A bounty of cranberries from the home garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
Cranberry salad … cranberry sauce … cranberry relish … cranberry juice … cranberry cocktails — aah, the holidays are upon us.
There are many ways to enjoy this tart native fruit during the holidays and the whole year-round that don’t include cutting off a slice from a jiggling cylinder of cranberry goo.
You can even grow your own cranberries at home, no bog required!
Vaccinium macrocarpon is the native species of cranberry in North America, and is also the one commercially grown here in the United States.
It is in the same genus as the highly regarded blueberry, the oft-reminisced huckleberry, and the lingonberry, which is famous in Scandinavian circles. It’s even related to something called a sparkleberry, which sounds like it would be grown by someone who likes glitter just a little too much.
Cranberries in cooperation
In 1930, the commercial success of cranberries changed course when three competing companies formed a cooperative called Cranberry Canners Inc. While you might have never heard of that company, I assure you they are still big in the business.
You may know them by their product line, which became the cooperative name in 1956 — Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.
The cooperative formed to develop markets for cranberries beyond the holiday season. Their first product beyond canned cranberry “sauce” was juice cocktail, giving birth to a whole new world of alcoholic concoctions. An early ad for cranberry juice proclaimed that it was “a pleasant, smooth drink with delicious flavor and sure relief from faintness, exhaustion and thirst. A glass when retiring promotes sleep and a clean mouth in the morning — even to the smoker.”
While the juice may promote a clean mouth, research is showing that its health effects when it comes to urinary tract infections might be more hype than help. There is a compound that can reduce bacterial growth (hence the “clean mouth”), but it isn’t a high enough concentration to help with bladder problems.
Cranberries at home
It is quite possible to grow cranberries in the home garden. While in the wild they do grow in acidic bogs and marshes, you don’t need those to grow them yourself.
Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.
I’ve been preaching for years that people need to grow cranberries at home. The native growth in bogs has more to do with the acidic soil than anything else, and commercial cranberries are grown in artificial bogs that are flooded for easy harvest, since ripe cranberries float.
Here in West Virginia, we have Cranberry Glades, a native bog that is home to cranberries and many other rare species, including several orchids and carnivorous plants (I highly suggest a visit). But we also have the farm of Bob and Susan Maslowski in Milton. Bob and Susan are Master Gardeners and are always friendly and smiling at meetings and conferences, eager to share their own story.
Susan started growing cranberries a few years ago in a raised bed, and has been so pleased with their success that they are adding a second raised bed of cranberries. From one single 4- by 8-foot raised bed, she raised enough cranberries to make it through the holiday season (and Susan cooks a lot — she writes a cooking article for the local paper).
The cranberries they raise are the size of a quarter — that puts what you buy at the grocery store to shame.
As Susan tells it, she even had plenty to freeze some for later use, but she found them missing from the freezer. As it turns out, Bob, a winemaker, found the cranberries and turned them into cranberry liqueur. I’m not sure what Susan was planning on cooking, but I think I like Bob’s recipe better.
Cranberries form a dense ground cover. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
You can now find cranberry plants in several garden catalogs and even at big box retailers during the growing season. The thing to remember about growing cranberries is the need for acidic soil. They do appreciate moist soil, so you definitely need to keep them watered.
You need to test your soil, then lower the pH accordingly using something like powdered elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate. Adding in lots of peat moss may lower the pH slightly, but will provide more of the soil texture and organic matter that the plant needs than altering the pH of the soil.
It will take only a few plants to get started. While the individual plants may be small and short, they will easily spread to form a mat or groundcover (you can easily use them as a ground cover in acidic locations too — they don’t have to be stuck in a bed).
Bob and Susan are adding a second raised bed because their plants have quickly outgrown their raised-bed borders.
This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent. You can find more of his articles archived at WV Garden Guru. You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.