Backyard Gooseberries

Gooseberries are an underused fruiting shrub currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Many gardeners are learning that this tasty fruit is easy to grow and makes excellent pies, jams, and jellies. Gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes which also includes red, black, and white currants and jostaberries. Its ease of growing, small size, and attractive red, green, or yellowish fruit, which are high in Vitamin C, make gooseberries well suited for home gardens.

Gooseberry shrubs are low-growing (2 to 5 feet) and thorny. Plants will generally produce for 15 to 30 years. The fruit is unique having an oval shape and fine lines appearing like longitudinal lines under the skin. Gooseberries are borne singly, in pairs, or small clusters.

Unlike most fruit crops, gooseberries tolerate partial shade. In fact, because of our hot summers, this cool climate native prefers some afternoon shade to avoid leaf and fruit scalding. Sites with a northern exposure are another alternative. Your planting site should also have good air circulation to reduce disease problems. The soil should have a pH of 6.2 to 6.5, be fertile, and well-drained. Incorporating organic matter (compost, manure, chopped leaves, etc) is desirable for improved drainage and water-holding capacity. Because their roots are shallow, only extending 8 to 16 inches, they are also suitable for raised beds.

There are many cultivars that can be grown in Kentucky. Generally, gooseberries are self-fertile, meaning you only need one for fruit production. You can increase the size and quantity of fruit by planting two different cultivars to allow for cross-pollination. Below are some available cultivars:

  • Poorman: large red fruit; fewer thorns; good flavor; susceptible to leaf spot; later ripening
  • Hinnomaki Red:  Excellent raspberry flavor-tart; red berry when ripe; crunchy texture; good disease resistance
  • Amish Red: good flavor; red berry when ripe; good texture; good disease resistance; limited availability
  • Black Velvet: new cultivar; heavy yields of dark red fruit; blueberry flavor; excellent disease resistance

Finding gooseberries may be difficult. Check at local nurseries for potted plants, but you will likely have to order bareroot plants from a catalog. Bareroot shrubs should be planted before growth begins in the spring. Containerized plants should be planted in early spring. Shrubs should be spaced 3 to 4 feet apart in rows. Set plants 2” deeper than they were growing in the nursery or container and its branches should be cut back to 5 inches. Also, strip off flower buds or blossoms so that no crop is produced the first year. This is important for good plant establishment.

Young gooseberries do not need much fertilizer. When they start to bear, apply 1/4 pound of 10-10-10 per bush annually in early spring as buds start to swell. Stable manure is a great organic alternative. Apply 1/2 bushel of manure per bush annually. Healthy growing plants should grow 15 to 20 inches of new crown shoots annually. Maintain a 3 to 4 inch layer of mulch around plants to combat weeds. Additional water may be needed from bloom to harvest. Add only enough water to moisten the soil 6 to 8 inches deep.  Allow the soil to dry out some before watering again to avoid damaging roots.

Pruning is required for good yields. Gooseberries should be pruned when plants are dormant in late winter or very early spring. At the end of the first season, remove all but 6 to 8 of the most vigorous shoots. At the end of the second season, leave 4 or 5 new 1-year canes and 3 to 4 of the 2-year canes. During the third year, keep 3 to 4 canes of each of the 1, 2, and 3-year old canes. Maintain this cane arrangement for subsequent years removing any canes 4 years old. This system ensures that the plants remain productive. 

Because of the thorns, you may want to wear leather gloves when harvesting gooseberries. Berries ripen over a 4 to 6-week period in the spring. For pies, jellies, and jams, pick the berries at their fullest size but before they ripen. Fully ripe fruit are great for eating fresh. Mature gooseberry plants should yield 4 to 8 quarts.

Submitted by Kelly Jackson, Agent for Horticulture, Christian County Cooperative Extension Service

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About krjack4

Extension Agent for Horticulture Serving home gardeners and Green Industry professionals, including commercial fruit & vegetable producers. Advisor to: Christian County Master Gardener Association; Downtown Hopkinsville Farmers Market.