English Midsummer Classic Fruits

Berries and Currants

When I noticed last week that every time I walked down the garden a guilty blackbird flew noisily out of the soft fruit I knew that the redcurrants must be nearly ripe.

Many berries and currants seem to like a cool climate and slightly acid soil and this means that they generally thrive in Mid Devon.  They don't actually require a lot of work and then suddenly at this time of year they throw masses of fruit at you (and the blackbirds).

Blackcurrants are the most obvious plant to grow.  Blackcurrants provide early food for bees and fruit for us at midsummer.  A small plant may take a couple of years to establish.  After that it will require winter pruning.  This merely involves thinning out the older shoots to leave the young, productive ones.   Perhaps take out a quarter of the whole plant every year and leave well-spaced, outward growing shoots.  ( These prunings can be used to create new plants). Because your blackcurrant and soft-fruit bed is going to be a long-lasting feature of your garden you should weed it very thoroughly before planting.  The most annoying 'pest' of my soft fruit is bindweed, which is very difficult to remove once established amongst other plants.


I have at least half a dozen blackcurrant bushes and they are very productive.  This means I get a glut of the fruit.  The fruit and veg grower has to know how to deal with this mass of produce!   Blackcurrants are very versatile.   Yesterday I made a blackcurrant pie using this recipe as guide and fruit that had been in the freezer for a year.   It's really only blackcurrants and sugar between shortcrust.  Home grown blackcurrants seem to have a wonderfully intense flavour.    There is, of course, the possibility of jam if your store cupboard is not already over flowing.    If I had children around then I'd definitely make a fruit leather.  This seems very odd till you try it.  You make a fruit puree, maybe add some sugar and lemon juice and then dry it VERY slowly in a very low oven on some baking paper.   When it's done you can roll it up in the paper and you can also cut it with scissors.  It is a good way of preserving the fruit with a minimum amount of sugar.  Also if you have a Rayburn or Aga or persistent source of low heat then you can use that heat efficiently.

Blackcurrants (Ribes nigrum) are packed with nutrients, particularly vitamin C and the drink 'Ribena' was invented at the Long Ashton Research Station of the University of Bristol in 1933 and this cordial was distributed free to children during World War 2.  The leaves of the plant may also have beneficial medicinal qualities.



Redcurrant plants are generally larger than blackcurrant.   Their cultivation is similar.  There are also whitecurrants which are the same species.   There may be some variation between the cultivated varieties of these species.  Redcurrants are generally used in cooking and with my glut this week I was hoping to make a tart jelly that would be good accompaniment to fat meat such as pork or lamb.   I went with this recipe and got a sweet jam.  Next time I'll try this recipe. I have a feeling that all these published recipes contain too much sugar for me.

These currants are very versatile food - for sauces, sorbets or maybe just whizz the glut with ice and cream.


Gooseberries generally ripen a bit earlier than the currants and they also seem to do well in Mid Devon.  They are obviously not a sweet fruit and you are probably either going to cook them with sugar or else use them in cooking to take advantage of their tartness.  I think gooseberry sauce makes an excellent alternative to apple sauce with fatty or oily foods. Gooseberry fool is a great summer dessert. 

Gooseberries are cultivated like the currants (and again prunings can be used to produce new plants) but one obvious difference is that are spiny.   When you prune gooseberries try to get a gap between the branches so that you can easily pick them.


An occasional but significant pest on my gooseberries is the sawfly, which strips all the leaves.  The organic remedy seems to be to cultivate the soil under the bushes and get the birds (chickens?) to eat the larvae.

How many gooseberries does one household need?  I have 3 bushes that are all yielding at the same time.  I'll freeze the glut.

Strawberries and Raspberries

I have to admit that at present I don't 'do' strawberries, except for 2 or 3 plants that give me some very tasty berries.   If you cultivate strawberries properly   then you can get masses of fruit.   However their cultivation seems 'fussy' compared to the other fruits.  You have to manage their runners and weed the strawberry bed.  Any sign of a wet summer will give the slugs a field day in the strawberry bed and the birds will need to be kept off the ones the slugs don't get. 

Raspberries are a different matter and well suited to the Devon soils and climate.  You might want to provide sticks or wires to support them but once planted they need little work.  They are planted as woody stems or 'canes'.  The normal midsummer fruiting variety yields fruit on second year growth.  That means that you prune it back to selected first year stems every autumn.  The autumn yielding varieties (e.g. Autumn Bliss) fruit on first year growth so you prune them back to ground level every winter.  Yellow varieties are available and I suspect they are not so attractive to birds.  Raspberries will try to spread by suckering but you can always use the suckers to create new plants.

Often quoted as being a 'super-food', raspberries are very versatile in the kitchen.  Summer pudding with clotted cream!

Other berries - and the hybrids

I'm not going to write much about blackberries here.  Maybe they are the only food that the British really forage nowadays.  There are plenty in the hedges and some always sneak into my garden.  If you plant them then why not try a thornless variety?


One of my favourite berries is the Tayberry, which is a blackberry/raspberry cross.  The plants ramble like a blackberry and produce large, sweet fruit.  The fruit is so delicate that it has proved impossible to harvest by machine.  As Wikipedia has it "Tayberries are mainly grown by artisans and backyard growers."

A newcomer to my garden, just establishing itself, is the jostaberry - a blackcurrant/gooseberry hybrid.  This should be interesting! Don't forget that these plants are easily propagated by cuttings- "Buy One, Get Many Free".

Blueberries had a spell as a trendy super-food.  This is an American species, not the bilberry.   I haven't tried growing them because they need special treatment to maintain soil acidity.  This makes Exmoor a good place to grow them!


The alternative to the Blueberry is the Honeyberry of the Honeysuckle (Lonicera) family.  A native of Siberia, this is apparently a very hardy plant.  I've planted a couple of them to straggle, honeysuckle like, along a stock fence.  No pests or diseases, judged like a blueberry soaked in honey and with 5 times as much antioxidants - I'm hoping for great things from this plant.  You need more than one plant because they are not entirely self-fertile. Note that many species of the Lonicera family produce berries but not many would be judged edible.  The Snowberry, for instance, may look nice but can be very bad for you.

Suppliers of Soft Fruit Plants

Good specialist suppliers of fruit bushes are Adam's Apples at Talaton or, via the net, Ashridge Nurseries in Castle Cary.  Their websites will give you a good indication of the available varieties.

Fruit Hedge

The permaculturalists have a design principle that states "Use Edges and Value the Marginal".  It is the edges or interfaces that often prove most productive.  A thin hedge is all edge and receives sunlight, rain and air from all sides.  My permaculture-inspired fruit hedge consists of apples, tayberries, blackberries, red and blackcurrants and gooseberries.


The apples provide the 'skeleton' of the hedge.  They are supposed to be trained espalier style, along wires, to create a network of fruiting branches from about 4 feet to 8 feet high.  They are about 10 years old now and there are 10 different varieties (cookers and eaters) supplied by Adam's Apples to be productive throughout the season.  Generally my first eating apple is picked in first half of August. 

The tayberries are trained (pruned and tied) in winter to use the apples as support.  Inevitably some blackberries manage to sneak in.

At a lower level, between the apple trees I've planted blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries to fill in the gaps. 

When it all works well it is like a wall of fruit with an embarrassment of nature's riches!

Food Forest - a Permaculture Paradise

The Food Forest concept is a perrmacultural holy grail.  The idea is grow food using as many perennial plants as possible.  These require little input of energy and maintenance.  They also create a diverse environment and beneficial microclimate for other plants and creatures.   Here's a clip from a site in Canada.  It's a bit precious (see the delight with the single courgette) but gives the flavour well.

Closer to home is the Agroforestry Research Trust, which has a demonstration site at Dartington near Totnes.  Designer Martin Crawford is an excellent plantsman and the list of plants for sale is pretty special.  Worth conidering a visit.