Cranberries are a major commercial crop in the states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Quebec.
In the United States, Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries, with over half of U.S. production. Massachusetts is the second largest U.S. producer.
A common misconception about cranberry production is that the beds remain flooded throughout the year. During the growing season cranberry beds are not flooded, but are irrigated regularly to maintain soil moisture. Beds are flooded in the autumn to facilitate harvest and again during the winter to protect against low temperatures. In cold climates like Wisconsin, Maine, and eastern Canada, the winter flood typically freezes into ice, while in warmer climates the water remains liquid. When ice forms on the beds, trucks can be driven onto the ice to spread a thin layer of sand that helps to control pests and rejuvenate the vines. Sanding is done every three to five years.
The cranberry harvest takes place once a year from mid-September through early November. There are two methods of harvesting cranberries.
Dry harvesting uses walk-behind machines to comb the berries off the vines into burlap bags. Berries are then removed from the bogs by either bog vehicles or helicopters. The fruit is delivered to fresh fruit receiving stations where it is graded and screened based on color and ability to bounce (soft berries will not bounce). Dry harvested cranberries are used to supply the fresh fruit market. These cranberries are most often used for cooking and baking.
Cranberries have pockets of air inside the fruit. Because of this, cranberries float in water, and thus, the bogs can be flooded to aid in removal of fruit from the vines. Water reels, nicknamed “egg-beaters” are used to stir up the water in the bogs. By this action, cranberries are dislodged from the vines and float to the surface of the water. Wooden or plastic “booms” are used to round up the berries, which are then lifted by conveyor or pumped into a truck to take them to the receiving station for cleaning. More than 90% of the crop is wet harvested. Wet harvested cranberries are used for juices, sauces, sweetened dried cranberries, ingredients in other processed foods or in nutraceutical products.
Cranberries are also packed with health benefits. Home remedies have long claimed cranberry juice as an effective treatment for urinary infections, ascribing the benefits to the belief that cranberries contain substances that prevent infection-causing bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract walls. Even if it can be proved that cranberry prevents UTIs, we know it doesn’t cure them once you have one. Other negatives for cranberries are the acidity which can cause unpleasant side effects like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), upset stomach, nausea, and diarrhea. (People who don’t like cranberry juice might find cranberry tablets easier to swallow.)
In addition to its positive effects, cranberry juice can also have a negative effect on the urinary tract. Cranberry juice is high in salts called oxalates. When people drink a lot of cranberry juice, these salts can crystallize into hard urinary oxalate stones, especially in people who already tend to get these types of stones. Then there’s the expense. Drinking cranberry juice or taking cranberry pills isn’t cheap. The cost can add up to $1,400 a year for cranberry juice and $624 a year for pills.
People who take the blood-thinning medication warfarin should avoid cranberry products, because cranberries can interact with warfarin and cause excess bleeding.
The good news
Cranberries are a great source of antioxidants, containing five times as much as broccoli, which means they may protect against cancer, stroke and heart disease. A study performed at Cornell University found that cranberries have more antioxidants than other commonly eaten fruits, beating out first apples and then red grapes, strawberries, peaches, lemons, pears, bananas, oranges, grapefruits and pineapples.
Additional research has indicated that cranberries may hinder the growth of human breast cancer cells, and reduce the risk of gum disease and stomach ulcers. Cranberries have also been claimed to reduce the risk of diabetes and attention-deficient disorder.
Consuming berries also increases dopamine release in the brain, fighting the reduced brain function associated with aging. Blueberries are especially renowned in this regard, but cranberries contain many of the same key compounds as blueberries.
The best way to get your berries is to eat them fresh, although dried cranberries are also a good option. Cranberry sauce is healthful, but loses some nutritive content through heating. Pure cranberry juice is excellent, although bitter and usually pricey. (It’s great in a Cosmopolitan martini, just a couple of teaspoons replace all that sugar with an authentic taste and just a touch of tartness. Just sayin’! Hey, This isn’t a health blog, it’s five o’clock here sometimes, too.)
Avoid the sugar-filled “cranberry cocktails” which have little nutrition and lots of calories. Dietary supplements made from cranberries are also available, but supplements do not contain all of the components of the whole food and and don’t produce the maximum effect.
Perfect cranberry sauce
- Empty a 12-ounce bag of fresh or frozen cranberries into a saucepan and transfer 1/2 cup to a small bowl.
- Add 1 cup sugar, 1 strip orange or lemon zest and 2 tablespoons water to the pan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the cranberries are soft, about 10 minutes.
- Increase the heat to medium and cook until the cranberries burst, about 12 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in the reserved cranberries.
- Add sugar, salt and pepper to taste and cool to room temperature before serving.
Thank you Wiki-How. Part 1 of 3: Planting the Cranberries
Choose a variety of cranberry. There are several varieties of cranberry plants that can be used in home growing. The variety you choose will depend on what you intend to use the berries for.
- Howes cranberries are small, red berries native to Massachusetts. They are easy to grow and will stay fresh for a long time after harvesting, if stored correctly.
- Stevens cranberries are a hybrid variety of cranberry designed for productivity and disease resistance. They are large and bright red in color.
- Two more varieties are Ben Lear (large, burgundy-colored berries) and Early Black (small, deep red berries). However, these varieties are not recommended for first time growers as they are more difficult to care for and are more prone to disease and insect infestation than the other varieties.
Plant at the right time of year. Cranberries are best grown in cooler climates, between zones two and five. They can be planted at various times throughout the year, depending on the age of the plant.
- Cuttings and seedlings can be planted throughout autumn, from October to early November. They can also be planted in springtime, from the middle of April to the end of May.
- 3 year old rooted plants — which are still actively growing — can sometimes be planted in summer, provided they are purchased in pots.
Prepare the soil. When it comes to soil, cranberry plants have unique requirements — they need soil with a low pH value (very acidic) and a high level of organic matter. As a result, it is often necessary to replace your existing soil instead of trying to alter it.
- The average size for a cranberry plot is 4 foot (1.2 m) by 8 foot (2.4 m). However, if you are only growing a single plant, a 2 foot (0.6 m) by 2 foot (0.6 m) square will do just fine.
- Dig out the existing soil in the cranberry plot, to a depth of 6 to 8 inches (15.2 to 20.3 cm). Fill the plot in with peat moss, then mix in 1/2 pound of bone meal and 1 pound of blood meal.
- Optionally, you can add 1 cup of epsom salts and 1 pound of rock phosphate as well. (These quantities are for a 32 sq. foot plot, so adjust accordingly).
- Before planting, wet the soil thoroughly (but do not saturate it). You can do this by misting the plot with the garden hose, mixing the soil periodically to encourage absorption.
Plant the cuttings or seedlings. Cranberry plants are not grown from seeds, but from one year old cuttings or three year old seedlings.
- It’s important to be aware that cranberry plants do not start to produce fruit until their third or fourth year — so whether you choose to plant cuttings or seedlings will depend on how quickly you want fruit.
- If you choose to plant cranberry cuttings, plant them in the prepared wet soil, leaving approximately one foot of space between each plant. The root ball of each plant should be about 2 inches (5.1 cm) below the surface of the soil.
- If you choose to plant 3 year old seedlings, leave approximately three feet of space between each plant.
Alternatively, grow the cranberries in a container. Cranberry plants grow best in a garden plot, where they have plenty of space to spread their runners. However, it is also possible to grow a single plant in a large pot, if you prefer.
- Fill the pot with peat moss and plant a three year old seedling. Allow the plant to develop runners inside the pot (as these will take root and form fruit-bearing uprights), but trim any that extend beyond it. You can also fertilize the soil with low-nitrogen fertilizer, as this will limit the growth of runners.
- Potted cranberry plants will need to be replaced every couple of years (unlike those in plots which sustain themselves indefinitely).
Part 2 of 3: Caring for the Cranberry Plants
- Be vigilant about weeds. Cranberry plants do not compete well against weeds, so it’s very important to weed the bed regularly, particularly during the first year. Luckily, the peat moss used in the cranberry plot will inhibit the growth of many common garden weeds.
Keep the cranberry plants well-watered. During the first year (and beyond) cranberry plants will need constant watering to keep the soil. If the roots dry out, the plants will die.
- It is a common misconception that cranberry plants need to be saturated or submerged in water during growing. Although the soil should always be wet (or at least damp) to the touch, it shouldn’t be saturated with water.
- Too much water can slow down root growth and prevent the roots from reaching the necessary depth.
Fertilize the soil. Soon, your cranberry plants will start to put out out runners (similar to those of strawberry plants) which will fill the bed before taking root and sprouting “uprights”, which is the part of the plant that grows flowers and fruit. In order to encourage the growth of these runners, your cranberry bed needs to be well fertilized.
- For the first year after planting, fertilize your cranberry bed with a high-nitrogen fertilizer, which encourages the spread of runners. Fertilize the soil three times — once at the beginning of growth, once when the flowers bud and once when the berries start forming.
- In order to contain the spread of runners within the cranberry plot, you may want to line the perimeter of the bed with some wooden or plastic edging.
- After the first year, you’ll need to cut off the nitrogen supply to the runners — this will encourage them to stop spreading so they will take root and form uprights instead. Use a non-nitrogen fertilizer from the second year onwards.
- At the start of the second year (and every couple of years after that) you will need to cover the soil with a thin (1/2 inch) layer of sand. This helps to root the runners and prevent weeds.
Control pests and disease. Cranberry plants are susceptible to certain pests and diseases, but these are relatively easy to deal with, provided you know what to look for.
- Cranberry fruit-worm is a common problem, where grey moths lay their eggs inside the berries themselves. If you spot grey moths around your cranberry plants, you will need to spray the plot with insecticides to kill the eggs.
- If you do not catch fruitworm on time, the eggs will hatch and the worms will eat the cranberries from the inside out. When this happens, the infested berries will turn red before they ripen. You can deal with this by picking off the prematurely red berries (in addition to the surrounding fruit) and disposing of them.
- Two other common diseases are red spot (where bright red spots develop on the leaves of the plant) and berry fruit rot. The treatment for both of these diseases is the same — spray the cranberry plants with an organic, copper-based fungicide between late June and early August, according to the instructions on the label.
Prune the runners from the third year of growth. From the third year of growth onwards, you will need to prune the cranberry plants each spring to control the runners and encourage uprights.
- You can do this by combing the cranberry plot with a landscape rake, until all of the runners are going in the same direction. This makes it easier to identify the longest runners and cut them back. Do not prune the existing uprights.
- As time goes on, your cranberry plants may begin to spread beyond the bounds of the original plot. If this happens, you can prune each of the plants back in the springtime, until there is only two inches of growth above the soil line. The cranberry plants will not produce fruit that year, but normal production will resume the following year.
Part 3 of 3: Harvesting the Cranberries
Harvest the cranberries. If you planted three year old seedlings, your cranberry plant may by producing fruit by the following autumn. But if you planted one year old cuttings, you may need to wait three or four years before your plant produces fruit.
- Once your plant is producing fruit, you can harvest the berries in September and October of each year. When the berries are ripe they will be be bright or dark red in color (depending on the variety) and the seeds inside will be brown.
- Although commercial growers harvest cranberries by flooding the fields in order to make the cranberries float (and therefore easier to collect), this is not necessary for home growers. The cranberries can simply be picked off the plants by hand.
- It is important that you harvest all of the fruit before the first hard winter frost, as cranberries cannot withstand temperatures below 30 °F (−1 °C).
Store the fruit. Once harvested, cranberries will stay fresh for up to two months when stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator — this is much longer than most fruits.
- Cooked cranberries (or cranberry sauce) will last in the refrigerator for up to a month, while dried cranberries (which have a similar texture to raisins) will keep for up to a year.
Protect the cranberry plants over the winter. It is important to protect your cranberry plants over the winter months to prevent them from freezing and drying out. You can do this by covering the cranberry plot with a heavy layer of mulch (such as leaves or pine needles) before winter sets in.
- You can uncover the cranberry plants in springtime (around April 1st) but you should be prepared to cover them on any night when frost is expected, as a frosty night could kill any new shoots and prevent fruit from growing that year.
- Never cover your cranberry plants with clear or black plastic, however, as this can raise the temperature of the bed and potentially kill the plants.