The gooseberry may seem like an innocuous fruit, but as far back as the 1800s it has been the focus of fiercely fought growing competitions here in the UK, as fanatical gardeners strive to produce evermore massive berries.
Although there are just eight annual gooseberry shows remaining today (down from a peak of 148 back in 1843!), competitive growers are no less zealous. Each year they push their horticultural skills to the limit, while keeping the secrets of their specialist growing techniques closely guarded.
Hen's egg-sized berries are not uncommon. Then in 2009's annual gooseberry show at Egton Bridge in Yorkshire, Bryan Nellist broke all records with his ‘Woodpecker' berry. It weighed a whopping 62g/2.19oz – or 35 drams in gooseberry show parlance – though he's not letting on how he did it!
Most of us won't have a hope of producing fruits to rival champion berries at gooseberry shows, but read on for tips on producing bigger, more sumptuous berries you can enjoy at home.
The Best Growing Conditions for Gooseberries
Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa, not to be confused with the smaller American gooseberry, Ribes hirtellum) will thrive in most gardens, although they are ideally suited to cool, damp conditions such as those experienced in the UK, where a sunny spot will help them to produce plenty of luscious berries. In hotter climates they need some afternoon shade if they are to do well.
It's important to keep the soil consistently moist because, just like tomatoes, if gooseberries are heavily watered following a dry spell the fruits will swell too quickly and split. Mulching helps to retain moisture, and if you use garden compost or well-rotted manure this will feed your plants at the same time.
Sprinkling wood ash around your bushes provides a useful source of potassium that will help the plants to flower and fruit well. They also need some nitrogen, but not too much as this can exacerbate problems with mildew and aphids. Mulch regularly with thin layers of grass clippings to supply both nitrogen and potassium.
The perfect soil for gooseberries is rich, moist and slightly acidic. They grow well alongside their close relatives the currants, which enjoy similar conditions.
Gooseberry Pests and Diseases
Gooseberries have three main enemies that can affect fruiting: birds, gooseberry mildew and hungry gooseberry sawfly larvae.
Birds not only steal the fruit, they also peck at buds in winter and, as a result, stunt growth. There are various methods to frighten birds away, but the only sure solution is to exclude them with netting, ideally a fruit cage.
Gooseberry mildew appears as a powdery greyish-white fungus on leaves and stems, or as a felt-like coating on the fruits, which starts out white before turning pale brown. Infected fruits are edible but they will be small and will go brown when cooked. Remove any infected leaves and stems and destroy them. Poor air circulation promotes the disease, so space your plants at least 90cm (3ft) apart, prune them each winter to an open goblet shape, and keep the surrounding area weed-free. It's worth choosing mildew-resistant varieties such as ‘Hinnonmaki' or ‘Invicta'.
Gooseberry sawfly larvae are pale green and look like caterpillars. In the short time between mid-spring and harvesting they can completely defoliate bushes. Use a hand fork to carefully check the soil beneath the bush for cocoons. Check leaves, including the undersides, all the way through the bush to the centre and remove any sawfly larvae you find. With up to three generations a year, you'll need to remain vigilant throughout the summer.
In the US, gooseberries and other members of the Ribes tribe, such as blackcurrants, redcurrants and white currants are a host for white pine blister rust. While it won't affect these fruits, it's a big problem for five-needled pines. In some states where these pines are grown commercially planting gooseberries and currants is restricted, so check with your county extension office if you wish to grow them.
Thinning Gooseberries for a Heavier Harvest
The gooseberry harvest begins in early summer, while the berries are still under-ripe. At this stage they're perfect for pies, crumbles and jams, sweetened with sugar. A refreshing wheat beer can be made using gooseberries, or why not try making gooseberry and elderflower wine?
Competitive growers remove all but a few berries. You may not wish to be quite so ruthless! Instead, remove about half the crop at this first harvest. Picking under-ripe berries seems counterintuitive, but thinning in this way not only gives you a useful early harvest before other fruits are available, it enables the bush to put all its energy into swelling the fruits that remain.
About a month after the first crop, the gooseberries will have ripened and sweetened to the point that even some culinary varieties can be eaten fresh – and they'll be much bigger than if you hadn't thinned.
The Biggest Gooseberry Varieties
If you want to emulate expert gooseberry growers it is worth taking a look at the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society gooseberry show results index, which details show winners right back to 1825, including the winning varieties in each category. Unfortunately many of these varieties are not commonly available commercially – perhaps because their talent lies in producing just a few, very large, berries.
While it's fun to try growing bigger berries, you may get more satisfaction from a good crop of average-sized berries from a reliable variety such as ‘Leveller' (an occasional class winner at Egton Bridge) or the red-fruited and almost thornless ‘Pax'.
What are your best tips for growing a bumper crop of gooseberries? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
By Ann Marie Hendry.