Gooseberries: an introduction
What are gooseberries you ask? Gooseberries are a thorny shrub type plant that ripen delicious translucent berries, berries range in color from red, dark blue, to green or yellowish. Typically growing 3-5 feet tall and about as wide, they are native in both Europe and North America. Europeans have been breeding gooseberries for increased size and taste for hundreds of years so it makes sense that the largest, best tasting gooseberry varieties come from Europe. They became so popular that English backyard growers competed to see who could grow the largest berry. During the 1700 and 1800’s gooseberry breeding in Europe; specifically England, reached a fever pitch. During this time, the size of a gooseberry went from the size of a raisin to the largest ones getting as big as a chicken egg! Period writings indicate that growers babied along their plants thinning most of the fruit. To reach bigger berry sizes growers would only allow each plant to produce a handful of these large gooseberries.
Outlawed in the U.S., for fear of spreading a fungus that attacks pine trees, gooseberries had been absent from the U.S. landscape market for generations. With the ban finally lifted, gooseberries have a long way to go to match the popularity seen in Europe. Thru my years of growing and selling plants and berries, European customers have specifically sought me out. Most of whom have told me that they had not been able to find a gooseberry since they left their native land!
Planting and Growth
Despite the prickers gooseberry plants make an attractive addition to any garden or foundation planting. They are extremely cold hardy growing nearly into the Arctic Circle, and do well in much of the Northern half of the United States, growing in USDA zones 3-8. Gooseberries are self-fertile meaning you only need one plant to get fruit. That being said I have found most cultivars produce more fruit with multiple plant varieties. In the northeast my gooseberry plants do best in full sun to partial shade, but like anything else it all depends on your environment. Plants can be spaced 3-5 feet apart and will bear fruit within 1-3 years of planting. Don’t crowd your gooseberry plants too close together as canes that intertwine making pruning and picking very challenging!
Gooseberries can thrive is a wide range of soil profiles and acidity levels. They can handle just about any soil structure except those that stay waterlogged for long periods of time. Whether you are planting in full or partial sun be sure to pick an area with well-drained soil. Since gooseberries burst out of dormancy the minute they sense spring has arrived, it is essential to either plant in early spring or wait until fall.
Cane pruning should be done regularly to keep your plant producing fruit year in year out. Fruit is produced off of 1-3 year canes. Optimal pruning will keep a mix of vigorous first, second, and third year canes while cutting back the rest. A regular pruning and maintenance schedule will benefit you and the plant as well, as gooseberry plants can produce fruit for over 30 years.
Harvest: Time to enjoy your bounty
Gooseberries typically ripen in early to late summer depending on the variety and location. Perfectly ripe gooseberries are a great fresh eating fruit. Gooseberries picked early will still be a little tart for fresh eating, consider processing them into any number of things. When harvest time nears, I like to taste test a few berries for ripeness. I have found perfectly ripe berries almost fall off in your hand while you pick them. Grossly under ripe berries can be incredibly tart. Waiting just a day or two can turn a sour berry destined only for processing into one that is perfectly sweet for fresh eating. Common uses for tart berries include pie filling, jams, jellies, juice, wine, and other preserves.
Ripe gooseberries can run the gamut in flavor profiles. Some people mention hints of apricot, blueberry, and even grape. Smooth translucent skin certainly make the grape comparison easy. Other varieties have people savoring tart and tangy fruit that is more suited for the dessert plate instead of snack time. No matter the variety, you are in for a treat when you finally grow, harvest, and taste your first gooseberry!
One of the major pitfalls surrounding gooseberries are their thorns. Small razor sharp thorns line the canes of your gooseberry plant, waiting to deter you from picking its fruit. Follow these simple harvest protocols to avoid getting your hands, arms, and legs tangled up at harvest. Always wear long pants and long sleeves. I do not care if it is 100 degrees out, trust me you will need them. If you think its way too hot to harvest with long sleeves and pants then wait until tomorrow and pick at sun up when it’s still cool out. Wear one heavy-duty leather glove. Your glove hand is to hold the vine and use your bare hand to pick the fruit. With gooseberries, it pays to have fruit basket with a shoulder strap ensuring you have both hands free. This will make harvest go super-fast.
Lastly do not over reach for that one last berry. Walk around to the other side of the plant were those berries are well within reach. If you spaced your plants properly and have been keeping up on pruning you should have plenty of room to walk in between your plants. This will make harvest that much easier and safer. Trust me it is not fun when you lose your balance reaching for that last gooseberry only to fall face first into the whole plant. I wish I had the picture of what I looked like after that experience!
Why Grow Gooseberries?
Gooseberries are one of those fruit that you cannot typically find in the grocery store. Most people in North America have never even heard of a gooseberry so why am I advising you to grow it? The beauty of the gooseberry isn’t that no one know about it, although that certainly doesn’t hurt! The beauty of the gooseberry is that it tastes great, grows well in most of the mid to northern half of North America, it has few pest or disease pressures and can add to the fruit production of most any household.
If your main goal is to provide healthy fruit for your family gooseberries fit the bill. Are you trying to grow fruit to sell as a side income? If so then find a nearby neighborhood with native Europeans and you have an instant market. And if you’re just trying to experiment with a different fruit that your neighbor probably isn’t growing, than gooseberries is your plant. Once you have a few of your gooseberry plants producing be sure to introduce all your friends to the joys of the gooseberry!