Growing up, I looked forward to finding my first ground cherry in my mom’s garden. I loved those little berries. Now as I tend to my own garden, I still find a few plants that have managed to reseed themselves back every year..
Ground cherries have been growing in American soil for centuries. The pilgrims used this sweet-tart fruit to make pies, preserves and to eat fresh right out of the garden. They are relatives of tomatillos and tomatoes. The leaves are dark green and the plant produces hundreds of yellow flowers that develop into husk-covered fruits. You can buy ground cherry plants at some garden stores or nurseries, but why not save some money and grow your own plants from seed. Get a jump-start on the garden season by planting your seeds indoors 4 to 6 weeks before the last expected frost date for your area.
Prepare the Potting Soil
Moisten your potting soil before filling cell packs, or peat pots. I usually cover my worktable with a tarp, but you can use an old plastic tablecloth if you have one handy. You can buy pre-mixed potting soil at the local garden center or made at home by combining equal amounts of organic compost, peatmoss, and perlite. Pour your potting soil on the covered tabletop. Pour a little bit of water over the top of the soil using a sprinkle watering can. This gives you better control and coverage. Don’t add too much water at any one time because you don’t want soupy. And, it is always easier to add more water than to take the excess out if you added too much.
Use your hands to mix the soil, and water together to distribute the water. Test the soil for moisture content by picking up a handful and giving it a squeeze. If you notice water dripping out from between your fingers, you’ve added too much water. Either add more soil, or leave it to dry out. If, when you open your hand the soil does not hold its shape, you need to add more water. What you are looking for is a soil ball that does not fall apart.
Fill the Pots
Fill the cell packs or peat pots with moistened soil. If you are planting several packs or peat pots, place them in a tray or an old cake pan. This helps contain any water seepage, holds the pots upright, and makes carrying them easier.
Planting the Seeds
Place one ground cherry seed in the center of each cell or pot. Press the seed gently so the bottom of the seed is in contact with the soil. Barely cover the seeds with vermiculite or sieved potting soil. The seeds need light to germinate. Mist the top covering until it is moist.
Cover the pots with a sheet of clear plastic. This helps the soil to retain moisture and stay warm so the seeds can germinate.
Place the tray in a warm place that stays between 75 and 80° Fahrenheit. If you have a heat mat, use that to keep the soil warm. I often place my planting tray on top of the refrigerator or freezer toward the back.
Check the soil daily for moisture. Do not allow the soil to dry out. You want it to stay moist, but not soggy or the seeds will rot.
Remove the Plastic
Remove the plastic when you see the seedlings poking out of the soil. This process can take 3 to 10 days for the seeds to germinate. Move the flat to a well-lit area, like a sunny south or east window or you can place them under grow lights. Try to maintain a soil temperature of about 75°Fahrenheit.
Continue to keep the soil moist until it is time to plant your ground cherries in the garden. Before planting them, harden them off first. This is done by taking the tray of plants outdoors and placing them in a protected area for one hour. The next day, do the same thing; except leave them outside for two hours. Increase the outdoor exposure time by one hour each day over the course of the next seven days until the ground cherry plants are spending 24 hours outside. Now you can safely transplant them into the prepared garden.