Growing Gooseberries

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Gooseberries - an old time favorite

People have been growing gooseberries for making pies & preserves for generations.

Gooseberries are an old time favorite rarely seen today. They are tart like rhubarb, and make an equally lip smacking pie. If you have never tasted gooseberry pie, you're missing out on something fabulous.

I remember picking the green marble shaped berries from my grandmother's gooseberry plant when I was little and popping one in my mouth to see if I could stand to eat the entire berry before the sour taste became too much. I rarely ate the whole berry, but I could easily eat a quarter of Grandma's gooseberry pie.

If you're interested in growing gooseberries of your own, here are the basics you need to know to get started enjoying your own crop.

Growing Gooseberries - Finding Plants

Gooseberries grow on woody bushes with long straight sharp thorns. They are very tough plants once established, and produce heavily almost every year. They require very little care after planting - just mulch to control weeds, and some trimming to maintain their shape. I have three bushes in a small hedge, and have picked as many as six gallons of berries from those small bushes in one season.

Gooseberries are also one of my most popular cash crops. We have to hide away a few quarts for ourselves, because we always sell out everything we have, just from a tiny classified ad in the local newspaper. The older folks in the area love being able to find gooseberries, and many of them tell us that they "haven't seen gooseberries in years"

Finding gooseberry bushes is fairly easily done these days. Many good mail order nurseries that deal in fruit (and a few really good local nurseries as well) carry them. Most plants are delivered bare root, ready to plant at the time you are supposed to get them in the ground for your area. One of my favorite sources for this type of plant is Nourse Farms  They have always sent me healthy, stocky plants, and guarantee success by replacing plants that fail to survive.

Growing Gooseberries - Planting Gooseberries

When your new gooseberry plants arrive they will likely be bare root, so the first thing you want to do is to put the plants is a bucket of water to allow the roots to rehydrate the plant. Leave it for at least a couple of hours, but not more than a couple of days.

Plant gooseberry bushes either in the mid to late fall or early spring. When planting your new gooseberry bushes, treat them as you would any fruit tree. Dig a hole twice as big as the root ball, and loosen the soil at the bottom of the hole. The more the soil is loosened, the better the roots can grow and get the plant established. Work a shovel full of compost, or a hand full of balanced granular fertilizer into the bottom of the hole

Put the plant in the hole and backfill it, keeping the roots spread evenly as you go. The crown of the plant (where the roots and trunk meet) should be at soil level. Planting either too deep or too shallow can set back the growth of your plant, and can even cause it to die.

Once the planting hole is about 3/4 filled with soil slowly and carefully pour in 2 to 3 gallons of water (use the same water that you used to soak & rehydrate your plant). Using a good quality liquid root stimulator in your planting water is a good idea as well. When the water has soaked in, finish refilling the planting hole.

If you plan to grow more than one gooseberry bush, I recommend spacing the plants at least 24 inches apart

Once you have your gooseberry bushes planted, put a layer of mulch around them. I recommend using hardwood bark mulch, dried leaves or dry grass clippings. The mulch will keep the soil cool in the summer, help to hold in moisture, and help to control weeds that might compete with your new plants.

Growing Gooseberries - Maintenance and Care

Gooseberries are surprisingly tough plants, so require very little maintenance or care once they are established.

Keep your gooseberry bushes well watered for the first growing season, especially if it is a particularly dry one. After that, with the exception of weeding and mulch in the spring, gooseberries can generally fend for themselves.

Pruning may be required on occasion to remove dead wood, but don't expect to have to do this for 3 or 4 years.

gooseberries on the bush

It's not uncommon for branches to become so heavy with berries that the lower branches will be pulled down to the ground. After harvesting, you will find that most branches will spring back up after a couple of weeks. Those that don't should be trimmed off - only because it makes weeding and mulching the next spring much easier.

Sometimes, you may find that your gooseberry bushes grow larger than the space you allowed for them, or that their shape becomes off balance or odd. In cases like this, late winter or early spring pruning to improve the plant's shape may be in order. I recommend doing this around the same time you would prune fruit trees

Growing Gooseberries:
Flowering, Fruit and Harvest

Gooseberries bloom in the early spring, so can suffer from a late freeze. Here is southern Indiana, they bloom late March to early April. Gooseberry blooms are small unassuming white to light yellow and bell shaped. Blooms and fruit form singly or in groups of 2-3 along the entire length of branches on the bush.

Bloom occurs before honeybees are very active so most of the pollination is done by Bumblebees, as well as Orchard Mason Bees and other small solitary native bees.

Berries form quickly and are ready for harvest about 10 - 12 weeks after bloom time.

Gooseberries can be green, red, pink even yellow, depending on the variety you choose to plant. If you're going to make jelly, jam, pies, etc, pick them a little under ripe. I pick mine still green, but full sized. When I see the first berry or two turning color, it's time to pick. Some varieties turn sweet when they ripen and change color. If your variety changes color, you'll know when to pick them.

Gooseberries ready to pick

Picking gooseberries can be a bit tricky. Some articles that I've read suggest wearing gloves to protect your fingers from the thorns. Problem with that advice is, if you wear gloves heavy enough to protect you from thorns, you can't really manipulate your fingers to grasp and pick the berries. I just use my bare hands, take my time, and just know I'm going to get a thorn or two poked into my fingers. To me, it's a small price to pay!

Growing Gooseberries:
Preserving your Harvest

Preserving fresh gooseberries couldn't be much easier. Freezing is my preferred way. Wash the berries, and remove the blossom ends and stems. Then measure out the correct amount for a pie (or whatever you plan to make with them), put them in a zipper seal bag, squeeze out as much air as you can and put them in your freezer. I've tried vacuum packaging them, but can't really tell any difference between the two methods. Gooseberries will keep well in your freezer for a fairly long time. I've used berries that were frozen for 3 years to make a pie, and couldn't tell them from fresh.

Growing Gooseberries - Diseases and Pests

Gooseberry and currant bushes can be a carrier for white pine blister rust, however they show few symptoms. Many newer varieties are resistant against rust.

Not many furry critters eat gooseberries.  Birds will eat them in they get very ripe, but with strawberries, cherries, and some blueberry varieties coming on at the same time, there's plenty of other things that birds prefer more than gooseberries.

Gooseberry plants are tough and resistant to most diseases and pests. This diagnostic tool is useful for diagnosing symptoms if you ever do experience anything unusual.

Growing gooseberries is an old time skill that produces heavy crops of tart, but awesome tasting berries. If you're interested in unique flavor from a tough plant give these old timers a try. They will reward you a bumper crop in just a couple of years. If you chose to sell your surplus, they can pay for themselves pretty quickly, and still leave you enough to enjoy a pie or two.

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Berry Growing Topics:

Growing Strawberries

Growing Blackberries

Growing Berries

Related Topics:

Growing Grapes

Home Orchards

Making Compost

Pruning Fruit Trees

Nursery Sources:

Nourse Farms

Stark Brother's Nursery

Goose Berries & Currants:

The "Typhoid Mary" of the fruit world...

In the earlier part of the 20th century, the US and many state governments outlawed growing Gooseberry and Currant plants because they were a carrier of White Pine Blister Rust, which is an introduced fungus disease originally from Asia.  It can be deadly to white pine tree species, which are a major component of the lumber industry

The strange thing is that gooseberry and currant plants display little to no symptoms of the disease.

The federal government has since dropped this ban and nearly all states have as well.  Before planting or growing "Ribes" species (gooseberry, currant, or jostaberry) check with your local extension agent.  The cultivation of these plants are still illegal in a few states.