Red currant (Ribes rubrum) is a deciduous bush from the genus Ribes in the gooseberry family. It is native across Europe, but the most common cultivars are selected varieties. They are hardy, cool-season plants that do best in cool climates.
Red currants grow on woody shrubs with deep-lobbed leaves that can grow 1.5 – 2m (4.9 – 6.5 ft) tall. Although used in ornamental gardening occasionally, these deciduous shrubs are prized for their edible fruit – delicious pearl-shaped berries.
Starting the midsummer, a single shrub can produce 3 – 4 kg (7 – 9 lb) of red, translucent berries that grow in clusters.
The berries are rich in vitamin C and used raw or cooked in many cuisines around the world.
They have a distinctive tart flavour, they can be eaten fresh and raw, right after harvesting or cooked. They can be used in jams, jellies, sauces, summer puddings, compotes and juices.
How to Plant Red Currants
Before planting red currants you’ll need to consider the planting position and required spacing. They show the best results when grown in garden borders although smaller varieties can be planted in large pots or containers.
Best Position for Red Currant Bushes
Red currants prefer sunny positions, but they can tolerate partial shade. Although the berries will have a sweeter taste if exposed to a greater amount of sun, red currants should generally be protected from hot, direct sun.
The best spots for red currants are those with a lot of morning sun and afternoon shade. They also need shelter from strong winds, since strong winds can break their branches.
How and When to Plant Red Currants
Red currants are perennials should be planted between autumn and early spring. Plant bare-root cuttings in a well-prepared, weed-free garden, with plenty of compost in the holes. The holes should be large enough to accommodate the root.
The position between plants varies depending on the way you’d like to shape your shrubs. They can be trained as cordons, fans, or grown as a single bush. Generally, they should be spaced 1 – 1.5m (3 – 5ft) apart.
If you’re planning to train cordon red currants, the spacing between plants can be 30 – 50cm (12 – 20in).
For fan-trained bushes, keep a distance of 1.8 m (6 ft) between the plants. Position healthy plants in previously prepared holes and cover them with soil. Support them with stems and mulch after planting to keep the soil moist.
How to Care for Red Currants
Once established, these bushes are fairly easy to grow and quite resilient. They are heavy feeders, the red currant care is mainly related to adding plenty of organic fertiliser and adequate pruning.
Best Soil for Red Currants
The soil for red currants should be rich, well-drained, and amended with compost or well-rotted manure. A pH of 6 to 6.5 is preferred. They prefer heavy soil over sandy soil.
Red currants love slightly moist soil, but good drainage is mandatory to avoid the roots sitting in water. Water your red currant shrubs regularly during dry spells because they need a lot of water to bear fruit. Gently water lower parts of plants.
To grow red currants successfully, high levels of potassium and adequate fertilisation are essential. Use a fertiliser made with potassium sulfate rather than with potassium chloride, because potassium chloride can burn the leaves.
Apply the fertiliser during the winter and amend the soil around plants in the spring using manure, compost or mulch.
How to Prune Red Currants
The trickiest part of growing red currants is pruning, but it isn’t unmanageable. Although red currants are related to black currants (Ribes nigrum), they are grown and pruned more like gooseberries.
While black currants bear most of their fruit on two-year-old wood (and a small amount of fruit on one-year-old wood), red currants grow berries on the branches that are two or three years old. They won’t produce fruit on one-year-old wood so do not expect a harvest in the first year.
An annual prune of red currants means removing any excess and old branches that won’t produce fruit anymore, to gain an optimal yield and proper light and airflow in a central part of a bush. The pruning will help you sustain a permanent framework of red currant branches.
Red currants should be pruned in the winter when plants are dormant. In the first year after planting, a bush will probably have 2-3 strong new shots. Cut them in half in the late winter. Cut the leading stems by one third to any outwardly facing bud.
The following winter, in the second-year growth, cut again the leading branches to encourage side laterals that will produce fruit next year.
From the third year, you will need to continually prune red currant bushes to maintain a well-shaped bush and stimulate new growth. That means your regular winter pruning should include:
- Removing any wood that is older than 3 years. While new branches have green, smooth, and light wood, the oldest branches have thicker, darker, mottled wood – they look old.
- Pruning to one bud all shoots that grew from framework branches in the previous growing season.
- Cut leading branches by 5 – 7cm (2 – 3in).
- Removing any damaged, weak, or excess wood to keep the centre of the bush more open.
- Removing any branches that are facing downwards or branches growing low to the ground.
- Pruning any crossing or tangled shoots and branches.
Important tip: Be sure to always cut to an outward-facing bud.
Harvesting Red Currants and Preservation
Depending on a variety, you can harvest red currants from early to late summer. A harvesting season lasts for about a month. The ripe fruit is vividly red, juicy and firm.
Harvest an entire bunch of berries and then pick each berry off. You can use the fruit immediately or store it in a fridge for a few days. Berries can be cooked, preserved or frozen.
When frozen, they keep their firmness, so it’s always good to freeze a batch and use it when the season is over.
Common Problems with Red Currants
The worst enemies of red currants are birds. They are attracted to their vivid berries and they’re able to consume the entire yield just in a minute.
The best way to protect your red currants from birds is by using some kind of bird-scaring mechanism. Install a horticultural net or a mesh above red currant bushes to keep birds away.
Red currants are susceptible to powdery mildew, aphids, and gooseberry sawfly (caterpillar-like larvae) so consider planting resistant varieties such as ‘Rovada’ or ‘Honey Queen’.
Be sure to inspect your plants carefully from mid-spring throughout the entire growing season. If you notice any sign of infestation, treat the problem immediately.
Recommended Red Currant Varieties
Early: Jonkheer van Tets, Laxton’s No.1, Junifer
Mid-early: Red Lake, Stanza
Late-ripening: Rondom, Redstart, Wilson’s Long Bunch.