Gaga for GooseberriesGaga for Gooseberries
In my family, gooseberries provided everyone with a job: I grew and harvested them, my father topped and tailed them, and my mother turned them into delicious pies, jams and of course, classic gooseberry fool.
Gaga for Gooseberries
Often thought of as quintessentially English, gooseberries aren’t mentioned in any British documents until the late 13th century when King Edward I’s fruiterer had bushes imported from France. Their popularity steadily increased, reaching its zenith with the Victorians, who delighted in gooseberry shows and competitions: so much so that Charles Darwin (1809-82) became interested in how a fruit—formerly no larger than a pea—could swell to the size of a small apple in such a relatively short timeframe.
A member of the genus Ribes and closely related to currants, two types of gooseberries predominate in today’s gardens: the European species (R. uva-crispa), which is native to the Caucasus Mountains and has lethally sharp spines, is rather prone to mildew, and produces large, delicious fruit; and the North American species (R. hirtellum), which has fewer thorns and good mildew resistance, but smaller, tarter berries. Most of the cultivars we grow today are a complex mix of these two species—an attempt by breeders to secure the best of both worlds.
Canadian hybridizers have been trying to get the balance right for nigh on 150 years as this excerpt from The Canadian Fruit, Flower and Kitchen Gardener (1872) illustrates: “There are some American varieties which have been found to be usually exempt from mildew. They are not as large and showy as the English sorts, but we must content ourselves with these until better is produced.”
Gooseberries are one of the easiest of all fruits to cultivate success and individual bushes are usually productive for at least 15 years. They can be grown in most kinds of soil; left unpruned they’ll reach a mature height and width of 1.5 meters, and are solidly hardy to Zone 3. Although the shrubs themselves won’t win any beauty pageants, they can be strategically placed among large, flowering perennials or mixed in with other small, woody plants and trees so that they don’t become a focal point.
Planting and pruning
In spring, choose a sunny site with good air circulation (to discourage disease), eliminate any weeds, and dig a planting hole twice the width of the rootball, mixing in plenty of composted manure or other organic fertilizer with the topsoil. Leave one meter between bushes. Each plant will bear about one kilogram (2¼ lbs.) of fruit at maturity, so although they’re self-fertile, one to three bushes should be enough for most households (the fruit ripens over a two to three week period).
Set the plants two centimeters deeper than they were growing in their pots, firm the soil around the plants and water in well; mulch with shredded leaves, bark or clean straw to a depth of five centimeters. To stimulate new growth, prune individual branches back to between 10 and 15 cms long at planting time, and remove any blossoms that set during the first spring so that the plant’s energy will be directed toward establishing a strong root system.
Gooseberries fruit best on two- or three-year-old wood. To achieve this, I break all the rules and prune bushes in summer at the same time as I harvest (standard wisdom is that bushes should only be pruned when they’re dormant in late winter). In other words, I remove 25 percent of the fruiting branches at harvest time which makes berry collection faster (and less prickly) by opening up the framework for easy access.
Using this method, you can control your gooseberries’ height and width while completely rejuvenating it every four years. Another yearly maintenance involves adding fresh compost or manure and leaf mulch around the base of each plant in spring and keeping the area weeded; supplemental irrigation may be required during dry spells while the fruit is ripening.
Diseases and insects
The worst that can be said of gooseberries is that they—along with all members of the Ribes genus—are alternate hosts of white pine blister rust. It does little harm to Ribes species, but it can kill five-needle pines, so avoid planting gooseberries within 300 meters of susceptible trees. North American species of five-needle pines include: whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), bristlecone pine (P. aristata), foxtail pine (P. balfouriana), limber pine (P. flexilis), western white pine (P. monticola) and eastern white pine (P. strobus).
The best defense against mildew is to plant resistant gooseberry cultivars; sulfur sprays are useful before and after bud break (follow package directions), as is baking soda spray (1 tbsp. baking soda plus 1 tbsp. soybean oil in 4.5 liters of water, agitated), although both types need to be reapplied after rain. Prune out and destroy any infected shoot tips in late winter. Copper-based fungicides (e.g. Bordeaux mixture) are useful for treating occasional leaf spots due to anthracnose. Clearing up fallen leaves in autumn is also key to controlling the disease.
Eight great gooseberry cultivars
Usually sold as one-year-old plants at garden centers, gooseberries begin full production by age three.
1 ‘Captivator’ Bred in Ottawa by Agriculture Canada and released in 1935, ‘Captivator’ bears sweet pink to red berries in midsummer on an almost thornless, mildew-resistant bush.
2 ‘Hinnomäki Red’ Introduced in the 1990s by the Finnish Agricultural Research Centre, ‘Hinnomäki Red’ bears sweet, medium-sized red fruit on a spiny, mildew-resistant shrub.
3 The closely related ‘Hinnomäki Yellow’ bears large, golden-yellow fruit in early summer and also has good mildew resistance.
4 ‘Invicta’ Introduced in 1981 by the East Malling Research Station in the UK, this high-yielding cultivar bears large, yellow fruits (up to 5.9 grams per berry) in early summer on a vigorous, spiny bush with some resistance to mildew.
5 ‘Jahn’s Prairie’ Selected from a native population of hawthorn-leaved gooseberries (R. oxyacanthoides) near Red Deer, Alberta, by Dr. Otto Jahn in 1984, and released jointly by AgCan and the USDA. Large (to 3.8 g/berry), dark red fruit on spiny, upright bushes which show extraordinary resistance to mildew, leaf spot, and white pine blister rust.
6 ‘Pixwell’ A cultivar that has stood the test of time, ‘Pixwell’ was released in North Dakota in 1932. Almost thornless, it bears pale green fruit that ripens to a deep pink blush on vigorous, mildew-resistant bushes; excellent for baking and preserves.
7 Tixia (‘Rafzvicta’) A new cultivar from Peter Hauenstein of Rafz, Switzerland; the original cross was made in 1990 with ‘Invicta’ as the female parent. Tixia bears large, bright red fruit in midsummer; the upper shoots are virtually thorn-free, one-year-old shoots have a few, relatively soft thorns.
8 Xenia (‘Rafzuera’), also bred by Peter Hauenstein, bears dark red fruit and ripens earlier while sporting the same thorn-free shoots.
Gooseberries are good for you
450 kilograms (one pound) of raw fruit contains
- Calories: 178
- Protein (g): 3.6
- Fat (g): 0.9
- Carbohydrate (g): 44
- Calcium (mg): 100
- Phosphorus (mg): 127
- Iron (mg): 2.3
- Vitamin A (IU): 1,330
- Vitamin C (mg): 149