Bring on the berry: Everything you need to know about growing gooseberries

"Commercial fruit is, at best, a pale shadow, at worst, a travesty, of a properly grown crop." This is a typical opening salvo from Mr CR Higginbottom of Youlgreave, Derbyshire, who for several years sent me the most magnificent letters. The lines of his script never slid up or down the page, but strode across it most purposefully, with ys and fs looping in a way that told you he had been educated in a school that taught proper handwriting. And punctuation.

I always welcomed Mr Higginbottom's letters because he was so obviously an observant, knowledgeable gardener. He favoured practical topics – food rather than flowers. On the occasion I've quoted, he was writing about gooseberries. "To most people," he goes on, "the gooseberry is a toughened polythene sac filled with an acid strong enough to take the enamel off your teeth and stick it to the roof of your mouth. Such gastronomic equivalent of a tear gas grenade can only be eaten if stewed to a glop with unhealthy amounts of sugar. Varieties like 'Langley Gage', 'Whitesmith' and 'Whinham's Industry', properly treated, yield substantial amounts of delicious, aromatic fruit: at least 10 pounds per bush for the latter two.

"There is no substitute for double digging and tons of ancient compost, followed up by copious mulching and a twice yearly feed. To develop their full flavour, gooseberries need trace elements and magnesium, as well as the high potash fertiliser usually recommended. Vitax Q4 seems to do the job. The second application should follow fruiting, when the laterals for next year's crop can be shortened to five leaves. Old bushes need judicious thinning, as heavily shaded fruit tastes strongly of distilled water.

"Blackbirds and thrushes like gooseberry plots, bringing up substantial families on worms excavated from the mulch, and carefully selected berries on the point of deliquescence. A ferocious cat or nets are the only answer."

So there you are. Everything you need to know about gooseberries. It's a fruit I've never written about in this column. Mr Higginbottom's letter was prompted by a remark I made about the hideousness of shop-bought strawberries. I'd disagree with him about the double digging, but I'd guess he is of a generation for whom double digging has heroic status. Tons of ancient compost, mulching, yes. But I lay it on top of the ground and wait for the weather and worms to get it underground.

Gooseberries are found wild in most northern, temperate zones and seem to flourish in cool, moist, high places. In the garden, you can grow them as bushes, cordons or standards. For years, I grew them as standards, trained up on 1 metre (3ft) stems with a round head of foliage on top, like a piece of topiary. They need strong stakes however, as the stems are rather spindly in relation to the topknot. And occasionally, as I found to my cost, the whole head snaps off at the top of the stem. I should have pruned more severely.

You need to plant in soil that is well drained but moisture retentive. On shallow, dry soil, the fruit will not swell properly. You can plant in late autumn or at any time until early spring. It's best to grow bushes on a short stem so that they don't send up suckers. Set the individual bushes about 1.5m (5ft) apart. Don't plant too deeply. Cordons can be set just 30cm (12in) apart.

As Mr Higginbottom says, you need to mulch gooseberries every year with well-rotted compost or manure. Choose a time in early spring when the ground is damp. Weed regularly round the base and pull away any suckers that sprout.

As new owners of old gardens discover, gooseberries bear fruit even if they are not regularly pruned, but the berries are much easier to pick if you remove a few branches each year in late autumn or early winter to keep the centre of the bush open. An open bush is also less likely to succumb to mildew. Sometimes, too, in summer, it's useful to shorten long branches which may be weighed down to the ground with fruit. On cordons, which grow in two dimensions rather than three, trained out flat on wires, or set against a wall, you need to shorten the side growths to three buds. On standards (with the benefit of hindsight) I think you need to cut back the branches by at least a third to maintain a well-shaped head.

Bushes generally grow to about 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) tall and cordons to 1.5-1.8m (5-6ft). We've just planted some gooseberry fans on a spare bit of wall and they just need tying in from time to time. You don't expect as much fruit from a fan or a cordon as you do from a bush, but we've chosen varieties that will give us fat, red, soft dessert berries to eat raw. This means leaving them on the bush until mid or late summer. They are on a south-facing wall, so I'm hoping they'll ripen well.

For cooking, you'd gather green berries round about now, to make a sauce to go with mackerel, which come in at much the same time. 'Whinham's Industry', one of the varieties Mr Higginbottom mentions, gives berries which are equally good cooked or used as dessert berries. It makes a relatively upright bush (and puts up with some shade, if that is all you have got), bearing medium-sized dark red fruit. 'Careless' is another popular variety, and bears large, pale-green fruit on a spreading bush. Left alone, 'Leveller' ripens into an excellent dessert gooseberry, with extra-large, oval, greenish-yellow fruit. 'Pax' gives red dessert gooseberries if you leave them on the bush until July. 'Hinnonmaki Gul' produces succulent, yellow dessert gooseberries in July.

The chief problem with gooseberry growing is American gooseberry mildew. It starts as a white powder on new foliage but can develop into a debilitating disease. The best defence is to keep bushes open by pruning, so that air can flow through. Spray if you must with a systemic fungicide or plant a resistant variety such as 'Invicta' which is immune to mildew.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future