Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon and other spp.) are closely related to blueberries, huckleberries, and lingonberries (more on these last, below). The plants are ground-hugging vines up to 7 feet long with tiny, evergreen leaves (often turning reddish in winter), that produce one crop of round, tart berries each fall. Native to northern North America, cranberries are very cold hardy, thriving in zones 2-7.
Growing your own cranberries
First, let’s lay one myth to rest: you do NOT need a bog or even soggy ground to grow cranberries. Cranberry plants don’t mind being flooded, which gives commercial growers the option of flooding the fields to help control weeds that aren’t flood-tolerant. Flooding also makes it super easy to harvest large fields of cranberries, as the berries float once they are knocked off the plants. But for the average gardener, flooding is more trouble than it’s worth.
See how to make an easy raised bed for growing your cranberries:
Cranberries, like their cousins the blueberries, do need really acid soil to thrive. If you live in an area with neutral or alkaline soil (most of the U.S.) you will get the best results if you grow them in a large, shallow (6 inches deep will do) container or a raised bed filled with a soilless potting mix so you can efficiently add amendments to keep things sufficiently acid. (Here's more information about how to lower pH if your soil is too alkaline.) If you really want to plant your cranberries in the ground, you can follow the instructions in our blueberry growing guide on how to test and acidify the planting area.
Buy and plant cranberry plants in spring or fall. Plant in full sun, spacing the plants about 2 feet away from each other in all directions. Cranberries are self-fertile, so you don’t need to worry about planting more than one variety. If you are not in a hurry, you can also put a few whole, raw, organic cranberries in a small jar half-filled with moist soil, and place it in the coldest part of your refrigerator for 3 or 4 months. Come spring, squash the berries, plant the seeds in a shallow flat of potting mix, and keep the potting mix consistently moist as the seedlings sprout and grow.
Related: How To Save Seeds From 8 Popular Garden Veggies
Cranberries have shallow roots, so water as needed to keep the soil moist (this is one crop you can’t overwater, so don’t worry about overdoing it). You may even want to install a drip irrigation system to make watering regularly less trouble. Pull weeds as soon as they appear, as the young cranberry plants will be easily choked out by more vigorous plants.
Related: The Right Way To Water All Your Plants—According To Science
For the first year or two, cranberry plants will concentrate on growing long trailing runners and creating a dense, ground-hugging mat. The second or third summer, the runners will start producing short upright shoots – up to 200 of them per square foot. The following spring those upright shoots will produce tiny white or pink shooting-star shaped flowers, followed later by the berries.
Cranberries do best in poor soil, so don’t add any fertilizer unless the plants aren’t making a foot or two of new growth a year, and even then, add only a little fertilizer.
Related: How To Plan And Protect Your Fall Vegetable Garden
Once the plants start bearing, they will benefit from having a ½-inch layer of sand applied over the entire surface of the container or bed (it will sift down through the stems) every few winters and pruning out some of the older runners to encourage new ones to form.
Harvesting Your Cranberries
Cranberries ripen in the fall. Color is somewhat of an indication of maturity, but to really tell, you will need to cut a berry or two open: if the seeds are white, the berries aren’t ripe; if the seeds are brown, the berries are ready to harvest. Caution: Temperatures below about 30°F can damage the berries (though not the plants), so pick your berries before that happens or cover the plants with a row cover or a blanket if a hard frost threatens.
Related: 25 Spectacular Cranberry Recipes You Can Eat All Year Round
Pick the berries individually or get yourself a handy berry rake. Store berries in the fridge for up to a month or freeze them (no pre-freezing treatments are needed) for longer storage. You can expect to harvest about a pound of berries per 5 square feet of well-filled bed.
Easier-to-grow cranberry alternatives
Perhaps, as much as you love cranberries, you don’t want to harvest berries at ground level (ouch) or fuss around with drastically changing the pH of the soil to make a plant happy. In that case, here are two alternatives that taste very similar. Both are a little taller and one of them will grow in most soils.
Closely related to cranberries, but rather more ornamental in the garden, Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) are another fruit native to the far north, hardy in zones 2-7. Lingonberries taste a lot like cranberries, but they are slightly sweeter and juicier than cranberries and can even be eaten fresh (with a generous amount of sweetener) as well as cooked into sauce, jam, drinks, or added to baked goods like cranberries. Lingonberry plants are taller (up to a foot or 18 inches tall) and shrubbier than cranberries. They spread underground to create a thick groundcover, which, once established, is quite resistant to weeds. The leaves are larger than those of cranberries, looking somewhat like boxwood, and they stay green all winter. The flowers are small pink bells and appear in two flushes: early spring and again in the early summer. If the first flowers don’t get frosted (protect them if the temp is likely to fall below 30 degrees or so), you will have berries to harvest in mid-summer; the second round of flowers produces berries that ripen in the fall. Plants will take a few years to establish and start bearing generous crops. (For more details and advice on growing lingonberries click here.)
Not a cranberry at all, American cranberrybush, a.k.a. highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americana; sometimes sold by its old name V. trilobum), is a much taller (4 feet for dwarf cultivars, up to 15 feet for most cultivars and seedlings) native North American shrub, hardy in zones 2-7. It bears clusters of small white flowers in the spring that turn into red (or occasionally yellow) cranberry-flavored berries in the late summer to early fall. The tart berries can be eaten raw or cooked like true cranberries. Some people recommend crushing the berries and removing the single large seed from each prior to cooking, as the seeds can be bitter. The leaves turn a showy red/maroon foliage in the fall, adding to their interest in the landscape. American cranberrybush will grow in sun or part shade and is quite drought-resistant once established. And—unlike true cranberries—it will thrive in neutral or even slightly alkaline soil, so it is much easier to grow in most areas. Plants may take up to 5 years to start flowering. Much enjoyed by birds, the berries cling to the bush well into the winter if not harvested. Make sure to plant the true North American species, Viburnum opulus var. americana, rather than the closely related European one, Viburnum opulus, as the European one has smaller, unpleasant-tasting fruit. If you already have a bush, taste a berry: if it tastes like a cranberry, it is good for eating; if it tastes like medicine, leave that bush for the birds.