Have you grown ground cherries in your garden?
Ground cherries are beautiful golden balls of sweetness, that grow in papery husks and may be used in desserts or enjoyed as fresh fruit.
In my previous post “What is a Ground Cherry?“, I identified the differences between the four common types.
A lot of confusion exists between the different species of Physalis, so my goal was to help identify the differences, so you may be better informed when selecting ground cherries for your vegetable garden.
In this post, I discuss growing ground cherries for a successful harvest.
Although ground cherry seeds may be sown directly in the garden, I don’t recommend it for gardeners with a short growing season.
Ground cherries need a growing period of at least 65-75 days to reach maturity. Meaning, 65 to 75 days are required from the time seedlings are transplanted to the garden, until fruit ripen and fall off the plant. If you start your seeds indoors earlier than recommended on the seed packet, then the seedlings will be further ahead when transplanted outdoors, giving you an earlier harvest.
When to Start your Ground Cherry Seeds:
It is important to start your seeds early, as they are slow to get growing. Once established, plants will become inundated, dripping with fruit from all sides.
Ground cherries have zero frost tolerance. A light frost will immediately kill the entire plant, as well as any fruit. This is tricky since the plants need extra time to ripen their fruit after development. I recommend starting your ground cherry seeds approximately 6 to 8 weeks before the final frost date. If you garden in a short growing season, aim to sow your seeds in cell trays or pots at 8 weeks before the final frost date, in order to transplant out fairly mature seedlings.
Sowing Ground Cherry Seeds:
When sowing ground cherries indoors, sow at a depth of 2 times the size of the seeds. In this case, 1/4 to 1/2 an inch deep would suffice. When sowing in cell packs, sow 2 seeds per cell, then snip out the weaker seedling after germination, preserving the stronger one. Once seedlings have developed their first true sets of leaves, pot seedlings up into 4-inch pots. Alternatively, sow 2 seeds per 4-inch pot and snip out the weaker one.
I prefer sowing in cell trays, since pots take up more room under my grow lights. If neither seed germinated in a pot, then I haven’t wasted time and only the strongest seedlings were potted up.
Growing Under Grow Lights:
If you have grow lights, I recommend growing your seedlings under them. Hung 2-inches above the tops of the plants, ground cherries need direct sunlight to grow strong seedlings, similar to other vegetables.
However, if you don’t have grow lights, place your seed tray in the brightest window and rotate your seedlings daily to prevent them from growing lanky and leaning to one side. Turning your tray daily will give your seedlings daylight from all sides.
After all risk of frost has passed, wait an additional week and transplant your seedlings to the garden. Select your sunniest, full sun location and space seedlings at 2 to 3 feet apart, as ground cherry tends to grow prostrate and extended outwards. Plants only grow to a height of 1 to 3 feet, depending on the variety, but they grow just as wide.
To plant your seedlings closer together, consider using a tomato cage or bamboo stakes and twine to support the branches of the plants. However, they will grow just as well staked as they do sprawling.
Ground cherries make a great container plant. If you’re growing on a balcony, deck or front porch, or are running low of garden space, consider growing ground cherries in a large pot. Select a 12 to 14-inch pot and plant 1 plant per pot. Set your pots in the sunniest, full sun location and be sure to water daily, especially when summers are hot and dry. Unfortunately, rains typically won’t provide enough moisture. Drip lines would make watering easier. However, a watering can or watering wand would work just as well. Just be sure to water consistently, to prevent the soil from drying out.
Mulching the Soil:
I recommend covering the soil with some kind of mulch before or after planting, since the fruits will fall off the plant when ripe. A wet summer will create muddy conditions for the falling fruit. A mulch will help to keep them dry and prevent rot.
Mulches to consider include straw, seed-free grass clippings, dry mulched leaves or a black biodegradable plastic (which will keep the soil warm and reduce moisture evaporation).
Mulching also makes harvest much simpler and quicker. Fruit husks will be clean and dry. When harvesting off black biodegradable plastic, it’s a quick sweep to remove the fruit.
Another benefit of using mulch is less weeds. A covered soil surface will prevent weed seeds from germinating in the soil.
Similar to tomatoes and other fruiting vegetables, ground cherries require consistent moisture to fill the plant’s cells with water and assist in the development of fruit.
Depending on the amount of rainfall that your garden receives throughout the summer, a dry summer will require more watering, while a wet one will require much less. In general, the soil needs approximately 2-inches of water per week to maintain consistent moisture.
An easy way to test the moisture level of your soil is to do a finger test! Push your finger into the soil, at a depth of your second knuckle. If you feel moisture at the tip of your finger, the soil has received enough water. If it feels dry, it needs more.
Water your plants at the soil line, not directly on the plants. Use either drip irrigation, or a watering can or wand and water slowly. Take your time as the soil gently absorbs water into the depths of the soil. If the soil is dry and the water runs off to the sides, water again until the water is absorbed. A gentle watering is best, as a hard water blast will splash soil all over your plants, disturbing it.
A mulch covering will conserve soil moisture on the hottest days and prevent water evaporation.
Ground cherries are ready for harvest when the husks have filled out, turned from green to dry beige/brown and dropped to the ground. Unripened ground cherries are not edible and will taste bitter, similar to unripe tomatoes. The longer ground cherries remain on the plant, the more sugars they will develop.
The flavour of ripe ground cherries is sweet, similar to pineapples crossed with vanilla! They’re absolutely delicious.
If you’ve read my previous post, “What is a Ground Cherry“, you will see that there are 4 main types of ground cherries. They’re all sweet and delicious and make a wonderful fruity addition to the vegetable garden.
Grow them as fruit and add them to desserts, jams, chutneys or dehydrate them as raisins.
Grow them once and you’ll be craving their delicious flavour! I’ve been growing them for years and couldn’t imagine a gardening year without them!
Will you add them to your vegetable garden?