This fall, support local agriculture… with cranberry sauce

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
- posted Tue., Sep. 13, 2011
- Contributed Photo

Many delectable fruits and vegetables are associated with fall and winter feasts. Among them – squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, apples, chestnuts and, of course, cranberries. Most of us associate cranberry bogs with Cape Cod, and rightfully so. About one-third of the domestic cranberry crop is grown in Massachusetts, with production also taking place in Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington and Oregon.

These areas are fortunate to have just the perfect conditions for growing cranberries – sandy, acidic soils, a temperate climate, and a humid coastal environment. Bogs were naturally created over time, as lakes left by receding glaciers were displaced by vegetation. Only a few plants thrive in these acidic, nutrient-poor locations, including cranberries, sheep laurel, red maples, leatherleaf and sphagnum moss.

The cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, a member of the heath family, is a small, vining, evergreen plant which roots by runners. It grows about 6 inches tall and bears fruit on its upright branches.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, native Americans had used cranberries as food, dyes and medicine. The tart red fruits were blended with strips of meat to form a paste known as pemmican. Native Americans referred to cranberries as Sassamanash and probably introduced them to the early English settlers. The name “cranberry” was thought to have come about because the flowering parts reminded the Europeans of the head of a crane.

While the early settlers began using cranberries in the early 1600s, it was not until about 1820 that Henry Hall established the first commercial cranberry bog. Hall deduced that flooding of bogs was necessary in the spring to protect the tender blossoms from frost damage, and also in the fall to keep the fruit from freezing.

Not only does the bog need to be flooded on occasion to protect the blossoms and fruit from frost and the plants from winterkill, but flooding is also used to control weeds, supplement soil moisture and to cool the plants during extremely hot weather.

It is also necessary to have facilities to drain the bogs quickly, if excess rains cause flooding during the growing season. This is why you notice a series of drains and ditches throughout the bogs.

Several inches of sand are placed over the bogs on a regular basis. This serves as a rooting medium for new cuttings, as well as acting as a mulch to reduce water loss, aid in weed control, and moderate the temperatures during cold periods.

Cranberries were originally harvested by hand and later by wooden rakes that are now a collector’s item. Presently, harvesting is done by machine in September and October.

Recently, cranberries have received considerable attention as a functional food containing lots of vitamin C, fiber, manganese and antioxidants. Some evidence suggests that cranberries may reduce urinary and bladder infections, tooth decay, kidney stones and other health problems.

Anyone in Connecticut can grow their own cranberries with some special bed preparation. To prepare a small bed for cranberries, dig out about 8 inches of soil and fill the pit with peat moss. In exceptionally sandy, well-drained spots, line the bed with a perforated liner. About a pound each of rock phosphate, and bloodmeal can be mixed in before planting. Six plants can be set in a 5-foot by 10-foot bed. Plants can be obtained from several sources, but I have seen them advertised in the Park Seed and Gurney Nursery catalogs. Keep the peat moss moist, but it does not need to be saturated. Add about a half-inch of sand over the bed every other year and cover the bed with pine needles, oak leaves or row covers in late fall. You can be harvesting your own crop of cranberries in three years or less.

If you have questions on any gardening topic, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center at (877) 486-6271, visit or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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