Currants and gooseberries — excellent in jams, juices and pies — are cold-tolerant, can grow anywhere in Oregon and are attractive in the home garden.
Gardeners can start preparing a site now by laying down organic materials, according to Bernadine Strik, berry specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Service.
The tart-sweet berries are black, red, yellow-green or whitish-colored, are easy to freeze and are rich in vitamin C, she says, and the shrubs are attractive enough for the home landscape.
Native to North America, currants and gooseberries were grown more commonly at the turn of the century. After outbreaks of white pine blister rust, currants were found to carry the disease. To protect pine trees, federal law mandated that all currants and gooseberries, members of the genus Ribes, be eradicated.
Since then, however, plant breeders have developed disease-resistant varieties of currants and gooseberries and tested them at U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities in Corvallis. A federal law prohibiting the cultivation of Ribes was repealed in 1966 in most states. The ban was lifted in Oregon because the state has so many native species of Ribes, including red-flowering currant and stinking currant.
The first step toward growing currants and gooseberries is choosing a site, says Strik. On the east side of the Cascades, avoid planting these fruiting shrubs in frost pockets, she says. On the west side of the Cascades, pick a spot that gets full sun.
Gooseberries and currants thrive in well-drained, loam soil amended with organic material. If you have poorly drained soil, you can plant your berry bushes in a raised bed. Plan on spacing berry plants about 3 to 4 feet apart in rows. Black currants should be spaced 4 to 5 feet apart, with rows planted at least 7 feet apart.
If you have five-needled, whitebark pines in your area, plant rust-resistant berry varieties, such as Viking red currant and Consort black currant.
To prepare your garden site, remove weeds, especially perennials. Add organic material and plant your currants or gooseberries in early spring. Manure, compost, leaves and chopped hay make good soil amendments. These plants like pH of about 6, so check soil pH before planting. Liming might be necessary in acid soils.
The Extension Service has an online publication to help home gardeners grow gooseberries and other berries, with descriptions of the best varieties for different conditions. Download the publication at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog/pdf/EC/EC1621-E.pdf.