Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa) are perhaps one of the least well-known fruits to grow in your garden. These small, yellow berries have a flavor that is similar to pineapple, with a very faint background flavor of tomato. It's often also known as "cape gooseberry" or "husk tomato." It's an annual in areas that experience winter freezes. If you want to grow more fruit in your garden, but don't have the space for trees or large brambles, ground cherries may be just the thing.
Where to Grow Ground Cherries
Ground cherries grow well in any area that has a decently-long growing season, particularly in zones 4 and above. It is not overly picky about its soil, but well-draining soil amended with compost would be ideal. You can grow ground cherries in traditional beds and raised beds, but it also works well in containers. Just make sure the container is at least 8 inches deep to allow for its fairly large root system. Full sun is preferable, but they will produce with a bit of shade as well.
Planting Ground Cherries
Ground cherries should be started from seeds indoors, approximately four to six weeks before your last spring frost date. They can be started in cell packs or soil blocks. They can be slow to germinate, but be patient. Once they get going, they will grow steadily until it's time to start hardening them off. Harden them off and plant them out after danger of frost is past.
Plant your ground cherries 18 to 24 inches apart. You can bury the stems as you would with tomatoes, but this is rarely necessary; ground cherry seedlings tend to be compact and bushy rather than overly tall. They do not need to be staked or caged. As ground cherries grow, they grow wide rather than tall. In general, your ground cherry plants will be about two feet tall, and spread about that much as well.
How to Grow Organic Ground Cherries
Ground cherries are almost ridiculously easy to grow. All you need to do is make sure they get regular watering, at least one inch per week. Dry conditions will cause them to drop their blossoms without producing fruit.
Ground cherries produce berries in husks, much like their relatives, tomatillos. Once the husks turn brown and papery, they berries will be ready to harvest. Often, they'll drop off the plant when they're ready, and you can harvest them from the ground around the plants (hence the name, "ground cherries.")
If you are in a short season area and frost is threatening before your ground cherries ripen, you can cover the plants with a floating row cover or bed sheet to buy a few degrees of protection until they ripen. Each plant will produce about one pint of berries throughout the growing season.
Try to pick up fallen fruit often. If left on the ground, it will quickly break down and you'll have ground cherry seedlings popping up everywhere. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to keep in mind. It's a good idea to mulch with straw or grass clippings around your plants. Not only will it maintain adequate soil moisture, but it will also make it easier to spot fallen fruit.
Ground Cherry Pests and Problems
Ground cherries are generally not bothered at all by pests and diseases. You may have issues with cutworms when you first plant your seedlings into the garden.
Recommended Ground Cherry Varieties
The most commonly-available variety of ground cherry is the ubiquitous 'Aunt Molly's Ground Cherry.' This is available in most seed catalogs, and, sometimes, in nurseries.