For centuries this fruit has been popular in British gardens. The bushes will grow in almost every kind of well-drained soil. Where possible, provide fairly deep soils with a good humus content that are highly unlikely to dry out in the summer.
Make sure the soil is not short of potash, for a deficiency leads to poor development and small leaves which are scorched at the edges. The rooting system is widespread and near the surface, so do not cultivate deeply.
Planting can be carried out from the end of October until the end of March, the earlier the better. The site should be prepared in advance by deep digging and working in the farmyard or other bulky manure—bonfire ash is a valuable extra.
Never use quick-acting fertilizers, for they will force growth and the soft lush foliage is liable to mildew. Two- or three-year old bushes usually establish quickly. Spread the roots out well but do not plant deeply, for the bushes are best grown on a single stem or ‘leg’.
Deep planting results in unwanted shoots from below soil level. These make it difficult to clean the soil of weeds and pick fruit. Allow 5-6 ft. between the bushes, or if you’re growing single cordons, space them about 18 inches apart.
Espalier gooseberries will need to be 3-4 ft. apart and all trained specimens should be given a support at planting time. Pruning should be carried out annually. Well-shaped, open headed bushes allow the sun to penetrate and ripen the wood as well as making it easy to pick the fruit.
For the first few years, shorten the new growth by about a half. This will lead to the formation of strong branches which will be able to bear the weight of fruit the laterals produce.
If the laterals are kept cut back 2-3 inches from their base, they will make plenty of fruiting spurs. Cut right out all weak and badly placed shoots. Always prune to an outward pointing bud so that the center of the bush remains open.
Cordon, espalier, and standard gooseberries must be pruned carefully to keep them to their particular shape. Pruning can be done once the leaves have fallen. The exception to this is where birds, particularly bullfinches, are troublesome. This is best to wait until just before the buds begin to burst.
Although rarely practiced commercially, summer pruning is beneficial. Do it from the end of June onwards, shortening all lateral growth to about five leaves. This leads to the formation of more fruiting spurs. Thin the clusters of fruit to get really large berries.
Propagation of berries from cuttings is simple, the best time being from October to December. Select strong, well ripened shoots about 12 inches long from the current season’s growth. Remove all buds except the top four. This ensures that the developing bushes have a ‘leg’.
If shoots are pulled from the branches with a ‘heel’ of old wood, they will root very quickly. Having prepared the cuttings insert them 6 inches deep in a shallow, straight backed trench, lined up at the base with sharp stand or clean grit. Firm the soil round them.
Once rooted, the cuttings are planted out and training started to develop good framework. Gooseberries are productive for many years if they are properly treated and mulched with manure or compost each spring.
More than a century ago, specialist growers cataloged over a hundred varieties, many having been raised specially for exhibition for the large gooseberry shows that were then very popular. Today it would be very difficult to find a dozen different sorts.
While a good gooseberry has a distinct flavor, crops are sometimes gathered too early, before the flavor has fully developed. Unripe fruit is frequently offered in shops and markets.
Of the yellow fruiting varieties, ‘Leveller’ is particularly good. Red varieties should be eaten for dessert at the right moment. ‘Whinham’s Industry’ and ‘Lancashire Lad’ are delicious!
Of the so-called white sorts, ‘Whitesmith’ is excellent. Green varieties include ‘Lancer’ and ‘Careless’.