In my family, gooseberries provided everyone with a job: I grew and harvested them, my father topped and tailed them, and my mother turned them into mouth-watering pies and jam. Often thought of as quintessentially English, gooseberries aren’t mentioned in any British documents until the late 13th century, when King Edward I’s fruiterer had bushes imported from France. Their popularity steadily increased, reaching its zenith with the Victorians, who delighted in gooseberry shows and competitions: so much so that Charles Darwin became interested in how a fruit — formerly no larger than a pea — could swell to the size of a small apple in such a relatively short time frame.
Members of the genus Ribes and closely related to currants, two types of gooseberries predominate: the European species (R. uva-crispa), which is native to the Caucasus Mountains and has lethally sharp spines, produces large, delicious fruit but is rather prone to mildew; and the North American species (R. hirtellum), which has fewer thorns and good mildew resistance, but smaller, tarter berries. Most of the cultivars we grow today are a complex mix of these two species — attempts by breeders to secure the best of both worlds.
Gooseberries are one of the easiest fruits to cultivate successfully, and individual bushes are usually productive for at least 15 years. They can be grown in most kinds of soil; left unpruned they’ll reach a mature height and width of five feet (1.5 m), and are solidly hardy to Zone 3. Although the shrubs themselves won’t win any beauty pageants, they can be strategically placed among large, flowering perennials or mixed in with other small, woody plants and trees so they don’t become a focal point.
In spring, choose a sunny site with good air circulation (to discourage disease), remove any weeds and dig a planting hole twice the width of the root ball, mixing in plenty of composted manure or other organic fertilizer with the topsoil. Leave three feet (1 m) between bushes. Each plant will bear about 2¼ pounds (1 kg) of fruit at maturity, so although they’re self-fertile, one to three bushes are usually enough for most households. Set the plants one inch (2.5 cm) deeper than they were growing in their pots, firm the soil around them and water in well; mulch with a two-inch (5-cm) layer of shredded leaves, clean straw or other organic matter. To stimulate new growth, prune at planting time so individual branches are between four and six inches (10 and 15 cm) long, and remove blossoms that set during the first spring to direct the plant’s energy toward establishing a strong root system.
My pruning advice
Gooseberries fruit best on two- or three-year-old wood. To achieve this, I break all the rules about pruning in late winter when the plants are dormant, and prune at the same time as I harvest, removing 25 per cent of the fruiting branches. This makes collecting berries faster (and less prickly) by opening up the framework for easy access. Using this method, you can control the height and width of the plant while completely rejuvenating it every four years. Other yearly maintenance involves adding fresh compost or manure and leaf mulch around the base of each plant in spring and keeping the area weeded; additional watering may be required during dry spells while fruit is ripening.
Disease and insects
The worst that can be said of gooseberries is that they — along with all members of the Ribes genus — are alternate hosts of white pine blister rust. It does little harm to Ribes species, but the rust can kill five-needle pines (eastern white, bristlecone, Swiss stone and limber pines, among others), so avoid planting gooseberries within 1,000 feet (300 m) of susceptible trees.
The best defence against mildew is to plant resistant cultivars; sulfur sprays are useful before and after bud break (follow package directions), as is a baking soda spray (1 tbsp./15 mL baking soda plus 1 tbsp./15 mL soybean oil in one gallon/4.5 L of water, agitated), although both need to be reapplied after rain. Prune out and destroy infected shoot tips in late winter.
Copper-based fungicides (e.g., Bordeaux mixture) are useful for treating occasional leaf spots due to anthracnose. Clearing up fallen leaves in autumn is also key to controlling the disease.
Imported currant worm (currant sawfly), which attacks just as the leaves have opened fully, strips plants almost bare. Hand-pick or use an organic insecticide at the first sign of damage; there are often two generations per season.
Great gooseberry cultivars
Usually sold as one-year-old plants at garden centres, gooseberries begin full production by age three. Harvesting usually lasts two to three weeks.