Gooseberries

Getting started

There are many varieties of gooseberry to try, from ones that produce tiny, sweet yellow sugary fruits to ones that produce large, red dessert types. Some offer excellent resistance to American gooseberry mildew although they don’t always taste as good. Try growing more than one variety of both dessert and culinary types to extend the picking season.

The ideal time for planting gooseberries is in the autumn. Prepare the soil thoroughly in your selected sunny, sheltered site. Fork over a wide area to break up the soil and remove weeds, then dig out a planting hole. Fork some compost or rotted manure into the soil at the base, along with a handful of granular or pelleted general-purpose fertiliser.

Plant bare-rooted bushes by spreading their roots out in the hole and covering with well-conditioned soil. Firm the soil down around the roots. With container-grown bushes, keep the surface of the rootball compost level with the surrounding soil surface. Space cordons 30cm to 45cm (12in to 18in) apart and bushes at least 1.2m (4ft) apart to allow access for picking.

Keep plants well watered until established, and cover the soil around them with a 5cm to 7.5cm (2in to 3in) thick mulch of compost or bark.

How to prune and train

Winter pruning helps to form a balanced branch structure and keeps the centre of the bush open to make picking easier. Mildew disease is also reduced if air circulation is encouraged. Fruits form on old wood and around the base of last year’s growth. Therefore prune back the previous years growth to two buds. Prune out any shoots that are growing into the centre of the bush, and cut back leaders by one-third.

Summer pruning is not essential, but if possible prune sideshoots back to five leaves in June. This will allow the sun to reach into the centre of the bush and help ripen the fruit.

Single-stemmed cordons can be trained on canes or against a wall where they can reach 1.8m (6ft) tall. In summer, prune sideshoots back to five leaves to encourage fruiting spurs to develop.

Tie the leading shoot tip into the support as it grows. In winter, shorten the previous year's growth on the main tip back by a quarter to encourage new sideshoots. Shorten sideshoots pruned in summer to two or three buds.

Growing tips

Start thinning gooseberries during late May or early June removing about half the crop. The fruits from this first harvest can be used for cooking. This will give a longer cropping season and leaves others more room to grow to a larger size. The second harvest can be done a few weeks later, and many of the fruits will be packed full of natural sugar and taste delicious.

Problem Solving

Look out for gooseberry sawfly from late spring onwards. Check leaves regularly for caterpillar damage and control by hand. If this is proving hard, spray bushes regularly with an insecticide. Always try to grow varieties resistant to mildew.

Practical tips

  • Never let plants go short of water when their fruits are swelling and ripening. Heavy watering after a drought can cause fruits to split and rot.
  • If you aren't growing your gooseberries in a fruit cage, cover bushes with netting during June and July to keep off birds. Ensure it is weighted down at the base to prevent blackbirds getting underneath.
  • Hungry bullfinches feed on the gooseberry buds in winter, so use netting to keep them at bay. Also delay pruning until the buds have started to grow in April. Thick growth helps to keep the birds away and you can be sure of pruning back to a living bud.
  • Standard gooseberries make excellent plants for tubs. Choose a pot 35cm (14in) deep and wide and fill with a loam-based compost. Healthy shoots can be cut in autumn and early winter to use as hardwood cuttings which can be used to raise new bushes.
  • Wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting the fruit to protect hands and arms from the sharp thorns.

Varieties to try

  • 'Invicta' - makes a vigorous and spreading bush that bears large, pale green berries suitable for dessert and culinary use. It gives high yields when grown as a bush or cordon.
  • 'Pax' - full-flavoured, red-fruited variety, almost completely thornless. The fruits of 'Pax' are large and sweet, formed on quite vigorous, open bushes. It has excellent mildew resistance.
  • 'Greenfinch' - excellent disease-resistant variety that forms quite compact bushes. Early yields of bright green fruits and is excellent for cooking.
  • 'Rokula' - red, delicious, dessert gooseberry with an open, drooping habit. It should be cropped early on. Resistant to mildew
  • 'Whinham's Industry' - popular red-fruited variety, happy in partial shade. Good choice for heavy soils but prone to mildew.
  • 'Careless' - popular cooking variety with pale green fruits that gives heavy yields. Grows well on most soils but susceptible to mildew.