Currants of all kinds should be naturals for the forest garden: they are natural inhabitants of the forest edge with a long history of use as a fruit. And indeed they can be, but only if you don’t get too carried away with the idea of ‘natural’. Getting the best out of currants – often getting anything out of currants – depends on some distinctly artificial pruning and netting.
Currants are in the genus Ribes, which includes blackcurrant (R. nigrum), gooseberry (R. uva-crispa) and redcurrant and whitecurrant (both R. rubrum). There are also around 150 other species, and so plenty of room to experiment, but none of them have ever become as popular as the traditional three. Jostaberry is a blackcurrant/gooseberry cross, but since it basically tastes like blackcurrants but makes a bigger plant that produces less fruit it is difficult to see the point in growing it. Worcesterberry (R. divaricatum) is like a gooseberry with smaller fruits and bigger thorns but has its fans as a generally trouble-free plant with tasty fruit.
The biggest trouble with currants is that the birds like them at least as much as we do and will strip them before they are ripe, especially the red and white ones. Picking the fruit before the birds get them yields unpleasantly acid fruit which are mind-blowingly tedious to pick. Netting the bushes to keep the birds out transforms things, with luscious fruits that can be picked by the bunch once the whole thing has ripened up instead of carefully picking off the ripest ones. Bunches of currants also keep for far longer than individual fruits that have been torn from the stem and they are great fun to eat by stripping a bunch into your mouth by pulling it through your teeth.
This means that there’s an argument for growing your currants in a group as while you can certainly net individual bushes it’s more efficient to net a whole lot together. In my case, there is a tall fence down the southern boundary of my allotment, so I’ve planted all along it with currants as they will tolerate a degree of shade (in warmer climates, they positively require it). The pesky fence then serves some useful purpose as I have put in hooks along the top of it and can attach a net that goes over the whole lot.
The other bit of cultivation that helps hugely with currants is pruning. Blackcurrants fruit mostly on one-year-old stems, so if they aren’t pruned the yield drops off rapidly as the bushes age. Pruning of established plants consists of taking out the oldest third of the shoots every year. It’s a good idea to take out weak, drooping, crossing or particularly crowded stems at this point too. Pruning can be done at the same time as picking the fruit or it can be left until winter (which allows the plant to store more of the nutrients from the shoots).
Pruning red and white currants is the exact opposite of blackcurrants. They fruit largely on old wood so pruning consists of taking out a proportion of the new growth in order to persuade the plant to put more of its resources into its fruit and less into growth. Winter pruning is limited to taking out very old or diseased growth: the main prune is done in early summer when the new growth is pruned back to two or three buds per shoot. The growth the next year will go in the direction that the top bud is facing, so by choosing where you prune you can steer the growth of the shoot. Gooseberries are pruned in the same way, aiming for an open structure that allows air and sun in so that the bushes don’t get mildew.
All currants are high in pectin so they make good jams and jellies and can also be added to other jams like raspberry and strawberry to help them set. They also freeze well and keep a lot of their texture when they are thawed out again. You can dry them if you have a drier, although you won’t get the dried fruit sold as ‘currants’ – they are actually a kind of grape.