If you find pruning fruit bushes difficult you’re certainly not alone. The diagrams in books may look very straight-forward, but it’s a whole different story when faced with your own, undiagrammatical, pruning challenge. Still, it has to be done if you’re not to end up with a tangle of unproductive branches and here, in the northern hemisphere, it’s just about the right time to get out the pruners, although you can prune at any time during the plants’ dormant period, up until early spring.
A lot of soft fruit belongs to the genus Ribes, which is handy as it means that once you understand how to prune one type, you’ve got a handle on most of the others, as they’re treated in a similar way. So once you know how to prune gooseberries, you also know what to do with redcurrants and whitecurrants, and with the less common Worcesterberries.
In this article I’ve assumed that you have mature bushes over two years old. Pruning for younger plants is generally slightly different and is more for shape.
Why You Should Prune Fruit Bushes
If you bear in mind the reasons for pruning, then the whole business becomes much easier. First, you’re aiming to allow light and air into the middle of the bush, as this discourages disease. It also means access to all the lovely fruit is easier later in the season. You want to keep branches clear of the ground, so try to anticipate the depths to which they’ll sink when laden with fruit.
You’re also pruning for shape. If you have a "stool" or bush which has several stems arising from the ground, then you’re aiming to create a framework of branches that grow away from the centre. If you have bushes that are grown on a single leg (which is probably up to 20 cms (8 inches) long before branching), you want to create and maintain a goblet shape. Either way, you’re aiming at a framework of up to ten main branches adorned with short spurs along the length of each.
Finally, you’re pruning to encourage new growth, as older wood becomes less productive after three or four years.
Pruning Gooseberry, Redcurrant, Whitecurrant and Worcesterberry Bushes
First keep the leg (if you have one) clean by removing any growth emerging from it up to the point that your bush branches out properly. You may also see suckers growing around the base of the plant. It’s best if suckers are removed in summer by pulling (not cutting) them away while they are still soft. However, if some got away from you last year, you’ll need to cut them away now.
Now look for any branches that are dead or diseased and cut these away. So far, so good. This is where you begin to prune for shape, opening up the middle of the bush or creating that goblet. This part is harder as you’re removing healthy wood. I think it takes a certain, brutal mentality to be really good at pruning, but steel yourself to the task and keep reminding yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Remove branches that are too low and which will become entangled in any weeds that might shoot up when you’re not looking, or might rest the fruit on the ground.
To keep the middle of the bush open, remove stems and branches that are congesting the centre of the bush and any others that are very close together or crossing each other (if they rub together they might allow canker into the wound).
Wood that’s up to three years old tends to be the most productive, so you ideally want a mix of stems that are one, two and three years old. Prune out the oldest stems to allow space for next summer’s new stems.
Now look at the main stems, or leaders, that you’ve got left. These need to be cut back by half of the new growth from the past year. If the bush is becoming too big for the space, then you can replace an old leader by allowing a side-shoot lower down the stem to grow up and replace it. If you want to do this, then cut the leader back to just above that lower shoot.
Keep in mind that these bushes produce fruit on small spurs on older wood and also, more so with gooseberries, at the base of last year’s side-shoots. So you want to reduce the side-shoots to two buds, in order to ensure the plant directs its energy to the fruit that these will produce.
Finally, one more thing to bear in mind is the habit of the bush. Some gooseberries are quite laid back and tend to sprawl around like teenagers (the cultivar "Careless" comes to mind). When cutting stems back on these, it’s best to find an upward (or inward-facing) bud because the branches will tend to grow downwards. Cultivars of a more upright nature can be pruned in the usual way, to an outward facing bud.
By Helen Gazeley