If you would like to add more fruit to your garden, learning how to grow ground cherries is a simple way to do it. Although most modern gardeners have never heard of them, ground cherries are a delicious husked fruit with a unique flavor similar to a cross between pineapple, strawberries, and citrus with a tropical undertone. This tasty fruit is also known as cape gooseberries, husk tomatoes, or sweet tomatillos.
I first tried ground cherries at the Pike Place Market in Seattle and was hooked. They are so good!
Ground cherries are a relative of tomatoes and tomatillos and share similar growth characteristics. Large, sprawling plants produce dozens of small, yellow berries in a papery husk. Learn how to grow ground cherries with these ten tips.
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10 Tips for How to Grow Ground Cherries
1. Start ground cherry seeds indoors
Ground cherries grow well in zones four and higher but are very frost-sensitive and do best started indoors. Start seeds for ground cherries indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your last frost date. Seeds may be slow to germinate; be patient. Harden off transplants before planting outdoors.
2. Try different varieties of ground cherries
Pineapple: Cherry-sized fruit; low growing; pineapple flavor; 75 days from transplant to harvest.
Goldie: ½” to ¾” (1.27 cm to 1.9 cm) fruit; sweet and prolific; 75 days from transplant to harvest.
Aunt Molly’s: ½” to ¾” (1.27 cm to 1.91 cm) fruit; a good choice for preserves; 70 days from transplant to harvest.
New Hanover: Known for good flavor, sweet and fruity; 65-75 days from transplant to harvest.
3. Plant ground cherries at the right time
You can follow the same planting schedule for ground cherries as you do for tomatoes and tomatillos. Ground cherries prefer warm soil. Plant about 2 weeks after your last average frost date.
To grow ground cherries in the low desert of Arizona:
Ground cherries need warm temperatures and plenty of sun. In hot summer areas like the low desert of Arizona, afternoon shade is preferred.
When growing ground cherries in the low desert of Arizona (and other hot summer climates), they will produce fruit until temperatures get very hot in the summer. If plants survive the summer, as temperatures cool, they will begin producing again.
4. Grow ground cherries in the best location
Raised beds and containers are an excellent choice for growing ground cherries. Choose a location with excellent drainage and avoid soils with excess nitrogen. Too much nitrogen often produces an abundance of foliage rather than fruit.
How to grow ground cherries in containers:
When growing ground cherries in containers, choose a container that is at least 8 (20 cm) deep with plenty of good quality potting mix.
5. Plant ground cherry plants deeply
Similar to tomatoes and tomatillos, ground cherries will grow roots all along their stems and do best when planted deeply. Remove leaves along the bottom ⅔ of the stem, and plant ground cherry transplants deeply, leaving just a few leaves above the ground.
6. Give ground cherries plenty of space
Ground cherry plants are sprawling and grow wide. Allow 2-3 feet (approximately 0.6-0.9 meters) between each plant.
Ground cherries can be grown vertically. The branches are brittle and do best trained vertically while young. Staking, or using a tomato cage or other type of trellis, will keep branches up off the ground.
For square-foot gardening, allow 2-4 squares per plant.
7. Don’t let ground cherries dry out
Ground cherries need regular water to grow well. If ground cherries dry out, they will drop blossoms rather than setting fruit. Mulching plants helps retain moisture.
8. Let ground cherries harvest themselves
When ground cherries are ripe, they will fall from the plant to the ground. The fruit on the plant is not ripe yet. Ripening fruit turns from green to golden yellow, and finally, a warm apricot gold, and the husks become dry and papery. Gather fallen fruit. Allow fallen fruit to ripen further at room temperature (if necessary) with the husks on for the best flavor.
Harvest ground cherries frequently. Ground cherries left on the ground will often reseed.
9. Keep an eye out for pests and diseases
Ground cherries are susceptible to the same pests and diseases as tomatoes and tomatillos. Early detection and prevention are keys to successfully growing ground cherries.
- Colorado Potato Beetle: These beetles can cause significant damage to ground cherry plants. Handpicking is an effective control method. Monitor plants for eggs, adults, and larvae.
- Cutworms: These pests can chew through the stems of young seedlings. Protect your plants by placing collars around the stem at the soil line. Handpicking cutworms off plants in the evening can also be effective.
- Three-Lined Cucumber Beetle: These beetles can defoliate ground cherry plants and spread bacterial wilt. Floating row covers can help protect plants from these beetles. Handpicking and daily vigilance are essential to control. Monitor plants for eggs, adults, and larvae.
- Slugs and Snails: These pests can devour an entire bed of seedlings in a night. Handpicking slugs and snails off plants during the evening hours can help reduce their numbers. Beer traps or diatomaceous earth are other organic control options.
- Verticillium Wilt: This soil-borne disease can cause yellowing and wilting on ground cherries. Crop rotation and improving soil health with organic amendments can help prevent this disease.
- Foliar Diseases: Rainy periods or humid windless days can encourage diseases like early blight, anthracnose, and tobacco mosaic virus. Regularly monitor your plants for signs of these diseases, and consider using a copper fungicide or a baking soda solution as a preventative spray.
Remember, prevention is key when it comes to managing pests and diseases. A healthy garden with good biodiversity can often keep pest populations in check.
10. Store and use ground cherries in a variety of ways
Ground cherries have a longer storage life than many other fruits. Leave husks intact and store in a mesh bag in a cool location (about 50°F/10°C). When stored this way, ground cherries often last for about 3 months.
Remove the husk before eating. Ground cherries are delicious fresh and in jam, pies, salsa, and sauces.