Great Tips for Growing Gooseberries
Quite why the gooseberry should share with rhubarb the dubious honour of being the butt of musical hall humour is beyond me. There is really nothing funny about this most individual of Plants, although it has to be said that it is, overall, the least popular of all soft fruit. The reasons for this state of affairs aren’t hard to find, for in most seasons many varieties never attain anything approaching the level of sweetness that would make them palatable as a fresh dessert. And, undeniably, a mouthful of sour gooseberry isn’t an experience to repeat very often. The gooseberry is also a pretty unfriendly plant, its thorns making it one of the most difficult to pick, although it is very amenable to being trained in cordon fashion which renders both picking anda much less hazardous exercise.
HISTORY AND TYPES OF GOOSEBERRY
The name ‘gooseberry’ refers to a historic use of this fruit as the main ingredient for a sauce to accompany goose, the tart flavour compensating for the natural fattiness of goose flesh. The wild plant, Ribes grossularia, is common in many parts of Europe and North Africa but, like blackcurrants, those found in Britain are generally thought to be derived from old cultivated plants. And, indeed, the gooseberry has been cultivated for longer than most of its relatives in the Ribes genus. It’s known that Edward I’s fruiterer was purchasing bushes from France during the mid- thirteenth century and selections from wild stock had been cultivated on the continent for some time previously. Curiously, they were at one time grown as ornamentals, primarily for the perfume of their .
Although all were derived from the same species, several distinct types of gooseberry gradually arose: green-fruited, more or less pale green- or yellow-fruited, white- (very pale green) and red-fruited, all in varying shades, in varying sizes and shapes and with varying degrees of hairiness of the skin. The names of some of the old varieties betray these variations: ‘The Hedgehog’, ‘The Blue’, ‘The Hairy Red’, The English Yellow’. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were well over 300 varieties, and a new dimension and impetus was added to the plant’s importance by the gooseberry clubs and competitions which sprang up, especially in Lancashire and adjoining counties of northern England. Some still survive, and although there are now many fewer varieties of gooseberry in cultivation, there remain far more than any other soft fruit, although most are only available locally.
In recent times, gooseberry breeding has lagged behind that of other, more commercially important fruits but a number of different wild species have been used to develop varieties withand aphid resistance as well as relative absence of spines. But for the traditionalist, a thornless gooseberry must surely remain an anathema.
Gooseberries are versatile and will grow well on most soils provided they are not prone either to water-logging or drought, but will always be most successful on deep, moisture-retentive and slightly acid loams. Very light soils must be improved with organic matter. But one proviso must be made: gooseberries have a particularly high demand for potash and on soils such as light sands and also peaty and chalky soils with a low clay content, the symptoms of potassium deficiency will occur and so especial care must be taken to ensure that sufficient supplementary potash is given when feeding.
Gooseberries require shelter and will never crop to their full potential in an exposed windy site. This is partly because they come into flower very early and so are prone to frost damage, but also because the wood
is brittle and will snap under the weight of fruit when blown by strong winds during the fruiting period. The buds and fruit are susceptible to bird damage and so gooseberries are best grown in a protective fruit cage. If the cage is small, the plants may be grown as cordons which take up very little room.
There are several forms in which gooseberry plants can be bought: bushes can be obtained as two- or three-year-old (or rather more rarely and less satisfactorily as oneyear-old) plants, and either with single stems or as stools with several stems arising from close tolevel. The latter are cheaper, but unless you then go through the procedure of training one of the stems yourself to form a single stem or so-called leg, you will find they are much less easy to manage and pick from. Plants can also be bought with cordon or fan training already begun but these are relatively expensive and I much prefer to begin the training from scratch (an appropriate expression when referring to such a thorny plant as the gooseberry), and recommend that you do the same, as much as anything because you will then learn the basic principles involved.
As with other soft fruit, gooseberries establish best from winter planting. Early winter gives much the best results for the young shoots start into growth fairly early in the new season. Even when grown in a row as cordons, they are better when planted in individual holes of about 45 x 45 x 45cm (18 x 18 x 18in), rather than in a trench. Incorporate well rotted manure or compost with a handful of a general fertilizer, such as, blood and bone, that contains both potash and phosphate or alternatively, smaller amounts each of sulphate of potash and bone meal. Ensure that no air pockets are left between the roots by shaking the plant gently when refilling the hole and firm it carefully, finally watering and topping up with a mulch of either compost or manure.
Spacing between plants depends both on variety and on the growing system used. Free-standing bushes should be spaced 1.5- I.8m (5-6ft) apart, depending on vigour. Single cordons should be 30cm (12in) apart, double cordons 60cm (24in) and triple cordons 1m (3ft) with I .2m (4ft) between rows if more than one row is grown. Fan-trained plants (see below) should be planted 1m (3ft) apart.
SUPPORTS FOR GOOSEBERRIES
Grown as free-standing bushes, gooseberries require no support. You will occasionally see them offered for sale as half-standards, the fruiting variety usually having been grafted on to a different rootstock and in such cases, of course, a stout permanent stake is necessary. For cordons, use a system of wooden posts and horizontal wires, erected as for raspberries although I find that three wires spaced 60cm (24in), 1m (3ft) and 1.2m (4ft) above soil level is the most useful arrangement. Fan training is unusual and not very easy to do although it can look most effective against a brick wall. It, too, is best done using horizontal wires as supports but I prefer to use more wires, the first being 30cm (12in) and the top one I.5m (5ft) above soil, with three others, evenly spaced in between. Do bear in mind that protection from birds is very difficult to achieve with a wall-trained gooseberry.
TRAINING AND PRUNING GOOSEBERRY BUSHES
Think of the ideal bush towards which you are aiming as goblet-shaped with eight or 10 branches arranged around a more or less empty centre, ideally, as I have explained, atop a single stem about 25cm (10in) tall. If you have first to train this single stem yourself, it will generally add at least one year to the overall operation. In the first winter after planting, cut out any branches in the centre of your goblet therefore and cut back the remainder by about one-third. Most varieties have a naturally spreading habit and these should be cut to just above an inward facing bud to encourage upright growth and a shape better able to support the fruit. Those with a naturally erect habit should conversely be pruned to above an outward facing bud to avoid branch congestion. I have indicated under each variety those which have a spreading habit and those which are naturally erect.
In the following summer, more branches will arise from those you have cut back and so in the next winter, repeat the cutting back until the required eight or 10 branches have been formed. Thereafter, in the second half of each summer, cut back each of the branches by about one-third and each of the side-branches that arise from them to about six leaf clusters from their base. In the following winter, further cut back the main branches by a third again and the side branches to two buds from their base. Cut out any wayward branches that arise in the centre of the plant and also the suckers that appear at soil level. This procedure is then followed year by year. From time to time, it may be appropriate to train a new branch to take over from one that becomes damaged or misshapen.
Some gardeners don’t bother with summer pruning and do all of the cutting back in the winter. I find, however, that with a vigorous variety on good soil, this can mean that there is a tangled mass of very thorny growth to deal with. It also means that for much of the season, the plant is congested and therefore more prone to aphid andattack. But if you are to do summer pruning, make sure you leave it until about six weeks after midsummer or you will simply encourage more and more side-branching.
Imagine a cordon as a bush with only one, two or three branches each trained vertically upwards and its pruning will make sense. If you don’t buy a plant with the initial training done by the nursery, you must select the strongest and best placed vertical branches and cut out the remainder. Then, after midsummer, cut back all side-branches to just above the sixth leaf cluster but leave the main shoot untouched. In winter, cut the side shoots back to two buds from their base and the leader by about one-third until it reaches the top of its support wires when it should be treated in the same way as a side-branch. And that is all there is to it; the fruit will be much easier to pick, the plants will take up very little room, they will tend to be more disease-free because of the better air circulation around them and they will look very much more attractive than bushes too.
Fan-training a gooseberry should only be undertaken if you are prepared to devote rather more than the average amount of time to the annual pruning and tying in. But having said that, there is nothing magical or intrinsically difficult about it; think of the fan as a series of cordons spread over a wall in a fan pattern and prune each of them in exactly the same way as you would a single cordon.
FEEDING AND WATERING
Gooseberries have an unusually high requirement for potash and this above all nutrients shouldn’t be neglected in their routine feeding. I obtain good results by giving 34g per square metre (1oz per square yard) of potassium sulphate shortly after midwinter and then 68g per square metre (2oz per square yard) of Growmore or fish, blood and bone about two months later. After the second feeding, mulch with organic matter and then water if the weather is dry at the time the fruit begin to swell. Sequestered iron should only be necessary on very alkaline soils.
As with most soft fruit, weeding close to the bushes should be carried out carefully, for the root system is fibrous and extensive and much of it is close to the surface of the soil where hoeing or digging will cause damage. Hand weeding, mulching and careful hoeing should be used to control annual weeds and the weedkiller, glyphosate, used for any persistent perennials.
YIELDS AND QUANTITIES OF PLANTS NEEDED
Not many gardeners want the quantities of gooseberries that they do of most other types of soft fruit and the number of plants necessary in most gardens will therefore be relatively small. Most modern varieties should yield approximately 3.5-4.5kg (8- 10 lb) of fruit per bush and will continue to do so for much longer than other soft fruits; 20 years of productive cropping is not unusual. A single cordon should give 0.5- 1kg (1-2 lb) per season.
HARVESTING AND STORING
Gooseberries should be picked sequentially as they ripen when they will detach easily from the stalk. If they need to be pulled from the bush, then they are not yet ready. Gooseberries store well when fresh and will keep for around three weeks in a refrigerator and also freeze very satisfactorily.
The two biggest problems on gooseberries are Americanand sawflies and while the former can, to a large degree, be avoided by careful choice of varieties, the latter requires extreme vigilance for they can strip the foliage in a trice.