red gooseberries

Whoever came up with the story about infants originating from the base of gooseberry bushes must have been a bit misguided and definitely not a gardener. Anyone who grows this very tasty but extremely thorny crop will know that the combination of delicate newborn skin and the sharp spines of Ribes uva-crispa are an impractical match.

A somewhat old-fashioned fruit, ripening around Christmas when it is more or less overshadowed by the other brightly-coloured, classy-looking berries, this crop should definitely not be overlooked! Despite all the prickles, bristly fruits and negative connotations (in colloquial terms, to be a ‘gooseberry’ is to be the third, unwanted person present when a (usually romantically involved) couple want some alone time), gooseberries pack a tart, flavourful punch and are a particular boon for those living in colder climates, where they crop exceptionally well.

I haven’t had a huge amount of success with my own bushes, but to be honest they haven’t received the best of my attention. The first I had to plant in a secluded streambank location to keep everyone out of the way of its ferocious spines…this was obviously too far off the beaten track however, as it met its fate via the weedeater. Number two was an elderly transplant which was already in its twilight years, and gradually succumbed to old age. Number three was gifted to me, young and sprightly and bore a few crops, but when I went to check on it last weekend, it too has curled up its toes. I vow that my next gooseberry bush will be given a soapbox position in the garden and be coddled like no other. Wish me luck, I think I’ll need it.

Gooseberries: a short family history

Gooseberries belong to the genus Ribes, along with the black, red and white currants and their derivatives – Worcesterberries, jostaberries and such. Slightly more distant relatives include the fragrant ornamental mock orange, and hydrangeas. The genus originates from the Northern Hemisphere’s high latitudes, with Europe, Asia and North America all having their own native species. Those most commonly cultivated are the European gooseberries, Ribes grossularia and R. uva-crispa and the American varieties R. hirtellum and R. cynobasti. American gooseberries are thornier and higher yielding but smaller-fruited than their European counterparts, also lacking some of the tart flavour characteristics of their European cousins.

Gooseberries have a rather notable social history as well – gooseberry clubs (yes, you read right) were commonplace in Northern England during the 1700s onwards, where members would compete to grow the largest possible single fruit via all sorts of interesting means, thinning off all the fruit bar two or three berries on a branch, then piling on manure and water, with some competitors going so far as to support the fruit about a quarter-immersed in a small cup of water for the final weeks, a process known as ‘suckling the gooseberry’. A record weight was set in 1852 with a gooseberry that almost reached the equivalent of the modern 50 grams. Christopher Stocks, in his fantastic piece of horticultural history, Forgotten Fruits, elaborates that prizes up for grabs for reaching such heights might include “…a pair of sugar tongs, a copper tea-kettle, a cream jug, or a corner cupboard”.

Grown in the UK since the Middle Ages and with the earliest written record of them being from 1275, when King Edward I’s royal fruiterer ordered bushes from France to be planted at the Tower of London, it is not surprising gooseberries have a long and chequered history, with many different varieties bred and grown at the height of their popularity: Crown Bob (before 1812); Dan’s Mistake (perhaps not so much of one; before 1853); Golden Drop (before 1802); Hero of the Nile (possibly 1799); Howard’s Lancer (1831); Leveller (1851); London (1831); Lord Derby (before 1866); May Duke (1900) and Whinham’s Industry (c.1835). Our cultivar options might be a little more streamlined in modern times, but gooseberries are worth a crack for lovers of the less-than-usual.

Suitable climates and growing conditions

Gooseberries are a cool-temperate species and can be grown throughout New Zealand, but prefer the colder regions, where they will crop best. They do not like very hot summer temperatures, but are frost-hardy to -10°C when dormant. Chilling requirements for fruit set are between 800-1500 hours, depending on cultivar.

They form low-growing, medium size bushes, reaching approximately a metre in height and approximately the same in spread at maturity and are exceptionally long-lived for a soft fruit bush – 15-30 years on average, and I have read reports of some plants living up to 50 years. With appropriate care and attention, you can expect crops of 4-6 kg per bush after about two to four years, the fruit maturing 6-9 weeks after fruit set. Allow approximately 1-1.5 metres between plants, and keep them tucked away in a less-traversed part of the garden to avoid puncturing those passing by!

The patient amongst us could try propagating gooseberries from seed, but taking cuttings and layering are far more successful techniques, of particular use if you have a friend with an amenable variety you’d like to duplicate in your own garden. The former method is most successful for American gooseberries – take either hardwood cuttings from one year old wood in winter, or current-season’s growth in autumn, before the leaves fall. Allow 3-5 buds per piece, rooting hormone is recommended, and grow the cuttings on in partial shade for a year before planting out. The latter method (layering) is better suited to European varieties - bury the tips of stems, or make a small slit (basically a wound) on a stem and bury this – roots should then form and you can detach the stem/new plant from the parent once it is growing strongly. American gooseberries will self-layer readily, forming roots wherever the stem touches the ground. For a fuss-free approach, your local nursery or garden centre will most likely have a few named gooseberry cultivars available, or will be able to order a couple of bushes in for you.

Site selection and planting

Plant new gooseberries in the autumn or winter, while the bushes are dormant. Avoid late winter if possible, as the plants will begin to produce leaves early in spring. They prefer partial shade and cool, moist conditions but will tolerate sunnier, more open positions as well. Sun is beneficial for fruit production, but gooseberries have leaves which are notoriously prone to sunburn. They are tolerant of most soil types and will tolerate some acidity, but fertile loamy soils with good water holding capacity are ideal as they will hold moisture when it is needed in the summer. Avoid sites prone to waterlogging. After planting, remove any branches that are hanging low on the ground, or any crossing over each other to allow for good airflow, access to fruit and easy pruning later on.

Culture and care

The gooseberry’s roots are fibrous and shallow, so take care when cultivating for weed control as the roots are easily damaged. A thick layer of organic mulch helps keep the roots cool in the height of summer. Gooseberries require a steady supply of irrigation over the growing season to ensure growth of healthy vegetative material and for fruit production. They are not tolerant of water stress and may curl up their toes permanently if exposed to prolonged drought conditions.

Balanced fertiliser additions are also important to balance vegetative growth and fruit production. In winter, well-rotted manure or compost can be gently worked into the soil around the base of the bushes. This can be followed by an application of 200 g of general-purpose fertiliser per bush in early spring. Aim to apply before forecast rainfall or water in well after applying. This amount should cover close to a square metre in area when spread.

Pruning

Gooseberries fruit mainly on the previous season’s growth, with some additional fruit produced on older wood including short spurs. In the early establishment phase, the best shape to adopt is a short trunk topped by a cup-like arrangement of six to eight leaders. Cut all leaders back by about half each year to encourage the development of a strong branches. Use the position of the cuts to take advantage of buds that are facing in the direction you would like new growth to fit.

As time progresses, cut leaders back more severely to encourage the production of new fruiting wood. Wood more than four or five years old is generally past peak production. Follow the general pruning rules to remove dead, damaged, diseased or crossing over pieces of wood, and keep the centre of the bush clear to make picking easier. Keep low branches clear of the ground, pruning to upward facing buds to prevent these forming in the future.

Pests, diseases and what to do about them

Gooseberries are susceptible (in varying degrees by variety) to American gooseberry mildew, Podosphaera mors-uvae, with some of the modern cultivars having at least some resistance. The disease is exacerbated in humid climates.

Keeping an open canopy to allow air movement, and avoiding letting your plants become water stressed in any way (by over or under watering) will help. Collect and burn any leaves and prunings at the end of the season to destroy overwintering pathogens. You might like to consider a suitable fungicide spray if mildew becomes a long-term problem in your patch.

The gooseberry sawfly, Nematus ribesii, is also a significant pest, with its larvae causing widespread feeding damage to the leaves, with bad infestations capable of complete defoliation. Try a sprinkling of Derris Dust to keep them in check. The insect overwinters in fallen leaves, so this is another reason to practise good orchard hygiene and destroy any crop debris left at the end of the season.

Aphids, spider mites and the stem-boring currant clearwing moth, Synanthedon tipuliformis may also make appearances. You may find bird netting is essential closer to harvest, to avoid your crop becoming a feast for feathered foes.

Varieties: My top picks

Readily available:

  • Invicta – A mildew resistant cultivar well-suited to the home garden. Sizeable crops of large green well-flavoured fruit December to January. Excellent culinary variety.
  • Pax – Vigorous, spreading bushes which require firm pruning to keep them in check. This aspect is balanced by the fact Pax has a few less thorns than other varieties! Slight resistance to mildew. Fruit is larger than that of Invicta and ripens to dark red, sweet enough to be eaten as a dessert fruit.

Look a bit harder and you may find…

  • Monarch – well-flavoured fruit with a reddish tint, thorny bushes that require pruning to keep them in check.
  • Farmer’s Glory – a vigorous, spreading plant which does well in cold climates with fruit well-suited to culinary purposes.

What to do with your crop

Gooseberries can be picked at two stages of ripeness – ‘mature green’ and still firm for cooking purposes, or fully ripe and soft for dessert eating. They are a versatile fruit in that they lend themselves equally well to sweet and savoury recipes.

On the savoury front, their tart clout cuts through the oiliness of fish and game dishes – in fact the French refer to the gooseberry as ‘groseille à maquereau’ or the mackerel currant, in appreciation of this quality. Culinary doyenne Jane Grigson lists a plethora of savoury uses for gooseberries in her excellent Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book (Penguin, 1982). From an 18th Century gooseberry sauce for meat, to one for the ubiquitous mackerel, a stuffing suitable for oily fish and goose and even osso bucco made with gooseberries instead of tomatoes, it’s all there.

On the sweet side, apart from eating gooseberries fresh at the peak of their ripeness, they freeze exceptionally well in their raw state. They can similarly be stewed and frozen, eaten as-is, incorporated into a wide variety of cakes and puddings or made into jam. BBC Good Food suggests steeping them in gin with a bit of sugar for a boozy summery tipple. They have an affinity with custard, and with another spring staple, the elderflower. Gooseberry fool is probably the best well known of the fruit fools, those delicate creamy, fruity desserts which are perfect end to a summer meal, especially when served with a crisp biscuit on the side.

Here's my slightly lighter take on the traditional gooseberry version.

Gooseberry and elderflower fool

300 g gooseberries, topped and tailed (stems and flower ends flicked off with a small sharp knife, or rubbed off with your fingers if the fruit is frozen).

Stew the fruit gently in a saucepan with a little water and two heads of fresh elderflowers, if you have them. Add sugar or honey to taste, remove the elderflower stalks, mash slightly, then cool to room temperature and place in the fridge until needed.

Whip 150 ml cream to stiff peaks and combine with 150 g thick plain Greek yoghurt. Stir in the chilled gooseberry puree and add 2 tbsp elderflower cordial if you haven’t used fresh elderflowers when cooking the fruit. Fold everything gently together and serve in small bowls with thin biscuits or wafers on the side. As a variation, I sometimes fold in about four roughly crushed brandy snaps about ten minutes before serving.


Anna-Marie Barnes is an active member of the New Zealand Tree Crops Association who endeavours to grow and preserve as much of her own fresh produce as possible. When the weather’s no good for gardening, she can usually be found inside working on a batch of homemade cheese or soap.

The New Zealand Tree Crops Association is a voluntary organisation promoting interest in useful trees, such as those producing fruit, nuts, timber, fuel, wood, stock fodder, bee forage and other productive crops. Find out more about the NZTCA here: https://treecrops.org.nz/

Disclaimer: the information supplied above is of a general nature and provided as reference material only. In regards to pest and disease control, please consult your agrichemical consultant for suitable products, application rates and further region-specific information.

Image credits

Gooseberry fruit – Bruno /Germany, via Pixabay.com

Red gooseberries – Teodor, via Pixabay.com

Green gooseberry fruit – Ulrike Leone, via Pixabay.com