Don’t fall victim to spines or pruning
I’ve certainly played the fool with my gooseberries over the years. I bought them years ago in a sell-off at the Gateshead Flower Show, three for a fiver for an unspecified variety.
Unfortunately, I was still living under the illusion that my garden got full sun, all day, ignoring the fact that an 8ft hedge seriously curtails this.
They were planted next to the said hedge and were lucky if they got an hour a day in high summer – not conducive to berry production.
During the garden revamp, I took the opportunity to move them to the strawberry patch. This works well – they keep the cat and birds off.
However, since I ditched the raised beds at the beginning of 2017, they now live in a new patch, still guarding the strawberries, with an extra plant in a large pot.
Buy spineless varieties
My advice to anyone who wants to grow them – spend the extra and buy spineless varieties. Gooseberries are hell on earth to pick.
The newer varieties are also sweeter, which means you’re not forced to cook them all the time.
With mine, I pick half the crop when they’re about half-size and still hard and quite bitter, but they cook very well with apples.
This means the plants can support the rest of the crop, which will then sweeten and grow to a decent size.
Winter’s a good time to put in bare-root plants, or you can pop in container-grown ones virtually anytime, as long as you keep them well watered.
Potted guide: gooseberries
- PLANTING TIME: November-March (bare root); any time (pot-grown).
- HARVESTING TIME: June (partially ripe for cooking) July/August fully ripened.
- PLANTING DISTANCE: 1.2-1.5m apart (4-5ft), although mine are much closer than that. Cordons 30-38cm apart (12-15″).
- ASPECT AND SOIL: Full sun, moisture-retentive soil. Not keen on very heavy soil. Feed with balanced granular fertiliser and mulch in late winter.
- HARDINESS: Hardy.
- DIFFICULTY: Easy.
- RECOMMENDED VARIETIES: Green: Greenfinch, Invicta. Yellow: Leveller, Yellow Champagne, Bedford Yellow, Early Sulphur. Red: Lancashire Lad; Whinham’s Industry.
I dislike pruning anything, but here’s what you need to know for bush plants:
Mid-June to July: shorten the current season’s growth back to five leaves, except for branches needed to extend the main framework. (Fruit should be fine, as it develops mainly on the older wood.)
Winter: remove dead wood and low-lying shoots. Then spur prune all side shoots by cutting them back to one to three buds from the base. Shorten branch tips by one-quarter, cutting to a suitable outward facing bud.
The curious phenomenon of gooseberry clubs
The gooseberry is a mere shadow of its former self – in the past, it was part of a craze almost on par with that of tulip mania.
Towards the end of the 18th century, “Gooseberry Clubs” emerged, especially in central and northern England, and they multiplied until the mid-19th century.
More than 170 clubs were founded, which culminated annually in a show with one aim – to grow the largest fruit.
During the Industrial Revolution, a salaried class emerged that could afford hobbies: the gooseberry clubs combined measurement mania and efficiency with a middle-class copy of the aristocratic garden.
There were clubs in Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire – even as far away as Bedford, the Cotswolds, and Carlisle.
Kudos of the biggest gooseberry
Growing the largest gooseberry could be achieved in a back yard.
For more than 100 years, a national publication, The Gooseberry Growers Register listed the annual club winners, the winning varieties and the maximum weight, the biggest being 57.9g.
Today, champions at the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Show, eight miles from Whitby, North Yorkshire, still exhibit egg-sized gooseberry monsters of 30g – the show was established in 1800. There’s also a group of shows still running in Cheshire.
To grow exhibition gooseberries, early in the growing season, only the best fruit is left on the bush; the autonomic shoot growth, which competes with the crop growth, is limited by pinching; the most esoteric tricks remain the secret of the champions.
Special fertiliser blends, umbrellas over the bushes (to protect fruit from rain and bursting); increasing humidity by placing a water tank underneath the plant are used by champion growers.
Maurer’s Gooseberry Book from 1913 displays a special apparatus, in which the weight and the volume of the fruit can be accurately measured.
Maurer gives an insider tip called “suckling”: woollen yarn is wrapped around the stem of the swelling fruits and transports water through the capillary mechanism from the water tank below to the gooseberry fruit so that they fill up faster.
The Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Show is held on the first Tuesday of August, and it is open to the public. For more information, visit www.egtongooseberryshow.org.uk.