"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.