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by Des Kennedy
July 8, 2001

Gooseberry season is upon us, the time one keeps a close watch on the ripening berries, alert for the moment at which they achieve their pinnacle of perfect ripeness. Some people will tell you gooseberries never achieve that point -- to nonbelievers they taste unpleasantly tart, bitter almost, and the wonder is that anyone would bother to grow them. As one of my American manuals puts it: “Gooseberries are not particularly popular anywhere except in the British Isles, where a rather unusual dessert called ‘gooseberry fool’ is highly regarded.”
Like many a kid raised in Britain, I was nourished as a youngster on a steady diet of sliced bread lightly buttered and slathered with gooseberry jam. Our household wasn’t big on gooseberry fool, no doubt owing to the cost of cream, as the dish is made of gooseberries stewed or scalded and pounded with cream. But of homemade gooseberry jam we suffered no shortage, and it’s a slightly perverse nostalgia that has me growing them now. Plus they’re easy to cultivate, requiring far less attention than the higher-profile strawberries and raspberries. 
Another of our manuals advises that “for the average family six to nine bushes should provide enough fruit.” This suggests an unqualified commitment to gooseberries that characterized my own family but can hardly be thought of as “average.” These days we get along handsomely on a single bush which bears enough berries to make a dozen or so small pots of jam. I find a pot a month more than sufficient, with a few left over to press upon wandering Brits far from the green and pleasant gooseberries of home. I keep a second young bush, cloned from the first by tip layering, primarily as a back-up lest disaster strike the mother plant. Normally a bush will live about 25 years.
Whether wanted or not, gooseberries can be grown across much of the country, with certain varieties hardy down to zone two. However, because they flower and fruit early in the season, there can be problems with late spring frosts. Specific varieties are best adapted to various regions.
I keep my my bushes over in a corner of the vegetable garden where they enjoy full sun, occasionally deep soaking them with a trickling hose during summer drought. They’ll tolerate partial shade and do best in neutral soil that is moist but well drained. 
Feeding’s not complicated: heaps of compost or rotted manure applied around the roots in spring. I pile on wood ashes as well, to supply potash which the plants demand. Seaweed and rock potash are also good sources of potassium. A potash deficiency shows through a browning of the leaf margins, best remedied with a foliar seaweed spray and a dressing of rock potash.
Last spring I was horrified to find scores of little caterpillars chewing my big bush to tatters -- larvae of the pestilential gooseberry sawfly. Methodically, one by one, I squeezed the life out of them between thumb and horny index finger, a control method better suited to a bush or two than to the recommended six to nine. This spring not a single caterpillar appeared.
Only in the matter of pruning might the amateur grower falter, because fruit is produced on both new wood and fruiting spurs of old wood. Some authorities insist the bush be grown on a “leg” -- a short stem supporting main branches with side shoots. Other experts recommend a cane approach with each plant producing fruit on three canes that are a year old, another three that are two years old, and a third set of three that are three years old. I’ve also seen them grown as cordons -- a single stem from which all side shoots are pruned back to two centimetres in order to encourage fruit spur growth. Properly done, a cordon occupies very little space but positively bulges with berries that are easily picked.
Since gooseberries are by nature eccentric, I’ve allowed myself a different approach to pruning. I let the bush fan out with about 20 canes, each of which I clip hard so that no side shoots develop, thus encouraging fruiting spurs as a cordon does. The resulting crop, if not exactly overwhelming, is more than adequate. In the grand scheme of things, you don’t really want to be overwhelmed by gooseberries as you might with strawberries, say, or fresh figs. Just a taste now and then, sufficient for old acquaintance sake, and you’ll be nobody’s gooseberry fool.

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