Gooseberries are often overshadowed by their more colourful soft fruit compatriots, such as raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. But their distinctive flavour is something not to be missed whether cooked or eaten fresh.
The gooseberry, Ribes uvacrispa, has its origins in Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, and has been cultivated in Britain from at least the late 13th century. In the 19th century gooseberries even developed into something of a craze with over 170 gooseberry clubs and fiercely contested gooseberry competitions. Today, gooseberries may not be the first fruit we think of growing, but they can certainly bring something distinctive to the kitchen table. Eaten raw they can have a tart taste but become sweeter the riper they are.
In the kitchen they are as versatile as any other soft fruit. Bare root bushes should be planted between early autumn and late winter, and prefer a moist, loamy soil and a sunny but sheltered site. Make sure you fork in some well-rotted organic matter and some general fertiliser pellets to the planting hole, spread the roots out and then cover with soil, heeling in to make sure the bush is secure. Water in and then spread a thick mulch (such as compost or bark) around the bush to help retain moisture in the soil. Because of their spreading habit, bushes should be planted approximately 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) apart. If you wish to grow them as cordons (one main stem) then plant 30-38cm (12-15in) apart with accompanying bamboo canes 1.7m (5 1 ⁄ 2 ft) high connected by horizontal wires.
As with other soft fruit, birds love gooseberries so you will need to give your fruit some protection in the form of netting or a fruit cage. And not just in the summer – bullfinches are particularly partial to the young buds as they emerge in early spring. Gooseberry bushes need to be pruned in the winter, cutting back on old wood (four to five years old), as this will not produce any more fruit, and branches that cross or are low level as these can make the bush more susceptible to mildew.
It is also important to prune the centre of the bush if necessary, but don’t overdo it. This allows air to circulate in and around the plant and thereby make an attack of fungal disease less likely. Prune back young growth in June on bushes and cordons to five leaves; this helps to remove any mildewed growth and pests and encourages fruiting on the main stem. Gooseberries also make good container plants but these will need more watering than those planted in the soil.
You can harvest gooseberries at two points in the year. One is in late May-to early June when the under-ripe fruit can be picked, removing every other berry, for cooking purposes. Then by July the remaining berries will be much bigger and sweeter and can be picked for eating raw or for cooking.
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