By Felicia Brower, Colorado Master Gardener since 2020
What are Currants
Currants (Ribes spp.) are edible and ornamental deciduous shrubs that can reach three to six feet in height. In addition to being an attractive addition to the yard, the pea-sized fruits contain several minerals and are high in vitamins A, B, and C. Currants are hardy and thornless, and the fruits grow in a grape-like cluster on a drooping stem called a “strig.”
There are several varieties of currants, including red, black, white, and golden. Red currants are tart and are often used in fruit and jelly production. Black currants can also be used for jams and jellies, but they’re also used to make liqueur. White and golden currants have sweeter flavors and can be enjoyed directly off of the plant.
How and When to Start Currants
Currants do well in fertile, loamy soil that has good drainage with full sun, so it’s best to plant them on north-facing slopes and use mulch to moderate soil temperature fluctuations. The optimum pH is 6.2 to 6.5, but they’ll tolerate 5.5 to 7.0. At a higher pH, the fruit quantity may be limited, but the plants can still be used for ornamental landscaping. To find out your soil’s pH level, conduct a soil test through Colorado State University.
You can propagate currants from cuttings of year-old stems, or you can purchase the plants from your local nursery (often grown in containers as two- or three-year-old plants) or through a catalog (sold as one- or two-year old bare-root plants). Purchase quality, disease-free plants to ensure that you have high yields and fewer plant problems down the road.
Due to their hardy nature, you can plant currants 3.5 to 4.5 feet apart in early spring as soon as the soil is workable. Prior to planting, prune out all damaged roots and branches. Keep the plants cool and moist until they go into the ground, and soak bare root plants in water for three to four hours right before planting. Cut all of the branches back to five inches and set plants one to two inches below the soil line in holes wider than their roots. Water well.
To ensure that you have the highest possible yield, control weeds to reduce competition and use mulch to reduce weeds, watering, and injury to roots caused by cold-weather temperature fluctuations. Currants can have pest problems, including aphids, cane borers, and red spider mites. Address any pest problems immediately to prevent yield reductions and ongoing damage to the plant.
When to Pick Currants
Currants will rarely fruit in the first year, and typically don’t produce well until two to five years after planting. The plants from nurseries have often been growing for two to three years already, so you can expect fruit immediately from those. Currants are extremely long lived and can continue producing for two to three decades if properly maintained.
Harvest your currants mid to late summer. When using the fruit for jellies and jams, harvest before the fruit is fully ripe so that natural fruit pectin levels will be higher. You can eat the fruit of some currant varieties right off the vine or immediately use it for juice but some, especially the black currant, have a strong taste that might not be favorable. For storage, refrigerate the freshly picked fruit in a covered container or closed bag for several weeks or dry them and use them as a substitute for raisins. They will keep on the vine for several weeks, so you can also just leave them on until you’re ready to use them.
End-Season Care & Overwintering
After you harvest your plants completely, reduce the amount of water to harden the plants prior to winter. Give the plant a final deep watering in November to reduce drying during the winter.
You must prune currants if you want to continue to get a high yield. In late winter or early spring, prior to bud swelling, remove all wood more than three years old and thin out any younger wood until you’re left with three upright stems each of three-, two- and one-year-old wood.