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If you aren't already growing ground cherries in your home garden, then now's the time to start. "Ground cherries are in the nightshade family that also includes eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes," says Christopher Landercasper, director of farming operations for Sonoma's Best Hospitality Group. "The most commonly consumed plant people think about when they are talking about ground cherries is the tomatillo." While tomatillos differ from ground cherries, according to the University of Minnesota, they stem from the same genus, making them a not too distant cousin of the fruit.
Commonly used to make preserves, jams, sauces, and pies, garden expert Melinda Meyers says the sweet, somewhat tart flavored fruit is a great plant for beginning gardeners to grow. "It is easy to grow, and each individual fruit can contain up to a hundred seeds," she explains. "So, if you leave a few behind, they'll likely pop up in next year's garden, too."
We asked Landercasper, Meyers, and Daniel Cunningham, a horticulturist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research, what you need to know about the plant.
Start Seeds Indoors
To get an early start on planting your ground cherries, Cunningham recommends starting them indoors (or in a protected area) by seed about six to eight weeks before the last spring frost, which is usually in the late winter or early spring depending on your geographic region. "Transplant them outdoors after the danger of frost has passed," he advises. "Seeds should be planted about three to four times the diameter of the seed (or about one-fourth an inch deep), and spaced 12 to 18 inches apart."
Pick the Best Type of Ground Cherries
With so many types of ground cherries available, deciding on the best ones to plant can prove difficult. According to the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the best types to plant are Cossack Pineapple, Aunt Molly's, and an Austrian variety, Huberschmidt, which is sold in the United States as "Goldie."
Plant in Full Sun
Before you actually plant any ground cherries, Landercasper says it's crucial to find an area of your garden that receives at least six hours of direct sunlight a day. "Ground cherries like full sun," he explains. "The leafy material that covers the fruit also helps to protect the inner edible part from sunburn, so they can handle extreme heat better than most other vegetables."
Water at Least Once a Week
If you aren't watering your ground cherries at least once a week, Meyers says you're doing it wrong. "Water thoroughly so the plants receive an inch of water (from rainfall and/or irrigation) each week," she advises. "You may need to water more often in hot weather and sandy soils. Ground cherries are deeply rooted and fairly drought tolerant, so providing sufficient water throughout the growing season will result in more and better-quality fruit."
Since ground cherries prefer rich, well-draining soils, Cunningham recommends adding mulch to your garden after planting. "Mulch the top two-to-three inches of soil with straw or pine straw, avoiding contact with the base of the plant," he says. "In addition to helping reduce weed competition and maintaining even moisture, it will allow a base for easier harvest."
While ground cherries don't require a lot of pruning or staking (because they don't grow very tall), Meyers says it's important to regularly remove any weeds that appear in their vicinity. "Gently pull, or lightly cultivate the soil, to remove weeds, taking special care not to damage the plants," she advises. "Controlling weeds reduces competition for water and nutrients."
Know When to Harvest
Once the husks of your ground cherries are dry and/or drop to the ground, our experts say they're ready to harvest. "Fruits are generally sweetest when they fall to the ground on their own or when the plant is gently shaken," Cunningham explains. After harvest, Landercasper suggests storing the ground cherries in a cool, dry place. "They can be stored indoors for weeks, if not months, as long as you keep the leafy cover on them," he says.