My grandmother reminisces of hunting and eating gooseberries in the wildy places of our family farm. It seems that the tart berries of these small, thorny native shrubs hold a place in the heart of many elderly Iowans. They attract me because they are a low-maintenance, food-bearing plant that will thrive in part shade.
Much like apples, dozens of gooseberry varieties exist, each with a distinct color, flavor, and growth habit. The wild American gooseberries I have sampled in local woodlands tend to be small, tart, and thick-skinned. Crosses with European varieties have increased the berry’s size and palatability. Tasty, disease-resistant varieties include Poorman, Invicta, and Hinnonmaki Red; the latter two will be available at the April 28 Backyard Abundance plant sale. The book Uncommon Fruits and the Johnson County Extension publication Fruit Cultivars for Iowa provide good descriptions of many varieties.
My garden is designed to emulate a woodland edge ecosystem: sparse trees and shrubs are surrounded by herbs and dense ground covers. Gooseberries will contribute to the shrub understory by being snuggled under the drip line of dwarf fruit trees. A garden guild will be created through this purposeful placement. A guild is a grouping of plants that form self-supporting, symbiotic relationships with one another. The more plants care for themselves, the less attention and care they need from me.
In addition to enjoying areas that do not receive full, direct sunlight, gooseberries need cool feet and a fair amount of potassium. I could mulch and fertilize the shrubs every 2-3 years, but I prefer to take the lazy path and let Mother Nature do this work. A handful of greensand provides the needed potassium and a thick layer of woodchips provides other nutrients for a good growth foundation. Surrounding the shrubs with a creeping ground cover of dwarf wooly yarrow fulfills several needs after the mulch deteriorates:
- The dense plants retain soil moisture, keep the roots cool, and keep weeds at bay
- Potassium is accumulated in its leaves to keep it from leaching away with rainfall
- Beneficial insects are attracted to keep hungry pests in balance
French sorrel and onion chives also accumulate potassium and interplanting them increases the resiliency of the guild in case the yarrow has a bad year. Adding white clover to the ground cover mix will supply all the other plantings with nitrogen while feeding the local bee population.
I planted my first gooseberry, Poorman, a couple weeks ago. I will plant an Invicta and Hinnonmaki Red after the plant sale. They might bear fruit this season, but I will likely need to wait until next year for the first crop. Once my palate determines a favorite variety, creating several more plants is a snap: using a propagation technique called "layering", a branch is simply buried in the soil for approximately one year. That branch develops roots and can then be dug up to start another plant.
I will think fondly of my grandmother with each plucked gooseberry and each slice of gooseberry pie. Of course, I need to learn how to make the pie first… It seems that another visit with my grandmother is needed.