How to Grow Bigger Better Gooseberries

, written by Ann Marie Hendry gb flag

Growing Gooseberries

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 bush in fruit cage

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.

Green Gooseberries

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.

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Comments

 
"For me, pruning has made all the difference. I now get fewer large gooseberries rather than a mass of small ones. But I still get a huge harvest. My garden is in Languedoc, South of France but with a mountainous climate (hot days and cool nights). Gooseberry bushes in France are not grown on a single stem as in the UK so pruning requires removal of low-lying shoots (and dead wood). I then follow my pruning list (taken from various books) and spur prune all side shoots by cutting them back to one to three buds from the base. Then shorten branch tips by one quarter, cutting to a suitable outward facing bud. Keep about 12 main shoots. Pruning is usually in late winter."
Alison Perrin on Friday 19 June 2015
"I have never pruned my gooseberry bush, but now I know I really should. although it's no longer dormant and it is full of fruit, would it be too harmful to prun it now? or do I really need to wait until next year?"
MJ on Friday 19 June 2015
"I urge you to give it a go but not before the end of next winter"
Alison Perrin on Friday 19 June 2015
"Hi Alison, it's interested to hear that gooseberry bushes are grown as canes instead of single-stemmed plants in France. Do you suffer less from problems with mildew there I wonder, as the 'open goblet' shape that we in the UK prune for on single-stemmed plants is mainly done to increase airflow. It sounds like your bushes are thriving with your attentions!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 19 June 2015
"MJ, if your gooseberry bush is healthy and full of fruit there's no need to prune it now. Pruning in summer will restrict the growth of your bush, and you will inevitably prune out some of the fruits that you want to keep. Prune in winter instead - Alison's advice above is good if you're growing them as canes, or click the link to Helen Gazeley's pruning article above (where it says 'prune them each winter') to view her method for pruning a single-stemmed bush. Good luck!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Friday 19 June 2015
"why are my gooseberries hairy ?! i have moved into a house with a gooseberry bush but they all seem to have lots of hairs on them....."
annette wass on Friday 19 June 2015
"Not to worry Annette, hairiness is perfectly normal on a gooseberry. Some varieties just happen to be hairier than others!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 20 June 2015
"thank you Ann Marie- a novice fruit grower here! its just the ones I remember as a child were smooth. do they stay hairy when cooked?!"
annette wass on Saturday 20 June 2015
"It's unlikely you'll notice any hairs once the gooseberries are cooked. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Wednesday 24 June 2015
"Why are my gooseberries going brown and can I still use them "
Doreen on Thursday 16 July 2015
"Hi Doreen, sometimes gooseberry mildew can cause fruits to go brown (please see the Gooseberry Pests and Diseases section in the article above). If that's not the problem it sounds like they may be suffering from some other fungal disease - it's hard to say without seeing them however, and I wouldn't advise eating them without knowing what the issue is. If it's a fungal problem, remove affected fruits, prune your plants as advised in our Winter Pruning of Gooseberries and Currant Bushes article, and make sure there's plenty of space between plants. Perhaps a local expert gardener could take a look and offer advice? "
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 18 July 2015
"I thought I was growing gooseberries for a pie, the green kind. I grew ruby ones, sweet. I was disappointed, I want the tart ones. What kind do I want to ask for. I am in Oregon, But moving to Weiser Id. thank you. "
sandra blain on Friday 18 March 2016
"Hi Sandra, you need to look for gooseberries that are described as culinary varieties, rather than dessert gooseberries."
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 19 March 2016
"Hi there Can anyone help me. My dessert gooseberry was desimated by sawfly this year but I hope I have cured it. The problem I now have is that most of the branches are covered in clusters of either white or yellow nodules. The bush is still alive but I would like to know what has happened. The bush is several years old and I don't know if this is due to age or not. Any suggestions anyone?"
marja on Wednesday 26 October 2016
"Hi Marja, it's difficult to advise without seeing the bushes themselves, but you might like to research scale insects, of which there are many types. Here's a place to start: https://www.growveg.com/pests/uk-and-europe/scale-insect/"
Ann Marie Hendry on Thursday 27 October 2016
"I have gooseberry bush about one year old and while it is very healthy it has no fruit could you tell me how long they take to produce fruit i am in nowra new south wales australia"
robert on Monday 12 December 2016
"Hi Robert. Your gooseberry bush is unlikely to produce many, if any, fruits until it's at least two, but probably three years old. Once planted they need time to develop a good strong root system that can support a decent-sized plant and access enough nutrients in the soil to crop heavily. It's worth the wait though, as it will continue to fruit for decades. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 13 December 2016
"I just transplanted a couple dozen bushes from another location where they were overcrowded and being chewed excessively by deer and it hurt fruit production. What is the best fertilizer for gooseberries to get them producing fruit? I intend to mulch them with grass clippings, any other suggestions. I was given the plants, so I do not know what variety they are, but the were a little smaller than marbles last year and sour."
Car on Tuesday 4 April 2017
"Hi Car. A grass clipping mulch is enjoyed by pretty much every plant in my experience, but also mulch around the gooseberries with compost if you can, because this will provide plenty of slow-release fertiliser to help them grow well, put down strong roots, and produce fruit. You can also help fruit production along with an occasional liquid feed that is high in potassium (the K in the NPK ratio on the back of the pack), for instance a tomato fertiliser, starting once the plants begin to flower."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 4 April 2017
"Hello there all. I live in Dublin Ireland. I got 5 Gooseberry Plants at Christmas time 2 years ago. That Summer I got some fruits on them and was delighted, now the second year I seem to have more Fruits growing. So I looked up your site to find out how to improve them and find out anything else. Right away I have discovered I should keep them at least 3 ft apart. So when can I replant them to give them more Room. I have two Blackberry Plants also a load of Raspberry Plants that invaded from my Neighbours Garden. Free Raspberries which is marvelous."
John Power on Sunday 28 May 2017
"Hi John. Gooseberries are best transplanted while they're dormant - so any time between losing their leaves at the end of the year and producing new buds in the spring, as long as the ground isn't frozen. Planting in the autumn is ideal because it gives them time to settle in before the hard work of producing new leaves, flowers and fruits begins again. Good luck!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 30 May 2017
"My goose berry bushes are not producing fruit. I have had them 4-5 years. What am I doing wrong. The bushes look very healthy. NS, Canada"
Sandi on Friday 4 August 2017
"I have very healthy looking gooseberry bushes planted 4-5 years ago and have yet to see a gooseberry. I'm in Massachusetts. I get flowers and what I think are tiny fruit potential buds, but within a week or so I'm left with nothing. I see a few brown withered looking flower heads, but not much else. The plants grow like crazy and are otherwise very healthy with masses of leaves and new branches. Could birds be taking the flower heads before the fruit develops? I tried netting this year, but maybe too late? Seems odd that everything would be gone. No sign of any mildew or other disease. Have I been too cautious in pruning? The bushes are huge now. "
Sean Hale on Monday 4 June 2018
"Why do my gooseberry bushes become stripped down to the last fruit overnight ? I picked 1 bag ful of fully ripened fruit one day but the next day the bushes were empty of even the smallest unripened fruit. Thank you"
Audrey Dart on Thursday 7 June 2018
"Sean, I'd suggest looking at your growing conditions. Too much or too little water or fertiliser could cause problems with flowers failing to produce fruits - in particular, if you're using a nitrogen-rich fertiliser (the N on the fertiliser packet), this can cause lots of lush new growth at the expense of fruits. Mulching with compost or other organic matter is a more effective way of replenishing soil nutrients."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"Hi Audrey. Birds can strip bushes of fruit in no time, so it's best to grow them under cover of netting. A fruit cage is ideal, but simply draping the netting over poles or canes while the plants are flowering is fine - just make sure the netting reaches the ground and is secured with bricks or pegs so that birds can't get under it and become tangled. "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"Hi Ann Marie, Thanks for the advice.. The area is very fertile. I have elderberries and redcurrants next to them and they also grow like crazy (but also fruit). I always do a tree fertilizer in the early spring, so I'll skip that next year and go for a light dressing from the rotted compost pile. I think your answer to Audrey is also relevant to my situation and maybe I'm netting too late. Always a lot to learn! Many thanks for your help! Sean"
Sean Hale on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"No worries Sean - let us know how you get on, and good luck! "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 19 June 2018
"Hi there, I have 2 gooseberry bushes (not the dessert kind, I'm pretty certain), planted in a small spare corner in the garden (we're on heavy clay with flint, but with lots of compost worked in over the years) and they have been fruiting for at least 4 years now. First year the crop was modest, my husband (the gardener in the house) pruned them back hard because they more than doubled in size, and the next year I got a massive harvest of really big berries - shame I'm the only one eating them! Cooking was not that successful. Same thing happened last year, but every time there seems to be a secondary growth spurt which obscures the berries, making them difficult to spot, reach and pick. This year there seem to be fewer berries, good size but still swelling (we're going through a hot dry spell at the moment) so not ready to harvest just yet. I want to avoid scratching myself so much while picking, so wondered whether there's any harm in pruning back the foliage when it's time to pick? I'm in Suffolk, one of the driest counties in England."
Agnes on Sunday 1 July 2018
"Hi Agnes. Pruning correctly will make it easier to get at the berries, and will result in better harvests. Branches that are over three years old should be removed completely, as they'll be much less productive than younger wood. Search for our article How to Winter Prune Gooseberries and Currant Bushes for detailed directions on the best way to prune gooseberries each year. And perhaps invest in a good pair of gauntlets! "
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 3 July 2018
"how can I grow large gooseberries of exhibition size and quality is there a special feed ?"
Eric Whittam on Friday 20 July 2018
"Thanks for the advice, Ann Marie - I took it to heart and possibly went a little overboard... I got so frustrated with not being able to reach inside the bush that I went into the shed, got out the heavy duty loppers and cut out the oldest branch, which turned out to be very old wood (and difficult to cut through!) - that made getting to the fruit so much easier! Not only could I pick the berries off the branch while holding it upside down, but the now open area allowed me to pick the other branches as well and I stripped the bushes. The pulp is really sweet but the 'shells' are tart-to-sour, so I'm certain they are the culinary variety. I'm not keen on ripping out the bushes because they have been doing so well under my resident gardener's/husband's care, but since I am the only one able to eat the gooseberries fresh and I don't eat a great deal of the jam I love making, I am wondering whether there would be a suitable variety of dessert gooseberry that could be grown as a single stem (up the side of my house, maybe)? The soil there is not as good as where the existing bushes are - that bed has been enriched for a long time with compost being dug in every year, the wall I'm thinking of is the side of an extension, built on clay-with-flint at least 10 years ago. Since then it's had some compost dug in (with a strawberry bed struggling for a few years), but underneath is clay/flint/building foundation. What's your advice on variety and planting/pruning if I manage to persuade my husband to acquire more gooseberry bush[es]?"
Agnes on Saturday 21 July 2018
"I haven't grown for exhibition before so I can't advise on exactly how truly massive berries are achieved I'm afraid - exhibition growers tend to keep their methods closely guarded!"
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 21 July 2018
"Glad to hear you're finding it easier to get at your gooseberries now Agnes. You can grow gooseberries as fans or cordons against a wall. However you'd need to make sure the soil was rich enough and receiving enough water - often beds next to walls are in what's called a 'rain shadow', and will often be drier than other parts of the garden. If your strawberries aren't doing too well there that points to something being not quite right, so you'd need to improve the soil and keep a careful eye on soil moisture."
Ann Marie Hendry on Saturday 21 July 2018
"Can anyone point me to some growers for direct buying? Also interested in any other kind of berries, fruit and vegetables. Thank you, Norbert"
Norbert on Wednesday 5 September 2018
"Do gooseberry plants need protection in winter from cold or bunnies?"
Deborah J Rivest on Monday 8 October 2018
"Thanks for your advice, Ann Marie. Now that autumn has really set in and my husband has been busy in the garden readying it for the coming cold, I'll point him to the pruning section with next year's fruiting season in mind."
Agnes on Monday 8 October 2018
"Hi Deborah. Gooseberries are very cold hardy, so are unlikely to need any protection in winter. Hungry rabbits will nibble on almost anything, so if they're a problem you may wish to protect them. Growing in a fruit cage if possible is ideal, as it also keeps birds off the fruits."
Ann Marie Hendry on Tuesday 9 October 2018

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