You may have never heard of the gooseberry plant because it’s not a very well known berry bush, but recently it’s gained a lot of popularity with more and more gardeners becoming curious about growing gooseberries.
It’s a shame that the gooseberry plant isn’t more common, since it’s super easy to grow! Gardeners who are familiar with the bush quite often recommend it to beginner gardeners because it’s so low maintenance and produces so much fruit!
The gooseberry plant is also a great choice for those trying to grow more of their own food– it fruits after the first one or two years and provides a bountiful harvest each summer. Plus, it’s not very often that you can find gooseberries in stores, so growing your own is your best option.
Prohibited Regions for Gooseberries
The main reason why the gooseberry plant isn’t very well known is because it isn’t very commonly grown. The gooseberry plant actually grows very well in most of the U.S. and can tolerate many different growing conditions, but it’s not welcomed everywhere it’s grown.
A law was passed in 1926 that made it illegal to grow gooseberries in many regions of the U.S. because the plant is a secondary host to white pine blister rust. This disease wiped out so many pine trees that it affected the whole lumber industry, putting a bad name to the gooseberry plant.
There are still several states that have completely banned the bush, while others require you to have a permit to grow or to be growing a specific, disease resistant cultivar. Check here to see what the rules are for your state to know if you can start growing a gooseberry plant.
These laws apply to all plants in the Ribes genus, which includes all varieties of currants. So, if you know that you can or can’t grow currants in your state, the same will apply for gooseberries!
About the Gooseberry Plant
As I just mentioned, gooseberries are in the same genus as the many varieties of currants. The two plants grow very similarly and resemble each other, however currant berries grow together on a long string while gooseberries grow individually along the branches.
Gooseberry plants are self-pollinating, which means you only need one to get fruits, whereas blueberry bushes require a second kind so they can be cross pollinated to produce blueberries.
As with many other berry bushes, the gooseberry is very cold hardy and grows well in USDA zones 3 through 8 and sometimes even in zone 2. The gooseberry plant actually needs about 40 days at 35 to 40 F in order to produce berries.
However, intense frost in mid to late spring can send the plant into shock and disrupt the harvest for that year. On the other extreme, the very dry and hot climate of the southern U.S. is often too intense for the gooseberry plant.
Yellow flowers on a gooseberry bush.
In growing conditions where it can thrive and establish study roots, the gooseberry plant can live to 15 years! When fully mature, the gooseberry plant grows to 4 feet in height and spread, in the shape of a bush.
Although, it can be pruned or trained into almost any form depending on the space you have in your garden. Because their form is so easily adjustable, they also make for great container garden plants.
Gooseberry plants bloom in spring with light pink, white, or yellow flowers, depending on the cultivar you’re growing.
Different Kinds of Gooseberry Plants
The Ribes genus has many different varieties of fruiting bushes and just as there’s several varieties of currants, there’s many different kinds of gooseberries.
The two main categories of gooseberries are the culinary and dessert plants. Culinary gooseberries have a more sour taste and are often cooked into jams and desserts, although they can be eaten fresh.
Dessert gooseberries are more sweet and therefore are preferred as fresh fruit. However, if you pick the berries at the beginning of the summer while they’re still unripe, they have a sour taste and can be used as culinary gooseberries!
There are also American and European varieties of gooseberries. American varieties tend to have smaller fruits, but bigger yields since they’re more disease resistant. European varieties are often more cold hardy whereas American varieties can tolerate more sun.
Most gooseberry plants produce greenish-yellow berries, however the berries can be found in all colors. For example, the Hinnonmaki Red has a dark red berry and the Pixwell produces a deep purple.
Regardless of the variety, all gooseberry plants are grown the same way and ripen in the same season with large harvests.
I mentioned that gooseberries are great for container gardens, but they will need a good amount of space for root growth and small pots won’t suffice. If you can, they’ll be happiest planted directly in the ground.
Gooseberries are full sun plants, so they’ll really appreciate a spot where they get several hours of sunlight daily. Although, these plants are very shade tolerant and can grow almost anywhere.
However, if you live in a warm climate, these plants are perfect to fill a shady spot in your garden. They’ll need the shade to stay cool from the intense midday sun.
Gooseberry plants can also be trained to grow up a fence, or you can plant several next to each other to form a living fence. When planting several bushes, place them about 4 feet apart.
These plants can also be grown as cordons, a technique where you grow the plant with just one branch with all the berries- which I’ll explain later in this post. If you’re growing as cordons, plant them 18 inches apart and where you can place stakes.
The flowers of the gooseberry plant work well in attracting pollinators to your garden. These plants are also sometimes grown as ornamental bushes due to their beautiful, deep orange fall foliage.
Planting a Gooseberry Bush
It’s best to plant a new gooseberry bush in early fall or late spring. Although, if you’re expecting frost for the winter, it would be better to wait until spring to plant the young gooseberry.
You can get a gooseberry plant at your local nursery either with a root ball or bare roots. Dig a hole or use a container that’s about twice as large as the roots. If you have a plant with a root ball, loosen up the roots before planting and remove any that seem damaged.
Fill in the hole a bit with compost to add some fresh organic matter to the soil and plant the gooseberry bush. Fill in the hole with the dug up soil as you’re placing the plant in so that the base of the plant is level with the surrounding soil.
Once in, mulch the top layer of soil around the plant, but not at the base. Trim off the last 6 to 10 inches of the branches to promote growth. Give your gooseberry plant a deep watering to help it settle its roots into its new home!
Ideal Soil Mixture
One reason why gooseberry plants are considered so easy-going is that they can grow in many different soil compositions. They’re not very particular about what kind of soil they want to grow in, just as long as it drains well and it’s soggy.
As long as your soil is loose enough to allow for drainage and air flow, your gooseberry plant will be happy! In particular, gooseberry plants grow well with loamy, moist soil and soil that’s slightly acidic, around 6.0 to 7.0 pH.
Gooseberry plants don’t grow well in extreme soils, such as very dry and sandy soil or heavy clay soil. A slightly sandy soil can be great for increasing drainage, but not so much sand as a cactus soil. If you have thick clay soil, you’ll need to add some plant materials to open up drainage, like vermiculite for example.
It’s also great to mulch around the plant, as mulch helps retain moisture in the soil so the soil doesn’t alway need to be wet. However, be careful not to mulch around the base of the plant or the roots, because mulch holds moisture so well that it can cause mold to form on the plant.
Gooseberries tend to be at their best with full sunlight.
This is another factor that makes the gooseberry plant very low maintenance- it’s ability to grow with highly varied amounts of sunlight. The gooseberry plant will grow well having full sun for several hours, but it will also enjoy living in partial shade.
The sunlight needs vary depending on what variety of gooseberry plant you’re growing, as some can really thrive in full sun all day long and others are more cold hardy and will do better with more shade.
The amount of sunlight to give your plant also depends on the climate where you live. The leaves of the gooseberry plant will get sunburnt if in direct sunlight when it’s over 85 F, this sunburn will cause the leaves to shrivel and will disrupt the harvest for the year.
In general, it’s helpful to give your plant more sunlight if you live in a colder climate and provide more shade if you live somewhere warmer. You can also consider planting the gooseberry bush near a fence, so that the fence can provide some shade as the sun passes.
Watering a Gooseberry Plant
Gooseberry plants also don;t require much water, notably those that are planted directly in the ground. These plants like to have moisture in the soil, which is why adding mulch or compost can really help to keep the plant moist without having to water it often.
If it’s planted in the ground with healthy and active soil, you don’t need to water your gooseberry plant unless it hasn’t rained for quite some time. If you’re experiencing a drought or live in a hot and dry climate, you’ll need to help your plant out with a weekly watering.
However, for gooseberry plants that are grown in containers, you will need to consistently water them. For these plants, a thorough watering once a week or two weeks will be much appreciated.
You also need to water often for the first year that you have these plants, since the young gooseberry will consume a lot of water and you want to support healthy root growth from the beginning.
For the first year that the gooseberry plant is growing, give it a deep watering once a week. After the first year, the root system will be strongly developed enough for the plant to absorb nutrients from the soil on its own.
Regardless of what stage of growth the plant is at, gooseberry plants are quite drought tolerant and will recover from being too dry much better than they will from being overwatered. Gooseberry plants are vulnerable to root rot fungus if there’s too much water sitting in the soil, so it’s better to give too little than too much!
Pruning a Gooseberry Plant
As with most shrubs, there are several reasons to annually prune your gooseberry plant and even more so with fruiting shrubs. By pruning, you can manage the shape of the plant, increase the harvest, and prevent diseases.
It’s best practice to prune a gooseberry plant yearly, as proactive maintenance so you’re not working for days in the years to come.
If you have any experience pruning blueberry bushes, the process is exactly the same as with the gooseberry plant!
The main branches, called canes, produce fruit after the first year and are at peak productivity when they’re around 3 to 4 years old. As the canes get older, they produce less and smaller fruit. So, to maximize the berries on your bush, you can prune the bush to keep only canes that are about 3 years old.
Pruning is best done at the end of winter or very early spring, while the plant is still dormant but will soon begin its growing season. If you prune your gooseberry while it’s actively growing, you’ll send the plant into shock and will stop both berry production and new growth.
Plus, in the winter all the leaves have fallen so it’s quite easy to see the structure of the bush. It’s also more convenient to prune in late winter because this bush has tons of thorns so you’ll need to be outfitted in pants, gloves, and long sleeves anyways!
Start by removing any canes that seem broken, damaged, or dead to declutter the space. If you often experience heavy snowfall in the winter, then you want to wait to prune until after the last snowfall, so you can remove any branches that were damaged during the winter.
With the dead canes removed, then start to cut off the oldest canes. You can spot these as the canes with the thickest diameter and darker bark. With the oldest canes, cut them back all the way down to the base of the plant.
Next, you want to remove any canes that are rubbing against or growing over each other and cut them down at the base of the plant. The aim of pruning is to create and reinforce an open structure that branches outward.
This helps to prevent diseases forming because the bark can become frail from rubbing and expose the canes. It’s also common that insects gather in these spots where the canes cross, and this helps them spread all over the plant.
Prune your gooseberry plant to get a larger harvest with bigger berries!
Next look for branches that are growing down towards the ground or drooping down and cut these as well. Also look for small shoots growing off the main canes that are growing towards the ground and snip these.
This also helps prevent disease by creating space between the canes and the ground, which can be a source of insects or fungi.
Now, you should be left with only healthy and young canes. Amongst these, look for the oldest ones and cut them down so that you reduce one third of the canes on the gooseberry plant. Then, clip off the small stems growing off the main canes left.
By the end of the pruning process, you should be left with what looks like a skeleton of the bush that’s in the shape of a goblet, starting at the base and expanding up and outwards.
Training a Gooseberry Plant
Along with pruning your plant, you can also train it to grow in a certain direction or shape, which can be especially useful if you have limited space, such as with a container or balcony garden.
You can prune the gooseberry plant extensively so that it only has one main cane, which is called a cordon. With cordons, you’ll definitely need a stake or bamboo stick to support the single cane, especially once it’s full with berries!
If your main goal is to grow a gooseberry plant for its berries, this method makes harvest much easier by having the berries so accessible. This also allows you to grow several varieties of berries in a small area.
You can also train a gooseberry plant to grow up a trellis, which can also help maximize space or could look very nice against a fence. This will also create an open structure that increases air flow and prevents disease.
Lastly, some people will train their gooseberry plant into a “standard”, which is a small ornamental tree. This method changes the shape of the plant into that of a tree that’s about the same size as a bush, yet it’s not as small nor intensive as growing a bonsai!
Fertilizing a Gooseberry Plant
Gooseberry plants don’t require fertilizer, but will definitely benefit from extra nutrients at the beginning of the growing season. Gooseberry plants do consume lots of Nitrogen, so providing extra Nitrogen will be very helpful!
In mid-spring, give your gooseberry plant a thorough feeding of a balanced, organic fertilizer. Also take this time to check the base of the plant and the soil to make sure everything looks healthy.
Add some fresh mulch around the top layer of soil and deeply water your gooseberry plant to get a strong start to the growing season.
Keeping Out Critters
Of course, we’re not the only ones that enjoy eating gooseberries, so you shouldn’t be surprised if you find some wild friends coming to your garden! Most notably, birds and squirrels are known to snatch gooseberries right off the bush, but you could also attract racoons or deer, depending on where you live.
Thankfully, there are a few easy ways to protect your gooseberry harvest. For one, you can grow these bushes, along with other fruiting shrubs, in a caged area. You can also simply keep a net over the bush, which is more practical if you just have one plant.
You can also plant deer resistant plants near the gooseberry bush to deter deer and other small animals from coming into your garden.
Harvesting and storing gooseberries is very straightforward, another reason why these plants are great for beginner gardeners. Plus, the berries grow in bounties when the harvest comes!
Gooseberry bushes bear fruit at least one year after being planted, sometimes up to three years. You’ll want to use gardening gloves when harvesting the gooseberries to avoid their thick thorns.
Gooseberries begin to form in early summer, around June, but won’t be ripe at this time. The unripe berries are more sour but are completely edible, so many gardeners will harvest these to enjoy their sour flavor and the later, sweeter berries.
In addition, if you harvest several berries at the beginning of the summer, this allows the bush to give more nutrients to the later berries, making them juicier.
Then the main harvest is at the end of July and August, when the berries will be at peak flavor and size. To harvest, all you need to do is grab them off the bush!
Fresh gooseberries can be stored in the fridge for one to two weeks or can be made into a jam to store for later. You can also freeze gooseberries, which hold their shape well when frozen- like grapes- and enjoy them for months.
Grow Your Own Gooseberry!
Gooseberry plants have a wonderful combination of being easy to grow and providing lots of fruits, a combination any gardener likes to hear! These bushes are unfortunately underrated and uncommon, but they’ve begun making their way into more mainstream gardening practices.
You should definitely research first what the restrictions may be for your state regarding gooseberries, but if you have the green light, go for it!
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.