Gardens - Fruit & Vegetable Gardening

How to grow this festive berry that shows up on our holiday tables

Cranberries have a long history in North America. The Pequot Indians in the Cape Cod area called them ibimi (bitter berry); to the Algonquin, they were atoqua (good fruit) and used fresh, cooked and dried. Known originally as craneberry by early European settlers, who thought the flowers resembled a crane's head, this term was eventually shortened to cranberry.

Originally native to northeastern North America, cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are now grown across the continent and are hardy to Zone 3 with some winter protection. B.C. is the largest Canadian producer with more than 25,000 tonnes on 1,400 hectares in 1998. But the world leader is the U.S. with nearly 255,000 tonnes in 1998.

Commercial cultivation of cranberries in Canada began in 1870, when William McNeil put in a few plants at the edge of a bog on his farm in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia. Today there are almost 65 hectares of cranberries in the province.

Carrying on the tradition is Blake Johnston in Aylesford. For Blake, it's a family affair. His father, Orville Johnston, began growing cranberries in 1952, planting his first acres in Bala, Ontario. Blake worked in construction and landscaping, while maintaining his involvement in the Bala operation until 1997, when he sold his share to his brother. Blake moved to the marsh in the Annapolis Valley with his wife, Kate, and their children, Jessie, Amelia and Walker. Today, Johnston's Cranberry Marsh in Aylesford is the largest producer of cranberries in Nova Scotia, with nine hectares in production and 11 recently planted hectares.

It costs a whopping $75,000 per hectare, on average, to develop a cranberry operation. After selecting an appropriate site-marshland, as level as possible to make planting, flooding and harvesting the field easier-a ditch is installed around the marsh to lower the water table and provide drainage; a system of reservoirs, dams and flood gates is needed to manage water levels. Then the planting bed is built up: a layer of clay to maintain the water table; an organic layer such as peat moss; and finally a layer of sand, which not only allows the plants, propagated by cuttings, to root easily, it also drains quickly when the beds are flooded. Plants spread by runners, forming a 15-centimetre-tall, thick mat that helps keep weeds down. After planting, an irrigation system is installed.

It can take three to five years for plants to produce a viable crop. Some farmers plant small areas to complement other aspects of their operation, but Blake relies solely on cranberries for the farm's income. He has seen prices rise and fall as supply outstripped demand, or vice versa, but he's philosophical; if there's a disappointing harvest or prices aren't up to par, “There's always next year.” He wryly observes that Kate, a stockbroker with Scotia MacLeod, “has been supporting my cranberry habit for nearly 20 years.”

Different cultivars are planted according to their productivity, keeping quality and season length. Blake plants ‘Stevens', which he calls “cranberries for dummies” because the cultivar is so undemanding and productive, as well as ‘Ben Lear'. Planting is usually done in May, and it takes almost five tonnes of cuttings to plant a hectare of marsh.


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