rain I went around them all with a small 2 pronged claw and loosened the soil. This will let air in around the roots and create dry soil mulch, trapping some of the moisture below as well as enhancing the visual appearance of the borders.
My hanging baskets are safely hanging outside and the containers are grouped together to create an attractive patio display.
My perennial borders have really filled out and I already have lupins, foxgloves and hardy geraniums in flower. The buds on the peony plants are exceptionally huge this year so I am looking forward to an impressive display later this month.
My hostas have certainly enjoyed the cooler spring they have never looked so good, with only a few holes in the foliage, not from slugs but from the hailstorm we had recently.
The cold frames have been put away and the greenhouses are starting to look bare! In one I have potted up all my large flowered begonias into 20cm (8in) clay pots. These will grow all summer in the shaded glasshouse and are grown for my enjoyment and maybe an entry in the local show if good enough, plus begonias are my wife’s favourite flower.
My tomatoes this year are being grown up the allotment, but not on the plot – they are in the communal polytunnel. I rent a small plot within the tunnel and I have already planted my tomatoes – they are climbing the string supports and have reached about 90cm (3ft) and started to produce the first trusses of flowers. I am also going to grow my cucumbers in this space, as this year I am growing Cucino, a baby cucumber, and Bella, a longer fruited variety. Outdoors in a few weeks I will be planting ‘Burpless’ ridge cucumbers into large pots and maybe a few on the plot for cropping later in year.
Crops for a Cool Climate
Over the years in which climate change has been discussed in the media, there have been continual suggestions that it will be of benefit to gardeners – allowing us to grow fruit and vegetable crops that enjoy the continental climate, but fail to thrive in a traditional British summer. As those warm summer days have failed to materialise, and look increasing unlikely, I am eyeing up my new allotment with a view to planting crops that will enjoy our cool climate.
Spuds are a good choice, as potatoes don’t need a lot of sun to do well, but the possibility of warm, humid periods means blight is a big risk and I’m going to try growing resistant Sarpo varieties in place of old favourites.
Perennial veg and fruit are always good choices, as they don’t rely on one season’s weather to provide a crop. Rhubarb is an allotment staple that usually does well, and red and white currants need far less sun to fruit well than blackcurrants. Asparagus is designed to start growing in cool weather. Globe artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes and Chinese artichokes are usually worth the space they take up.
I’ve had success with courgettes and summer squash in a lacklustre summer, but good crops of fruit are not guaranteed. Tomatoes are tricky unless the sun comes out, but the smaller the fruit, the more likely they are to ripen. Sub-Arctic Plenty is a determinate, cherry tom variety that was bred to crop outdoors in Greenland, and I’ve found it reliably does so here as well.
Leafy veg love wetter weather, and if I can keep the slugs off then spinach and chard, cabbages and all of the Oriental leaf vegetables will keep me in greens for months. Leafy herbs like mint, coriander and parsley should also do well, but basil will be happier on the kitchen windowsill.
There’s no reason I have to stay on the beaten track, either, as there are more unusual species from around the world that will have no problem with this weather. Achocha, one of the Lost Crops of the Incas, is a climbing plant that romps away in cool summers and produces masses of fruit that can be used like green peppers. Oca, or New Zealand Yam, (another native of South America) is a pretty, clumping root crop. It doesn’t need a hot summer to crop well, although it does benefit from a long autumn and a mild frost or two before the big freeze begins.
Edible flowers are all the rage this year, and calendula and borage both self-seed quite happily in my garden, adding splashes of colour to borders and dinners throughout the summer. I’ll be introducing those to the allotment as well, and it wouldn’t be complete without a few nasturtiums, which seem to flower well regardless of the weather and have edible leaves to boot.
Borage and bee
Every year is different, and each autumn it’s interesting to see what has done well and what faltered. What have been your big winners, in the cooler summers of recent years?
Advice for the new allotment holder
This short post is all about string. The string-thing is aimed at new allotment plot holders. As they, like me, may be daunted by the large slab of ground they have just taken on annual rent from the local council.
Where to begin with plotting, sowing, portioning out the land for the various crops? How to stop hoofing all over prepared ground with clod heavy gardening boots?
The guru for vegetable gardening is still Joy Larkcom and her book : “Grow your Own Vegetables” is short on glossy pictures but long on sensible advice. Her recommendation is to keep beds to a width of 1.20 metres. Why? In order that you can work the ground from either side by reaching in, without (apart from actually sowing seeds) ever having to tread on it.
Divide your allotment into 1.2m wide beds for easy access
And so, if you are a little uncertain about how to begin tackling your plot, I recommend dividing it up into widths 1.20 with 30 cm paths between each bed. Mark out the beds with small canes and stretch twine between them. This makes allotment growing far less daunting and will keep the soil in good order.
You can read Catharine’s own blog here
What can we do to ensure that our allotments are getting the love that they deserve? Locally to me in Hertfordshire, there are some sites which have been threatened with closure, due to planned developments – the people who grow on the sites are understandably battling hard to try to keep their beloved allotments, and it made me think about what it is that we love about our allotments, and why some sites are now struggling to fill plots, or why councils are trying to close them down for development.
Me and my old allotment plot
I had an allotment a few years ago – I was like many allotmenteers – very excited to have the plot – full of enthusiasm when the days were long and sunny, and when I had time to get out and clear the plot – which was completely overgrown when I got it, and after I had carefully planned what I wanted to grow, and bought myself a brand new allotment diary, I thought that I was all set. The one thing I hadn’t planned for, was the amount of time that I would want to spend at the allotment, and when I would fit that into my already busy life. For many people – they can share their allotment with their spouse or partner, or they can take the kids along to help them out, and make a bit of a day out every weekend – but for me, there were my long suffering parents, who couldn’t bear to see the plot go untended in the weeks when I didn’t get a chance to get down there. Soon the plot had become their job, rather than mine, and without getting time to spend on it myself, I soon lost interest. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have the plot, and it wasn’t that I didn’t absolutely love the gardening – any kind of gardening is pretty close to heaven in my eyes, but I found that I started to get annoyed with myself, because I couldn’t give it the time that it deserved, at least not as well as tending my own garden at home, which was also suffering neglect with me trying to split my free time between the two.
Things have changed now, and I find that I want to spend even more time, rather than less in my garden, and I’m wishing that I still had space to grow my own food. Having spoken to various people locally, I know that there are some sites that are struggling to fill all of the plots that they have – maybe people, like me, have found that they don’t have the time to keep them up, or that after last year’s bad weather, they don’t want to bother with their plot again this year. I was really surprised to hear that there were some places with free spaces though, as I have always thought that there were full waiting lists everywhere. Luckily, my parents have got space in their garden to let me have a little veg patch, so last night I put in my potatoes and onions, and I’m going to grow some cutting flowers – probably sweet peas, which I adore! I wonder what can be done though, to fill up the empty spaces in the council run allotments? I wonder if there is any way that the plots can go onto a centralised website for each council – I know that this is already done in some areas, and it makes it much easier for people to look on a map and see if there are any available plots.
The old plot – a productive year
For anyone who has ever grown their own fruit and vegetables, they won’t need telling how great a feeling it is; to eat food that you have grown from seed, is incredibly satisfying – add to that the sense of community that grows between people on allotment sites – all sharing their left over seed, or coming over to lean on an old fork and chat about what they’ve put in, and whether it’s early, or late, and whether there might be a frost. The health benefits are untold – spending time outside, digging, not to mention eating food that you know exactly where it has come from.
If you ask me – it’s a no-brainer – if there are any local allotment sites with plots available – bite their hand off!
You can read more on my blog: theenglishrose.blog.com