How Do Cranberries Grow?

The North American cranberry is a wetland plant that is native to the United States and Canada. There is a significant global demand for its delicious red berries, and it has been cultivated commercially in many countries. The story of how cranberries are farmed is fascinating.

Cranberry plants thrive in acidic wetland soils with a pH below 5. They need soil with layers of gravel, peat, and sand. Cranberries grow in regions where the temperature is between 32 and 45°F for 3 months. They need the cold to trigger dormancy during winter.

wild cranberry bush with ripe berries

If you have ever dreamed of growing your own cranberries in the garden, you’ve come to the right place! This article describes how cranberries grow naturally and how they are farmed on a large scale. It explains how you can grow cranberries and what conditions they require. 

flooded bog of commercial cranberries
a flooded bog of cranberries is a pretty incredible sight.
flooded bog of commercially farmed cranberries
almost unreal!

How Do Cranberries Grow In The Wild?

In their natural habitat, cranberries grow in wetlands – areas where the water table is at or near the soil surface. The soil is flooded for long periods, so it becomes very low in oxygen and, therefore, acidic. 

The wetlands that cranberries naturally grow in were created by melted glacial deposits. They are known as marshes or bogs. Because of the way these wetlands formed, they have an underlying layer of clay, topped with a thick layer of peat. 

The abundant organic matter in the wetland soil is what nourishes the cranberries. They need lots of soil moisture to grow. 

During the winter, cranberry plants develop flower buds. In the spring, cranberries flower, and the blooms that are pollinated develop into small, round, red fruits. Throughout the spring and summer, the cranberries ripen on the vines. 

What Does A Cranberry Plant Look Like?

Cranberries are low-growing, vining plants. They have a similar growth form to strawberries. Their runners grow between one and six feet long, and they have glossy, bright green leaves that are teardrop shaped. 

Cranberry plants grow densely to form a mat of vines. The branches that bear the red berries grow above the matted vines. 

Conditions They Need To Grow

Cranberry plants require certain soil conditions to produce lots of fat, round berries.

They need:

  • Acidic, wetland-type soils with a pH of less than 5
  • Soil that is high in peat (organic matter)
  • Layered soil with clay, gravel, peat, and sand on top
  • To be covered in ice or snow over the winter
  • Evenly moist soil

In addition to the above soil conditions, cranberries need the following climatic conditions to grow:

  • Cold winters with at least 3 months of temperatures between 32 and 45°F. 
  • High rainfall
flooded cranberry bog close up
one more shot of these incredible cranberry bogs, I can’t resist.

Cranberries Are Farmed In Bogs 

There aren’t enough cranberries growing in the wild to meet the massive global demand for delicious berries. Therefore, cranberries are commercially cultivated. 

Farmed cranberries are grown in large, artificially constructed bogs. They are typically low-lying areas near wetlands or rivers that can easily be flooded and drained. 

During the winter, cranberry farmers flood the bogs. This causes a thick layer of ice to form over the cranberry plants. It protects the newly developing flower buds from the freezing winter temperatures and dry winds. 

In spring, as temperatures begin to rise, the ice melts, and the bogs are drained. The cranberry plants flower and produce fruit. 

By late spring or early fall, the cranberries are ripe and ready for harvest. The berries are either wet or dry harvested. 

Wet And Dry Harvesting Methods

Wet harvesting of cranberries involves flooding the bogs so that the cranberry plants are under water. The machines used to harvest cranberries have large beaters that stir up the water. 

The strong currents cause the berries to separate from the vines and float to the surface of the water. The berries are then easy to gather by scooping them up. 

Cranberries that are wet harvested are most often for the dried fruit market or for making juices, preserves, and frozen berries. 

Dry harvesting cranberries involves a mechanical berry-picker, or the fresh berries are picked by hand. Fresh berries are most often sold at farmer’s markets and grocery stores. 

flooded commercial cranberry bog in forest
does anyone else want to go swimming in here? just me?

Where Are Cranberries Grown?

The northern parts of North America are where cranberries are grown primarily, but they are also grown in other parts of the world. Major centers for cranberry production are:

  • Delaware
  • Maine
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Oregon,
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • New Brunswick
  • Ontario
  • Nova Scotia
  • British Colombia
  • Quebec
  • Peru
cranberry bush with red ripe berries in a garden

Can You Grow Your Own In Your Garden?

You do not have to dig a bog in your garden to grow your own cranberries! These tasty red berries can be cultivated on a small scale in the garden without needing to be flooded. 

To grow your own cranberries, you must have a suitable climate and garden soil that is acidic enough. The water you use for irrigation cannot be too alkaline, as this will increase the soil pH. 

Cranberries are very difficult to grow from seed, so it is best to get your hands on cranberry plants. You can buy rooted seedlings online or get them from a nearby cranberry farm. Cranberries are not normally available from nurseries or garden centers. 

How To Grow Cranberries

To grow healthy cranberry plants that produce lots of red fruits, you need to do the following:

  • After your last frost of spring, plant cranberry seedlings in rows, one plant per square meter.
  • Amend the soil with organic compost and sand for drainage. 
  • The seedlings must be watered daily, especially for the initial few weeks while they are establishing.
  • Once the seedlings have settled, cut back watering to once every few days. Keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Apply organic, slow-release fertilizer every three to four weeks. 
  • Weed the soil around the cranberry plants as needed. The plant canopies will grow to fill their spaces in one to two years, and thereafter weeding will not be as much of a chore. 
  • During winter, apply a thick layer of mulch to protect the cranberry plants from damage. 
  • The first berries will form one year after planting, but you will get your first decent harvest the second year. 

Buy Live Plants For Your Garden

Your local online and in-store shopping nurseries will be your best choice, but if you’re out of luck for local options, try these:

Cranberry Recipes

I absolutely love cranberries. Here are some of my recipes:

Cranberry Sauce of Burnt Sugar & Orange Liqueur

Smoked Cranberry Sauce With Blood Orange Juice

Conclusion

Cranberry plants have very specific needs to grow and produce berries. They need to grow in acidic, wetland-type soil with lots of organic matter. In winter, they need 3 months of cold below 45°F so that they can go dormant. Cranberries need moist soil, but they do not need to be flooded to grow and fruit. 

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