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
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living