Sweet Success

– Posted in: Garden Design

GooseberryJuly definitely isn’t one of my favorite months. It’s hot, and it’s humid. It’s bone dry, or else we get wicked thunderstorms. There are weeds, and leaf spots, and Japanese beetles. But, it’s not all bad: In fact, it’s prime time for grazing through the garden. Not being much of a cook, I’m a big fan of stuff that I can eat right off the plant—no peeling, chopping, mixing, or heating involved. And I’m particularly fond of the sweet treats: the fruits that are in prime form for picking right about now.

June usually gets the credit for the best strawberries, and yes, the fruits were good then, even if the berries were a little small because of the dry weather we had this spring. The great thing about ‘Tristar’, though, is that it keeps bearing fruit through the rest of the growing season, as long as we get some rain. There’s not a lot of fruit at any one time, but finding a half-dozen berries a day perfectly fits my needs. The ‘Golden Alexandria’ alpine strawberries I started from seed (from Chiltern Seeds) last year are bearing now, too, but the tiny red berries are so pretty with the golden foliage that I can’t bear to pick them. It looks like the ‘Yellow Wonder’ alpines that I sowed indoors in early March and set out in mid-May will be in fruit in a week or two, so I can pick from those instead. I had started the “regular” strawberries ‘Sarian’ (from Johnny’s Selected Seeds) and ‘Temptation’ (from Chiltern) from seed at the same time, and they too are flowering and setting fruit now. Strawberries as annuals—who knew? I may end up enjoying even more strawberries in August than I did in June!

Red currantSome of my favorite tree and bush fruits for picking now are left over from June, such as the ‘Surefire’ cherries. I remember them being tasty fairly early in previous years, but this June, they didn’t have much flavor, so left them for the birds. They didn’t want them either, though, so they just hung there for several weeks, and now that they’re just about over-ripe, they’re terrific. The ‘Jonkheer van Tets’ red currants are still good, too. Every year, I’m anxious to sample them as soon as they color up in early June, but I’ve learned to leave them until mid-June, at least, so they sweeten up before sampling. My oldest plant was really loaded with fruit this year, so I’ve been enjoying a handful or two every evening for several weeks now, and there is still some left. The ‘Primus’ white currant I bought last year fruited for the first time this summer, and I think I like it even better than the reds. The long chains (technically, “strigs”) of pale, translucent berries just keep getting better the longer they hang there, although I’ve noticed that a few of them are starting to wither, so I suppose I should finish picking soon.

The gooseberries have been a great treat, too. I can see why ‘Invicta’ is considered one of the best: The pale green berries were large and sweet, something like a tart grape with a bit of a kick. They sure didn’t look promising when they first formed, because they were so bristly that I was hesitant to even touch them, but the hairs were hardly noticeable by harvest time. They finished bearing around the first of July, and right after that, the ‘Hinnomaki Red’ berries suddenly colored up. Not knowing what to expect from these new plants, I had been sampling them occasionally since mid-June and wasn’t impressed. But now that they’ve turned a rich, deep red, they are a real treat. You’d think I’d have realized from the name that they needed to turn red to be ripe. I expect to be enjoying them for another two weeks or so, and I definitely plan to buy more for next year. (I’ve gotten almost all of my fruiting plants from Raintree Nursery and had tremendous success with them.)

White currantSpace isn’t an issue in my garden, but if I had to limit myself, I’d choose the ‘Primus’ currants first, because their flavor is exceptional and the shrub is good-looking, too. The ‘Invicta’ gooseberry would be a close second—it tastes as good or even better, but in my southeastern PA garden, at least, gooseberries drop all of their leaves by late July. As much as I appreciate their fruits, I have to think that their bare, thorny stems aren’t especially attractive. If you’re selecting currants or gooseberries for snacking in your own garden, read the descriptions carefully to find those that are recommended for eating fresh or as “dessert” types. If you see only “for pies or preserves,” they’re probably not going to be sweet enough for enjoyable grazing. Also, be aware that some areas still have restrictions on growing these fruits because they are an alternate host for white pine blister rust. You should be able to find out from your local Cooperative Extension Service office if it’s ok to buy and plant them where you live.

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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