Uncommon But Uncommonly Delicious

Some (Only) Like It Cooked

Before the black currant (Ribes nigrum) season totally winds down, I suggest you try to get a taste of the fresh berries. Do so if you’ve never tasted them. And do so even if you have tasted them and found them bad tasting.

Why taste them if you haven’t? Because if you end up liking them, they’re easy to grow and nutritious — super-rich in vitamin C (2 to 3 times as much as oranges) and other goodies.

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

Deer don’t particularly like the very aromatic stems and leaves, and birds — even my ducks — ignore the berries. They are among the few berries that thrive and bear well even in some shade. They have few insect or disease problems.

And the berries taste good, very good, some varieties better than others. My “currant” favorites are the varieties Belaruskaja and Titania, either of which I recommend tasting if you’ve previously had a bad gustatory experience with black currants.

Then again, black currants have a strong flavor. Not everyone has to like them. What Liberty Hyde Bailey, the “father of American horticulture,” wrote about apples in 1922 would apply equally well to kinds and varieties of fruits, including black currants: “Why do we need so many kinds of apples? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes.“

Then again — again — just about everybody likes black currants concocted into a jam, a pie, a syrup, or an alcoholic drink (as in casis). I like mine straight up, fresh in summer, frozen and defrosted in winter.

They Were Against the Law!!

You may have heard of some disease to which black currants, and red currants and gooseberries, are prone, and was responsible for their being illegal to grow. The disease is white pine blister rust, a fungal disease that needs two different plant hosts to survive. One host is white pine, a common forest tree. And the other is a susceptible species of Ribes, which includes currants and gooseberries.

White pine blister rust disease entered the U.S. from Europe in the early 20th century. Because white pine was such an important timber crop, a federal ban was enacted to control the disease that not only made it illegal to plant currants and gooseberries, but also sent crews scouring forests and gardens from which to rip plants out of the ground.

Alas, the ban was not very effective. Wild plants were everywhere; when conditions were suitable, disease spores could be carried hundreds of miles. And cultivated varieties of gooseberries and currants proved not to be very susceptible to the disease. The federal ban was lifted in the 1960s.

Black currants were definitely a culprit, but in the latter half of the 20th century, three varieties were bred in Canada that were immune to the disease. I grew one of them, the variety Consort, and thought it tasted good. Other people disagreed. 

A number of other varieties have since been developed that are resistant to the disease. The previously mentioned Belaruskaja and Titania are among them. I dug up my Consort plants years ago and put in Belaruskaja and Titania, and now have to share my berries.

Small Berry, Powerfully Good Flavor

I hope everyone else is enjoying at least some home-grown berries this time of year as much as I am. Berries generally are easy to grow and taste much, much, much better backyard grown than purchased because you can grow the best of them and pick them when dead ripe.

Perhaps the most perishable — and one of the most delicious — berry is the alpine strawberry. They’re a different species from common strawberries (Fragaria vesca rather than F. X ananassa).

White and red alpine strawberries

White and red alpine strawberries

They’re also quite small, with big ones about the size of a nickel. But they pack a lot of flavor and fragrance into that small package, and do so all summer long.

Problem is that birds eat the berries as soon as they’re just beginning to blush. If picked then, the flavor is akin to cotton soaked in lemon juice. Flavor and aroma don’t develop until they’re dead ripe.

So I grow WHITE alpine strawberries. Birds don’t see them and I can wait until they turn a creamy white color and the seeds darken.

3 pots of white alpine strawberries

Alpine strawberries also fruit well in pots

At that point of ripeness, the berries are very, very soft, not something that could be picked for later sale, let alone shipping. Everybody who has tastes them exclaims “wow,” or something similar.

(If you’re hungry for more growing and historical details, alpine strawberries and black currants each get a chapter in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.)

Savin’ Seeds, Killin’ Weeds


Bolting Plants

Last week I was admiring a vegetable garden where just about every lettuce plant was reaching skyward, with flower buds about to cap the tops of the spires. Isn’t that the wrong way to grow lettuce?

Bolting lettuce plantsLettuce that flowers — “goes to seed” — becomes bitter and tough. In my own garden, I aspire to have no lettuce spires by sowing lettuce seeds every couple of weeks for a regular harvest of mild-flavored, succulent leaves or heads. The plants don’t have time to bolt.

Those bolting lettuces I was admiring were in a garden in Iowa, one of the gardens at the Seed Savers Exchange (, an organization that every gardener should know about and a garden that I should have not waited so long to visit. The mission of Seed Savers Exchange is to save and preserve heirloom seeds, which are varieties that have been passed on down among generations of farmers and gardeners. Taste some heirloom tomatoes and it’s understandable why these varieties have been saved and passed on. Belgian Giant tomato may not have the smooth, round shape of a modern Big Boy tomato, but this heirloom is well worth growing for its complex, sweet-tart flavor.

One way that Seed Savers fulfills their mission is by growing and saving many varieties of seed. Hence the bolting lettuces I saw there. Some varieties of vegetables, such as most squashes, tomatoes, and cucumbers, spread their pollen too freely. To keep these varieties seed “true,” contamination from foreign pollen is prevented by growing all plants of a particular variety in fine-mesh, insect-proof enclosures.Seed growing at SeedsaversNetted enclosure to prevent cross-pollination

The Seed Saver mission is also fulfilled by so-called “participatory preservation.” An over 13,000 member network of gardeners grow seeds and share them — to the tune of over 23,000 varieties — through an online seed exchange. Anyone can browse the listings but only members can request the seeds.

Not that non-members don’t have access to any of these seeds. Every year, Seed Savers Exchange publishes a seed catalog, from which anyone can order seeds. The names of the old varieties themselves make some of the seeds irresistible: Tolli’s Sweet Italia pepper (better name than flavor), Green Arrow Pea (excellent flavor and high yielding), Jelly Melon cucumber (very interesting name and appearance, but I have yet to try it).

What To Do With Weeds

Ten days absence from my garden, with warm, sunny weather interspersed with rainy days adding up to two inches of rainfall, wrought big changes. Sweet corn and polenta corn reached well over 5 feet in height, flopping stems of staked tomatoes were in desperate need of tying, blueberry stems bowed down with their weight of plump, ripe berries, and  . . . weeds were abundant.

Ninety percent of the weeds were Canadian thistle, crabgrass, purslane, Purslanepigweed, common yellow wood sorrel (Oxalis sricta) and — my worst weed —  creeping woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata). I’m jerking each thistle out with a gloved hand. Yes, roots left in the ground will resprout. I’ll just keep jerking them out until they expend all their stored fuel and before new shoots can start pumping new fuel down to the roots, and the plants will die. I poke my hori-hori knife right at the roots of crabgrass and toss the severed tops into the compost bucket.

Yellow wood sorrel is easy, and sort of fun, to remove; pull the plant and the whole thing comes out easily. Creeping woodsorrel is another story: With brittle stems that creep just below ground level and dirt-colored leaves, it’s hard to see and hard to remove. Most effective is a spray of household vinegar, repeated each time new stems grow.

The way to remove purslane and pigweed is to harvest it — yes, for eating. Unfortunately, I don’t like purslane, so I weed it. But pigweed is a delicious cooked green. I wish I had more of this weed; it cooks down a lot and the harvest was over after two dinners.

Bye, Bye Black Currants

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

I mourn the passing — okay, “mourn” is a bit too strong — of fresh blackcurrants. The harvest was bountiful and long lasting,  but now is over. Over twenty quarts of them are in the freezer but those are for eating through the winter. 



Tea For Plants?

Has your garden had its tea this morning? Tea is all the rage for plants and soils these days. Compost tea. And not just any old compost tea, but tea you steep in water that’s aerated just like an aquarium.

Compost tea steeped the old way, by hanging a burlap sack of compost in a bucket of water for a few days, was one way to provide a liquid feed to plants. The liquid feed wasn’t particularly rich but did provide a wide range of nutrients that leached from the compost, and was convenient for feeding potted plants.COMPOST TEA MAKING

The new, aerated compost teas are billed as an efficient way to transfer beneficial microorganisms from compost into the soil or onto plant leaves. After all, spraying a little tea is less work than pitchforking tons of compost. In the soil, the little guys can spread their goodness, fighting off plant diseases and generally making plants healthier. Or so goes the logic and the promotional material.

Aerated compost tea (ACT) is big business these days, with people selling compost tea, compost tea brewers, and services for testing compost teas. Compost tea is more than big business; it’s bordering on religion (as anyone who criticizes compost tea soon finds out).

In fact, aerated compost tea is not the panacea it’s trumped up to be. Many independent studies have found the tea to be of no benefit, or even detrimental. Occasionally, human pathogens have been found lurking in compost tea.

In The Interest Of Science

I have a friend who believes in compost tea, so in the interest of science I agreed, on his urging, to try it out. To make sure any lack of efficacy could not be blamed on the tea itself, he sent me some compost, a brewer, and instructions for brewing and application. Interestingly, he told me not to try it out in my vegetable garden, because my garden was “too organic”(!)

Long story short: I applied tea to my lawn and to some vegetables in a relatively poor soil at a local farm, and the result was . . . (drum roll) . . . nothing, nada, rien, zip.

Tea Doesn’t Make Sense

All the buzz about compost tea bypasses the fundamental question of why compost tea would limit plant disease when sprayed on plant leaves? The theory goes that the good microorganisms colonize leaves to displace and/or fight off the bad guys.

Compost tea contains some of the microorganisms from the compost that made the tea. These microorganisms are normally found in soils and, of course, composts. But why, evolutionarily speaking, would these microorganisms provide any benefit on plant leaves, for disease control or any other purpose? Furthermore, these microorganisms evolved in a dark, nutrient and moisture rich environment. Why would they survive on a sunny, dry, nutrient poor leaf? The same goes for soils: If the soil has the right environment for a particular set of microorganisms, they generally are there; apply microorganisms to a soil lacking the needed environment and those microorganisms cannot survive.

Occasional research papers report positive effects of compost tea for thwarting plant diseases. I contend that if you spray just about anything on a plant leaf and measure enough plants closely enough, you’ll turn up some measurable response to the spray. That response might be very transitory and very small, but, with the right equipment or instrumentation, you’ll measure some effect. Whether that effect is of biological or practical significance is another story.

With that, I suggest someone begin a series of experiments to see the effect on plant diseases of spraying — say — milk solutions on plant leaves. Wait! A web search tells me that milk sprays have been tested and are, in fact, effective in controlling plant viruses, powdery mildew, and other diseases. In contrast to compost tea, which provides microorganisms but little of the food they need to survive, milk provides a smorgasbord of nutrients to whatever microorganisms tag along for the ride.

On the basis of the evidence, I’d go with milk rather than tea for my plants. And I’ll take my milk without tea.

Black Currants, Mmmmm

Moving on to something noncontroversial, my first black currants of the season ripened June 26th this year. Come to think of it, black currants may not be noncontroversial. Black currants have a strong, very

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

distinctive flavor, loved by some people, abhorred by others. The flavor starts out refreshingly tart as your teeth break the skin and then becomes sweeter and cooling, with a rich, resiny flavor, as you continue.

I count myself among the lovers of black currants, right up there

 with blueberries in my book. Black currants earned a whole chapter in my book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. Although humans are divided on whether or not they enjoy fresh black currants, pretty much everyone loves the fruit concocted into jams and baked goods. They also flavor the liqueur cassis, I’ve used them to flavor beer.Black currant & Forget-me-not

Let’s be clear about the fruit in question. Black currants are not the same fruit as “dried currants.” Those currants are raisins made from dried Black Corinthe grapes, a name which was bastardized to “black currant.”

Black currants are borne on medium-sized bushes whose leaves, when brushed against, emit a strong, also resiny aroma. The leaves are sometimes brewed into tea — for humans, not plants.


How Can Something So Nutritious Taste So Good?

    Black currants are a berry brimming with vitamin C (in comparison, oranges are like water) and other health goodies, with an intense, rich, to me resin-y flavor that pairs well with dark chocolate or, on bread, with peanut or any other nut butter. Not everyone enjoys the fresh flavor, but that’s okay. Not everyone needs to enjoy every kind of fruit.

Belaruskaja black currants

Belaruskaja black currants

    What the doyen of horticulture, Liberty Hyde Bailey, wrote almost 100 years ago about apple varieties also applies to fruits in general: “Why do we need so many kinds of [fruits]? Because there are so many folks. A person has a right to gratify his legitimate tastes . . .  There is merit in variety itself.”
    With that said, just about everyone does like black currants once they’ve been cooked and sweetened to make jam, juice, pie, and the like, or soaked in alcohol to make a liqueur (créme de cassis). My preference is for the raw berries, eaten straight up, in my cereal, or smooshed on bread as an instant jam.
    Black currants have more to recommend them than only good flavor. In contrast to most fruit plants, they fruit well in shade. Look down my row of pawpaw trees, and in the shade between every two of them you’ll see a black currant bush thriving. In contrast to just about every other plant, black currants are deer resistant. My ducks and chickens, as well as wild birds, leave the berries alone.

Row of pawpaw & black currant

Row of pawpaw & black currant

   In fact, few significant pests attack the plant or the fruit — except for a disease called white pine blister rust. This disease needs two different host plants to complete its life cycle, a susceptible variety of currant or gooseberry, and a white pine. Because the disease can kill white pines, an important timber crop, gooseberries and currants were once banned by federal law. That’s no longer the case, one reason being that most cultivated varieties of gooseberries and currents are not very susceptible to the disease.
    Black currant is very susceptible to the blister rust disease — except for some rust-resistant or immune varieties. The first of these, Consort, Crusader, and Coronet, developed in the middle of the 20th century, were not very tasty just popped into your mouth raw. Newer rust-resistant varieties, such as Belaruskaja and Titania, are delicious any which way, and along with blueberry are my favorite fruits.

Bye, Bye, Black Currants

    Sad to say, black currants are finished for the season. That’s their one deficiency: They come and go too quickly. Still, bags stuffed full of black currants are now in the freezer, not to be opened until Christmas.
    And I can’t complain. Branches of blueberry bushes are bowed to the ground under their weight of fruit, and will continue to do so until almost the end of summer. And gooseberries still have a a week or so more of fruiting.  Mulberries, too, have a few more weeks, except that the birds are eating most of them.

Red and white currants

Red and white currants

    Red, pink, and white currants started fruiting with the black currants, and will hang in good eating condition for weeks to come. Red, pink, and white currants are different varieties of the same fruit (like Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples), a different species and quite different in flavor and bearing habit from black currants. Most of the reds, whites, and pinks will hang from the branches for weeks because the berries, looking like shiny, translucent chains of beads, the seeds visible seemingly floating within when backlit by the sun, are almost too pretty to harvest. Also, not being my favorite fruits, they get to hang without being picked, especially with the abundance of other, tastier (to me), berries, an opinion that might change if I had some skill in jelly-making.

Red currant espalier

Red currant espalier

I’m an Amateur, for Sure

    Liberty Hyde Bailey would be proud of the abundance and variety of fruit here. That’s one great advantage of planting your own: You get to choose what pleases your palate as far as kinds of fruits and varieties of fruits, and you get a hedge against a poor harvest from one or a couple of fruits any year. Hence the Macoun and Hudson’s Golden Gem apples here, the grapes, and gooseberries (a dozen varieties of each), gumis, raspberries, kiwis, seaberries, and elderberries, among many other fruits.
    Again, quoting Liberty Hyde Bailey: “We give the public indifferent fruits, and thereby neither educate the taste nor stimulate the desire for more . . . Just now [1922] we are trying to increase the consumption of apples . . . it cannot be accomplished by customary commercial methods. To eat an apple a day is a question of affections and emotions.”

Summer berries

Summer berries

    Professor Bailey had great faith in the role of the hobbyist, the amateur (in the true meaning of the word, the lover) in fruit growing. Try it.
    One route to cultivating a greater appreciation for fruit and know-how for growing them is to join North American Fruit Explorers, a band of fruit “nuts” drawn from both academia and backyards, but all amateurs. For more information about some lesser know fruits, including black currant, I recommend my own book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden.


 More Fruits to Plant!?

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

Pawpaw, tastes like crème brûlée

   You’d think, after so many years of gardening and a love of fruits being such a important part of said gardening, that by now I would have planted every fruit I might ever have wanted to plant. Not so!
    Hard to imagine, but even here in the 21st century, new fruits are still coming down the pike. I don’t mean apples with grape flavor (marketed as grapples), a mango nectarine (actually, just a nectarine that looks vaguely like a mango), or strawmato (actually a strawberry-shaped tomato).
    There are plenty of truly new fruits, in the sense of kinds of fruits hardly known to most people, even fruit mavens. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of them. Aronia is a beautiful fruit that makes a beautiful juice, so it’s getting more press these days. I grew it and thought it tasted awful. Goji’s another one in the public’s eye for it’s many health benefits and ease of growing; it also tasted terrible and I also escorted that plant to the compost pile.
    Some lesser known kin of raspberry had greater potential. I planted arctic raspberry, which grows as a groundcover and has been used in breeding for the good flavor it imparts to its offspring. The plant never bore for me. Salmonberry and thimbleberry similarly had gustatory potential but never bore well in my garden. I’ll give these plants another try someday.
    I’m tentative about honeyberries, which are blue-fruited, edible species of honeysuckle that bear young, fruit early in the season, and weather cold to minus 40 degrees F.. The “blueberry-like fruit” is so only in being blue. I planted a couple of bushes about 20 years ago and was not impressed with their yield or flavor — but I admit to neglecting the plants. More importantly, a lot of breeding has been done to improve the plants since I put my bushes in the ground. Stay tuned for my tastebuds’ report on the flavor of recently planted Blue Mist, Blue Moon, and Blue Sea honeyberries.

Some Fruits Are So Easy — And Tasty

    Reading what I just wrote might give the impression that planting any fruit except apples, peaches, and cherries — the usual, that is — leads to either failure or tentative flavor. Again, not so!

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

Persimmons, nashi, figs, and grapes

 Uncommon fruits adaptable over large swathes of the country that are easy to grow and have excellent flavor include pawpaw, American persimmon, gooseberry, black currant, hardy kiwifruit, Nanking cherry, and alpine strawberry — all documented in detail in my book Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden. All these plants grow and bear with little or no intervention on my part (and are available from such nurseries as and

Seaberries on bush in fall

Seaberries on bush in fall

    Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides) didn’t make it into the book, which includes only “dessert fruits,” that is, those you can enjoy by just popping them into your mouth. But I’m happy I gave these bushes some of my real estate. Juiced, diluted, and sweetened, the delectable flavor is akin to rich orange juice mixed with pineapple. What’s more, the bushes are decorative and tolerate neglect, cold, drought, and deer.

New Fruits

    This spring I’m planting a new kind of a somewhat familiar fruit, back raspberries. They’re also called blackcaps, and grow wild along woodland borders, which is where I gather my harvest. (A ripe blackcap comes off the plant with a hollow core, like a thimble, in contrast to a ripe blackberry, whose core persists.)
    Blackcaps have perennial roots but their stems are typically biennial, growing only leaves their first year, fruiting in midsummer of their second year, then dying.

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

Blackcaps, ripe last summer

    Two new blackcap varieties, Niwot ( and Ohio’s Treasure (, do this one better: They start to bear on new canes towards the end of the first season, then bear again on those same canes, now one-year-old, in midsummer of the following year. You reap two crops per year, one in midsummer and one in late summer going on into fall. Or, for easier care but only one crop per year, the whole planting is mowed to the ground each year for a late summer-fall harvest.
    These two-crop blackcaps, just like two-crop (sometimes called everbearing) red and yellow raspberries, have the added advantage of bearing their first crop the same year that they are planted. My plan is to plant in mid-April, even though right now more than a foot of snow still blankets the ground.

Vegetables Are So Easy

    Snow or no snow, I’m sowing vegetable seeds, the second wave of the season. (My seed sources are,,, and Today, the lineup includes the new varieties (for me) Tuscan Baby Leaf kale, Tiburon Ancho hot pepper, and Round of Hungary and Odessa Market sweet peppers. With encores for their good past performance are Gustas Brussels sprouts, Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, Winterbor kale, and Carmen Sweet, Sweet Italia, and Italian Peperocini sweet peppers.