First of all, I know what you are thinking… “What even is a ground cherry?”
Great question! A ground cherry is a somewhat sweet yellow-orange fruit that is fully enclosed in a husk, similar to a tomatillo (just much, much smaller). In fact, they just happen to be in the tomatillo family, but from my experience grow a bit differently.
I started growing ground cherries a few years ago. I thought for a while that I was actually growing a regular type of tomatillo plant. Boy was I surprised when it didn’t grow super huge and produced tiny orange fruit that were sweet!
Ground cherries taste like a mix between a sweet tomato and a berry or pineapple. They are great by themselves, in salad, or even (gasp!) in a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
Recently, I’ve had a handful of people inquire about growing ground cherries. These are definitely one of my favorite things to grow in the spring months here in Austin so I thought I share about my experience and some tips for growing these little gems.
I’ve grown both Pineapple Tomatillos (don’t be deceived by the name) and Aunt Molly’s ground cherries. Cape gooseberries (not to be confused with a regular gooseberry), Chinese Lantern, Cossack Pineapple, Golden Strawberry, and Goldie are other varieties I have heard of people growing.
The reason I first started growing ground cherries (albeit unknowingly) was because I stumbled upon some pineapple tomatillo transplants at the Sunshine Community Garden plant sale a few years ago and bought one because it sounded intriguing.
This year I went a different route and started some ground cherries from seeds I purchased from Seed Savers Exchange.
I haven’t had any luck finding transplants from local nurseries, but starting them from seed isn’t a bad option at all. Just make sure to find organic seeds from a trusted seed supplier.
I recommend planting your ground cherries the same time you plant your tomatoes. That means if you are starting tomatoes indoors from seeds, start some ground cherry seeds at the same time. Or if you are successful at finding transplants, they should be ready to go in the soil the same time your tomato transplants go in.
Rule of thumb, plant ground cherries in the ground after all danger of frost in your area has past.
Here in central Texas, I started my ground cherries from seeds in January and planted them in the ground mid-March.
While the timing coincides with tomatoes, that is pretty much where the similarities between these two types of plants stop.
Ground cherries are named quite appropriately because they don’t get very tall. They sprawl…across the ground. Be sure to keep this in mind when you are planting them. It is recommended to space them 3 or so feet apart.
From my experience, Aunt Molly’s spread out more and get a little bigger than the Pineapple Tomatillos. In fact, I wish I spaced out my Aunt Molly’s a little more this year because it is like finding a needle in a haystack looking for the ripe fruit. But you live and learn, right?
Some people recommend caging ground cherries with tomato cages. I haven’t had good luck with this because they never seem to get tall enough to actually make a difference. But if I could come up with a good method of trellis/caging them, I could definitely see the benefit because they can get a little out of control.
One thing I love about ground cherries is they surprise you. They are usually the first of my spring plants to start blooming. But many times I don’t notice because the small yellow flowers are under the leaves. When I actually think about taking a peek under the leaves, there usually are a handful of green husks already formed.
The little fruit will grow in that green husk until it is ready to be harvested.
From my experience, ground cherries seem to be done producing quite a bit earlier than my tomatoes and peppers. And they don’t seem to like the heat. This year, though, they are pretty in sync with the tomatoes but we have had a cooler spring here in Austin.
As you would with your other spring/summer plants, keep a regular watering schedule and fertilize every so often. I have only grown ground cherries in my raised beds with quality, well-drained soil and added some all-purpose fertilizer when they were first established and sometimes a few weeks later when they start putting out flowers. Generally, they have been pretty low maintenance.
Ground cherries are vulnerable to all the same issues tomato and tomatillo plants are susceptible to. This includes things like cutworms, spider mites, molds, or whatever pests and diseases you deal with in your area.
The only trouble I have had with ground cherries is when they are first planted. For some reason, the cutworms have taken out a few of my plants every year. Once they get a little more established though that risk diminishes and my ground cherries have thrived without any hiccups.
This is the easiest part. Simply wait until the ripe ground cherry falls to the ground. No picking necessary or even recommended.
The husk usually turns from green to brown and that is how you know the fruit is almost ready. You can lightly squeeze the husk and feel the little ball in there as it is growing to check on the size.
If they aren’t already eaten by the time I make it from my garden into the house, I keep my harvested ground cherries in a glass jar on my windowsill next to my tomatoes. They usually last a couple weeks on the counter, but why would you wait to eat them??
Fully-grown ground cherries are about the size of a blueberry. To eat them, pull off and dispose of the husk, and enjoy that tasty, little treat.
Seriously folks, if you’ve never tried a ground cherry I recommend you try one stat! Once you try one, you will be planting them in your garden for years to come.
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