Gooseberries – Paying Attention to Pruning

This post is more or less an object lesson in pruning (or the lack thereof). In some ways, a cautionary tale, as I have some (a bunch) work to do after breakup next spring.

I got interested in gooseberries perhaps a decade ago, once again based on Jeff Lowenfels former radio show. We ordered four of them that seemed to be robust in the gardens of south Anchorage from a nursery in the Lower 48 and put them into the garden–two Hinnomaki Red and two Hinnomaki Yellow gooseberries.

Leafless gooseberry plants in late November.  Clearly pruning has been neglected and is now an issue.

The Alaska Botanical Garden holds a plant sale every May and generally has gooseberries available, though I do not know which varieties. Generally, their plants are well suited for successful local growing.

Over the years, the red variety I planted has been most productive and hardy, though I do tend to like the taste of the yellow variety a little better.  The red variety has grown like crazy.  The yellow, not so much, and we lost one of them.

The Hinnomaki varieties produce berries approaching an inch in diameter that are relatively sweet with varying levels of tartness, not unlike a large grape. They usually are ready for picking late July to early August.

Be careful with the plants, as the Hinnomaki Reds have the worst spines I’ve had to deal with on a berry plant.  They are long, stout, and very sharp.  Some British gardening web sites note that birds will occasionally get caught in the spines of gooseberries and are unable to escape, dying in the plant.

These are imported into the US from Finland and are well adapted to our climate.  They are listed as a Climate Zone 3-8 plant, so should do well in warmer parts of the Interior.

Closeup of a gooseberry plant shows the bramble, overlapping branches and thorns.  Also taken in November.

 

Planting and Growing

These gooseberries like partial shade to full sun.  They bloom in early spring and are reportedly susceptible to late season freezes, though I have not had this problem yet.  Plants should be spaced 3 – 6’ in rows 6 – 8’ apart.  This is my first mistake, as I planted them 2 – 3’ apart in a single row. They prefer a slightly acidic soil that is well-drained.  Soils should have organic material or compost. Other than a yearly application of compost tea, I do not fertilize my gooseberries.

The lifespan of a typical gooseberry is 12 – 15 years.  I lost my first yellow and the second yellow is not doing all that well. The reds are very happy so far.

Pests

Pest control has been a real adventure, as there is a species of sawfly that absolutely loves gooseberries.  The same species also likes currants, though I have not yet seen them spread to my currants yet.

Sawfly larvae overwinter in the soil around the root system of plants and as such are difficult to get rid of.  They hatch, climb the plant, and feast on the leaves from underneath.  The larvae are a black and gold mottled caterpillar around a half inch long.  You know you have a sawfly infestation when the leaves start disappearing.  They are hungry and very efficient at eating the leaves.  They seem to leave the fruit alone.  A growing season will support 2–4 generations of sawflies, though there may not be enough leaves available to do so.  Some British gardening websites have photos of sawfly infestations that are just heartbreaking, as the plants are completely leafless.  So far, the worst I’ve seen is about half the bushes stripped.

The first few years of this infestation, the damage increased to the point where I had to do something proactive about the infestation (my second mistake, as I should have started earlier).

One recommendation is to simply hunt the caterpillars and squash them.  Given the sharp spines of the plant and the relatively good camouflage of the infestation on the underside of the leaves, this technique doesn’t work all that well for me.

Other recommendations include spraying them with a hard stream of water, introducing predatory nematodes, spreading diatomaceous earth, and using Neem Oil product called Aza Max.  Though these were all recommended in various places, none of them worked very well at all, though the Aza Max seemed to keep things from spreading a bit.

I finally broke down and found an organic insecticide that specifically targets caterpillars and other leaf-eating critters, Monterrey Garden Insect Spray.  I prepared two, 1 gallon batches and sprayed the gooseberries about 10 days apart right about the time the leaves were growing out. The logic was that if I kill off whatever has overwintered while it is on the plants, subsequent generations will be disrupted.  We have done it the last two years and this seems to be successful.

Note on organics:  I consider myself an organic gardener, not because the chemicals are any safer, rather because the organic stuff does not seem to persist over an extended period of time.  Either organic or non-organic chemicals will hurt you if mishandled, so treat them with the respect any powerful tool deserves.  I also spend a lot of time making sure whatever I use on my plants is safe for future consumption and try to use it as early in the season or as long before consumption as possible.

Center of gooseberry plant in need of substantial pruning.

 

Pruning

This is my third and most serious mistake.  Gooseberries should be pruned.  Over the years, I have done very little of this, but armed with what I have (tried to) learn(ed) in the Alaska Master Gardener Online course I just completed, it is obvious I have a problem.

Previous attempts at pruning were targeted toward keeping the branches off the fence and from overhanging the boundary of the beds they are growing in.

Gooseberries are ground-hugging plants.  They like to grow low.  They don’t like to get all that tall.  They send up a lot of suckers, which I have ignored, yet another mistake.  They cross branches.  Branches will on occasion touch the ground and root themselves.  I ran across something several years ago that recommended pruning the middle of the bush to open it up so that you can harvest the berries, which I have tried to do.  Unfortunately, I mostly left the exterior ring of the branches alone.  Add to all this the disposal problem of whatever you have cut off (full of thorns), and you have a problem.

So, one of my springtime science projects is to do some serious pruning on my gooseberries.  I will aim for removing about a third of what I want to remove and follow-up on the rest of it in the next couple years, all while trying not to kill the plants.  Will let you know how it goes.

Conclusions

We get good production from our gooseberries, even with the gardening mistakes described above.  Perhaps I can help the bushes out a bit with a bit of judicious pruning.

Additional information

Uncommon Fruit – Observations from Carandale Farm

 

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