Gooseberries; from wooden spoon to Premier Berry

A look behind the scenes of producing a winning gooseberry.

Martin de Kretser receiving the cup from Alan Garner for the premier berry 2017. Photo credit: Emma Williams

Goostrey’s Martin de Kretser tells of his journey from receiving the wooden spoon to winning this year’s cup for the heaviest gooseberry.

“After moving into the village in 1993 after Sue and I were married, we started growing fruit and vegetables in the garden.  We learnt that our cottage was part of a fruit farm, now The Orchards Dairy farm, and had been constructed for the fruit farm employees.  We inherited a number of fruit bushes and trees, but no gooseberry trees.
For many years we had heard about the Gooseberry Society and Sue suggested I should join as I was very interested in growing fruit and vegetables and it was a way to become involved in the village; we had often seen the Gooseberry Societies float at Rose Day and they seemed a fun crowd.  It wasn’t until we managed to get an Allotment in 2012 that I met Peter Goode , a seasoned Gooseberry grower of over 25 years, that I decided to have a go.
Peter kindly introduced me to the Society and I watched my first Gooseberry show in 2013 when Peter won Premier Berry for his first time with a ‘Prince Charles’ of 29 dwt 07 gr.  I was hooked!  Peter supplied me with some trees and I started growing and entered the 2014 show.
In accordance with the rules of the Society I grew them in our garden (Peter had obtained special dispensation to grow on the allotment as he had been a previous Goostrey resident and had grown for many years but had run out of space at home).  I came last with a Bank View of 8.21 and was awarded the ‘wooden spoon’ which is engraved with the names of everyone who came last in each competition and is hanging up in the bar in the Crown pub, but I watched Peter win again with a Prince Charles again of 33 dwt 00 gr.
Not deterred, I carried on and Peter Goode, Terry Price and Chris Jones all gave some useful advice on how to improve.  In the 2015 show I did much better and came 6th in the Premier Berry with a new tree, Newton Wonder, that Peter had given me and achieved a berry of  25 dwt 08 gr and won ‘Most improved grower’.  Unfortunately before the next show in 2016 my trees had a bad attack of the dreaded ‘mildew’ which stunts berry growth, partly due to me adding to much rich chicken manure fertiliser which caused a lot of sappy growth and encouraged an aphid infestation which allowed the ‘mildew’ to take hold.  The chemicals I had been using the previous year had been withdrawn and were no longer available.
I struggled on and managed to get a 10th place in the 2016 show with a Bank View of 16 dwt and 21 gr.   Following this I learnt that part of the problem was also having trees too close together which restricted airflow and encouraged ‘mildew’.
For the preparation for the 2017 show I decided to research Gooseberry growing intensively and set up a website to keep track of my research and also made it available as a resources for new growers (  I was determined to do better. I created some extra beds and spaced out the trees.  I gave the trees a winter wash to remove any over wintering pests and  I used farmyard manure rather than the rich chicken manure in the spring and waited for the blossom to form.  As soon as the blossom came I experimented with hand cross pollination and to protect the blossom I kept a close eye on the weather forecast and each evening if frost was forecast covered up the trees and set tea lights in plant pots to act as gentle heaters to protect the blossom from frost damage.
The fruit set well  and I also managed to get the aphids under control early on. Everything was looking good and  I found a new preventive treatment for  the ‘dreaded’ mildew and managed to avoid ‘mildew’ completely.  We had a very dry Spring, but as I had installed soakaway hoses this didn’t cause too many problems.  The problems started when the weather started to have hot and cold spells with heavy downpours which caused berries to drop and split prematurely.  This caused problems for many growers, including myself.  I battled on and kept vigilantly covering the berries when rain was forecast and kept watering to maintain an even moisture content of the soil as best as I could, and kept feeding the trees right up to the day of picking.
All of the seasoned growers struggled, including Peter who unfortunately lost his berries with the difficulty compensating for the weather conditions on the Allotment.  As Peter had no berries, Chris Jones and Gareth Buckley kindly agreed to pick with me and on the day of the gathering I knew I had some berries, but thought they were only in the order of 16 dwt, if one was over 20 dwt I would have been more than satisfied.  I was aiming to remain in the top ten of growers and hoped to break into the top five.
We had picked all my berries, so we thought, apart from one.  Fortunately Gareth found another berry and it was a reasonable size and seemed to be in the order of 24 dwt. It had been the one I had been keeping my eye on.  We packed it in my box with the rest of the berries and sealed it up for the night.  Berries can burst in the box so I didn’t hope for too much and again would be more than happy to get in the top 5.  I started to get an inkling I may do a bit better in the get together in the pub the night before the show, so I thought a second or third maybe a possibility.
You could have bowled me over with a feather when I won ‘Premier berry’ with a Blackden Gem of 23dwt 19gr !!  I’m not sure whether someone coming last in their first show has ever managed to get a Premier Berry in their fourth show in Goostrey and I am not sure of the last time a Blacken Gem won in Goostrey, or whether this is the lowest weight of a Premier Berry to win a Goostrey show.  Sounds like I have some more research to do!
The future
In terms of plans for next year,  I will replace the non productive trees and obtain some new ones and see if I can improve my technique further. The goal for next year?  To try and get a berry over 30 dwt’s … The pressure is on !!”

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