Remembering the Gooseberry

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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.

What are Gooseberries?

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.

Planting

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. 

Caring

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.