In Europe in the 1800s, as many as 722 gooseberry varieties were in existence, and "gooseberry clubs" were established by enthusiasts. Most of the European varieties were large fruited and sweet as a result of centuries of selection and breeding, while American types had less desirable flavor and more disease resistance.
The gooseberries grown today are primarily hybrids of these two types, offering good flavor as well as disease (mildew) resistance. Although they seldom are eaten fresh due to their tart flavor, both red and white currants make excellent jams and jellies. Gooseberries and currants are woody perennial shrubs that reach a height of 3 to 6 feet when mature. Unlike other fruiting plants, they will tolerate partial shade. Plants are self-fruitful and, therefore, do not require two or more varieties for adequate pollination. Currants and gooseberries also are very winter hardy, tolerating temperatures as low as -22 to -31°F.
Confusion often exists about the legality of growing gooseberries and currants since up until 1966 a federal ban prohibited the growth of Ribes.
The ban was established because gooseberries and currants can serve as alternate hosts to white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), a fungus that needs both Ribes and white pine to complete its life cycle. This federal legislation was rescinded in 1966. In 1933, Pennsylvania passed a law that limited growing gooseberries and currants in certain areas; however, the law is not enforced. Therefore, all Ribes can be grown in the state. If you have white pine nearby, though, you may want to consider growing less-susceptible types of Ribes. Black currant (Ribes nigrum) is by far the most susceptible, and for this reason many areas outside of Pennsylvania still prohibit growing it. Resistant black currant varieties are available. Red and white currants are less susceptible, and gooseberry is the least susceptible.
Planting and Nutritional Requirements
In fall or early spring, plant well-rooted, 1- or 2-year-old dormant plants, cutting back the top portions of the plant to 6 to 10 inches. Space plants 3 to 4 feet apart in rows 6 to 8 feet apart. Note that plants can be vegetatively propagated by stem cuttings. Another possibility is to graft gooseberries and/or currants onto a tree species of Ribes called Ribes aureum. Grafting can be done on a convenient height of the tree, allowing the bush to produce fruit higher up, thus aiding in ease of harvest and weed control around the base of the plants. Remove flower blossoms from plants in the first year to encourage plant establishment and growth for future years. Well-established plants can fruit for 10 to 15 years or more.
To fertilize, apply 6 to 8 ounces of 10-10-10 annually in an 18-inch ring around the plant in early spring.
Red currants and gooseberries produce fruit at the base of 1-year-old wood, with the greatest production on spurs of 2- and 3-year-old wood. After 3 or 4 years, the older wood becomes less productive and therefore should be gradually replaced with young shoots by a thinning and renewal process. Black currants produce the best fruit on wood that is 1 year old, although this wood is supported by the 2- to 3-year-old shoots. All canes older than 3 years old should be removed to encourage the growth of new canes.
Prune dormant plants in early spring just before growth resumes, usually in March or early April in Pennsylvania. Remove canes that drop on the soil or canes that shade out the center of the plant. After the first season of growth, remove all but six to eight of the most vigorous shoots. After the second season, retain four or five 1-year-old shoots and three or four 2-year-old canes. Following the third season, keep three or four canes each of 1-, 2-, and 3-year-old wood. In subsequent years, remove all of the oldest canes, replacing them annually with new canes.
Pick fully colored fruit as they appear, usually in late June or July in Pennsylvania. Each plant will produce between 5 to 7 pounds when mature (usually during the third or fourth year).