So how do you prune a gooseberry bush? Carefully. Not too many decades ago the gentle art of gooseberry pruning would have been known to most home gardeners. Not to worry, all things come back around and gooseberries are a fruit whose time is ripe. What is not to love about them? First to fruit in the spring, relatively untroubled by pests and they take up little space in the garden. Aside from their prickles, they are pretty trouble free motoring. A mature gooseberry bush can yield up to 4 kg of fruit.
I’m planning a gooseberry patch at the moment so I’ve been dipping into my reference library to learn everything I can about how to grow and prune gooseberries. I remember my Dad growing gooseberries. I remember picking them and eating them in the orchard when I shouldn’t have. As far as pruning them I didn’t pay much attention. I remember a stray bull came through the back yard and wiped out one and another one succumbed to a runaway reel mower – but that is about as much as I remember about the gooseberries.
Luckily my friend Peter had a gooseberry patch in need of some TLC, so with my new-found gooseberry knowledge, I volunteered to go around and do some pruning for him. My “ABC of Pruning” printed in 1963 has 9 pages devoted to gooseberry pruning which I will attempt to condense into a 21st Century bite-sized guide.
There are two types of gooseberries – upright and trailing. Trailing gooseberries, like the one in the picture above, are traditionally grown on a single standard trunk because their trailing tendrils tend to root in the ground if they aren’t grown on a standard trunk. This makes them hard to weed around and encourages mildew spores from the earth to infect the plant.
Upright gooseberries can be grown on a multi-trunk bush and this tends to be more common now as many modern varieties are not trailing. The other benefit to a multi-trunk bush is that if you do happen to get a stray bull in your backyard, or an over zealous weed whacker or cyclone, then having more than one trunk reduces the risk of the entire plant being snapped off at ground level. You’ll be able to tell by looking at the branches whether your gooseberry is trailing (arching branches) or upright (branches growing straight up).
Here is an example of an upright multi-trunk gooseberry bush on the left below. It is the Invicta Gooseberry. Pax is another modern upright variety.
Establishing the Framework of Branches for the Gooseberry
Not many people do this nowadays, but if you’ve got the patience, establishing a good framework of branches will make your annual pruning easier in years to come. If you’ve bought a gooseberry bush that is already a few years old, the nursery that propagated it should have done this work for you. If they haven’t then do some remedial pruning to establish a strong and open framework of branches that will bear the weight of annual shoots and good sized fruit. It is this framework of branches that you will prune back to each year.
The diagram below shows the first three years of this regime from a cutting to a plant with 6 branches growing out in an open direction from the center. The idea is to select branches you want to make permanent branches and shorten them by half to just above a bud pointing in the right direction. Completely remove any other branches. The next winter do the same again and keep doing this until you’ve got a strong open framework of short branches up to 18 in number and a plant around 3 feet (90 cm) in diameter. These short strong branches are heavy enough to carry the weight of a good crop.
Annual Pruning once Framework Established
If you don’t give your gooseberry bush an annual haircut it will get choked up with weak growth that will not produce many goosegogs and the ones it does produce will be small. If you want good crops of big fruit every summer then you must prune every winter or spring.
The most simple ongoing pruning regime is to cut out at least two thirds of the annual shoots that form off your main branches, leaving the shoots pointing away from the center of the bush and shorten these remaining annual shoots by two thirds. The idea is that you keep the strong annual shoots and give each one enough space so you can get your hand in and around them easily – at least 2 inches between shoots coming off the main branches. Once I get my gooseberry patch underway I’ll put up some photos of this annual pruning to show you it in action.
There is another method called spur pruning which is a little more elaborate and produces larger fruit than the method above. Spur pruning gooseberries involves cutting back one year old side branches to within two inches of their base in spring and the leaders or main branches are shortened by a quarter. This method produces a very sparse gooseberry bush with fewer larger fruit.
Pests and Diseases
Another reason that gooseberries dropped out of favour with home gardeners was the great gooseberry mildew that all but killed off most of the heritage varieties. No less than 17 different red white, green and yellow gooseberry varieties are listed in my 1944 NZ book ” The Outdoor Culture of Small Fruits”. Now only green and the occasional red variety are commonly available. Modern varieties like Invicta and Pax are less susceptible to mildew but plant gooseberry bushes in an open sunny position rather than a damp shady spot to help avoid mildew.
Other pests include the Gooseberry sawfly whose caterpillars chomp through the leaves. These can be controlled with derris dust or an organic caterpillar product like Diapel or just digit control of the larvae. They winter over on leaves so to prevent getting them in the first place, remove the fallen leaves each winter. Birds can also be a nuisance, feasting on the protein rich flower buds in winter. Some books suggest leaving pruning until spring to make it harder for the birds to get into the bushes but I would recommend covering your gooseberries with a frame or netting if you see the birds eating your buds.
Preparing the Ground & Planting
Although they don’t like damp conditions above ground, they do like moisture below ground. Gooseberries don’t like to dry out and so working the ground to a depth of 2 feet (60cm) and digging in plenty of compost will create a nice rich soil that will hold plenty of moisture. All the books suggest that blood and bone and manure should be applied around gooseberry bushes annually in winter and forked into the soil in spring. They do like a good feed to keep them healthy and yielding heavily. Plants should be spaced about 5 feet (1.5m) apart to allow room to work the soil and get around the plants for picking and pruning.
Gooseberry bushes are struck from cuttings. If you want to produce a single trunk or standard gooseberry then take a long cutting and rub the buds off the lower part of the cutting before you plant it otherwise you will get lots of suckers from the base.
I’m lucky enough to have come home with a good rooted sucker off the trailing gooseberry I pruned and I’ve potted it up to grow as a tall standard. It is a variety from the now closed Daelyn Berry Farm and it is known as Daelyn Early Green. I’m also going to plant a Monarch Gooseberry and a Farmers Glory Gooseberry in my gooseberry patch and I’ll update this post with my progress as the garden progresses.