Planting A Victorian Kitchen Garden Staple

They have been out of fashion for a long time, outshone by the black currant and then in the last few decades the red currant, the lovely white currant was in danger of becoming a footnote in berry history. For those of you who have never eaten a white currant, they are much sweeter than their cousins, and it is this what may have been the downfall of the bush. The thinner made them more susceptible to attack by birds and were seen to some extent by kitchen growers as the 'fancy fruit'. Yet, turn back the clock hands one hundred and seventeen years and white currants have some lovely recipes to found in that Victorian stalwart's Home Management book, Mrs Beeton:

 WHITE-CURRANT JELLY.
    
1534. INGREDIENTS.--White currants; to every pint of juice allow 3/4lb. of good loaf sugar.
    
Mode.--Pick the currants from the stalks, and put them into a jar; place this jar in a saucepan of boiling water, and simmer until the juice is well drawn from the fruit, which will be in from 3/4 to 1 hour. Then strain the currants through a fine cloth or jelly-bag; do not squeeze them too much, or the jelly will not be clear, and put the juice into a very clean preserving-pan, with the sugar. Let this simmer gently over a clear fire until it is firm, and keep stirring and skimming until it is done; then pour it into small pots, cover them, and store away in a dry place.
    
Time.--3/4 hour to draw the juice; 1/2 hour to boil the jelly.
Average cost, from 8d. to 10d. per 1/2-lb. pot.
Sufficient.--From 3 pints to 2 quarts of fruit should yield 1 pint of juice.
Seasonable in July and August.

Victorian kitchen garden, victorian kitchen gardener

These white berried bushes, like many fruit bushes fell out of favour with gardeners and were largely lost to many back gardens until the grow your own craze rebooted around a decade ago. Yet, the white currant still doesn't seem to be on many plots, most people opting for the more robust black currant. Their lovely cousin, the white currant, is as easy to grow. It does well in partial shade and full sun, growing to around five feet in some plants and making a spread of around 3-4 feet (if you want metric, ask a search engine to convert for you because by the time Brexit hits we may be back to rods and yards). We've opted for Ribes rubrum 'Versailles Blanche' (the cost was around £8.99 a plant but we bought two and currants are easy to take cuttings off). As they are vigorous cottage garden plants we have decided to plant them in among the rhubarb and flowers.

how to plant currants

They are incredibly easy to plant, dig a whole to the same depth of the pot, loosen up the bottom and pop in, back filling and heeling in as you go. For those of you who want a simpler version: dig hole, plonk in, put the earth dug out back around the plant, firm in with your foot - DO NOT STAMP. Here's the cultivation stuff, the fruit appears on two year old wood, so prune out any really old wood in favour of this year's growth for next year's fruit. However, we haven't heard off Mr Beeton. Was does he have to say about the problems of currants?:

victorian kitchen garden, victorian kitchen gardener

In May, Mr Beeton says of sawfly and caterpillars, the latter being a problem in white, black and red currants: 'At this period of year great injury accrues to gooseberries and currants from attacks of caterpillars, which, if left to themselves, will soon strip a bush of every leaf, leaving only the mid-rib and stalk to show where a leaf has been. To prevent inroads, the trees, when the shoots are yet young and uninjured, should be well dusted with dry lime, soot, and guano, mixed together in equal proportions, and sprinkled by means of a tin dredger. Tobacco water and suds may be used, but the dry mixture described above is thoroughly effective'...and lethal to humans and pets. Where do we start? Only the guano is probably non toxic and the idea of scraping it off the bottom of the bat cave is rather hair raising. Even with amount of birds we have around Pig Row we wouldn't collect enough but that didn't stop the Victorians from offering exotic types of fertiliser.

what is guano?, gardening

The merits of excrement from seabirds, seals, and cave-dwelling bats is still a big industry but the UK has left it in its wake; though that image is somewhat distasteful. Guano is rich in nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, excellent for plants and many were made rich by the trade in it.

gardening

However, Mr Beeton goes on to advise how you can use another fertiliser to wash your bushes in during June: 'A wash of lime or clear soot water may be applied with advantage to gooseberries and currants infested with caterpillars. These increase so rapidly that a constant watch must be kept up for sometime', that's pocket money job for Little D. However, if this blog post catches you mid infestation because you popped to the toilet and a coach load of caterpillars came in then Beeton demands that, 'The earth immediately beneath...should be watered and beaten firm, which will prevent more of the larvae from riding to attack the shoots. Where the earth is very light, a coating of clay or lime, the consistency of mortar, should be spread under the trees, and made firm to prevent their escape from the earth'. This is somewhat reminiscent of a mafia film and biologically confused when it comes to caterpillars and was probably Beeton's nod to sawfly. Though the idea of spreading mortar on the soil is somewhat worrying we have to remember that this is lime and will break down. It is actually a very good way to introduce a fertliser into your soil and can also be seen in TV series, The Victorian Kitchen Garden, where Harry embraces the idea of sulphur balls mixed with soft soap. Likewise, lime would do the same but remember that horticultural lime is still caustic to skin and gloves, masks and eye protection should be used when spreading it.

How to plant

Keep joining us for our jaunt through the Victorian Kitchen Gardener, and how we look at what we are planting now and how the Victorians planted it.

Advice is taken from Mr Beeton's Book of Garden Management and Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. Victorian ad images have been provided by reader's of Life on Pig Row, if any copyright infringement has been found to occur the images will be removed asap.

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