In my new book, Veggie Garden Remix, I talk about how to grow ground cherries in a garden. This tomato cousin, related to tomatillos, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant, is also called husk cherry and has become one of our favorite crops for its ease of cultivation and bounty of marble-sized, golden fruits. Read on to learn more about this fantastic garden vegetable!
This post is an excerpt from Veggie Garden Remix by Niki Jabbour.
Glorious ground cherries
The flavor of a ripe ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) is comparable to pineapple with hints of cherry tomato and vanilla. It’s an unusual combination, but one that works. Occasionally, I’ll bite into an extra-ripe berry that almost tastes like butterscotch — sublime! Their sweet flavor is what earns them the nicknames “strawberry tomato” and “Cossack pineapple.” You can eat the fruits fresh or in salads, but you can also turn them into jam, pie, cobbler, or sauce for drizzling over ice cream or cheesecake. If you have a dehydrator, you can dry them and eat them like raisins.
This is a fun and easy crop to grow, with the low, bushy plants producing hundreds of marble-size berries from midsummer until the hard autumn frost. The fruits, which are enclosed in a papery husk, drop from the plants when they are ripe, hence the name ground cherry. They are firm fruits, even when ripe, with seeds that are so small the fruits actually seem seedless.
Tricky to start, but self-sowing ever after
The first step to growing ground cherries in a garden is to get them to sprout. Ground cherry seeds are notoriously tricky to germinate, but a bit of bottom heat will boost germination rates. I sow seeds indoors, 6 to 8 weeks before my last frost, and help them along by covering the seed trays with clear plastic wrap and placing them on top of a heating mat to keep warm. Germination can take 2 to 3 weeks. Once transplanted into the garden, expect the harvest to begin in 70 to 75 days.
Tuck them in a sunny site in the garden or in large pots, digging in a few inches of compost or aged manure. A steady supply of moisture will result in the highest quality fruits, so water regularly if there has been no rain. A 2-inch layer of straw or shredded leaves on the soil will prevent weeds, maintain soil moisture and keep the fallen fruits clean.
You may only to start ground cherries once, though! They are prolific self-seeders, so expect many volunteer plants to pop up the following season. You can either thin them and leave a few in place, or dig them up to share with gardening-minded family and friends. Growing them in containers on a wooden, stone, or concrete deck or patio will minimize the threat of self-seeding. As well gathering any over-ripe fruit left on the garden bed in late autumn.
Growing ground cherries in a garden
To grow ground cherries in a garden, keep in mind that the plants have a relaxed growth habit, which can take up a lot of space. I use tomato cages (inserted at transplanting time) or insert three 4-foot wooden stakes around the plant and use twine to keep the growth relatively upright. If you do support your ground cherry plants, you can transplant them 2 feet apart.
Unsupported plants should be spaced at least 3 feet apart. They don’t get very tall (between 1½ and 3 feet in height), and they can also be grown in pots on a sunny deck or patio. Ground cherries pollinate themselves, so small-space gardeners can enjoy this crop, even if they have only one plant. Encourage good soil fertility by applying a slow release organic fertilizer at planting time and then again in mid-summer.
Although our annual ground cherry crop is seldom bothered by common pests, we do occasionally see the tiny holes in the leaves caused by flea beetles. Also watch for Colorado potato beetles, striped cucumber beetles, and hornworms. Combining crop rotation with a lightweight row cover placed over the seedlings at planting time will help deter most pests. Remove the cover when the plants begin to flower.
Look down for fruit
Harvesting is as simple as gathering up the fallen fruits — a favorite activity for our kids! Sometimes the fruits are still immature when they fall and need extra time to ripen from inedible green to rich, golden yellow. You could leave them on the ground for a week or two, but because the squirrels also love this treat, I pick up the fallen fruits every couple of days and bring them indoors to finishing maturing. To keep fallen fruits clean, I apply a straw mulch beneath the plants in early summer. This also helps keep the soil evenly moist, which ground cherries appreciate. To encourage ripe or almost-ripe fruits to fall, you can “tickle” or gently tousle the plant every few days.
If you’re not going to eat your whole harvest immediately, store the small fruits, still in husks, in a refrigerator, cool basement, garage, or root cellar. Under ideal conditions, they can store from 6 weeks to 3 months. When frost threatens in autumn, cover the plants with a row cover or frost blanket to protect the crop. This can extend the season for several weeks.
We love to eat our ground cherries straight from the garden, popping the golden fruits from the husks and into our mouths. You can also bake the berries in scones, pies, tarts, and cake, stew them with sugar and vanilla to make a sublime sauce for ice cream, or make preserves and turn the berries into a tasty jam. They also make a delicious salsa!
To read more from Niki about shaking up your veggie garden with new, unusual, and global crops, purchase a copy of Veggie Garden Remix via Amazon or your local bookseller.
Excerpted from Niki Jabbour’s Veggie Garden Remix © by Niki Jabbour. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.