At Home in the Adirondacks 2012

Fruitful Endeavor

Beautiful shrubs for edible landscaping

Photograph from iStock

Fruiting shrubs are an integral part of the edible landscape—a garden or series of plantings designed with beauty as well as practical use in mind. The less common backyard fruits such as red currants, elderberries and gooseberries are on the upswing now with home gardeners everywhere. They are drawn to the idea of growing cultivated plants that add substance to any setting, whether they are integrated into a border or grown as a stand-alone accent or as an informal hedge. New varieties give the gardener more choices: To conserve space, gooseberries and red currants can be espaliered, trained to grow against a wall. Breeders have been busy with elderberries: There are golden or dark purple-leaf ones that become handsome small trees. Black Lace, with Japanese maple–type foliage, carries tiers of pink umbels. In other varieties, the wide, sweetly scented flowers are pure white.

Among their other virtues, these shrubs are very hardy. Not even the fiercest North Country winter deters them.

You can turn plump gooseberries or translucent red currants into the best jams and jellies you have ever tasted. Because they possess a great store of natural pectin, they are easy to jell—there is no need to add commercial pectin to the pot. You can create marvelous desserts—not only fruit pies and cobblers, but gelatins, ice creams and sorbets. Among fruit sauces, elderberry “sass” is my favorite topping for pancakes. The pancakes themselves benefit from the addition of a handful of fluffy elderflowers, substituted for part of the flour. However you decide to use your fruit, it will give you a lift just to behold the bushes’ graceful forms, bursts of blooms and branches bending under the weight of ripe berries.

Red Currants
Red currants did not survive the transition from “old-fashioned” farming to high-tech agribusiness. These juicy berries deteriorate rapidly in transit, are harder to pick than any other small fruits and grow best in cold climates.

In the early 20th century nearly every home had at least one red currant bush, and local markets sold thousands of bushels of currants each year. Every well-stocked cupboard included jars of the clear red jelly, rich in vitamin C, esteemed as much for gracing a roast as for soothing a fever or a burn. Fashions are cyclical, and once more red currants are favored by home gardeners. The shrubs are attractive in any season and they bear well—you need only a few for a good harvest.

A word of caution: Red currants, along with black currants and gooseberries, belong to the genus Ribes and may carry the fungus white-pine blister rust. If there are white pines on your property or in your area, plant currants 1,000 feet away from the trees. Check with your county Cooperative Extension office to find out if there are any local restrictions.

Planting: Buy two or three plants—perhaps an early- and a later-ripening va­riety. Red Lake is commonly grown, and two bushes will produce six to 12 quarts of currants. Red currants do best if the shrubs are planted on a slope with northern exposure, providing just the right amount of sun, shade and drainage. They thrive in rich clay loam.

Plant in early spring when bushes are dormant. Trim plants to four to six inches tall and put them in a bucket of water while preparing holes. Dig holes about five feet apart and deep enough to accommodate the roots below soil level. If you have several plants, dig holes in rows about six to 10 feet apart. The small rootstocks will, in a few years’ time, spread out into handsome bushes that will fill in the empty areas.

Add a shovelful of well-rotted compost to each hole, water the holes and set in the plants, carefully placing the roots over a small mound of soil. Firmly tamp down the earth around them.

Cultivating: Spread a two-foot-wide ring of well-rotted compost or manure around each plant the following spring, the first season of growth, when the ground has warmed up. On top of the compost put down a layer of thick paper, heavy cardboard or worn-out nonsynthetic carpet and then a layer of old hay or straw to hold down the barrier. All these layers will eventually break down to form a nutritious mulch that will prevent weeds. Renew these layers once a year in spring or fall.

As the bushes grow, the bottom stems will spread out close to the ground. Keep the grass well mown around the shrubs so the fruit on the lower branches does not become entangled.

In early spring prune dead wood as well as stems that look old. Until they are three years old, red currant bushes should have no more than 10 to 12 stems. Prune less-vigorous older stems. Trim the lower branches of mature bushes to encourage an upright growth habit. Or you may prefer the sprawling habit. Such bushes are graceful as they sweep to the ground, and their bottom branches may layer themselves or set down roots.

In spring you can increase your supply of plants. Sever the rooted stem from the parent plant, and replant it in a prepared bed that is protected from the wind. Set these babies close together in rows and plant them deep enough to accommodate their roots. Water them well and transfer to a permanent site the following spring.

In June, when the stems form flower buds, watch for the currant sawfly, whose larvae look like small green inchworms. These insects can strip a plant of its leaves in no time. Pyola is an effective, organic spray that attacks insect adults, larvae and eggs.

Harvesting: Red currants grow in clusters, turning from green to pale red to bright red. The fruit at the top of the bush usually ripens first. In the Adirondacks, red currants may be harvested in midsummer.

Thumbprint Cookies
Makes 2½ dozen
1 full cup butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ cup sugar
2 scant cups flour
2 egg yolks
Red currant jelly (see below)

In a large bowl, cream butter; beat in sugar. Add egg yolks and beat. Add in vanilla and flour. Roll dough into balls the size of walnuts.

Place balls fairly close together on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Press a thumbprint into center of each and fill with red currant jelly. Bake in a 375° oven for 8 to 10 minutes.

Red Currant Jelly
Makes 1½ to 2 pints
2½ quarts red currants with stems
1 cup water

In a large preserving pot, combine red currants and water. Boil, covered, until currants are white, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Strain mixture through a jelly bag and let drip for several hours or overnight.

Measure juice and cook 4 cups at a time in a large stainless-steel pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Stir in ¾ cup sugar to each cup juice. Bring to a boil again. Skimming as necessary, boil, uncovered, for about 15 minutes or less or until a small amount sheets off a metal spoon.

Remove jelly from heat and let subside. Stir, skimming if desired. Fill hot scalded jars to ¼ inch from the top and seal at once with snap lids and screw bands. Process in a boiling-water bath or steam canner for 10 minutes.

Gooseberries were grown for hundreds of years in rural gardens and, in the 18th century, were prized for medicinal purposes, as well as for making jams, jellies and pies.

Gooseberries have much to recommend them: their bushes require only a small area to produce an abundant crop; their culinary uses are varied; and their high pectin content guarantees success even for the inexperienced jam or jelly maker. Whether in leaf, bud, bloom or berry, the bush is attractive, suitable for planting around a house foundation or even in a corner of a cottage garden. Depending on the climate, a healthy bush will produce abundantly for 20 years and will stay ornamental even longer than that.
Like red currants, gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes and are alternate hosts to white-pine blister rust. Plant gooseberries 1,000 feet from any white-pine stands.

Planting: There are only a few varieties of gooseberries commonly available. They vary in color (from green to red), in size and in time of ripening; some varieties have fewer thorns and are easier to pick.

Plant with a northern exposure. Gooseberries thrive where it is cool, though not shady. The roots appreciate the good drainage and protection of a slope: they need to be shielded from excessive sun, which could scald them, and excessive shade, which could cause mildew. Soil that is too wet for other fruits suits gooseberries as long as the roots are not standing in water.

Plant gooseberry shrubs in spring, when they are dormant. Trim rootstocks to four to six inches and put each in a bucket of water while preparing holes. Make the holes five feet apart and deep enough to accommodate the roots. Add a shovelful of compost to each hole, water them and plant rootstocks in a little mound of earth.

Cultivating: Mulching helps eliminate weeds; creates cool, moist conditions; and builds up the soil. In a two-foot-wide ring around each plant, set down a layer of well-rotted compost or manure; a layer of heavy paper, cardboard or worn-out nonsynthetic carpet; and a layer of hay or straw. Renew this mulch each spring or fall.

Do not do much pruning the first few years after planting. In early spring, remove dead or damaged branches with hand clippers. After the third year, when the gooseberry bushes get into high production, prune more. The older the plant gets, the more you should prune every spring. Pay attention to the center of the plant, which should be kept airy because crowded branches encourage diseases, powdery mildew in particular. A wet summer, together with a bush with too many stems, spells trouble. After removing the dead and damaged branches, remove any that are more than three years old so that the bush is left with a combination of one-, two- and three-year-old branches. Fruit is produced on one-year-old wood and on the spurs of older wood. Also, many books recommend leaving only five to seven shoots per plant, but more than a dozen can be left on vigorous bushes if they are not overcrowded.

I prefer the sprawling habit because I like to find hidden treasures. There is always the possibility that the low-lying branches will layer themselves and send out roots into the ground, though the hardier American gooseberry varieties do not layer themselves so readily as European types. Roots can grow from more than one place on a single branch, so with judicious cutting you can propagate several little plants.

Harvesting: Like all fruits, gooseberries have three stages of ripening: underripe, ripe and overripe. It is difficult for the novice to figure out exactly when to pick the fruit, so keep the following pointers in mind: Underripe gooseberries are green, quite hard and should be picked for jelly making. When gooseberries reach the ripe stage, they are still firm but not as hard, and their color has not changed noticeably. Keep these for jams, preserves, pies and tarts. By the time the berries have fallen to the ground they’ll be quickly harvested by eager birds. The fruit is supposed to be sweetest at this stage, but only the birds know for sure.

Gooseberry Jam
Makes 1½ pints
3 cups gooseberries
Water or red currant juice
2 cups sugar
Pinch salt

In a wide-mouth stainless-steel pot, simmer gooseberries, covered, in a little water or red currant juice to prevent scorching. Mash if desired. When berries are bubbling, stir in sugar and salt. Bring to a boil. Stirring occasionally, boil, uncovered, for 10 to 15 minutes or until mixture thickens and begins to cling to the bottom of the pot.

Remove jam from heat and let subside. Stir, skimming if desired. Fill hot scalded jars to ¼ inch from the top and seal at once with snap lids and screw bands. Process in a boiling-water bath or steam canner for 15 minutes.

Gooseberry Ice Cream
Makes 3 quarts
3½ cups green gooseberries
1½ cups sugar
1 quart cream

In a pot, combine gooseberries and sugar. Cover and stew, removing lid halfway through cooking. Add more sugar to taste if desired (or use part honey). Put cooked gooseberries through a food mill and let cool.

Meanwhile, in the top of a double boiler, heat cream over a little boiling water. Let cool as well.

In a bowl, combine gooseberries and cream; stir well. Turn mixture into chilled container of hand ice-cream maker and churn until handle is hard to turn. Ripen for 1 to 2 hours in a cool spot, with the container packed in ice and covered with a burlap bag. Or make a smaller amount in an ice cream machine.

The elderberry often occupied a favored spot in the old-fashioned fruit garden—perhaps a corner where it could grow undisturbed, its branches spreading to eight feet when laden with fruit, the plant itself growing about 12 feet tall. In early July the glorious elderblossoms, or elderblow, were picked for wine and jelly making, the buds were pickled, the florets were used in baking. Later in the season, before the first frost, the clusters of shiny purple-black fruit were picked mainly for wine, although elderberry jelly and pie were in great favor. The experienced cook knew just where to find the hard sour green apples that, when combined with elderberries, made a firm, flavorful jelly. (Unlike other small fruits, elderberries do not contain much natural pectin.) Large trays of ripe elderberries were set out in the sun to dry so that elderberry pie could be enjoyed throughout the winter.

When the creamy white umbels of elderflowers bloom, they embody the characteristics of summer—long sweet-scented sunny days. Then later, before the first frost, the ripening clusters of dark berries remind us that shorter days, cold nights and the end of the growing season are close at hand. Even if you never harvest a single flower or berry, you may enjoy growing this bush just to look at it.

Cultivated elderberries are widely available at nurseries. There are several ornamental varieties in my garden that are wonderful landscaping shrubs, including pink-flowered Black Lace and golden elderberry, a heavy bearer. Modern breeding has made elderberries even more attractive for preserving by enlarging the berries and shortening the ripening time of some varieties—Nova, for example. Elderberries are hardy, easy to grow and adaptable to a wide range of soils and growing conditions.

Planting: Elderberries thrive best in fertile, moist and loamy soil. If your soil is heavy, try to plant rootstocks on a slope, preferably one with a southern exposure. If you can devote a whole south-facing bank to the planting, the reward at blossom time will more than pay for the space. A slope will not only provide good drainage, but will help shelter the plants from early frost—important with later-ripening elderberries—and diseases such as mildew. Plant two varieties for best pollination. Nova is often planted with York, a cultivar with extra-large berries.

To plant, use a sharp spade and dig holes deep enough to receive the roots. Space the plants at least six feet apart, with eight to 10 feet between rows. Do not let the roots dry out; submerge them in a bucket of water until all the plants are set in the holes. Water each hole, place the plant in the center, spreading out the roots. Fill and cover the hole with soil and tamp the earth firmly. Water again, slowly. Add a ring of mulch. Once the elderberry plant is well established, in two or three years, the mulch need not be renewed if the soil is fairly fertile.

Cultivating: The only thing to do after mulching is to make sure the young plants receive enough water, particularly at fruiting time. If it is especially dry in late summer or early fall, water to ensure good production.

Elderberry bushes will propagate themselves by sending up shoots outside the ring of the original roots. Allow the bush to spread in a two-foot circle, then remove all shoots that grow outside this area. Dig down with a sharp spade to remove the new stem and part of the old root and replant these in a nursery bed or in their permanent place, making sure the soil has adequate drainage. Early each spring, remove dead and winter-damaged stalks.

Harvesting: To harvest the blossoms for wine, jelly or cooking, choose umbels in which most of the florets are newly opened; the flowers on mature umbels shatter easily. Cut the stalks with scissors and store the umbels with their stalks in a plastic bag in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them.

Watch out for the birds! In September, gathering for their journey south, they will be eager to fill up on your el­derberries. Netting is the most effective way to keep away birds—if used properly. Plastic or nylon netting is good because it is sturdy and can be reused. Cheesecloth is more effective because the mesh is smaller. Several mature shrubs will provide an abundant crop, thousands and thousands of berries.

As harvest time nears, check elderberry clusters every day. The berries on each cluster do not all ripen at once, so choose clusters in which most have ripened. Cut them off with scissors, leaving some stalk, as with harvesting elderflowers; the stalks of really ripe fruit break off easily. To separate ber­ries from stem, freeze clusters and pull off the berries while the fruit is still very cold.

Elderberry Wine
The following proportions make a medium-dry red wine; increase or decrease the amount of sugar for a sweeter or drier wine. Use clean, dead-ripe elderberries.
3½ pounds elderberries
1 tablespoon baking or wine yeast
1 lemon, sliced
7 pints water

In a large preserving pot, combine elderberries, lemon and water. Simmer, covered, until fruit is soft, mashing to expel juice. Strain mixture through a jelly bag and let drip overnight. Squeeze bag to extract trapped liquid. Simmer pulp, covered, and strain again.

Dissolve yeast in a little warm water. Combine and measure liquid from ex­tractions. Place in a large crock or plastic bucket and stir in 2 pounds sugar to each gallon juice. Add yeast and stir mixture again. Cover container with a plastic bag and tie. Let mixture ferment at 70°–75° until obvious bubbling ceases.

Siphon contents into glass jugs, using cotton plugs as stoppers. Store wine at 60°–65°, away from direct sunlight. When wine stops bubbling completely, in about a month, resiphon into permanent bottles. Seal and store in a cool, dark, dry place.

Elderflower Fritters
Serves 2
Elderflowers with stems
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup milk
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
Dash salt
Orange juice
Icing sugar

On the morning of a sunny day, cut clusters of fully opened elderflowers, leaving about a 6-inch stem. Refrigerate in a plastic bag until 1 hour before cooking.

In a bowl, combine brandy and cinnamon stick. Add and submerge flower heads. Let stand for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, make batter by mixing together egg yolks, milk, flour, salt and sugar.

Drain flower heads and shake dry. Holding each cluster by its stem, dip flowers in batter. Fry them immediately in 2 inches hot fat in a cast-iron frying pan. (Fry up to 3 clusters at once.) Remove when lightly browned, drain on paper, and sprinkle with a little icing sugar and a bit of orange juice. Serve at once.

Excerpted from Jo Ann Gardner’s The Old-Fashioned Fruit Garden: The Best Way to Grow, Preserve, and Bake with Small Fruit (Skyhorse Publishing, 2012), available at

Gardner wrote about growing hardy roses in this magazine’s June 2012 issue. She lives in Westport with her husband Jigs, co-author of Gardens of Use & Delight (Fulcrum Publishing, 2002), about their experiences landscaping a backcountry farm.

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