Ground cherries, also know as husk tomatoes, are a small berry-like fruit in the nightshade family. They are closely related to tomatoes, peppers, and especially tomatillos. Ironically, they are not related to cherries.
However, they get their name for their sweet, tart flavor when ripe. These tropical plants can be grown virtually anywhere in the world, and are a great choice for container gardening.
So, in this article, I will share how to grow ground cherries in containers. You’ll learn about planting the seeds, moving outdoors, watering, fertilizing, and harvesting ground cherries. Let’s get growing!
Planting Ground Cherry Seeds
If you have ever grown tomatoes or peppers, then you’ll be comfortable planting ground cherry seeds. The process is very similar, though the timing is different.
It is best to plant ground cherry seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before your last frost date. This is a couple weeks earlier than we plant our tomato seeds, as ground cherries tend to grow more slowly.
Seed planting tips:
- Plant ground cherry seeds 6-8 weeks before last frost date
- Plant 2-3 seeds per cell, about 1/8th of an inch deep
- Cover and mist with water
- Keep warm and humid until seedlings emergy
- Thin to 1 plant per cell
- Use a well-drained potting soil
Ground cherry seeds are small, so it is best to plant them shallow, about 1/8″ deep. Also, never allow the soil to dry out during germination, or the seeds may fail to sprout.
Temperature is also important for germination, with the ideal range between 75-85°F. To keep it warm, you can use a seed heating mat until the seeds sprout.
Seedling Stage & Transplanting
After germination, your ground cherry seedlings need light, right away. While the plants are indoors, we like to use LED grow lights on a low to medium brightness for the first few weeks.
Ground cherries grow slowly during the first 2-3 weeks, so be patient and allow the plants to develop. Once they reach about 1″ tall, they will begin to accelerate their growth rate.
Best container size for ground cherries
When choosing a final container to grow your ground cherries in, look for something on the smaller side. A 1-2 gallon container is adequate for a small ground cherry plant.
Just keep in mind that the container size will directly correlate to the final plant size. A larger pot means a larger plant. I like to keep ground cherries compact, as they tend to sprawl when they get too big.
If you want to grow the biggest plant possible, you can grow in a 5 gallon container or larger. However, bigger ground cherry plants require lots of support for their weak branches.
Around the 6 week mark, your ground cherries should be a few inches tall. They should also have a few “true” leaves. At this point, they are ready to up-size the container they are growing in.
Transplanting is as simple as moving the rootball into a larger body of soil. Be careful not to disturb the root system in the process. Dig out a small hole in the larger container and pop the seedling in.
After transplanting, be sure to water your ground cherry plant to moisten the surrounding soil. This helps the plant integrate into the new environment quickly.
Ideal Growing Conditions
Now that your ground cherry has been transplanted, you need to provide an ideal growing environment. Here are the perfect conditions for growing healthy ground cherries:
- Full sun or partial shade. Ground cherries like lots of sunlight, but can tolerate some afternoon shade. If you live in a very hot climate, choose a spot that gets shaded in the mid-day (or use shade cloth).
- Even-watering. Like tomatoes and peppers, ground cherries grow best in evenly-moist soil. This means never letting the plant fully dry out between waterings. If your plants do dry out, the leaves will droop. If your container doesn’t have drainage holes, you’ll need to drill some to allow water to pass through.
- Fertile, well-draining soil. I like this potting soil for growing all nightshades. However, any nutrient-rich potting mix should work well for growing ground cherries in pots. Note: It may be helpful to amend with a mid-season fertilizer to encourage better yields.
- Stake for support. Ground cherry stems are stronger than tomatoes, but weaker than peppers. Larger plants will benefit from a central stake or a cage for support.
You’ll notice that your ground cherry plants may get knocked over in the wind. Try grouping them closer to other plants for support, or weighing down your pots with a heavy object.
While most potting soils can support your ground cherry plants for the first few months, it helps to supplement with fertilizer. Around mid-summer, I like to begin fertilizing with an all-purpose blend, like this one.
Avoid over fertilizing, as this can cause your plants to grow big and bushy, without many fruits. Ground cherries prefer medium fertility, so be sure to err on the side of less.
When To Harvest Ground Cherries
Some time in mid-summer, your ground cherries should begin producing fruits. These will look a lot small tomatillos, with a papery husk covering the fruit inside.
When is the best time to harvest ground cherries?
Don’t bother picking your ground cherries! They are best harvested when they fall to the ground (hence the name). If you pick them off the plant, they will be bitter and less sweet.
The perfectly ripe ground cherry will be very sweet, with a slightly tart undertone. They have a unique flavor that is hard to describe. Some compare them to pineapple, though I can’t quite agree. To understand the true taste, you’ll just have to grow your own!
Ground cherries are great to use in baking, jams, and eating fresh. They become even sweeter when cooked, but I find that my favorite way to eat them is fresh out of the garden.
How many ground cherries per plant?
A single, small plant can produce dozens of ground cherries. If you grow in a larger pot, you may get hundreds of fruits in a single season!
As your plant drops fruits, it will produce more flowers and fruits. A mid-season all-purpose fertilizer can help the plants be more productive.
I hope this article helps you grow your own ground cherries in pots. These tasty garden treats are the perfect choice for a unique container garden.