We were introduced to the joys of growing, using, and preserving gooseberries when we lived on a backcountry farm in Nova Scotia. In Canada, gooseberries, like black currants, were well known, following the British tradition. In the United States, because they are alternate hosts to white pine blister rust, both fruits were banned from some states (there was never a ban in Canada). But with the development of disease-resistant white pine and the introduction of rust-resistant fruit, gooseberries have become very desirable fruiting shrubs.
In the kitchen, they can be turned into a variety of delicious desserts and preserves, including jam without adding commercial pectin. Check with your local Cooperative Extension office to see if there are any restrictions on growing them in your area.
Gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes. Plants grow from 3-6 feet tall and as wide, with deeply lobed green leaves and prickles along their long, arching stems. Plump fruit, hanging close to the stem singly or in pairs, ranges in color from light green to light and purplish-red, about the size of green grapes. A gooseberry looks something like a green grape, too, although it is striped and not as round. You can pluck a ripe one right off the bush and pop it in your mouth, a satisfying balance of tart and sweet.
The native American gooseberry (R. hirtellum) and the European species (R. uva-crispa/R. grossularia) have been cross-bred for many years. Generally, those with dominant American blood lines have smaller fruit, more prolific production, and greater resistance to mildew like Pixwell, popular with home gardeners for its reliability. I pick its fruit when light green and turning pinkish-red. Poorman bears larger red fruit with fewer thorns. There are many more gooseberries that may be more suitable for your particular growing conditions. Consult varieties recommended by your local Extension office.
To plant, choose a site that is cool though not shady, with well-draining moist soil. Trim rootstock from 4 to 6 inches and put each in a bucket of water while preparing holes. With a space, make holes 5 feet apart and as deep as necessary to accommodate the roots.
If you are planting several bushes (they’re self-fertile), make rows about 6 to 10 feet apart. Add a shovelful of well-rotted compost to each hole, water holes, and plant the rootstock on top of a little mound of earth, fill in with soil, firmly tamping it down. In a dry spell, water plants regularly until they show signs of new growth.
Mulch plants in a 2-foot wide ring. Set down a layer of well-rotted compost or manure, a layer of heavy paper, cardboard or worn-out non-synthetic carpet, and a layer of hay, straw, or eel grass if you live near the shore (our mulch of choice when we lived in Cape Breton).
Prune only after plants are well established. In early spring remove dead or damaged branches. After the third year, when the bushes are in high production, do a little more pruning. As the plant ages, prune every spring, especially the center, which should be kept open to prevent disease, especially powdery mildew. Remove any branches that are more than three years old (they look old) so that the bush is left with a combination of 1, 2, and 3-year old branches. Also prune branches lying close to the ground unless you want to increase them through natural layering. In some varieties (Pixwell, for instance) branches that touch moist ground readily produce roots.
Disease and pests include powdery mildew (keep bushes well trimmed to avoid that) and currant sawfly, little green worms that appear early in the season before berries are formed. They can strip a bush entirely of its leaves. If you see any sign of them, spray your bushes on a still day with a pyrethrin-based insecticide called Pyola that works. It’s available from www.GardensAlive.com. Repeat as needed. It can be safely used up to the day of harvest.
Harvest. In its third year, if a bush is growing well, expect to harvest a gallon of fruit. If you want to make jam or jelly, pick some fruit greenish, still underripe and wait several days, even a week, to pick riper fruit, then combine them, but don’t worry. Gooseberries will make into jam at almost any stage. Pick clean by separating fruit from its short stem as you go.
Gooseberries are ideal for making into jams and jellies, especially for the novice. Because they are so full of pectin, the process is nearly fool-proof without adding commercial pectin and tons of sugar. If you have an abundance of fruit, try chutney, marmalade, and canned preserves for the winter months. In baking, gooseberries are prized for pies and tarts.
Yield about 3 8-ounce. jelly jars
• 3 cups fruit without stems, rinsed and drained
• water or red currant juice
• 2 cups sugar
• pinch salt
In a 2-gallon stainless steel pot, mix fruit, water or juice, add a pinch of salt. Cover and heat on low until berries begin to cook.
2. Add sugar, stirring in well. Bring mixture, covered, to a hard boil, uncover, cook and stir until mixture just begins to cling to the bottom of the pot. If mixture threatens to boil over, toss in a small piece of butter, stirring it in.
3. Using potholders, tilt the pot to check for the jam stage. Remove pot from heat.
4. Let mixture subside and pour into sterilized jelly jars, leaving a ¼ inch headspace. Wipe outer edges of jar with a clean, wet cloth.
5. Seal at once with sterilized canning lids and rings (keep both in almost boiling water while you work, remove with tongs as you need them), twisting the rings firmly in place.
6. Process in a boiling water bath or steam canner for 10 minutes. Wait 5 minutes before removing cover to avoid getting scalded. Carefully remove jars from water with tongs. As jars cool, the centers of the lids will ‘snap’ (become convex) which means the jars have sealed.
7. Wait overnight to make sure all jars are sealed. Store unsealed jars in fridge, sealed jars in a cool, dry space, away from light.
For more recipes, see my book, Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves.
Click here to read Part 2: Elderberries.
Jo Ann Gardner is the author of Old-Fashioned Jams, Jellies, and Sweet Preserves plus Living with Herbs, and several other books on landscaping with herbs, the cottage garden, and plants of the Bible. She can be reached through her website www.JoAnnGardnerBooks.com, where you can read about her life, books, and lectures.