Ground Cherries

Ground Cherry Plants

Stepping out into my yard these days, I can’t help but feel depressed. While, this has undoubtedly been my most successful gardening season yet, it’s also turning out to be the one with the most rapid and dramatic decline! Drought like conditions (for the past month) and the rapid spread of disease in my tomato plants have effectively converted my once-verdant oasis into a withered wasteland.

Amidst all the death and destruction (haha), there are still some things to smile about – perhaps the most significant of these being my ground cherry garden.

Growing ground cherries this year was never part of the original game plan – in fact, I barely knew they existed prior to June, when my dad happened to bring some over for me to try. He had discovered them himself at a farmers market, while visiting with a friend in B.C., and was sufficiently impressed with (and surprised by) the flavor that he decided to bring a bag of them back with him when he returned home.

Being the “tomato fanatic” that I am, I was at least familiar with the fact that ground cherries (Physalis sp) are a member of the same family. That’s probably why I so surprised by the tangy SWEET flavor when I first popped one into my mouth (and then another…and another)! I knew right away that I wanted to grow some for myself.

Did I mention that it was already June by this point? Or how about the fact that the only seeds I had were the ones sitting inside the fruit my dad was giving me!? I’ve grown a number of interesting fruit plants from seeds extracted from grocery store produce over the years – but I certainly wasn’t overly optimistic about my chances of success. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot (nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?). So, that very same day, I began the process of extracting, then cleaning the seeds in preparation for my germination attempts.

As I discovered, unlike some of the other members of the tomato family, ground cherries (also known as husk cherries and cape gooseberries) can take a long time to germinate. Given the fact that my seeds had recently been extracted from the fruit (rather than from a commercial seed packet), this only served to increase my pessimism. Needless to say, when I finally did see little sprigs of green eventually popping up I was pretty darn excited!

Initially, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to grow my ground cherry plants, since most of my garden real estate was already in use by this point. After toying with the idea of building another wooden box bed, I eventually settled on a rather unusual alternative – an old lid from a cat litter box! I was still feeling pretty optimistic about my tomato bucket systems at this point, not to mention somewhat burnt out from all the labor hours I’d invested already. The last thing I wanted to do was fiddle around with trying to build something new.

Ground Cherry Seedlings

I set up my little bed in much the same way I had done with my tomato buckets. I started with some potting soil down in the bottom, and then filled it the rest of the way with vermicompost. Of course, I needed to do something about the big gaping hole on the one side (the cat door), so I held a square piece of corrugated cardboard against that side while I filled up the box. I actually liked (and still like) the idea of having a breathable wall like this. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that it might create a healthier environment for the plant roots (not to mention the worms). I should also mention that, apart from vermicompost and soil, I also mixed in a fair amount of alpaca manure.

Even with my little seedlings successfully planted in the new bed, I really wasn’t feeling overly optimistic. I figured that if I ended up with even one plant (of the 5 or 6 planted) that continued to grow, I be pretty pleased. Well, as you can see (in first pic), they’ve just kept chugging along! Even though they are only now producing flower buds, I’m hopeful we’ll end up with an actual crop of ground cherries sometime this fall. I’ve read that they tend to be somewhat more cold tolerant than some of the other members of the tomato family, so this helps to fuel my optimism.

Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that I’m glad to have made the effort.

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    • Kim from MIlwaukee
    • September 2, 2010

    Don’t you just love Nature’s surprises? I’ve never heard of ground cherries, sounds like something that would grow in the frozen tundra up north, like bakeapples (my family’s from Newfld).

    I commend you on your creative container reusing as well, Bentley!

    • Rich
    • September 2, 2010

    Can’t you water your garden? Maybe a drip system if you are worried about water use.

    • Kator
    • September 2, 2010

    Kim – Bakeapples will be ripe for the picking soon.
    Bentley – you’re an inspiration. I’ve heard that ground cherries are delicious. It’ now on my list of garden projects for next year 🙂

    • Bentley
    • September 3, 2010

    KIM – I didn’t know you had family in Canada! Cool.
    I want me some bakeapples!! How can you go wrong with a name like that??
    RICH – For the last couple of years I have been making a very serious effort to use only rain water. I have many big plastic garbage cans that I fill up from my rain barrel, and for most of the summer I was actually able to keep a lot of them full. I’m also not a big fan of using straight-from-the-tap chlorinated water, although this is obviously not a major factor since I could easily just fill up my bins and let the water sit for awhile before using it.
    This last little while I HAVE resorted to watering the really important plants (including the ground cherries), but there’s really not much point with most of the tomatoes.
    KATOR – Thanks for the kind words. I think you will be pleased with the ground cherries. My wife didn’t seem as excited about the taste of them as myself, but if you are already a fan of cherry tomatoes etc, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Plus, when you grow pretty much anything yourself, it just HAS to taste good, right? lol

    • Paul from Winnipeg
    • September 3, 2010

    I just did a Google search for ground cherries and looked under images. As befitting a vermaholic guy like yourself Bentley, you’ve chosen a fruit that looks to me like red worm cocoons! Seriously! That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I looked at them. I’m sure they taste better though…

    They look really similar to the tomatillo. I can get these from a local seed company as I’ve seen it advertised in their catalogue. I wonder how close they are, or if they’re the same thing?

    • Ruth Ann (from PA)
    • February 2, 2011

    I just read this thread on ground cherries. I live in southeastern PA and we have grown ground cherries as long as I can remember. We never plant seeds, they self sow from fruit that was missed in the harvesting process. Our favorite way to eat them is in a pie. It is a local favorite especially among the older generation. They are labor intensive, so ever pie is special.

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