Once banned by the government, this traditional English berry makes a comeback.
What are those? is the reaction I most often get when people see my gooseberries for sale at the local farmers' market. Usually, the only people who recognize the small green, pink, red or yellow translucent berries are those old enough to remember when the federal government banned the cultivation of gooseberries in the 1930s. Back then, loggers were convinced the gooseberry bush was helping to spread white pine blister rust, a disease threatening timber crops at the time. It's been 33 years since the ban was lifted and it's still hard to find gooseberries in stores, especially outside of a New England. Which may help to explain why gooseberry lovers are generally thrilled to find this tart-ripening-to-sweet fruit at outdoor markets.
But even before the 1930s, gooseberries were never very popular in the United States. Then, as now, only a handful of varieties were available here, compared to the thousands grown and sold in England, where they've long been a great favorite. Recently, however, America has shown a renewed interest in this hardy berry. Some people like them red ripe, when they're at their sweetest and juiciest, while others prefer them still green and full of tart flavor. Regardless, this easy to grow plant always produces large quantities of delicious and versatile fruit.
Gooseberries belong to the genus
Ribes, along with currants and some related ornamental
shrubs. They are a low-growing bush with fringed leaves
that turn a brilliant red in the fall. The bushes will
thrive in both light shade and full sun and can be planted
to form an edible hedge. The cooler and moister climate of
the northern United States is best for gooseberries. They
can tolerate extremely low temperatures (zone 3), but
cannot survive where summers are extremely hot and dry,
such as in the Southwest.
Gooseberry varieties fall into two categories: the small fruited but mildew resistant American gooseberry (Ribes hirtellum) and the larger European gooseberry (Ribes uva-crispa). Most all varieties of gooseberries have long spines, although some are completely thornless. When you're shopping around for a plant, look for varieties at local garden centers that are disease resistant, well suited to the growing conditions in your area and that are said to have excellent flavor. These days you probably won't find too many different types of gooseberry plants, but the recent rediscovery of gooseberries by American fruit growers and consumers should result in increased research, variety development and availability.
For now, Pixwell is a common American variety and is widely available through mail order nurseries. They are hardy, productive and almost thornless, but the fruit quality is not as good as some of the less common varieties. The Welcome variety, on the other hand, has better flavor than the Pixwell and produces medium-sized wine-red fruit. Another common gooseberry, the Hinnonmaki Red, produces an abundance of delicious red fruit and is mildew resistant.
Before planting gooseberries, check with your local cooperative extension office or Department of Agriculture to learn if any growing restrictions or bans are in effect in your state. Although the federal prohibition ended in 1966, it's my understanding that Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Rhode Island still forbid gooseberry planting. Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia have planting restrictions. Some states require gooseberries to be planted at least 100 feet from white pines, since it's believed that the rust spores can't travel far from the plant.
You only need to plant one variety, as the plants are self-fruitful and do not require cross pollination. A northwest or northern area in partial shade to sun is the perfect site for gooseberries. If possible, plant them in a location that is likely to remain favorable for the duration of their life span, which is often up to 30 years or more.
Space the plants at least five feet apart, farther if you want to be able to mow all the way around them. A well-drained fertile loam that is high in organic matter makes the optimum soil. Add compost or well composted manure to the planting hole and work it in thoroughly. Keep your gooseberries well watered, just as you would any newly set out plants. Trim off any broken branches after planting and mound sawdust or straw mulch around the base of the plant, as gooseberries do best if their roots are kept cool in summer. I use a composted horse manure containing sawdust to mulch and fertilize at the same time.
Prune your plants in early spring before the buds swell. A good pair of sharp clippers is all you need to do the job. Remove older branches at the base to encourage vigorous new branches to sprout. Be sure to thin out weak, spindly wood and prune back the ends of branches that touch the ground. The bushes may not require much pruning at all until their third spring. After that, a few minutes of annual trimming will keep new fruiting wood forming and increase the size of the berries. Keep in mind that gooseberries can also be grown on a trellis or trained to grow as a standard.
Disease and insect problems are rare in home plantings. My own small planting has stayed problem free for the 18 years it's been under my care. As it turns out, gooseberries are fairly resistant to white pine blister rust after all, so you shouldn't have to worry about that. However, be sure to purchase your plants from a reputable nursery to ensure a disease-free stock and avoid problems with American, gooseberry mildew. While lime sulfur sprays will control this disease and are acceptable for organic growers, they smell awful and can cause phytotoxic reactions. Use them only as a last resort. As for insects, various caterpillars may attack the haves or fruit of your bushes. Small scale infestations are best handled by handpicking the pests off of your plants. For major infestations of moth and butterfly larvae, Baccillus thuringensis is an effective P nontoxic control.
Birds are fairly easily deterred from gooseberries (as opposed to blueberries and cherries). Just throw some netting over the bushes to extend your harvest season.
Your bushes may flower the first spring after planting. The mall white blossoms that appear in early spring will be abuzz with bees and hummingbirds. When the berries just start to turn to a blush pink (early July in Massachusetts), it's time to begin harvesting them. Some people disagree with me, but I think the berries are less tasty after they turn entirely red (or pink).
Handfuls of the first berries can be picked quickly and easily and I have no problem avoiding the large thorns. They are much less of a bother than raspberry or rose thorns.
The fresh picked berries will keep well for several days in the refrigerator. They also freeze nicely for future use. One gooseberry bush will supply you with several quarts of berries, enough for multiple pies or several jars of jam.
Gooseberries can be a real asset to the home berry patch, bearing early and dependably for many years. To my mind, they are an old-fashioned delicacy well worth rediscovering.