Down the street from us is a log chalet that looks right out of the Bavarian Alps, except without the red geraniums spilling over window boxes. Houses like this are not a rare sight in the United States. They tie German-Americans to their roots and make them feel at home.
For me, my berry patch fulfills that same function. These berry bushes are my German corner, my little piece of home turf. With its red and black currant bushes, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, and a row of tall elderberries tucked into a hillside, this berry patch connects me to my most cherished summer memories from Germany.
I still crush a couple of black currants leaves between my fingers when I walk by the patch, and then inhale their signature aroma. This makes me remember when as a kid my friend and I – despite warnings from our parents – picked unripe black currants from a neighbor’s garden and got quite sick. I love standing on the hill above the elderberries, which are in full bloom right now, their delicate sweet scent wafting over to me as they sway in the summer wind.
In a previous blog post I wrote how I owe my beginnings as a gardener to those berries because I could not find them here in the northeastern United States.
Things have changed for the better since I started the berry patch in 2004. Today I sometimes see elderberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries at farmers’ markets, albeit at a steep price. And luckily for us gardeners, more nurseries have started to carry the plants.
I should note that in Germany, too, you don’t just walk into any grocery store to buy these berries by the bucket. Compared to strawberries, the second most important commercially grown fruit in Germany after apples, the domestic production of these berries is very small. Like many others, my father grew the red and black currants and gooseberries for our own consumption in our garden.
I make no secret of it: the berry patch is work. Gooseberries with their long, needle-like spikes are the worst. No matter how much I cover my hands and arms, I always end up with bloody scratches when I prune or harvest them.
Also, these berries require patience. A few years ago I was given three jostaberry plants (a German crossbreed between a gooseberry and a black currant). Last year there was exactly one jostaberry; this year the shrubs might yield a handful.
There are numerous enemies, too. In mid-spring when the gooseberries and currants are in bloom, I fear late frosts. Then there are the birds and raccoons that have decimated my entire unripe gooseberries overnight more than once. Now I suspend old CDs glittering on a wire across the entire patch. This seems to work.
This year looks like a bumper crop but I will only believe it after the ripe berries have landed in my kitchen.
With my mother visiting from Germany right now, I could not ask for a better helper. She does not like to cook but she is always ready to lend a hand with picking and sorting. And she is meticulous, not a berry is squeezed or a leaf left on! On our to-do list for Saturday is prepping the gooseberries for canning which includes removing the blossom ends. The tool that works best for that tedious and time-consuming job: cuticle scissors.
When it’s all over and I look at the lineup of jars with jams, jellies, and other preserves, and bags of frozen berries for delectable desserts and cakes like my grandmother’s Red Current Meringue Pie, all the scratched underarms, aching neck, and hours of work are forgotten.