by Bethany Hayes
I found my first ground cherry plant when I went to a garden festival in Pittsburgh four years ago. I had no idea what ground cherries were, but being plant-obsessed, I brought the tender seedlings home and set off learning how to grow ground cherries in my garden.
That year, I discovered a love for these little fruits with a unique flavor that is hard to describe. I made ground cherry jam and tried fun ways to use them in recipes.
Ground cherries don’t receive enough hype, but they should. If you can grow tomatoes or peppers, you can grow ground cherries – I promise.
What are Ground Cherries
Ground cherries belong to the nightshade family, along with peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants, but they’re a sweet-like fruit instead of a savory vegetable. They’re often called “husk tomatoes.”
This plant grows lower than other nightshade plants, rarely reaching more than two feet tall, but in optimal conditions, it spreads out, hugging the ground. The leaves have a velvety texture with purple veins.
After the white to yellow flowers disappear off of the plant, fruits grow in their place inside lantern-shaped husks. The husks start thicker and green, eventually changing to a tan shade with a thin, papery texture. When that happens, the berry is ripe.
After the husk is papery and almost web-like, the orange-yellow berries are ready to eat. You’ll find that they have a tropical taste, like blending a tomato and pineapple with a bit of vanilla. Others say it tastes like a strawberry with tomato hints.
No matter how you describe it, you have to try it for yourself to understand the flavor truly.
Popular Ground Cherry Varieties
Since these plants are far from popular, there are only a few varieties for gardeners to select.
- Aunt Molly’s
This is the one that you’ll find at most places. It has an upright, bushy growth habit and produces the classic, yellow-orange fruits.
- Cossack Pineapple
This variety is different because it has a tangier, sweet flavor that brings more of the pineapple flavor than other varieties.
This variety is similar to Aunt Molly’s, but it grows lower to the ground and spreads more. The fruits taste and look similar.
How to Grow Ground Cherries
Growing ground cherries is easy once you get past the seed starting, which can be tricky. These plants are known for being self-seeders, so be ready for volunteer plants. The fruits drop to the ground, and they’re easy to miss.
Here’s how to get started the first time, but those volunteer plants might be the answer in the years going forward.
Fix the Soil
Amend the soil for your ground cherries, similar to how you would fix it for tomatoes. I add several inches of compost or aged manure for balanced nutrients and improved drainage.
Pick the Right Spot
These little plants love the sun, so make sure you pick a spot in your garden that receives 6-8 hours of sunlight each day. They also need to have well-draining soil; standing water is a quick way to kill these plants. If you don’t have a spot in your garden that fits, ground cherries grow well in containers.
Sow Seeds Indoors
Like tomatoes and other nightshade plants, ground cherries must be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the final frost date in your area. These plants aren’t frost friendly, so be sure not to plant them outside too soon.
Ground cherry seeds are notorious for being picky. The key is to put some heat underneath their seed pots to encourage germination. Keeping them in a warm area helps as well. I wrap the seed trays and containers in plastic to help retain moisture and humidity.
These seeds like to remain in a place that is 75-85℉ and make sure the soil stays moist but not soggy.
Be patient with these little seeds; it takes up to three weeks for them to germinate. After they do, continue to water and fertilize them until it’s time to transplant them outside in the spring.
Transplant the Seedlings Outside
When the danger of frost passes, it’s time to move the seedlings outside. Remember that these plants have a relaxed growth habit, so they take up space. One year, I planted them too close to my zucchini, and the plants went head to head for space.
Some gardeners prefer to use tomato cages or stakes to help keep the growth upright and contained, but that’s up to you. Providing support allows you to space the plants two feet apart. Unsupported plants need to be spaced three feet apart; they like to sprawl.
Growing Ground Cherries in Containers
Many gardeners prefer to grow ground cherries in containers. They aren’t large plants; they typically only reach two feet tall, so they’re a great size for pots. Growing them in pots also prevents self-seeding if you grow them on a patio or deck where they won’t drop into the soil.
Select containers that are at least eight inches deep. These plants have large root systems that need space to branch out.
How to Care for Ground Cherries
Watering Your Ground Cherries
Setting and growing fruits take a lot of water, so these plants need a steady supply of water throughout the growing season. Without this, the fruit quality decreases.
Check the soil every day to see if it’s dry two inches down. If it is, make sure to water. Rainfall counts towards the total amount of water that these plants need, so keep track with a rain gauge. Ground Cherries need between one and two inches of water per week.
Mulch Around The Plants
Mulching around ground cherries is a great idea because it helps retain moisture while suppressing weeds that might steal nutrients from the soil.
I found that spreading a two-inch layer of organic mulch, such as shredded leaves, around the plant’s base helps tremendously. These fruits also drop off the plant when they’re ready, so mulch keeps them clean and easy to spot.
Fertilizing the Plants
If you have poor soil, consider mixing in an organic fertilizer when you plant the seedlings in the ground. A tomato fertilizer will work for these plants. They also thrive in soil that’s amended with compost, so side-dress your plants throughout the season to boost nutrients.
Ground Cherry Pests & Diseases
So far, none of my ground cherry plants have had pest or disease issues. They’re not susceptible to many bacterial, fungal, or viral diseases, making growing them easier. A few pests might bother your plants.
It feels as if no plant is safe from aphids. An aphid infestation might cause sticky or curled leaves and weak, dying plants because they suck out the sap from the leaves’ undersides. If you notice these pests bothering your plants, use insecticidal soaps or neem oil to eliminate them.
If you move your plant and small, white-winged insects fly out, you have a whiteflies problem. These little flies like to stick to the underside of leaves. Insecticidal soaps and neem oil are effective ways to get rid of these pests.
- Potato Beetles
The Colorado potato beetle feeds on more than potato plants; any plant in the nightshade family is vulnerable to these pests. The larvae and adult beetles feed on the leaves, destroying the foliage.
Handpick the beetles off when you see them and drop them into buckets of soapy water. Few pesticides work on potato beetles; preventative measures are most important.
- Verticillium Wilt
One of the few diseases that might bother your ground cherry plants is verticillium wilt. It’s a fungal disease that favors the tomato and squash family crops. Verticillium thrives in warm, wet conditions, entering the plant via wounds or natural openings, eventually blocking the plant from providing nutrients and water to the leaves.
There is no way to treat verticillium wilt, but if you end up with it, make sure you plant resistant varieties in the future. Keep your plants well-fed and watered, and keep the beds clear of debris.
Harvesting Ground Cherries
Expect a harvest to begin 70 to 75 days after transplanting the seedlings into the garden. Harvesting ground cherries is so easy; look for fallen fruits around your plant. I send my kids to do this because it’s the perfect scavenger hunt for little ones.
Mature, ripe ground cherries are a rich, golden yellow flavor. Leaving them on the ground won’t hurt them, but some local animals might find that they’re a delicious treat. The fruits continue to mature after they fall off of the plant.
Since the plant produces a harvest for the entire growing season, you have to store the small fruits. They store well from six weeks to three months in the refrigerator, basement, or root cellar if you keep them in the husks. I remove them from the husks and freeze them throughout the summer until I’m ready to make one big batch of jam at the end of the growing season.
Ground cherries don’t receive the hype that they should. They’re an easy-to-grow fruit that you can grow in your garden beds with a unique flavor. After you start the seeds, growing the plants is easy, and they love to reseed each year. Give these plants a try this year.