If you come across ground cherries in the wild, you might be surprised that they don’t resemble regular cherries. Ground cherries are golden berries that have distinct paper husks around their fruit. For more information on these fruits, including how to plant ground cherries, keep reading.
Ground cherries are fruits from the nightshade family of plants, and are closely related to eggplants and tomatoes. They are sometimes called the husk tomato. The flowers that ground cherry plants grow are bell-shaped with purple centers, and the golden fruit develops inside the husks that become papery as the berry ripens. “Even if you’re in a cooler region, you can still enjoy these tasty fruits by growing them in containers,” suggests Isabella Douglas, a seasoned authority on plants, gardening, and growing food.
Most species of ground cherries are native to the Americas. They thrive in warm and subtropical climates, but planting ground cherry seeds can be done at any time by planting seeds indoors to start your growing season while avoiding any frost that might threaten your plants.
Planting Ground Cherries
Ground cherries grow well in most soils and even in pots, which is beneficial for home growers living in colder climates than what ground cherries tolerate. Although the Chinese lantern species handles cold temperatures, most species of ground cherry require warm to hot weather to germinate and produce fruit.
All About Ground Cherries (Physalis pruinosa)
There are over 75 species of ground cherries, such as the South American ground cherry (Physalis peruviana) and the tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica).
Other names for different species of ground cherries include Cape gooseberry and husk cherry. Although all species produce delicious-looking fruits, not every ground cherry plant produces edible fruit.
Although ground cherries are not native to North America but have become naturalized to the area, it is most common to see them growing in open fields or by the road.
Because ground cherries are not common around homes, finding fallen fruit to scavenge for ground cherry seeds may be difficult. The Seed Savers Exchange focuses on preserving organic seeds like ground cherries and selling them to gardeners as a reliable source.
When buying transplants, a tomatillo or ground cherry is best. Aunt Mollys ground cherry is the most popular and widely available P pruinosa. These ground cherries are shaped like cherry tomatoes and are a heritage variety from Poland known for their sweet and tropical flavor.
Cape Gooseberry (P peruviana) is a sprawling variety that does not produce as many fruits as other types and tends to reach maturity later than other plants. This plant grows large dark fruits in its signature paper husk.
Cossack ground cherries produce sweet fruits with a taste resembling pineapples. These plants grow up to three feet and reach maturity in about 75 days.
The Garden Huckleberry is a species that is native to West Africa and uniquely grows green at first before the ripe fruit darkens to a deep purple. These cherries reach maturity in roughly 80 days.
How to Plant Ground Cherries
When growing ground cherries, the options available are to transplant seedlings directly into the garden, sow ground cherry seeds into the soil, or seed starting indoors. Because they prefer growing in warm conditions, many suggest starting seeds inside first, but direct sowing is possible.
Plant ground cherries next to carrots in the garden following the last frost in your area when the soil is workable. Use a hoe to loosen the dirt and work in compost. Moisten and flatten the soil to make it smooth. The carrots keep the soil loose.
Whether you grow golden berries outside or are following the way to grow ground cherries in a container, place your seeds on the soil and cover them with a thin layer of dirt. Gently press the seeds down into the soil before watering. With regular watering, your seeds should germinate in about a week.
The best way to plant ground cherries is to transplant seedlings. To start, till the soil with compost once the temperature rises and the earth is warm. Plant ground cherries deep into the garden so that only a few sets of leaves remain above the soil.
After planting outdoors, lightly mulch the area to help with weed suppression and water your cherries weekly. Another method to keep weeds at bay is to lay landscape fabric down before planting ground cherries.
To prevent your growing ground cherry plant from sprawling out of control, add a tomato cage around your plant to support the weight of its vines. Spray your plants with a slow-release fish fertilizer once they develop flowers and again every two weeks as the flower seed forms fruit.
How Far Apart to Plant Ground Cherries
Knowing how far apart to plant ground cherries is crucial because ground cherries are known as sprawling plants. As their name suggests, these plants do not grow very tall; instead, they grow wider, and because of this, the growth of your plants may overlap.
This growth pattern makes ground cherries effective as a cover crop, protecting the ground near other plants from the sun’s rays. To solve the problem if you don’t have a lot of available space, growing tomatillos in containers is another option.
While slight crossing between vines and leaves of adjacent plants does not seem like a significant disadvantage, contact between plants may lead to infections spreading and more vigorous plants blocking sunlight from other plants in the area.
How much sun do ground cherries need? Tomatillos and ground cherries like a lot of sun.
Because ground cherry seeds have a low germination rate, planting numerous seeds in the garden a few inches apart is a wise idea. As the seeds start to sprout, control ground cherry plant spacing by thinning out seedlings so there is only one plant every two feet.
Ground cherries are self-seeders, meaning that ground cherry fruit left on the ground has the chance to regrow. Although the germination rate is low, with plants capable of producing 300 fruits per plant and growing nonstop until a hard freeze hits, it’s easy to lose track as you harvest ground cherries.
Be mindful of any new sprouts in the garden and remove any that interfere with the spacing of other ground cherry plants.
Harvesting Ground Cherries
Your ground cherry plant should reach maturity around the 70-day mark after planting, depending on the variety. If you planted in spring, know when to pick ground cherries in July or August. These ripe ground cherry plants will continue bearing fruit until frost hits.
When you grow ground cherries, you may notice them falling off the plant before they become ripe. This habit is common for ground cherries, and you can still harvest these fallen fruits. Gather fallen fruit and store them at room temperature with their husks attached.
One ingenious way to harvest ground cherries is to lay a tarp over the ground surrounding your ground cherry plants about a week before you expect them to ripen. The tarp will catch fallen fruit and make it easy to gather.
As a week passes, their color darkens into a golden yellow to signal they are finally ripe. Unless you are prepared to use your ground cherries, leave them in their husks and store them in a cool place in a breathable bag or container. When stored correctly, ripe ground cherries can last three months.
Remove the husks and thoroughly wash your ground cherries when you’re ready to eat. Once removed from their husk, your ground cherries will keep in the fridge for up to a week.
To freeze ground cherries, remove the husk, wash and dry the fruits before laying them on a sheet in the freezer. Once the fruits freeze, place them into a freezer-safe bag and store them.
Caring for Ground Cherries
Because they are closely related to tomatoes, ground cherries share some of the same insect pests. Luckily, due to their growth nature, like weeds, ground cherries are not often the target for bacteria and fungi.
Cutworms are a common problem for young plants as they feed on the leaves of your plants, stunting their growth and development. To avoid damage from these insects, spread crushed eggshells or coffee ground around the base of your plants to keep these pests away.
Although not precisely a tomato, tomato hornworms threaten all nightshade plants. These worms are big enough to pull off by hand. To dispose of them, drop them into a bucket of soapy water or crush them in your gloved hand.
Flea beetles are small beetles that enjoy chewing holes into the leaves of plants. These holes do not have much of an effect on mature plants; however, this can result in stunted growth for small plants. Control the presence of flea beetles by creating an insecticidal soap spray that combines neem oil with water and liquid dish soap.
If not for their unique and delicious flavor, everyone should grow ground cherry plants for how bountiful their yields are. The low growing bushes are attractive and prolific. Planting ground cherries is a fun activity for the family, whether you’re growing ground cherries for food or as ornamental plants.
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