How To Grow Gooseberries
Gooseberries are delicious, easy to grow and full of vitamin C
Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) are one of the easiest fruits to grow requiring very little maintenance, the major problem is gooseberry sawfly and often the only indication that you have the little critters is that your bush will be stripped bare overnight. Gooseberries are a good source of vitamin C and also contain traces of many other vitamins and minerals. The fruits are usually green but are also available white, yellow and red. The bush types can grow to a height of 1.5m (5’), but can be pruned to be more compact, and have extremely prickly branches so take care when harvesting the fruit. They originate from NW Africa, Europe and Asia, are extremely hardy and perform better in cooler regions of the UK. They can be used for jam, pies, puddings and wine. If you want something a little different why not try the jostaberry which is a cross between the gooseberry and blackcurrant.
They need a sunny site sheltered from strong winds, but if you have a baking hot garden plant them where they will be shaded from the midday sun by trees or put up some shade netting. Otherwise they just need a well-drained, humus-rich soil, although they are tolerant of a range of different soils, just make sure that they are not too dry or too wet. If you have sandy or heavy clay soil enrich it with some organic matter, in the form of well-rotted farm yard manure, home-made compost or good quality peat-free compost. They can be grown as a bush or trained against a wall or fence to save space. They are also quite happy growing in a container, provided it is large enough.
You can buy the plants bare root in autumn, usually in bundles of 5. These are much cheaper than buying a single potted plant but are not as large, and as the bushes don’t produce a decent crop until they are about 3 years old they can take an extra couple of years to produce fruit. The bare rooted plants usually consist of a single stem whereas the potted plants have several stems and a better root system. Plant them in autumn/winter time provided the soil conditions are favourable; potted plants can be planted at any time of the year. The advantage of planting in autumn when the soil is still warm is that the roots have time to establish before winter and therefore get off to a quicker start in spring.
Plant them about 1.2 – 1.5m (4 – 5’) apart. Prise out the roots and dig a hole far enough across to accommodate them, plant to the same depth as they are in the pot; if they are bare root the soil level will have left a mark on the stem. If you plant them any deeper they tend to produce suckers. Incorporate a couple of handfuls of blood, fish and bone into the planting hole. They are self-fertile so you need only grow one bush if you so desire.
If you are growing them in a container make sure that it is at least 45cm (18”) both in depth and diameter. Make sure that there are plenty of drainage holes in the bottom and cover each hole with a piece of crock to ensure that it doesn’t become blocked with silt. Stand the pot on some pot feet or a couple of bricks to enable the water to drain clean away. Use good quality peat-free compost with a little blood, fish and bone added. Gooseberries are now available as standards which are ideal for containers and the fruit is also easy to pick without getting lacerated!
Keep well watered but not sodden as if they dry out they become prone to mildew, this can be a particular problem with container grown bushes so keep an eye on the soil conditions especially in warm weather, you may have to stand the pot in a saucer of water just while the weather is hot or else move the gooseberry to a cooler shadier position. Mulch in spring with some organic matter to a depth of about 5cm (2”). Feed monthly with a liquid tomato feed, such as Tomorite, starting in early spring. Don’t feed with a nitrogen based fertiliser as this only encourages sappy growth which is susceptible to mildew.
They don’t need much pruning and will even respond to a really hard prune so don’t be afraid to cut them back. Prune in winter when they are dormant and there is less chance of the wounds contracting a fungal disease. Cut out any really old wood, it will be quite gnarled and have very few buds, any dead or diseased stems and any rubbing against each other. Keep the centre of the bush open, leaving the branches in a goblet shape. Take off any branches which are close to soil level and cut the remaining branches back by about a third. If you want to make your own standard choose a plant with a strong central shoot, don’t take any branches off this shoot. Keep taking off the lower branches until you have the desired height then you can cut off the top couple of centimetres of the leading shoot. This will encourage the head to send out more side shoots and produce a nice bushy plant. Insert a stake to keep the plant from rocking in the wind.
Keep the plants weeded as any competition for water and nutrients will impair the amount of fruit produced.
One of the biggest problems is gooseberry sawfly, the pale green caterpillar-like larvae are normally to be found on the underside of the leaves, usually in the centre of the plant if it is congested. Keep an eye out for them and pick off by hand. They can easily strip the plant overnight and be gone by morning so you really need to be vigilant. Keeping the soil around the plant free of leaves and debris and gently forking over the top few centimetres will help prevent them from becoming established. You can also spray with an organic food-safe insecticide but by the time the larvae have ingested this it can be too late as they are often present in huge numbers.
Mildew can also be a problem but is preventable by keeping the soil consistently damp and maintaining a good airflow around the plant, which can be a problem if they are trained against a wall or fence. At the first signs cut out the infected branches and destroy, don’t put them on the compost heap, and spray the plant with a food-safe fungicide.
Pigeons, and to a lesser extent other birds, can be a problem as they like the fresh buds and fruit so if they are prevalent in your area you may have to grow your fruit inside a fruit cage.
- ‘Hinnonmaki’ - a heavy cropper bearing large red berries, good mildew resistance
- ‘Invicta’ - green fruit with good disease resistance, needs cooking as is quite sour
- ‘Leveller’ - a heavy cropper bearing large yellow berries, can be eaten raw
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