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HOW TO GROW
Gooseberries love the cooler UK climate and this makes them an easy fruit to grow, not only in the UK but in other countries. As with all fruits, the whole point in growing them is to eat them! And we give you a few recipe ideas to inspire you.
First the sweet and sour classic, gooseberry crumble. For a refreshing
and easy to prepare sweet, try gooseberry fool. Simple but delicious.
Ever tried gooseberry jam? It's a welcome change. Another treat is gooseberry puree with mackerel or roast duck.
WHERE TO GROW GOOSEBERRIES
The most important condition to get correct with gooseberries is the soil condition, this is more important than the actual position they are planted in. Gooseberries do best in a well drained soil which has lots of natural nutrients. The soil must also retain moisture without becoming water-logged.
If these conditions do not exist naturally in your garden then create them in the area you plan to grow your gooseberry bush(es). Both light soils and very heavy soils will both be greatly improved by the addition of lots of well rotted organic material. Dig this into the soil well before planting.
As far as the site is concerned, gooseberries prefer an open and sunny site which is protected from strong winds. Although gooseberries do not like the heat of a sunny summer's day, they do most of their growing and fruit production well before mid summer and therefore need lots of cool sunshine. A partially shaded site will still do well however, so don't be put off if you can't provide the ideal location.
Gooseberry bushes are extremely hardy plants, hardier than apple trees for instance. If a late frost occurs when the flowers have formed, don't worry too much. Even when a frost occurs during the flowering period your gooseberry bush is unlikely to affected.
Gooseberry bushes are self-fertile which means you don't need to plant two or more gooseberry plants together for a good crop. One plant on its own will produce as good a crop as two or three together.
HOW TO BUY GOOSEBERRY BUSHES
Gooseberry bushes can be bought either as bare-rooted plants (available online and through some garden centres) or as potted plants. If you are buying bare-rooted gooseberries then they are sold from late autumn to late spring.
Outside of this period, potted gooseberry bushes are available all year round. The main advantage of bare-rooted plants is their significantly lower cost compared to potted plants.
RECOMMENDED GOOSEBERRY VARIETIES
It's well worth researching the different varieties of gooseberry bushes available in the UK because they do span a significant cropping period, some are much sweeter than others and there are red and green varieties. Click here for our definitive guide to the different varieties.
WHEN AND HOW TO PLANT GOOSEBERRIES
The best time to plant gooseberry bushes is in the late autumn / winter time. It is possible to plant pot grown bushes at any time of the year although you will need to water them whenever conditions are dry for the first six months or so.
Most gooseberry plants are sold grown on a single main stem. Take a look at the lowest 8cm / 3in of the stem and if it has any straggling stems or suckers then prune these off.
Gooseberry bushes should be planted at the same depth as they were growing when dug up. Don't plant them any deeper because this will only encourage suckers to grow. The main stem will have a clear soil line showing how deep to plant them.
Dig out a hole deep and wide enough to take the roots. Spread the roots into hole and then cover firmly with soil. Don't compact the top soil too much, this would only encourage puddles to form on the soil surface. Sprinkle a couple of handfuls of blood fish and bone on the immediately surrounding soil and fork in with a trowel. If the soil is dry at all then water.
If you are planting more than one gooseberry bush then space them about 1.3m / 4ft 8in apart in each direction.
CARING FOR GOOSEBERRIES
In early spring each year apply a mulch of organic matter around the plant(s), 5cm / 2in deep (not touching the main stem) is ideal. This will reduce the need for weeding, retain water in the soil and provide a small amount of nutrients. At the same time sprinkle a couple of handfuls of blood, fish and bone around the plant and work into the soil surface.
Gooseberries need a small amount of nitrogen but too much will cause quick but weak growth making the plant an easy target for pests and disease. They do benefit however from a good regular source of potassium. The ideal solution is to feed the plants monthly from early spring up to around harvest time with liquid tomato feed - see the container instructions for dilution rates.
If birds are common in your area then they will love your gooseberries! You have three choices where birds are a problem:
Buy a fruit cage which will provide total and permanent
protection for many of your fruit plants. They last for decades and although
expensive they do the job to perfection.
Click here for
our in depth article on fruit cages in the UK. The article examines the pros and
cons of each model and provides a price comparison.
Build your own fruit cage. Not quite as long-lasting as a custom built fruit cage but a huge amount cheaper. The diy skills required are minimal when you have an overall plan.
Cover affected fruit plants with netting each year. A cheap and cheerful solution which is easy to do but has to be done each year.
WHEN TO PICK YOUR GOOSEBERRIES
Fully ripe gooseberries are normally ready for picking about late June to early July 2015 in average areas of the UK. Leave them much longer than this and they will start to deteriorate. The harvest time is variable though and much depends on the weather in the previous few months and also the variety of gooseberry. The best way to tell if a gooseberry is ready to pick is to gently squeeze it between your fingers. The berry should have a little "give" in the flesh if it's ripe. If it feels hard then it's probably not ripe and if it feels squashy it's probably over ripe.
The second way to tell is a gooseberry is ripe and ready to pick is to taste it. A desert variety should taste slightly tart but also have some background sweetness to it. The taste test needs some experience so always taste a gooseberry or two whilst harvesting so you will be able to judge a ripe or unripe one next year.
A few gooseberries are reddish in colour, our favourite Hinomaki Red is a good example of a red gooseberry. The begin to go red as the season progresses and then turn a ruby red colour - that's the point when they are ready to pick.
If you plan to make gooseberry jam or sauce then the more bitter taste of the slightly smaller gooseberries are the ones to pick first. For making pies and other sweets harvest only those gooseberries which have reached full size. If, as is likely, your bush has thorns then there's no way round it, the task has to be done slowly and carefully!
Gooseberry bushes are best pruned when they are dormant in winter, midwinter is the best time for this job. Choose a day when the weather is forecast to be dry in order to reduce the risk of fungal infections.
Gooseberries are formed on branches which grew in the previous and older years. However, branches older than three or four years old will become unproductive so these are best pruned out. There are three simple rules for successfully pruning a gooseberry bush.
PRUNE OUT OLD WOOD
Take a look at your gooseberry and you will see that some branches look older than others, they are thicker, more gnarled and have less buds compared to more recent branches. Cut out these older branches. At the same time shorten any longer branches by about a third just to keep the bush in shape.
PRUNE OUT LOW OR CROSSING BRANCHES
To reduce the chance of fungal diseases and pests prune back all branches and twigs which are near the ground. The reason for doing this is to stop pests from jumping onto branches from the soil. It will also significantly reduce the chance of fungal diseases. When rain falls and splashes on the soil it can transfer fungal diseases from the soil to the plant, pruning low growing branches reduces the chances of this happening.
Crossing branches will wear the surfaces of each other and provide sites for pests and disease to enter. Cut out all crossing branches to prevent this.
KEEP THE CENTRE OF THE PLANT REASONABLY CLEAR
Prune away some of the branches growing into the centre of the bush. When the leaves form this will allow good air circulation, again assisting in the prevention of fungal diseases.
Overall, gooseberry bushes benefit from quite harsh pruning especially if the task has been forgotten in previous years. Over-pruning is possible but unlikely, even then the plant will quickly recover. See our video below on how we pruned our gooseberry bush in mid winter.
PRUNE GOOSEBERRY BUSH TO A STANDARD
Standard gooseberry bushes (sometimes known as lollipops) are easier to grow than many think although it does take a couple of years at least to get the shape correct. Even a short one with a clear stem of 40cm (15in) or so makes a very attractive and unusual plant and picking the berries is so much easier.
To create the standard shape choose one stem which is relatively central and which is also growing upright. Remove all the other stems but do not prune anything on the selected stem. Place a stake in the ground near the selected stem and gently tie it to the stake. The idea is to encourage the stem to grow vertically. The ties will need to be adjusted occasionally to keep the stem as upright as possible and at the same time to stop them cutting into the stem as it grows thicker. Remove any side shoots but leave the topmost three - these will eventually form the head of the standard.
As the stem grows over the next couple of years remove any more side shoots which appear but always leave the top three alone, When the stem is tall enough pinch out the top shoot of the selected stem. This will encourage the plant to bush out and the head of the standard will begin to form. You will now effectively have a gooseberry bush on a stick which can be pruned as normal. These look equally impressive in the ground or a container. A year or so after the standard shape has formed the main stem will be thick enough to allow you to remove the stake.
GROWING GOOSEBERRY BUSHES IN CONTAINERS
Gooseberry bushes grow as well in containers as they do in the open ground, just ensure that they are watered frequently (especially when the fruit is forming) and fed with an organic feed such as blood fish and bone and the occasional feed of a fertiliser high in potash, liquid tomato feeds are ideal for this purpose.
The container should be about 45cm / 18in plus and the same depth. Fill the pot with a half and half mixture of standard potting compost and a John Innes type loam. Plant as described above for a gooseberry bush in the open.
Care and feeding of bushes grown in containers is the same as described in the rest of this article although they will require more frequent watering. A light mulch on the top of the soil will go a long way to retaining the correct amount of moisture.
PESTS AND DISEASES OF GOOSEBERRIES
There are two main causes of failure with gooseberry bushes, the Gooseberry Sawfly and mildew, principally American Gooseberry Mildew. If birds, particularly blue tits and great tits, are in your garden then you may have a third cause of failure!
The caterpillar stage of the sawfly is the one which does the damage. They are easily identified as having a green body with black spots and totally black head. Identification of this particular caterpillar is not needed though because any caterpillars on your gooseberry plant are a threat.
First, an understanding of the lifecycle of the Gooseberry Sawfly will
help in preventing them.
Larvae overwinter in the top soil around the gooseberry plants.
The warmth of spring wakes up the larvae and gooseberry sawflies emerge. These are about 1cm / ¼in long, the females being mainly yellow and the males mainly black.
The males and females mate and the females then lay eggs on the leaves of the gooseberry bush. This is your first chance to intervene in their life cycle!
The eggs are laid towards the end of spring, most likely in May. The exact timing depends on the weather in your area. The eggs are 1mm wide and long, light green and will be laid along the veins of the leaves.
Annoyingly, the eggs are laid on the underside of the leaves making them difficult to see. They also tend to be laid on leaves low down the bush and near the centre. If you have pruned your gooseberry bush correctly (see above in this article), the centre of the bush will be easy to get to. Examine leaves in this area as often as you possibly can (daily is best) and if you see any eggs simply squash them gently with your fingers. This is the most effective time to fight the gooseberry sawfly because large numbers can be killed before they do any damage.
After a couple of weeks caterpillar like creatures will emerge from the eggs. These are the critters which do all the damage. They look like green caterpillars with black spots and a black head and are 1 to 2cm long. If you see any caterpillars at all on your gooseberry leaves either pick them off or squash them. Quick action is required because they are quite capable of eating all the foliage within a week.
Any caterpillars which escape your attention will fall to the ground after they have defoliated your gooseberry plant and then begin the whole cycle again. This can occur up to three times in a year depending on weather conditions.
You will have gathered from the above description that the best way to deal with the gooseberry sawfly is to manually pick them off / squash them as eggs first and then as fully grown caterpillars. Two other methods for dealing with these pests are chemical sprays and and nematodes.
First, our opinion, neither method works well at all and chemical sprays always run the risk of damaging you and wild life. Why don't they work? Because they are only effective if applied at exactly the correct time. Apply them too early and they fail entirely, apply them too late and the damage is done. Also, the gooseberry sawfly has three separate life cycles in a year so the nematodes / chemicals need to be applied three times in a year to be really effective.
The effect of an attack by gooseberry sawfly is to remove all the foliage from your plant, the fruits themselves are not eaten by the flies. However, a plant with no leaves is seriously weakened and not capable of producing mature fruit. It will also be weakened significantly when it begins growth next year.
AMERICAN GOOSEBERRY MILDEW
Any mildew can affect gooseberry bushes but American Mildew is the worst. Forget chemical treatments, they promise the earth but don't deliver.
The signs are a white powder coating, at first on new shoots which may also cause the leaves to curl up and distort. If left to its own devices the white coating will spread to all branches and affect the fruit as well.
Cure is really prevention. The first step is to prune the bush correctly, especially clearing out the central part of the plant to allow good air circulation. If your plant is affected then prune out the worst branches and burn them. Don't apply any fertiliser for a while, especially don't apply a nitrogen based fertiliser such as Growmore. This type of fertiliser will encourage new leafy growth which is the most affected by mildew.
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