Bush soft fruit to plant now

It has been a funny old year. If you have eaten and drunk too much at Christmas to compensate for the absence of wild family get-togethers…. when you would have eaten and drunk too much anyway…I understand totally.

In 2020 many people turned to gardening in lockdown and are reviewing their successes right now. They have enjoyed growing some of their own food and found the results ranged from superb to maddeningly variable. For some, sowing seeds, thinning, hoeing and other chores of annual vegetable production started well in spring, but the pressures of home-schooling children and looking after elderly relatives resulted in summer veggie neglect and a resolve not to bother in the future.

I urge them to grow fruit instead, especially bush soft fruit. You have all the joy of self-sufficiency, with nothing much to do between pruning and picking, and January is the perfect time to order and plant new soft fruit stock. If your Covid Tier allows, visit your garden centre and give them some much needed trade. They will have potted shrubs and cane fruit. There are many companies on the internet who supply mail order fruit, and they are likely to have a wider choice of varieties. Here are some to consider.

Blackcurrants. These are grown as free-standing bushes, and fruit on old wood. To prune mature bushes, remove a few of the oldest thickest branches as close to the ground as you can lop. Remove the ones that are growing almost lying along the ground due to last year’s heavy crop, then weed and mulch them. That’s it. No other maintenance is required Chris Bowers lists 35 varieties, but they will all taste much the same in the kitchen, varying mostly in size of bush and berry or time of ripening. I like Ebony for its size and extra sweetness and Ben Sarek for compact habit and heavy crop. 2 bushes will be enough for most families, unless you make a lot of jam. You don’t need many blackcurrants to add to a crumble or make a coulis or home-grown Ribena.

Redcurrants. If you can’t tell the difference between a blackcurrant and a redcurrant at this time of year, nip off a bud and sniff it. If there is a strong smell of Ribena, it is a blackcurrant. As redcurrants are attractive to birds when they colour red, they are often grown as cordons or wall shrubs so they can be netted. Red Lake and Jonkeers van Tets are popular varieties but Rovado is a new variety that crops very heavily.

You can also get white, blush and pink currants. They may be less attractive to birds. Do not grow too many currants. Once you have made some jam and jelly, redcurrant gin, summer pudding three times, and crumbles a dozen times you may still have a lot in the freezer if you have more than 6 currant bushes. I have just thrown out some frozen blackcurrants from 2015, they were under the bags from 2017 and 2018, and all still good.

Gooseberries. I love a gooseberry crumble, but only once a year if truth be told. I like gooseberries for summer fools and cook them with elderflowers for a delicious flavour. There are over 40 varieties of varying vigour and colours. My favourite is red Whinham’s Industry, a good cropper and easy to see under the shade of the leaves. It is good for cooking green in June but ripens as sweet as a grape in high summer. Pax is unique for being entirely thornless, which you will appreciate when harvesting. It stands to reason that if your fist is wider than the gap between thorny branched varieties, you will get scratched badly, so get out your mini loppers and thin the branches this month.

2 bushes will be ample for most families. A mature bush will easily be a metre high and across.
They can be grown as cordons so you can fit more varieties in a small garden. However, I found that the most healthy and vigorous growth keeps sprouting from the bottom of the plant. After a few years, the mature framework became covered in lichen and less productive, so I have reverted to growing them as fans and bushes, so I can cut out very mature growth occasionally and allow it to be replaced by younger growth, which will crop from its second year.

Blueberries. Seldom grown a generation ago, these have become very popular. They are easy to grow but require very acid soil. In Somerset are best grown in large pots or tubs in ericaceous compost. Blueberries are not cheap to buy. They resent being given tap water in drought although they will survive it, so a position near a water butt is a good idea. The birds love the berries, so netting them is necessary for success. Once you can get over these hurdles, you will be assured of crops for many years, and lovely autumn colour to boot.

The difference between the 20-plus varieties available are mostly the season of ripening, the size of berry and the intensity of flavour, although all of them will be tastier than the insipid kinds in the shops. I have 4 and lost the labels long ago (a warning to tie labels to soft fruit). I know I have Chandler and Blue Crop. They are enough for a welcome sprinkle of blueberries on morning oats from late July to early September.

There are species and hybrid berries I have neither tried nor discussed – jostaberries, worcesterberries, cranberries and lingonberries.  If you have one of every kind I have mentioned, there may be too many to eat, but what fun! It is a delightful torment to peruse the choices in the catalogues, and if you are tempted too far you may need a bigger freezer. You may need a second one for the cane fruit I will discuss next month.