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Cranberries in the Garden

As I was baking cranberry bread yesterday, I remembered an interview I did  with Wil Kiendzior and his wife Louisa Sapienza about their cranberry beds. Cranberries are another perennial crop that can be added to your edible garden.

Wil Kiendzior started gardening when two things converged in his life.  His two daughters were born and he started teaching high school courses on ecology and the environment, using Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a text. His first gardens grew out of his concern about the dangers of chemical pesticides and herbicides, and concern for his daughters’ health and safety.

His daughters grew up and the gardens continue to grow.  Since his retirement last year from the Mohawk Trail Regional High School, where he taught environmental science courses for 33 years, he has spent a lot of time expanding his Buckland gardens.

Kiendzior and his wife Louisa Sapienza, whom he married in 2002, are trying to become as self sufficient in food as possible. In addition to the vegetable gardens which include such perennials as horseradish, rhubarb, comfrey and other herbs, Kiendzior and Sapienza have planted fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries. They have a sunroom which acts as a greenhouse where they can grow greens through the winter, and start seedling in the spring. They also keep bees and harvest honey.

Sapienza said they are always working on soil building, liming the soil, digging in compost, manure, greensand and rock phosphate.

About six years ago, Sapienza, who loves cranberries, saw them listed in a catalog and suggested they grow some. Kiendzior was skeptical, but thinking about the benefits of another food crop and her enthusiasm he finally agreed.

It was a surprise to me to learn that it does not take a wet bog to grow cranberries.  In fact, they do not like saturated conditions, requiring just about as much water as any vegetable garden. What they do demand is full sunlight, and peaty, acid soil with lots of organic matter.

Kiendzior understood that perennial crops like cranberries need good soil preparation. He said he dug in lots and lots of peat moss, sand and fertilizers.

The official recommendation for 8 plants is a bed that is four feet wide and 8 feet long, allowing sufficient room for the cranberries to send out runners. The bed is prepared by digging out six inches of the soil and replacing it with a mixture of equal amounts of peat moss and sand. As you make this mixture of sand and peat moss you have to keep watering the peat moss which absorbs water very slowly. Patience is a necessity.

To the peat and sand add two cups each of bonemeal, blood meal, Epsom salts and rock phosphate and mix in well.  These will provide the essential nutritional requirements potassium and phosphorous.

Kiendzior’s first bed was a large block, about ten feet square.  It has filled out so it is totally covered with productive plants, but he quickly decided that additional plants would be planted in rows that would be easier to care for.

The root ball of the young plant should be placed slightly deeper that the soil surface. Like any newly planted seedling, the cranberry bed should be well watered after planting and throughout the summer. Peat moss needs to be kept moist to the touch.

Cranberries like nitrogen and should be fertilized with fish emulsion during the growing season.  Keep the beds weeded.

Each plant will begin to send out runners so the plants form a mat.  After two years the bed should be sanded, that is sprinkled with a half inch of clean sand in early spring before new growth begins. This encourages the production of upright berry bearing branches.  Sanding should be done every three years to rejuvenate the plants and control disease and pests.

After three years the runners can be trimmed back and the older uprights pruned back to keep the plants productive.

Once the plants are four years old they will start to bear. Cranberries should be harvested by hand before there is the threat of a killing frost, usually in late September when the fruit is a deep red.

Cranberries are a hardy evergreen but they must be protected from the cold. They should be covered with a mulch of pine needles or leaves.  You can even cover them with a rowcover or sheet of opaque white plastic and then layer on the mulch.  Don’t remove the mulch until the spring when there is no danger of frost.

I was interested to see that the Cranberry Experiment Station in East Wareham suggests putting mousebait under the mulch to prevent rodents from making a cozy nest and destroying the plants over the winter.

For people like Kiendzior and Sapienza who want to feed themselves through a long winter, cranberries are an ideal crop.  First they are extremely nutritious. They are full of vitamin C and other antioxidants.

Second they can be bagged up and thrown in the freezer with no processing.  They will also keep for a very long time right in the refrigerator.

And finally, this native berry is  delicious. Sapienza cooks them up with a little water, brings them to a boil and cooks them for a couple of minutes until they pop.  Off the stove she adds a little maple syrup to sweeten them and chopped up orange, or pineapple. “I have them as a breakfast fruit, or a snack, or with dinner. I love them anytime,” she said.

Cranberries do not need cross pollination but Ben Lear is an early variety with large burgundy berries, Stevens is a mid-season berry with large red berries and Howes is a late season variety with small red berries.

Sources: Cranberry Creations, www.cranberrycreations.com;  Fedco Seeds  www.fedcoseeds.com; Gurney’s Nursery, PO Box 4178, Greendale, IN 47025-4178, www.gurneys.com; Miller Nurseries, 5060 West Lake Rd, Canandaigua, NY, 14424-8904 www.millernurseries.com.

Cranberry Bread

Between the Rows  May 24, 2008

6 comments to Cranberries in the Garden

  • The first time I saw cranberries actually growing was when I visited my uncle and aunt, who lived in central Wisconsin at that time. They were growing in a bog; I had no idea that cranberries could grow in anyone’s garden! Wil and Louisa sound like great people. Now…will you share your cranberry bread recipe? It looks delicious.

  • Just re-read my comment–the cranberries were grown in a bog, not my uncle and aunt:)

  • What an interesting post Pat. I had no idea. I love cranberries but I am sure my rabbits do too. You are such a gifted writer and from the looks of your bread . . . and the cake I have tasted . . . a great baker too.

  • Pat

    Rose – they can grow in a bog, but they don’t NEED a bog. I think we’ve all gotten confused by watching the cranberry commercial – where the planting field is temporarily flooded to make harvesting easier.
    Carol – I’ll bet the bunnies would love the cranberries. I’m going to spend the day baking on Wednesday. Thursday I’ll be basting the turkey at my daughter’s house. You are very flattering!

  • Deirdre

    They grow a lot of cranberries on the coast here. I think I’d rather devote the space to blueberries.

  • Pat

    Deirdre – I grow blueberries. Much less work to get them started.

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