Gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa) are delicious and easy-to-grow soft fruit, with a choice of varieties for eating or cooking. They can be grown in the ground, in containers or trained against a wall to save space, making them ideal for small plots.
Gooseberries come in an array of colours and sizes, some sweet enough to eat raw, others great for cooking
Robust, hardy and happy in sun or light shade, gooseberries are easy to look after, both in the ground and in containers. These versatile plants can be grown as bushes, 1–1.5m (3½–5ft) tall and wide, or trained into space-saving and attractive shapes. These include narrow single-stemmed cordons and wide fans spread flat against a wall or fence. Tall slender cordons, in particular, take up little ground space and can be planted closer together, allowing you to grow several different varieties in a small area. They can also be grown as standards – shaped like a lollipop, with a bushy head on a tall stem. These are usually bought ready-trained, using grafted or budded plants that have a clear ‘trunk’ about 1m (3¼ft) tall. This attractive form makes good use of space, as you can grow other plants beneath them.
Most gooseberries should be pruned twice a year to keep them in good shape and maximise harvests, but this is a straightforward process and they need little other maintenance. To protect the fruit from birds, put netting over plants as soon as the berries start to ripen.
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There is a wide choice of gooseberry varieties, with attractive red, green or yellow fruits that ripen from late June to early August, depending on the variety. Dessert varieties are sweet and delicious eaten raw, while culinary varieties are perfect for puddings, pies and jams. Some varieties are dual purpose.
Plant size and vigour can vary slightly depending on the variety, ranging from 1m (3¼ft) up to 1.5m (5ft) tall and wide. Most varieties have prickly stems, although a few are (almost) thornless, which makes pruning and harvesting easier. Some varieties are less susceptible to mildew, and most are happy in sun or light shade.
When choosing varieties, look for those with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials. If you visit any of the RHS gardens, you’ll find a wide range of fruit, including gooseberries, grown in various ways. So you can easily compare different varieties and pick up useful growing tips.
What and where to buy
Gooseberries can be bought as bare-root plants (without any soil around the roots) or in containers. Bare-root plants are only available while dormant, from late autumn to early spring, usually by mail order from fruit nurseries. Potted plants are available for most of the year and are widely sold in garden centres as well as by online retailers. Bare-root plants are usually slightly cheaper than potted plants.
For growing as a bush, choose a two- to three-year-old plant with a well-balanced head of three to five main branches and a clear stem of 10–15cm (4–6in). For a cordon, choose either a plant with one vigorous stem, a rooted cutting or a partly trained cordon. For growing as a standard, it is easiest to buy a plant that has already been grafted and trained, as these take a long time to grow and train from scratch.
Gooseberries are robust and hardy plants that can be grown in a wide range of locations. They cope in most soil conditions, but prefer moist, well-drained ground. They can also be planted in large containers.
They crop best and produce sweeter fruits in a sunny position, but will tolerate some shade. They can, for example, be grown in the dappled shade under fruit trees or trained against a north-facing wall. Choose a sheltered site, as the stems are brittle and can snap in windy conditions, especially when laden with fruit. Avoid sites prone to late frosts, as these can damage the early flowers and so reduce fruiting. Consider planting in a fruit cage, to protect the buds and fruit from birds.
You can plant bare-root gooseberries from late autumn to early spring, and container-grown plants at any time – although avoid planting when the ground is waterlogged, parched or frozen. Late autumn is ideal, as it gives them plenty of time to settle in before the new growing season starts in spring.
Take care to position the plant at the same depth it was previously growing – so with containerised plants align the top of the compost level with the soil surface, and with bare-root plants align the soil mark on the stem. Allow the following spacings between plants: bushes and standards 1.2–1.5m (4–5ft) apart, cordons 30–38cm (12–15in) apart, fans: 1–1.5m (3¼–5ft) apart.
Planting gooseberries is very straightforward – see our step-by-step guide and video below.
Planting in a container
Gooseberries are easy to plant in pots – see our guides below. Choose a pot that’s at least 40cm (16in) wide and deep, with plenty of drainage holes in the base, and use peat-free soil-based compost.
All trained gooseberries, apart from bush plants, need supports. So insert a sturdy bamboo cane at planting time to keep the main stem stable – up to 1.7m (5½ft) tall for cordons and up to 1m (3¼ft) tall for standards. Fans and cordons also need a system of horizontal wires – usually two, at 60cm (2ft) and 1.2m (4ft) from the ground, attached to posts or to a wall or fence. See our guide below for full details.
Gooseberry plants generally need little attention, apart from pruning to keep them neat and productive, watering in dry spells and feeding in spring to boost harvests.
Water newly planted gooseberries regularly for at least the first growing season, until established. After that, watering is seldom required, although in very dry spells water every fortnight.
Water gooseberries during dry weather while the fruits are forming
After feeding in early spring (see below), mulch the root area with organic matter, such as garden compost or chipped bark, to hold moisture in the soil. A layer about 5cm (2in) thick is ideal, laid onto damp ground, and take care to leave a gap around the base of the stem, to avoid rotting. Top up the mulch annually.
In early spring, feed with a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4 or fish, blood and bone. Scatter one and a half handfuls per square metre/yard around the base of plants. Avoid feeding with too much nitrogen, because this can encourage sappy growth, which is prone to mildew.
You can make new plants by taking hardwood cuttings about 30cm (1ft) long in winter. Use stems from young plants removed during winter pruning. Older plants may carry disease, so it’s best not propagate from them.
Pruning and Training
To ensure good crops of large fruits and to keep plants healthy and in good shape, prune twice a year, in summer and winter. Gooseberries can be trained into various forms, including bushes, cordons, standards and fans, each needing slightly different pruning. For full details, see our guide below.
Most gooseberry plants are quite prickly, so take care when harvesting
In June, when the fruits are still green and under-ripe, pick every other fruit and use for making jam, pies, tarts and sauces. The remaining fruits should then grow larger than if you allow them all to ripen
In July and August, harvest the rest of the fruits once they are ripe, for maximum flavour and sweetness. Pick fully ripened gooseberries carefully as they’re soft and likely to burst.
An established bush should produce 2.5–5.5kg (6–12lb) of fruit per year, and a cordon about 1kg (2lb).
It’s a good idea to grow gooseberries in a fruit cage if possible, or cover them with netting for short spells, both in winter to prevent bullfinches damaging the buds and in summer to protect the ripening berries from birds. Several insects and fungal diseases can also affect gooseberries (see Common Problems, below), so check plants regularly. Some gooseberry varieties offer resistance to mildew.
If frost is forecast while plants are flowering, cover with horticultural fleece, old net curtains or similar overnight, then remove during the day to allow pollinating insects to access the flowers.
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