Horticulture Magazine

Gooseberry Bush Plant Care & Growing Tips

red gooseberries on a branch

Gooseberry Overview

Official Plant NameRibes ulva-crisma
Common Name(s)Gooseberry
Plant TypeFruit / Shrub
Native AreaCultivated
Hardiness RatingH7
ToxicityEdible Fruits
FoliageDeiciduous
FlowersInconspicuous
When To PlantJanuary, February, March, April, May, September, October, November, December
Harvesting MonthsJune, July, August
When To PruneJanuary, February, March, November, December
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Dappled Shade

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
1 – 1.2M

Spread
1 – 1.2M

Bloom Time
Late Spring / Early Summer

Soil

Preferred
Most fertile soils

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Any

Probably the King of Berries in the Victorian Era, Gooseberry lost its crown in the early 1900s to foreign usurpers.

Gooseberries are very flavourful and different varieties impart different taste sensations.

Some are lusciously sweet fresh off the bush; others are deliciously tangy and tart with savouries. Arguably the most versatile of all berries, perhaps the Gooseberry can one day regain its throne!

One to two centuries ago, Gooseberries used to be among the choicest fruits enjoyed in Great Britain, enjoying the height of their popularity in the mid-1800s.

The fruit suffered a decline in popularity from the early 1900s and fell out of favour after about 1920. In our time, gooseberries have been supplanted by more exotic fruits like passionfruit and kiwis in the garden.

Perhaps this was because originally Gooseberry bushes were very thorny – and the species and heirloom cultivars still are – and all Gooseberry bushes require proper maintenance. Or perhaps this fruit’s flavour was originally too tart and too tangy for modern palates.

If this was so, the ‘problem’ has been circumvented by a number of newer cultivars that are honey-sweet.

In any event, the fading away of the Gooseberry has been somewhat exaggerated if the RHS Fruit and Vegetable Show 2021 is anything to go by. Gooseberries are among the limited number of fruits and vegetables that have six discrete competition classes, and are also classified by varieties that total a whopping 68!  

Perhaps Gooseberries are making a comeback and part of the reason is that newer cultivars eliminate some of the difficulty with growing gooseberries in the backyard.

For one thing, the bushes do not have the spiny thorns associated with gooseberry bushes and some are virtually thornless. For another,  they are high-yielding. Finally, the abundance of cultivars afford a very wide taste choice: different cultivars’ fruits have a taste that is a mix of sweet, sour, tangy, and tart in varying proportions.

And for those who don’t care for tart and sour, a few cultivars, such as ‘Hinnonmaki Red’ and ‘Black Velvet,’ are wholly sweet. 

red organic gooseberry fruits on the branch
Gooseberries Come in Deep, Lustrous Reds…

The Pros Outweigh the Con

Be the variety newer or older, another positive attribute is that Gooseberry bushes are self-fertile so you are good to go with a single bush, though you will increase your yield if you have three or four bushes. 

This is not one of those bushes that you can plant and forget about; to the contrary, it requires care, particularly in pruning. Correct pruning is of threefold importance.

First, Gooseberry Bushes can get overgrown in a haphazard and even tangled-up way and, therefore, can look very unkempt.

Second, such overgrown and unkempt bushes are much more susceptible to diseases like powdery mildew and pests like aphids.

And third, they produce a smaller crop than they would if they were correctly pruned.  

Mark that store-bought gooseberries of any variety cannot be compared to home-grown ones because this is a fruit that doesn’t transport well or ‘keep’ well when it is ripe as it tends to burst.

Therefore, stores stock and sell underripe gooseberries which will not ripen into sweet fruit after they have been plucked. This fact is surely the best reason to grow a Gooseberry bush (or few) in your back garden.

green Ribes uva-crispa berries
…And Gooseberries Come in Bright, Sparkling Greens 

Background and Origins

Ribes meant currant in many mediaeval European languages, and – sadly for gooseberries – that meaning continues in stem words to this day in other Germanic and Romance languages, like Hungarian, Slovak, Serbian, and, of course, Latin.

Even in Great Britain the root Rib- is more associated with currants than with gooseberries – that famous cordial created in the inter-war years, Ribena, is a currant squash, not a gooseberry one!

In the 1730s, Carl Linnaeus used the extant word Ribes as the name of a genus and classified gooseberries and currants within it. The genus includes 190 to 195 species (20 to 30 of which are edible gooseberry species native to North America). 

Species of Ribes, many of them gooseberries, are very widely distributed. They are native to the entirety of Europe except Portugal, all of Asia except India and Indonesia, the whole of North America, and the Pacific regions of South America and Argentina.

Ribes uva-crispa, from which the vast majority of the desirable cultivars descend solely or otherwise, is endemic to Europe and the Caucasus. 

England could be called the Gooseberry Capital of the World because this berry has been more popular and cultivated more extensively in this country than in any other. Gooseberry plants have been cultivated in the British Isles since no later than the 1400s and likely before that.

Gooseberries were and are especially popular in the British Midlands. In the 1800s numerous gooseberry competitions used to be held with the grand prize going, not to the best-tasting berry, but, to the heaviest one!

The RHS has kept that tradition very much alive; its Fruit and Veg show includes a ‘Heaviest’ Competition only for gooseberries, besides apples, and not for any other berries. 

Then, of course, there is that other Victorian Era ‘sport’ of ‘playing gooseberry’ that – unlike gooseberry contests – is now well and properly extinct!

Essential Varieties

Underneath we present half-a-dozen essential varieties and a further six supplemental ones. All descend from Ribes uva-crispa, either solely or jointly.

While the colours of these varieties’ fruits are usually classified as yellow, green, and red – with a further classification of white for competition purposes – their hues are manifold and very varied, ranging from a very pale tone of the particular colour to a fully-saturated or very dark tone.

A properly pruned Gooseberry bush of most of these cultivars will attain a height that is a shade under 1.5 metres. All have palmately (and fairly deeply) lobed leaves.

‘Pax’ is perhaps the ideal cultivar for the gardener who is new to gooseberries and has space for only one bush.

The mature bush is virtually thorn-free and has a lot of that ‘hybrid vigour.’ It is more disease-resistant than most varieties.

It bears a good yield of wine-red fruit in the June-July timeframe.

The fruit is very much an all-rounder – it is sweet without being over-sweet, and is great for eating straight off the bush and is equally good for making pies, desserts, and preserves.

gooseberry and orange preserve in a glass jar
A Mouth-Watering Gooseberry-and-Orange Preserve

‘Captivator’ is ‘captivating’ for more than one reason. Casual gardeners will love these bushes for being nearly thorn-free come time to pick the fruit, and also for their high mildew-resistance. They grow to only about one metre in height but they have an unusual spreading habit.  The fruit is a rosy pink to rose red and is quite large, though this is an average-yielding variety. Eaten ripe and raw, it is deliciously tart-sweet; slightly under-ripe it is excellent for preserves, pickles, and such.

‘Whinhams Industry’ is the British heirloom variety dating back to the Victorian Era. Not as disease-resistant as newer varieties, it is very unfussy about soil but can be fussy about climate. Now and again this moody (and very thorny) bush may fail to give a half-decent crop. But when it gets the right climate conditions, it will reward you with not only a massive harvest in June-July, but with the most luscious of fruit.

‘Hinnonmaki Röd,’ ‘Hinnonmaeki Red,’ or ‘Hinnonmaki Red’ is the ‘comer’ – it may be on the verge of becoming the most popular garden-grown Gooseberry bush. This Finnish cultivar has much to recommend it. It is a vigorous grower, has excellent disease resistance, crops reliably, and also gives a well-above-average yield in July. The perfectly red berries have an incredible ‘just right’ sweet flavour, thus competing with other types of berries that are preferred for their sweetness. This is the Gooseberry for modern tastes.

Hinnonmaki Red clustered fruit in the garden
A Cluster of Luscious Hinnonmaki Red Gooseberries

‘Black Velvet’ is an American import that is just catching on in the UK so if you want to get something a little different, this hybrid is the Gooseberry bush for you. And it is a little different. First, for a Gooseberry bush it is comparatively shade loving. Next, its fruit is a tad smaller than what Britishers are accustomed to but it makes up for it by producing thumping good crops. Finally, the ruby-red to blackish-red fruit is as sweet as sweet can be – after all, those sweet-toothed Americans cultivated it! It is not thorn-free but it has less troublesome thorns than most.

‘Hinnonmaki Yellow’ is one of the most unfussy, reliable and trouble-free varieties; it does well even in heavyish soils. Though the odd bush may succumb to mildew, it is one of the most pest-resistant cultivars. It has a bushy but loose, saggy habit and may well need a trellis or support canes. But be careful when you fix it up because this one is a little thorny. It bears huge crops in July of greenish-yellow berries that are most unusual as they have a delightful aromatic sweetness that is redolent of apricot.

Other Varieties

‘Rokula’ is one of the newer cultivars that is an up-and-comer. It is well-reputed for its high resistance to mildew. It reliably produces a heavy crop that is among the earliest in the season. Berries are already formed in May and are good to pop into the mouth come June. The colour of Ruby Port, this variety’s berries are excellent to eat out of hand but they are, in fact, a top choice for many culinary purposes – preserves and pies as well as salsas and pickles

‘Xenia’ is a Swiss cultivar that is gradually catching on in the United Kingdom. It may be billed as being nearly free of thorns but it’s not! However, it has other virtues. It produces a good crop quite early, by June. The berry is very smooth and also quite big. Varying in colour from glazed red to rich red, it is quite sweet but not overly so. It is one of those all-rounders that is excellent for eating raw out of hand, and equally good for using in culinary preparations. Finally, if your plot has heavy, clayey soil, you can still grow Gooseberries, courtesy of this cultivar.

‘Invicta’ has some serious thorns and it is not very resistant to pests though it does have dodgy resistance to mildew and leaf spot. That out of the way, this cultivar is among the most impressive ones in growth and consistently produces the heaviest, hugest crops – far more than other varieties. The berry’s colour is a translucent, limpid green but it is classified as a white for competition purposes. Strongly flavoured, it is a top choice for all culinary purposes, from jams and jellies to sauces for savouries to accompaniment with pork and such.

Invicta gooseberries hanging from a branch
The Translucent, Limpid Green of Invicta

‘Greenfinch’ has a bushy but self-contained habit that makes for a neat and tidy bush. Though not one of the more popular varieties, it is ideally suited to British conditions and exhibits some tolerance for a range of soil and climatic conditions. It produces average yields of average-sized fruit that is light green. However, this variety’s claim to fame is that the tart, tangy berry is one of the best choices with which to prepare delicious sauces and salsas, to serve with cold cuts, and even with savoury foods like duck.

‘Leveller’ is one of the UK’s most popular cultivars for more reasons than one. It needs rich, fertile soil and the right climatic conditions, and when it gets those it bears good crops of relatively huge berries that are yellow when ripening and a light, shiny green when ripe. This is one of those varieties that you pick under-ripe for pies and preserves, and even for pickling, and pick ripe to eat out of hand, exulting in the fruit’s rich sweetness. This is not the most disease-resistant of cultivars; however, it is the one that produces most of the winners of largest-gooseberry contests!

‘Martlet’ is one of the newer varieties that has yet to become a favourite, but it well might. To begin with, it is not only marketed as mildew-resistant, it really is. Next, the bush itself is vigorous and adaptable. It yields huge crops of fruit that can be picked throughout June. As for the berry, it is of a rich red hue, is quite large, and has that just-right sweetness that makes it a classic dessert berry – ideal for eating raw, serving in fruit salads, or making desserts with. 

homemade gooseberry lemon pie with tea
Try Martlet for Preparing Gooseberry Pies and Other Desserts

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Gooseberry species grow wild throughout Eurasia where they are found in many kinds of soil and environmental conditions.

In the United Kingdom they are often seen in woodlands and scrublands, and also along country byways. 

Again, where the United Kingdom is concerned, they are found more frequently on moist ground, either in full sun or a sun-shade mix. 

Other species, native to South Asia and North America, grow in even dryish areas. Different species grow in climate conditions ranging from sunny and semi-tropical through temperate to frigid.

How to Grow Gooseberries

You can grow a gooseberry plant from seed but while species will grow true, cultivars will likely not. Also, growing gooseberry shrubs from seeds is a complicated and fiddly business.

Bare-root plants are most widely available; potted plants are another form in which Gooseberry plants can be bought. Get them from an established merchant with a good reputation because Gooseberry shrubs are among those that can harbour pests or diseases.

The major cultivars are fully hardy at H6.

Gooseberry cultivars should be planted clay-free soil with only a small proportion of sand, though a few can handle clayey soils.

The soil should contain peat or other organic content such as well-rotted manure or humus. The soil should be well-draining; however, Gooseberries prefer damp soil so you may add some vermiculite in the subsoil to retain moisture.

The ideal soil pH is Slightly Acidic, 6.1 to 6.5, but this can safely be stretched to 5.6 to 7.3 – Moderately Acidic to Neutral.

In almost the whole of the United Kingdom the best site is in full sun but part shade will do. Bear in mind that the more sun the bush gets, the sweeter the berries.

Therefore, if you are growing a sweet dessert variety it really should be sited in full sun; on the other hand, if you are growing a tart culinary variety then site it in part shade.

The palmately lobed leaves of a gooseberry bush
The Palmately Lobed Leaves of a Gooseberry Bush

The best location is one that is sheltered but has good airflow but this combination may not be at all easily sorted-out; if not, don’t sweat it.

If need be, you can support your bush with a trellis or bamboo canes. In any event, it must be pruned diligently to improve air circulation. 

You can (trans)plant bare-root or potted plants any time during winter or early spring. The transplanting hole should not only accommodate the entire root ball, it should be considerably wider than the root ball so that the roots can be spread out.

Before transplanting a potted plant, water it well. Dampen the roots of a bare-root plant before putting it in the ground. Water well after transplanting.

Space Gooseberry bushes approximately 1.5 metres apart.

Gooseberry bushes thrive on lots of water. Water from soil level only. Absolutely do not water them on the crown or over the foliage so as not to give any opening to diseases.

Year one is to be reserved for root development. Simply keep removing any buds and flowers that may form.

Prune the bush as described in section Pruning Gooseberry Bushes from the second year onwards, and from the third year on out you should be reaping bountiful harvests.

The plant should get water about twice a week during the growing season. Keep the soil moist.

As fruit starts to form and develop, gradually and proportionally increase the amount of water and perhaps the frequency of watering; however, be careful not to overwater. A soil moisture meter would be very useful during Gooseberry bushes’ fruit-forming period.

Mulching a Gooseberry bush in general is a good idea (though in hot and dry climates it is essential). 

Hinnonmaki Yellow gooseberry bush
Fruit Ripening on a Pest-Resistant Hinnonmaki Yellow Bush

Harvesting Gooseberries 

With most – though not all – fruits, when you pick them in the harvesting season you do so over a period of a few days, few weeks, or even several weeks as you pick the fruit that is ripe, leaving the rest for another day.

That holds true for gooseberries but with an additional variable: how ripe or under-ripe should the berries be picked? This actually depends on two factors; first, how you intend to consume the fruit, and, second, the particular variety you are picking.

Fruit for pickles, preserves, pies and sauces is best when it is tart and tangy. For fruit salads, desserts and eating out of hand, it is best when ripe and sweet. 

Different varieties are ready to pick at different times of year. Though most varieties’ fruit is ready to pick from mid-June through early August, depending on the cultivar harvesting season can start as early as end-May and run as late as Autumn!

For example ‘Rokula’ forms fruits by mid-spring whereas ‘Captivator’ yields its crop in July going into August. Also keep in mind that some varieties’ fruits will mature and should be picked within about two weeks while other varieties’ fruits will mature over a greater length of time.

A harvesting season of four to six weeks is the norm. See this guide to understand when your gooseberries are ready to pick.

Where most varieties’ bushes are concerned, when picking this fruit wear full-length gardening gloves – it should be (painfully!) obvious why this is necessary.

Just-ripe gooseberries are not hard but are firm with a bit of ‘give’ – perhaps like tiny water-balloons – and can be plucked without undue pulling or twisting.

Pick these berries with a gentle but firm plucking action – a combination bend-and-pull with a deft turn of the wrist. Use a proper trug and not a deep basket, let alone a pail, to collect Gooseberries. Ripe fruit will burst or get squashed under even moderate weight.

You could also put a plastic sheet or tarp under the bush and give it a good shake. Berries that are ripe and near-ripe will obligingly fall off.

Gooseberries will keep for up to a fortnight in the fridge’s crisper. They can also be sealed in a container and put in the freezer. They can be frozen for up to a year, right until the start of the next harvesting season. 

Pruning Gooseberry Bushes 

Gooseberry plants, technically evergreen shrubs, are very adaptable – they can be pruned as bushes, as small trees, or trained to grow up and along a trellis or even a wall.

Our aim is to treat the shrub as a fruit-producing plant and for this purpose it works best as a well-pruned bush. A trellis can greatly help in spacing out fruit-bearing branches so as to expose the central stem and facilitate air circulation.

The best time to prune these bushes is in the second half of winter. 

It must be said that pruning a Gooseberry bush is a fairly technical endeavour. 

The most important consideration when pruning Gooseberry bushes is to open up the centre of the plant so as to facilitate air circulation and allow sunlight to reach the central stem.

The secondary consideration is to maximise your crop by pruning superfluous canes and leaving the correct number and the right mix of new and fruit-bearing canes.

When the bush is two years old, prune it in the second half of winter. Choose about five canes that are the healthiest, most well-formed, and well-spaced, and prune the rest. This should be the plan going forward as well.

Do not leave behind any diseased or inter-crossing canes.

Do the same every year thereafter, choosing the best four or five new canes and removing the rest. Also, prune canes that are four or more years old as two- and three-year ones are the most productive.

The aim is to keep a mix of one-, two-, and three-year-old canes for a total of 12 to 15 on the mature, fruit-bearing bush.

grilled pork with green gooseberry sauce on a grey plate
Strong-Flavoured Gooseberry Varieties go Very Well with Pork

Common Diseases and Problems

First, bear in mind that Gooseberry cultivars manifest rather pronounced differences as to the pests and diseases that they resist well and those that they succumb to. 

Problems include powdery mildew and leaf spot. The former is more common but is not very hard to resolve while the latter, a fungal disease, is not so common but very difficult to bring under control.

Gooseberry bushes can be attacked by aphids, sawfly, and capsid bug.

You cannot use chemical pesticides on a fruit-bearing bush so you will need to choose organic formulations and natural solutions.

Among the former are Organic Savona soap, Neudorff Bug Free, and Vitax Plant Guard. You could prepare a solution of generic pyrethrin and neem oil. Also consider beneficial insects like ladybugs.

You can minimise the chances that the bush will succumb to pests and diseases by siting it optimally, pruning it correctly, and watering it at soil level.

There is one more problem: birds.

A few too many birds love Gooseberries! If birds are snacking on your precious fruit, you can try to repel them by coating your bushes with organic and food-grade liquid that birds find intolerable.

Another technique is to try to draw them away by setting up a bird feeder with different types of grain that birds may be more attracted to.

As a last resort, protect your bushes with bird netting.

Culinary Uses

Gooseberries probably afford more culinary options than any other berry – say ‘yum!’

A good rule of thumb is that slightly underripe fruit of green cultivars is best for making tarts, pickles, and such, for making gooseberry sauce, and for serving with savoury foods, while ripe berries of red cultivars are best for eating fresh and raw, serving with yoghurts and in fruit salads, and for making desserts with.

Gooseberries of any type make lip-smackin’ good jams and preserves. 

Very nice country-style wines are made from gooseberries.

Green varieties are great for mixed spicy or piquant pickles and also for sweet gooseberry pickle. They are also excellent for making piquant dips for chips and tacos

You can top oatmeal or muesli with red gooseberries, whole, cut in half, or chopped.

The tangy, tart varieties are excellent in salads with cheddar, chives, olives, and with cold cuts. The sweeter ones are perfect for fruit salads and fruit flans.

Though gooseberries can be pureed, gooseberry fool is an old (and rather forgotten) British tradition that still lives on in the Yorkshire countryside.

Forget cranberry sauce with turkey and give a go to gooseberry sauce with pork, goose, duck or saltwater fish like mackerel.

And step aside blueberry muffins; make way for gooseberry muffins, made from different varieties for different taste sensations.

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