Last year, I received a call from a Russian immigrant couple who lived about 40 minutes from my New Jersey farm. The woman anxiously asked whether I still had gooseberries. I explained the season was over and offered to add her and her husband to a notification list for the following year. After a few rounds of “Are you sure you don’t have any berries left?” I invited them to come by and glean any remaining berries free of charge. They were at my doorstep within the hour.
The visibly pregnant woman and her husband descended on the plants and ate their way through most of the remaining berries. They even managed to set aside a few to take home. As she was picking and eating, the woman exclaimed that she hadn’t appreciated gooseberries when she was growing up, and her husband had been searching in vain for the fruit in the United States. The enormous smile on her face as they drove away is something that has stayed with me.
Now, I’m not suggesting that all my gooseberry customers are as passionate about the fruit as this young woman, but I have encountered quite a bit of enthusiasm. Unlike some berries I grow, such as aronia and elderberry, whose sales are driven by their healthful attributes, gooseberry sales seem to be fueled by their flavor and nostalgia. My customers might remember picking berries with Grandpa and Grandma in the “old country,” or perhaps Mom made a killer gooseberry jam. Whatever the memory, these folks are invariably delighted to discover my gooseberries because they usually can’t find them anywhere else.
Gooseberries come in a surprising degree of diversity in berry size, color, and tartness. The shrubs also exhibit variations in vigor, disease resistance, thorniness, and growth pattern. If you’re interested in trying gooseberries for your market garden, you should also trial various cultivars to discover what works best for you.
Know Your Market
I’m located in a fairly good gooseberry seller’s market, about an hour from both Philadelphia and New York City. A number of affluent towns and suburbs with culturally diverse populations are located nearby. It’s an optimal situation for a gooseberry business, ensuring a wide range of potential customers. Your situation may not be as perfect for gooseberries, though. Here are a few things you should consider before you plant hundreds of gooseberry shrubs on your own property.
Area demographics. In my neck of the woods, the people most familiar with gooseberries are Northern and Central European, primarily of British or Russian descent. I sell to many of these folks directly, but I also reach them through a local health food store that stocks my berries. Other viable options are occupying a stall at a farmers market or becoming a providing farmer for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
Berry lovers. Berries are hot right now. Give berry lovers an excuse to try something new and expand their horizons. Be ready to share ideas on how to use the berry, and perhaps even offer a few recipes along with berry purchases.
Microbreweries and craft distilleries. Artisan-beverage production facilities are popping up everywhere. Many of these are searching for fresh and interesting ingredients to add to their hoppy and spirited creations.
Jam makers. Many customers who visit my farm for direct purchases of gooseberries plan to make jams and preserves to satisfy their cravings year-round. Not only does gooseberry jam taste fantastic, but gooseberries also contain a number of vitamins, including C and A.
Restaurants. Chefs love to experiment with unique menu items. I’ve had chefs pickle unripe gooseberries, use them in bar drinks, make sauces with them, and more. I encourage you to target chef-driven restaurants that are dedicated to locally grown food.
Planting the Seed and Producing Success
Gooseberries grow and produce best when sited in partial shade to full sun. If you need to plant on a southern exposure in full sun, make sure the plants are sufficiently mulched to keep the roots cool and moist. Well-drained soil with a good amount of organic matter and a pH of 5.5 to 7.0 will produce the best results, although gooseberry is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions so long as there’s good drainage and moisture retention. The plants will need about 1 inch of water every week from fruit set to harvest. Depending on the cultivar, gooseberries should be spaced 4 to 5 feet apart when planting.
Because gooseberry is typically grown as a multi-stemmed plant, it’s hard to control weeds after the bush is established. Abundant thorns on some cultivars make weeding even more challenging. In addition, the plants have shallow roots, so care must be taken when cultivating around the root area. A good mulch put down early in spring should help keep weeds under control. Gooseberries are considered self-fertile, but you can get better yield and larger berry size by planting more than one cultivar.
Gooseberries are heavy nitrogen feeders, so they respond well to additional organic material, such as composted manure. If plants show yellowing or lack of vigor, apply up to a ½ pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer in early spring. This fertilizer mix supplies the gooseberries with improved levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (N-P-K) at a rate of 10 percent each.
Several diseases and pests are known to affect gooseberries. Powdery mildew is perhaps the most frequent disease encountered by growers, though most newer cultivars are resistant. American gooseberry cultivars are generally more resistant than European ones. Mildew can be controlled to some extent by ensuring good air circulation through proper plant spacing and pruning.
Imported currantworms (Nematus ribesii) and various species of birds are the most prominent gooseberry pests. The imported currantworm is the larvae of the currant sawfly. The tiny green larvae, similar in appearance to a caterpillar, can quickly defoliate bushes and leave berries dangling forlornly among stark, naked branches.
Start checking for infestations several weeks after leaves have emerged. The larvae tend to stay on the rims and undersides of leaves, where they’re hard to detect.
Organic spraying options are limited for sawfly larvae. The best course of action for smaller plantings is to identify the presence of imported currantworms early and remove them from the plants.
Birds can be troublesome adversaries for berry growers. Predation will depend on your local bird population and whether they have alternative food sources available in the area. To keep birds from depleting your harvest, try deploying bird netting over a framework suspended above your bushes’ tallest branches.
Gooseberry Cultivars for Your Market Garden
Be sure to keep your customer base in mind when selecting cultivars for your property. Once, a catalog description convinced me to try a particular cultivar. The berry was as flavorful as described, but it was so small and the plants were so thorny that picking them was very difficult. I’ve since phased out this cultivar for shrubs with larger berries and fewer thorns.
The following is a sampling of gooseberry cultivars that have worked for me. All are vigorous and disease-resistant. In general, American species (Ribes hirtellum) are somewhat smaller and less flavorful than European species (Ribes uva-crispa). The downside to European species is that they’re traditionally more susceptible to powdery mildew, although many of the newer European species are resistant.
‘Hinnomaki Red’ (R. uva-crispa). One of the most common gooseberry cultivars, it is disease resistant and productive, although fairly thorny. The bush grows to about 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, and produces reddish, medium-sized berries. If you plan to let your bushes grow with multiple stems, you should space them about 4 feet apart. ‘Hinnomaki Red’ fruit is best used for jams and other value-added products.
‘Houghton’ (Ribes spp.). One of the first crosses between American (R. hirtellum sp.) and European (R. uva-crispa sp.) gooseberries, this plant is vigorous and highly disease-resistant. It produces small and medium-sized blush-red berries with a good flavor. ‘Houghton’ is best used for jams and other value-added products.
‘Invicta’ (R. uva-crispa var. reclinatum). This newly available cultivar produces abundant large, pale-green berries. The plant is vigorous, disease-resistant, and spreading in its growth habit, with large thorns. These plants grow to about 5 feet tall and 5 feet wide, so space accordingly. The fruit is suitable for use as a dessert berry when fully ripe.
‘Jeanne’ (R. uva-crispa). This cultivar was introduced by the USDA several years ago. The medium-sized red berries ripen late and are therefore a good option for prolonging the season. This plant grows to about 5 feet tall and needs to be spaced about 4 feet apart. It’s best for jams and other value-added products.
‘Poorman’ (R. hirtellum). An old American cultivar, this plant is vigorous and disease-resistant. It produces medium-sized red berries with very good taste. The shrub grows to about 3 to 4 feet in both height and width. Its berries are best used in jams and other value-added products.
‘Tixia’ (R. uva-crispa var. rafzvicta ). This cultivar isn’t as common as ‘Hinnomaki Red,’ but it’s available at some nurseries. This plant can be a bit larger than other cultivars — up to about 6 feet tall and 4 feet wide. The berries are large and they’re suitable as a dessert berry when fully ripe. The plant grows fairly upright and is known to have fewer thorns.
The Reaping of Ripe Rewards
Gooseberries are ripe when they reach their full coloration and are slightly soft to the touch. Because gooseberries have such a diversity of color — in varying shades of red, green, and yellow — it may take some time for novice growers to know when they’re fully ripe. Gooseberries ripen over a 4- to 6-week period and can remain on the plants for several weeks fully ripe. Fruit intended for jam should be harvested before full ripeness, when the gooseberries hold the highest amount of pectin. Harvested gooseberries can be stored in the refrigerator for up to several weeks and will freeze well.
Shrubs will produce a light crop the year after planting; the yield will increase until about the fourth year, when the bushes reach full production.
Boost Production with Propagation
Gooseberries can be propagated either with dormant hardwood cuttings of 1-year-old wood taken between fall and early spring, or softwood cuttings taken in midsummer (just as the wood begins to firm). Generally, American species are easier to root than European species.
Plan to take cuttings in mid- to late winter while you’re pruning plants for the upcoming season. Cuttings should be 8 to 12 inches in length. Place the cuttings in small pots containing light potting soil, and keep them moist. Rooting success rates vary by cultivar, although they’re generally very good.
Another method with a high rate of success is tip layering, but this isn’t as useful for propagating large numbers of plants. Here’s how to do it: In early spring, bend down one of the long canes and partially bury it in the soil. Weigh it down with a rock or a ground pin. Leave the point semi-buried until new roots appear at the buried junction. Then, separate the new growth from the original long cane — pruning any leaves from the area closest to the new roots — and plant it fully. Eventually, you’ll be able to try multiple cultivars inexpensively by sharing cuttings with other growers.
Gooseberries certainly deserve a place of honor in a market garden, especially for those with small acreage. These fruiting shrubs are easy to grow, reasonably priced, produce well, and have established and eager markets. Because they’re usually hard to find, gooseberries can serve as an entrée to customers who may not otherwise buy from a small grower.