Choosing to grow unique plants, or trying new varieties of your favorites, is a fun aspect of having a garden. If you’re looking for a new plant for the next gardening season or you’ve stumbled here because you have this idea in mind already, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s talk about growing ground cherries!
Also known as cape gooseberries or a strawberry tomato plant, ground cherries (Physalis spp.) are a unique, interesting annual plant to add to your gardening repertoire. The plants grow similarly to tomatoes—needing similar care—but produce a one-of-a-kind “fruit” that is sure to pique your curiosity and tastebuds.
Ground cherries are a nightshade family member—the same family in which tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes are classified. Plants grow in USDA zones four and higher. The small yellow fruits look like an orange tomatillo with a papery husk reminiscent of a Chinese lantern; they have a sweet-tart flavor similar to pineapple with a faint hint of tomato.
- Aunt Molly’s: 70 days to maturity; exquisite citrus flavor.
- Cossack Pineapple: 75 days to maturity, distinct pineapple taste.
- Goldie: 75 days to maturity; tastes like a combination of strawberry and pineapple.
Native to Mexico and the Southern US, ground cherries love warm weather and are sensitive to cold temperatures. They require three months of temperatures between 65°F and 85°F for the best fruit set. Therefore, the timing of when to plant depends upon your local weather conditions. In most growing zones, seeds are started indoors and transplanted outside in late spring.
Ground cherries take longer to grow than many other vegetables, but the plants are very frost-sensitive, especially when seedlings are young. Because of this, it’s recommended to start seeds indoors 6 to 8 weeks before your area’s last frost date. After the threat of frost passes, the plants can safely be transplanted outside.
The plants are known to have a low germination rate, so plant more seeds than you expect to grow in the garden.
- Fill a shallow plastic container or planting tray with premoistened potting mix.
- Create furrows about ¼” deep in the soil.
- Space ground cherry seeds every ½”.
- Gently cover the seeds with potting soil.
- Set the containers where they will stay at room temperature or slightly above (a seed starting heat mat is excellent for increasing the soil temperature), and keep the potting soil consistently moist.
- When the seedlings reach a couple of inches tall, transplant them into a larger, individual container with drainage holes.
You can skip this step by buying plants from a local garden center or nursery if they are available and planting them directly into the garden area when it’s warm enough.
Plants like soils that are friable and have good drainage. Before planting, work a couple of inches of compost or well-rotted manure into the soil and till it to a depth of eight to twelve inches. You can mix in an organic or slow-release fertilizer formulated for fruits and vegetables if you have poor soil.
If your garden beds have heavy clay soils that don’t drain well, it may be best to plant ground cherries in raised beds or containers.
Plant seedlings outside about two weeks after the last frost date, when the danger of frost has passed, and the soil is warming. Start hardening off seedlings about a week before transplanting. Plant seedlings deeply so only three sets of leaves are above the soil, and space plants three feet apart within rows, with 3 to 4 feet between rows.
As mentioned before, growing ground cherry plants are pretty similar to growing garden tomatoes. So if you have experience with tomatoes, you’ll quickly catch on to caring for these unique plants. They love lots of sun, water, and fertilizer but don’t care for weeds. While relatively problem-free plants are plagued by a few insect pests.
Choose a spot in your garden where plants can receive a minimum of six to eight hours of full sun every day. They benefit from a bit of afternoon shade during the summer heat when the temperatures are at the highest. Plants will tolerate partial shade, but you will see a reduction in yield.
Plants like high levels of soil moisture, but the soil also needs to be well-draining. Aim to give your plants two inches of water per week. It is better to give more water at less frequent intervals, instead of watering plants a little every day or even every other day. The deep soakings encourage better root growth.
A single plant produces upwards of 300 fruits, so they need more fertilizer than typical plants o fuel their growth. Fertilize plants every 6-8 weeks before fruit set; after fruit set, feed every three weeks until harvest. Choose a fertilizer formulated for tomatoes, or a low-nitrogen, all-purpose fertilizer to promote blossom formation and fruit growth versus vegetative growth.
Just like your other garden plants, ground cherries are susceptible to weed pressure. To keep weeds under control and minimize the competition for resources, mulch around the plants or lay down weed fabric before planting. Pull any weeds that sprout up by hand, or hoe the garden bed gently to prevent damaging the plant’s roots.
Over, these plants have very few problems with pests or diseases. However, since they are related to tomatoes, they do have some issues with common tomato pests. Regularly scout, keeping an eye out for flea beetles, tomato hornworms, and cutworms. If any insect pests are found, treat them quickly to stop them from severely damaging plants.
You can harvest ground cherries when the color of the fruit’s papery husk deepens from a light yellow color to a warm apricot gold. However, ground cherry fruits have the peculiar tendency to fall to the ground before they are ripe. Gather them up off the ground and keep them at room temperature in the husks until ripe.
Once ripe, store the fruit in its husk in a root cellar or your basement.
- Use tomato cages to support your ground cherry plants and help keep them contained. The plants have a tendency to sprawl when growing; the cages keep plants growing upright.
- Plants self-pollinate, so there is no need to plant more than one or multiple varieties to ensure pollination.
- Instead of using straw to mulch around plants, opt for a darker mulch, so the fruit is easy to see when it falls to the ground.
- After harvesting, clean up the planting area well, removing as many errant berries as possible to keep volunteer plants at a minimum the following spring.
- Do not eat green fruits; they contain a toxic alkaloid like other plants in the nightshade family.