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Don't let Geese eat Your Gooseberries!

Q. Is it possible to grow gooseberries in my climate? Our yard is part full sun, part shade. How much room do these things need to grow? I'm picturing a little fruity paradise.

    ---Claire in Lambertville, NJ

A. Well, of course, I called our friend Lee Reich (Ph.D., you know…) about this. He devoted an entire chapter to gooseberries in his earliest book, "Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden", and they have a nice entry in his newest book, "Grow Fruit Naturally".

And the short answer is that Claire should be able to grow gooseberries just fine in New Jersey. They're a fruit of cooler climates and do best where summers are relatively mild—so she has a much better chance than someone in Virginia or Georgia. She'll just have to keep the plants' roots cool with mulch and keep them well-watered when her summers get hot.

And she's in luck, sun and shade wise. Most fruits require a lot of sun, but gooseberries can take some shade. And the shrubs are fairly well behaved size-wise, ranging from around three to five feet in height and five feet in width. You just have to leave a good amount of room around them—and choose your variety carefully—as their biggest problem is mildew. Unfortunately, Lee tells me that the absolute best tasting varieties tend to be very prone to the disease, so you might have to settle for 'very good' taste.

Which, of course, beggars the questions: What do gooseberries taste like? And how big are they?

Lee says that the different varieties can range in size from as small as a pea to almost as big as a small apple. But generally, you want small to medium; the really big ones tend not to be as flavorful. (Lee adds that a mature plant will produce a good eight pounds of fruit a year—with some shrubs delivering two or three times that much.) Their flavor has most often been likened to that of a grape, but Lee says that some varieties will remind you of other fruits, like plum and apricot. He adds that the best tasting varieties are also very aromatic. And gooseberries come in almost every color—green, yellow, pink, purple….

So there are a lot of choices. You definitely want to choose a disease-resistant variety, and you definitely want fruits with good flavor. Lee warns that some of the cultivars can taste pretty awful, while the best-tasting ones are 'ambrosial'.

And then there are the thorns to consider…There are thornless varieties, but Lee feels that they don't have the best flavor. In general, it seems, the more intimidating the thorns, the better tasting the fruit. (One exception, he notes, is 'Captivator', "a nearly thornless variety with superb flavor.")

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Q. I was so excited about all the fruits on our Gooseberry bushes last year. But they all had worms in them! Would you please tell me what to use to get rid of them?

    ---Gisela in Edgar Springs, Missouri

A. Lee says that your pest is the gooseberry fruitworm, which, like every pest with the word 'worm' in its common name, is a caterpillar—which makes good old basic Bt the answer. (That is, the original strain of Bt, also known as "BTK". An important distinction as another type of Bt, BTI, only affects mosquitoes and other insects that breed in water.)

A concentrated, naturally occurring soil organism that's sold under brand names like Dipel, Thuracide and Green Step, Bt kills caterpillars that eat the sprayed parts of the plant, but is harmless to all other living things. It doesn't even affect adult butterflies; you have to be a hungry, hungry caterpillar to be harmed by Bt. Just be sure to start spraying the plant a few weeks before these 'worms' typically start tunneling into the fruit.

Q. I have had my gooseberry bush for at least 18 years. It flowers, gets pollinated by bees, starts to grow fruit and then it all aborts in one fell swoop.

    ----Bozena in Bristol, New Hampshire

At first I thought this could be because she only has the one plant, but it turns out that gooseberries are totally self-fruitful—you only need one plant. Now, Lee tried to pretend his phone wasn't working when I asked him to answer this one, but I finally wrangled two possibilities out of him. One is a late frost. These plants pollinate very early in the season, and despite their legendary cold hardiness, a sudden late frost could cause the fruits to drop off while they were still very small.

His other answer—actually his first answer—was "chipmunks". Lee has lost gooseberry fruit to those little cuties—as well as to wild birds, his own chickens and Evil Squirrels, which Lee seems to despise even more than I do. (Yes—that's saying something, but he's a fruit grower and knows evil when it shakes its furry little tail.)

Anyway, if the fruit actually dropped off the tree early this year, it was a late frost. If the fruit disappeared, it was birds or Evil Animals. And if this happens EVERY year, I would suspect that the soil there is waterlogged, and it's time to plant in a different spot.

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