Cranberry plants how to grow

Can You Grow Your Own Cranberries?

So I wasn’t at all surprised when Lee told me that he has personally grown cranberries in his New York State garden. Several years ago, he relates, he built what he calls a ‘heath bed’ (as in ‘heaths and heathers’) out of milled peat moss and a load of old potting soil he had on hand in which he grew a number of closely related plants: Cranberries, lingonberries, lowbush blueberries, rhododendron and mountain laurel.

All of these members of what Lee called the ‘heath family’ have similar requirements—a very acidic soil pH (between 4 and 5.5), lots of organic matter but not a lot of fertilizer, and a good amount of water, especially during dry times. Lee tells me that he keeps the soil acidified with pelletized sulfur and feeds the plants gently and lightly with soybean meal, an organic fertilizer of which he has an abundant nearby supply.

You can forget the ‘bog’ business. Lee explains that commercial “Thanksgiving” cranberries are grown in bogs mostly because flooding the fields greatly facilitates their unique style of mechanical harvesting. His cranberries grew just fine in a normal raised bed; so fine, in fact, he says he became worried that the low growing plants would overwhelm the other occupants “Luckily,” he tells me, “we then had two drought years in a row; and while the other plants survived, the lack of water killed off the cranberries.”

Lee rates this as ‘luck’ because he doesn’t much care for fruits that you can’t eat fresh, and cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) he explains, “are virtually inedible without cooking and a lot of sugar.” But he adds that the closely related lingonberry (Vacciuium vitis-idaea; also known as the lowbush cranberry), “while still tart, is delicious when fresh.” Lee says he pops some right in his mouth when he’s out picking and eats the rest overtop of cereal, just like the lowbush blueberries growing next to them.

But all of the aforementioned plants despise dry times to some degree, and so Lee installed drip irrigation to make sure he could continue to enjoy his beloved lingon and blueberries after the cranberries were safely dead.

“The Thanksgiving cranberry has thin stems and stays VERY low to the ground,” he explains, reaching only about 4 inches in height and bearing those familiar bright red fruits in the fall. The plants are evergreen, but Lee says he doesn’t care much for the purple tinge the leaves take on over winter. As he discovered, they can be rapid, productive growers when they get lots of moisture, but die off if they don’t get supplemental water in dry times.

“Lingonberries have slightly thicker stems,” he continues, “reach 8 to 12 inches tall, and are much more ornamental. They’re truly evergreen in winter, bear two crops of berries a year—one in late summer and another in the Fall—and are edible fresh off the plant. Not sweet, mind you, but deliciously tart. The berries are a little less red and smaller than cranberries, and the plants were a little harder to establish. But once they were growing well, they survived the same drought that killed off the cranberries.

“I really want to stress how ornamental and attractive lingonberries are,” continues Lee. “The plants make one of the absolute best edible groundcovers, especially when grown alongside lowbush blueberries.” Blueberries, cranberries and lingonberries are all native plants as well, with lingonberries occurring naturally over a huge range: Virtually all of the Northern areas of the world! And although most enthusiasts simply harvest berries from the wild, plants are available to home gardeners. “A number of specialty nurseries carry lingonberry plants,” explains Lee, “and you sometimes see them pop up for sale in nurseries in the Northern part of the country.”

That last part is important; these are cold climate plants! Some lingonberry sub-species can survive in practically arctic Zone 2 conditions; and both cranberries and lingonberries require a cold winter to be productive. “Anywhere South of Pennsylvania they’d be a real challenge,” feels Lee. So it’s a good thing our listener is moving to the Philly area; Nashville Cranberries would be much harder to achieve than those Nashville Cats they grow so well down there.

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Cooperative Extension: Cranberries

How to Grow Cranberries

  • Less than 1/2 acre (garden-sized plot “in the backyard,” for example) (Some excellent, step-by-step instructions by one of Maine’s growers)
  • Half acre or larger? (see below and/or see also our online Extension publication entitled, Commercial Cranberry Production in Maine: An Introduction)

Soil Conditions: Cranberry beds should be established on a base material which will retard vertical movement of water. This will supply the so-called impermeable layer which will allow the bed to hold a flood for harvest, winter protection, etc. Examples of base materials are peat, clay, and heavy packed topsoil (loam). A minimum of four inches of sand should be applied above the base layer of the bed prior to planting. Sand with at least a 60-70% coarse particle content is best. Higher amounts of coarse particles were correlated with higher yields in Massachusetts research studies. Most likely the benefit is in providing adequate drainage. Proper drainage is essential for good root development and aeration as well as for the prevention of Phytophthora root rot. Sand pH is also important. It should range between 4.0 and 5.0 or you will have to add sulfur to adjust. Get a sample tested for pH before planting.

Planting Density: You should plan to visit the site from where you want to buy your vine, sometime during the fall (prior to the year you intend to plant). Ask for past production records to insure that you will be getting good vine. Normally, vines are planted at the density of one ton per acre. However, if planting is late (June or July) and/or growing conditions are severe, or if you want more rapid establishment, then a higher density (e.g. 1.5 to 2 tons per acre) may be warranted. Unrooted cuttings are the standard planting material but rooted cuttings (plugs) or tissue culture plants have been used effectively.

Irrigation: New plantings should be irrigated to maintain moist but not saturated soil. If you get consistent puddling, the bed is too wet! Irrigate less or improve drainage. Too much moisture can retard root growth, prevent roots from achieving proper depth, and in extreme cases, eventually kill the vines. Note: The frequent irrigation needed for new plantings can lead to a buildup of the fungi which cause fruit rot and other cranberry diseases. High nitrogen doses may also contribute to increased incidence of fruit rot as the planting begins to produce. It is wise to begin using fungicides in the 2nd year to avoid inoculum buildup. A Late-Water flood may also be useful in this regard: (Late-Water Flood (MS Word) | (Late-Water Flood (pdf).

Frost Protection: Use your sprinkler system during the appropriate hours or flood the bed if running sprinklers is not an option.

Fertilizers: Avoid excess phosphorus (P) applications (use nitrogen alone for some applications). Acid soils bind large quantities of P which will not be available to the cranberry plants. Alternate between applications of complete, and nitrogen-only fertilizers.

Fertilizing New Plantings – Year 1:

  • Phosphorus (at time of planting): Research indicates that the use of 100 lb/A of 0-46-0 increases growth of new vines (more ground covered). Apply 100 lb/A triple superphosphate (0-46-0) in either one of the following schedules: Schedule 1: 50 lb/A under the top 2-3 inches of sand, 50 lb/A on the surface after the vines are scattered but before disking in the vines. Schedule 2: Apply the fertilizer to the soil surface, then scatter and disk in the vines.
  • Nitrogen: Slow-release N applied at the time of planting (just after the vines have been set in) provides a sustained growth stimulation during stand establishment. In addition to this application, follow a standard new planting fertilizer schedule, such as: Apply 50-200 lb/A slow-release N fertilizer. Use materials which are entirely slow-release based on the action of water and soil microbes .
  • When Roots are Established and Growth Starts: Apply N now (5-10 lb/A nitrogen – urea types are recommended; ammonium sulfate may burn new roots). If no phosphorus was applied at planting, add P now (50 lb/A 0-46-0 – triple superphosphate only if none was used at planting!)
  • For the Remainder of Year 1: Fertilize every 2 to 3 weeks until mid-August. Stop adding fertilizer by late summer to allow plants to harden off. Otherwise, tender new growth could be damaged by low temperatures in the fall. Schedule: 5-10 lb/A nitrogen each application. Alternate ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) or urea with complete NPK fertilizer (50-100 lb/A 10-20-20 or 12-24-12 or 14-14-14). Using only N all season leads to tender top growth susceptible to drought and to damage by cranberry tipworm.

Fertilizing New Plantings – Year 2:

Early in the Season: Begin to fertilize in late April when soil temperatures have begun to rise. SulPoMag or an equivalent may be used now – 100 to 200 lb/A.

  • Fertilize as at the end of Year 1, beginning in late April or early May.
  • Alternate 5-10 lb/A nitrogen alone with 5-10 lb/A nitrogen as NPK.
  • If fill-in and growth are good, begin to cut back on N at mid-season to encourage fruit production.
  • If fill-in and growth are poor, continue Year 1 schedule until mid-August.
  • As in Year 1, stop fertilizing in August to allow plants to harden for winter.

Fertilizing New Plantings – Year 3:

The bog should be well established and should have received a light sanding by now. The fertilizer schedule should begin to be like that for established beds.

See also:

  • Via Oregon State Univ (pdf): Nitrogen for Bearing Cranberries in North America
  • Via Univ. of Massachusetts (pdf): Phosphorus for Bearing Cranberries in North America
  • Fall Fertilizer — Should You Use It?
  • Answers to Frequently Asked Cranberry Plant Nutrition Questions (FAQs)

End Result: After one year, you should have foot-long runners and well-established roots (plants will become more tolerant of dry conditions). By the end of the second year, you should have good coverage with vines and you may need to apply a light sanding to anchor the runners. Some fruit production should occur in year three with a fair to good crop in year four. Once the bed is established, the average upright density should be about 600 uprights/sq. ft. for Early Black, and 400 uprights/sq. ft. for Howes. The normal total length for the new growth on an upright is 2 to 3.5 inches for Early Black and 2.5 to 4 inches for Howes, with 1.5 to 2 inches of leaves above the fruit on a flowering upright. Stevens should be about the same density and length as Howes but with more robust stems and larger leaves. Most growers in Maine are growing primarily Stevens.

Sources:

  • Carolyn DeMoranville, 1995 Workshop, University of Massachusetts Cranberry Experiment Station. Adapted for Maine by David Yarborough, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. June 1996. Revised by Charles Armstrong, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. February 2002.
  • Fertilizing A New Cranberry Bog (From Carolyn DeMoranville, Cranberry Plant Nutritionist, Univ. of Massachusetts, Cranberry Experiment Station, East Wareham, MA. 1996.)

Cranberry Vine Care – Learn How To Grow Cranberries At Home

Growing cranberries may seem a far-fetched idea in the home garden, but it is plausible when you have the right conditions. Keep reading to learn how to grow cranberries if this is something you would like to try.

What are Cranberry Plants?

Cranberry plants, or Vaccinium macrocarpon, are woody, low growing perennial vines. Native to the temperate zones of the East Coast, the Central U.S., and from southern Canada in the north all the way to the Appalachian mountain range in the south, cranberries are often harvested commercially in water, but contrary to popular belief, actually flourish when grown on dry land.

Cranberry plants grow runners measuring from 1 to 6 feet long with dark green, glossy leaves during its growth phase and reddish-brown during the dormant season. Along the runners, short vertical branches develop and form flower buds jutting above the matted vines. From these branches, berries form.

How are Cranberries Grown and Can You Grow Cranberries at Home?

Commercially grown cranberries are often grown in bogs, which have evolved naturally from glacial receding causing holes that over time filled with water and decayed matter. As mentioned above, however, growing cranberries can occur on dry land as well, provided there are a few requirements.

Can you grow cranberries at home? Yes, and now the question is how are cranberries grown in the home garden? The first thing to determine how to grow cranberries is the pH of your garden soil. Cranberries are a member of the Ericaceae family and, as such, are best suited to a soil pH of less than 5. You will want to test your soil to determine pH and also make sure you have very well draining soil, or amend the soil with sand.

The second major consideration when attempting cranberry vine care is irrigation. If you have very alkaline water, this will affect the pH of your soil and may render it unsuitable for growing cranberries.

The final test, which answers the question, “Can you grow cranberries at home?” is to determine what the climate is like in your region. Cranberry plants need cold weather in order to trigger a dormant phase, approximately three months of temperatures in the 32-45 degree F. (0-7 C.) range. Some areas of the country will not be suitable for cranberry planting.

When everything above is checked off your list, it’s time for the basics of cranberry vine care. Growing cranberry plants from seed is not recommended, so plants may be obtained through mail order, the Internet, or if you reside in an area of commercial cranberry farms, possibly from a grower.

To make things easier, purchase rooted seedlings, which are usually in a 1-inch diameter pot. Plant one rooted cranberry cutting per square foot, which should fill in within one or two years. It is unnecessary to put fertilizer in the hole as long as the rooted section is substantial. Plant cranberry plants after the last major frost in the spring depending on your location.

Water daily for the first couple of weeks until the seedlings have established and thereafter every couple of days, or keep moist but not drenched.

Fertilize every three to four weeks with slow release fertilizer and follow up regularly with a balanced liquid fertilizer..

Hand weed as needed. Protect cranberry vines from damage during winter conditions with a thick layer of mulch such as pine boughs. Snow accumulation may also become a protector of sorts as well.

Fruit of the cranberry plants will become apparent the year after planting, but more likely the second year depending on the number of pollinators visiting your cranberry plot.

CRANBERRY

Nestled among the towns and villages of Southeastern Massachusetts are more than 14,000 acres of cranberry bogs. These bogs are the workplaces of the nearly 400 cranberry growing families of the Commonwealth. For generations they have nurtured and cultivated these wetlands, contributed to their communities, provided shelter and habitat for hundreds of plants and animal species, and helped to preserve the beautiful New England countryside.

We invite you to explore the sections to the right to learn more about Massachusetts cranberry production, why it’s unique, and what is happening on the farm during each season.

Background

Cranberries are a unique fruit. They can grow and survive only under a very special combination of factors. These factors include acid peat soil, an adequate fresh water supply, and a growing season that extends from April to November. Cranberries grow on low-lying vines in beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds are commonly known as bogs or marshes and were originally created by glacial deposits. Commercial bogs use a system of wetlands, uplands, ditches, flumes, ponds and other water bodies that provide a natural habitat for a variety of plant and animal life.

Classification

The North American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, is the fruit recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as the standard for fresh cranberries and the cranberry juice cocktail. The European variety, which is grown in parts of central Europe, Finland and Germany, is known as Vaccinium oxycoccus. This variety is a smaller fruit with anthocyanin pigment profiles similar to that of the North American variety. The European variety, however, has a different acid profile in terms of the percentages of quinic, malic and citric acid levels present. In Europe, this fruit is commonly known as English mossberry.

Cultivation

The cranberry is a Native American wetland fruit which grows on trailing vines like a strawberry. The vines thrive on the special combination of soils and water properties found in wetlands. Wetlands are nature’s sponges; they store and purify water and help to maintain the water table. Cranberries grow in beds layered with sand, peat and gravel. These beds are commonly known as bogs or marshes and were originally formed as a result of glacial deposits.

In Massachusetts we call the place where cranberries grow a BOG. Natural bogs evolved from deposits left by the glaciers more than 10,000 years ago. These deposits were left in impermeable kettle holes lined with clay. The clay prevents materials from leaching into the groundwater. Rocks and other organic materials were collected by the glaciers. When the ice finally melted deposits of heavy materials were layered on top of the clay.

These kettle holes were filled with water and organic matter which created the ideal environment for cranberries. In the early 1800s Henry Hall, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who lived in Dennis Massachusetts noticed that sand blown in from nearby dunes helped vines grow faster. Today, growers spread a inch or two of sand on their bogs every three years. The sand not only helps the vines grow but also slows the growth of weeds and insects. Normally, growers do not replant each year since an undamaged cranberry vine will survive indefinitely. Some vines on Cape Cod are more than 150 years old and are still bearing fruit.

Location

Cranberries are grown through the northern part of the United States. The major production areas are New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Quebec. Other regions grow cranberries as well, to varying extent, and these include Delaware, Maine, Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, as well as the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario. Cranberries are also commercially grown in Chile. These regions offer the special conditions that cranberries require, including sandy soil; abundant fresh water and a dormancy period that provides enough chill hours to produce a crop the following growing season.

View a map of where Massachusetts cranberry bogs are located.

Growing Cranberries – How to Grow Cranberries

How to Grow Cranberries – A Guide to Growing Cranberries

Cranberries

Cranberries are a tasty and easy to grow tart fruit that add dimension to recipes as well as makes delicious juice. Dried, they are a nice healthy snack or delicious addition to salads.

Cranberries are high in Vitamin C and antioxidants earning them a place in the garden and daily health.

They are a long-lived, spreading plant, so take the time to select the growing type you wish, lowbush or highbush, as well as the variety that will suit. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in bogs.

Recommended Varieties of Cranberry

Cranberry : Pilgrim

A low growing evergreen with small leathery leaves and a prostrate habit, making it ideal for creating a cascading effect in containers or hanging baskets. The tiny pink to red flowers are followed by juicy dark-red berries with a distinctive tart flavour, often still hanging on bushes throughout the winter.

Cranberry Red Star

Attractive creeping, evergreen shrubs which are ideal for growing in patio containers or hanging baskets. The pretty, dark pink flowers in summer are followed by delicious berries that are initially white but turn a bright red when they ripen in early autumn.

Cranberry Pests & Problems

  • Cranberry fruitworm can be controlled with insecticide
  • bright red spots on leaves are leaf spot. Treat with copper based fungicide

Cultivating Cranberries

  • Usually grown from cuttings rather than seeds
  • Plants need a few years to establish before berry production begins
  • Planting in ground, allow approximately two square feet per 1 yr old plant to spread. Remove soil to a depth of six to eight inches and clear all weed roots. Cranberries cannot compete with weeds. If your soil tends to be dry, the dug area can be lined with polythene with some drainage holes punched in the bottom.
  • Fill the area with either ericaceous soil or peat moss, some sharp sand, and add about a pound of blood meal and a half pound of bone meal. Add some high nitrogen fertilizer. Mix. Water, but do not over saturate.
  • Plant cuttings two inches deep and about one to two feet apart (1-1.5m) 3 yr old plants need 3 ft (1m) spacings
  • Water regularly so soil stays moist to the touch for the first year while cranberries establish themselves. Mulch is recommended.
  • Feed the first year or two with some high nitrogen fertilizer to encourage upright shoots then stop
  • About every 3 years during production, cut out any dead wood, never the uprights, and trim new runners to revigorate berry production
  • Ground growth works best for cranberries but they will grow in wide pots filled with ericaceous soil mix as above. Trim runners that escape the pot but leave others to grow fruiting upright stems. Keep well watered.

Harvesting , Eating & Storing Cranberries

  • One year cuttings need a few years to mature before crop appears
  • Pick berries by hand before the first fall frost. Ripe berries are deep red and seed inside is brown
  • Before winter sets in, cover plants with heavy mulch of pine cuttings.
  • Remove mulch in spring when threat of frost is over. Or, cover plants with fleece in spring.
  • The berries are somewhat tart so some sweetening may be needed
  • Berries can be stored in fridge up to two months in tightly covered container
  • Or they can be dehydrated or turned into juice, chutneys, etc.

Further Information on Cranberries

Recipes Using Cranberries

  • Cranberries from the Allotment Shop

Stevens Cranberry

Enormous Harvests of Large, Sweet Cranberries

The Stevens Cranberry is a favorite among chefs and perfect for traditional recipes because their flavor is sweeter and less tart than other cranberry varieties, meaning that they’re perfect for making drinks, jams, desserts and more.

Not only will you have an enormous amount of sweet cranberries but also you will have a beautiful ground cover plant in your landscape. Steven Cranberry shrubs have a compact size to fit anywhere and dazzle onlookers every spring with tons of white flowers and all year with its lush evergreen foliage.

Stevens Cranberry bushes pump out large cranberries every year during mid fall, so you will have an abundance of fresh berries just in time for the holiday season. Plus, your favorite recipes will taste even better with fresh cranberries.

Doesn’t it seem like cranberries are often the item on the store list that gets forgotten? Don’t fret and make multiple trips to the store when you can grow a lifetime supply of cranberries in your own yard.

Cut down on sugar. Stevens Cranberries are so naturally sweet that you won’t have to add any processed sugar to enjoy them. Most people use their Stevens Cranberries for sugar-free juices and desserts.

The health benefits don’t stop there, because cranberries are a great source of vitamins and nutrients as well as fiber and antioxidants to keep your body healthy and energized. Best of all cranberries prevent bad bacteria from sticking and multiplying in your body to ward off infections.

Steven Cranberries will flourish in the ice and snow up in zone 3, and the humidity and heat down in zone 9. Grow fresh cranberries to have on hand, almost anywhere in the country!

With bursts of color all year the Stevens Cranberry stands out while putting on a spectacular show. Lightly fragrant reddish pink flowers pop amongst the dark green foliage, but the bright red cranberries stand out even more for a stunning color contrast.

The Stevens Cranberry is known for its excellent flavor and low maintenance nature, therefore they sell out fast. Be sure to order yours today, before they are all gone.

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How to Plant Cranberry Seeds

Cranberry plants (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are low-growing, berry-producing vine-like shrubs that are native to regions in eastern North America. They are usually grown in sandy, acid-rich soil with bog-like growing conditions. Growing cranberries from seed requires perseverance and commitment, since the seeds can require a long period of time before germinating.

Fill 3- or 4-inch wide pots with enough lime-free sterilized growing medium to fill the pots to within about 1/4 of an inch from the top of the rim.

Firm down the soil in each of the planting pots using your fingers, a piece of wood or a metal spoon. Transfer all the pots into an irrigation or watering tray. The tray should be able to hold about 2 inches of water.

Pour enough water into the tray so the growing medium in the pots will soak up the water and become well-moistened. Pack the soil down one final time. Pour out the remainder of the water, if there is any.

Poke two to three 1/4-inch-deep holes in each pot. Drop two cranberry seeds into each of the holes. Sprinkle over the top of each pair of seeds approximately 1/4 inch of the growing media.

Place the tray of pots in a location in your home that will stay consistently around 65 to 70 degrees F for four weeks. Provide as much bright light as possible but, if possible, not direct sunlight. Keep the growing medium moist in each of the pots; add water to the tray as needed.

Transfer the tray of pots into a location where the temperature will be between 25 and 40 degrees F for six weeks. Maintain the moisture levels by adding water to the tray when required. The temperature change is beneficial to hasten germination.

Put the tray of pots into an area where the temperature will stay fairly consistent between 40 and 55 degrees F. Leave the tray of pots in this location for germinating the cranberry seeds. Germination of cranberry seeds can begin in as little as three weeks, or can take several months. Transplant the cranberry seedlings into their permanent location outside after they’ve become well-established.

Growing Cranberries from Seed

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Growing cranberries in your backyard is one of the easiest ways to put homegrown food on the holiday table. Cranberries are perennial, and once planted they’ll keep producing crops year after year even with minimal care. Our small 8×8 cranberry bed produces enough to keep our family supplied all winter long, and all it takes is occasional weeding and sand mulch once per year.

I always assumed cranberries were difficult to grow. Don’t they grow in a swamp? Don’t you need to flood the fields? We’ve all seen those ocean spray commercials with a thick layer of cranberries floating on waist deep water.

The truth is, growing cranberries isn’t much different than growing other small fruits like blueberries or raspberries. The berries themselves grow on low growing perennial groundcover. Left to their own devices, cranberry plants send out runners a bit like strawberry plants, and re-root as they go until they cover large areas of soil. Sure, you can flood a field with waist deep water to harvest them…or you can just pick them. Simple as that.

Cranberry plants grow readily from seed, and a bag of fresh grown cranberries purchased for the holiday season is all you need to get started. Carefully cut open the fresh fruits and pick the tiny seeds out onto a damp paper towel. The seeds are very small, about the size of strawberry seeds, and they’re easy to lose. It doesn’t much matter, as a single one pound bag of cranberries will have hundreds, if not thousands of seeds.

Fold up the damp paper towel around the seeds and place it in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Don’t seal the bag, a bit of airflow is good for the seeds. Check on it every week or two so that the paper towel doesn’t dry out, but otherwise ignore it for the next 3 months. Cranberry seeds need to cold stratify for around 3 months to sprout. Our winter lasts a full 5-6 months here in zone 4 Vermont, and our cranberry seeds hunkered down in the fridge that whole time.

Once temperatures warm up, bring the seeds out of the fridge and plant them in a rich peat based starting mixture. Cranberries like acidic soils and peat helps to mimic their natural environment. Keep them warm, around 70 degrees and the cranberry seeds should sprout in about 3 weeks, but sometimes it can take much longer. Be patient, and keep the soil moist but not soggy.

Once the plants’ sprout, allow them to grow in pots for their first year. The tiny plants will be fragile, and it’s best to wait until they develop a good root system. Transplant them into a permanent bed in the fall, about a month before the ground freezes over for the winter.

Seed grown cranberry plants will take 3-4 years before fruiting.

How to Grow Cranberry Plants

While cranberries can be grown from seed, these days most people start with potted up nursery cranberry plants. Choose plants that have deep green foliage and ample runners escaping the pot. We found ours at a local nursery, but they’re also reasonably priced online. Plant cranberries in rich sandy soil, ideally with a bit of peat added. Cranberries generally like moist soils with a high acid content, and peat helps to acidify the soil and hold moisture.

In an ideal situation, plant cranberries in a bed filled with 2 parts peat and 1 part sand, with clay soil underneath to retain moisture. The extra acidity in the peat helps support mycorrhizal fungus that works with the cranberries to maintain their health, and as an added bonus the acid suppresses weeds at the same time.

If cranberries are planted in the spring, in a few weeks you’ll see the first cranberry flowers.

Cranberries are a groundcover plant, but they spread slowly. Grass competition can choke the young plants, but once they’re firmly established they’ll outcompete most weeds. To help the cranberry plants spread it’s best to mulch them with a covering of sand each fall. The sand mulch helps to bury the side runners and give them a signal to set down new roots.

As cranberry plants set down new roots they’ll colonize new territory and grow in thicker. Eventually, after a few years, they should have completely taken over a bed, assuming they’re initially planted about 18 inches apart.

Here’s one of our cranberry plants fruiting in October here in Vermont. Note the sand mulch all around the plant’s base. Even still, you can see rogue strands of grass growing up through the body of the cranberry plant. It can be tricky to weed in between the delicate runners without damaging the fruit. That’s why sand mulch is helpful because it suppresses grass and encourages cranberry root formation.

How to Harvest Cranberries

Cranberries do float, and it saves work for large commercial operations to just flood the fields and harvest them all in mass. For the rest of us, they’re easily picked by hand. We harvest our homegrown cranberries in mid-October, just before the first hard frosts here in zone 4.

Cranberries store for extended periods naturally, and they’ll make it just fine in a bag in the fridge until the holiday season. That assumes you handle them gently, and pick them over to remove any broken fruits. If you’re saving them for a holiday cranberry sauce, that sauce will improve with a little bit of age. I harvest our backyard cranberries and then can cranberry sauce with cinnamon and spices right away to allow it to meld into a tasty preserve before Thanksgiving.

If you forget to pick the cranberries before it snows, fear not. They’ll still be there in the spring. I know it sounds weird, but so long as they stay insulated under the snow you can harvest cranberries the following spring once the snow melts out. This handful of cranberries was harvested in early April, just as the snow was melting out. Since I know where they’re growing, I could have harvested cranberries all winter in that spot. That’s just one way our ancestors preserved cranberries in the field before the advent of refrigeration.

Once the snow melts, however, overwintered cranberries won’t keep. Think of them like a bag of cranberries you’ve pulled out of the freezer. Once they thaw they need to be kept in the refrigerator and used within a few days so they don’t spoil. If you’re in a rush, they’ll dehydrate nicely, or you can simply keep them frozen by bagging them up and putting them inside the freezer indoors.

Besides preserving cranberries in the field, you can easily make your own dried cranberry raisins using a food dehydrator. Canning homemade cranberry sauce is easy enough, and there’s always homemade cranberry wine…

How are you going to use your homegrown cranberry harvest?

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