I have had a long and difficult relationship with gooseberries. We had a row of bushes in the garden as a child and being sent to pick them felt like a punishment. The plants were a tangled mass of vicious spines, guarding the green fruits from small fingers. The fruits themselves were mouth twistingly sour and covered in short, stubbly hairs, which rendered them inedible raw. The joy of scrumping thus quashed; scratched hands were the only reward for my labours.
It wasn’t until I started working at Ryton Organic Garden and spent some time exploring their soft fruit area that I realised their worth – deliciously sweet and hairless fruits in a variety of colours and more importantly, bushes without thorns. My mother’s intentions were to use them in cooking, for making pies, fools and jams, where they are picked early, firm and sour. The revelation was realising that if left for longer to ripen, they become soft and sweet enough to eat straight from the plant.
Gooseberries have been valued by cooks and gardeners in the UK for over 500 years. Some of the earliest cookbooks make reference to desserts such as gooseberry fool, and combining sharp stewed fruits with rich creams and custards is the basis of so many English puddings.
A loyal following
Part of their popularity undoubtedly lies in the fact that it grows well all over the UK and some would say is at its best in the North of England, where the cooler, wetter summers allow the fruits to slowly swell and develop juiciness and flavour. There is still a close affinity with gooseberries in the region – the Egton Bridge Old Gooseberry Society in Lancashire has been meeting every year since 1801 to award champion fruits and growers. There used to be many such societies, which stimulated amateur breeders to produce the largest and the tastiest fruits, with the result that there used to be thousands of named varieties.
You will struggle to find a gooseberry sold in most supermarkets and greengrocers nowadays. And it has never taken off as a commercial crop in the same way that strawberries and blueberries have. Certainly if the blueberry can claim to be a superfood, then the gooseberry can as it is equally, if not more, packed full of vitamins and minerals.
Another blow to the gooseberry’s prospects was the accidental introduction of American Gooseberry Mildew in 1910, which required new breeding programs to eradicate. It is difficult to find many older varieties now, but those in the know say that they are still worth growing for their exceptional flavour. Varieties such as ‘Whinham’s Industry’, ‘Hero of the Nile’ and ‘Howard’s Lancer’ are all old varieties that are still available and recommended.
The final factor that has softened my hard opinions of gooseberries is learning about pruning and training. Reaching a hand into a thorny thicket is no fun, and they do tend to have a sprawling, unruly growth habit. To counter this, we have trained all ours as cordons – basically a single, upright stem with lots of very short branches holding the fruits. This keeps the bushes in a neat shape, easy to harvest, easy to net against the birds and ideally suited if you have a small fence or wall you can train it against. They only grow to about 5 ft so it’s an ideal growing method for most garden fences and the plants are even suited to growing in pots if kept well watered.
Gooseberries are very easy to propagate, any prunings cut in the winter can be stuck in the ground and they should form leaves and roots through the next year, ready for planting into a final position the following winter.