Helen Babbs explains how to grow and cook your own Christmas cranberries.

Cranberry sauce is an essential element of a traditional Christmas turkey dinner. Modern research has also found cranberries to be a “super-food,” rich in vitamins and anti-oxidants, which makes a good reason to enjoy them in other savoury dishes, as dried berries for snacking on, or baked into cakes and puddings!

Most cranberries and cranberry products in the UK are imported, but these little red berries are actually very easy to grow at home. They’ll even do well if grown on the patio in a pot.

Make your own peat bog?

Cranberries, whether the smaller British species or the larger American varieties available from soft fruit nurseries, are all natives of damp peat bogs. If your smallholding doesn’t have a peat bog, this may have you thinking that cranberry growing isn’t for you! However, while cranberries do require acid, moist soil to grow well, this doesn’t have to be in a peat bog.

Smallholder:

If you have acid soil of any kind, cranberries will flourish as long as plenty of organic matter is added before planting to help the soil stay moist. You can test the acidity of your soil with a pH meter or home soil test kit, but it’s also possible to get a good idea by just looking around – if rhododendrons and azaleas grow well in your own or neighbours’ gardens, you can grow cranberries. As cranberries ripen quite late in the year, you need to pick a site that is still getting at least some sun by September or October. If you don’t have much space, their low-growing shape means cranberries can be doubled up as ground-cover plants under equally acid-loving blueberry bushes.

 

If you don’t have acid soil, you can still grow cranberries by making a dedicated raised bed for them, or by growing them in pots filled with specialist ericaceous compost, available from the garden centre. Cranberries are shallow rooted, so a raised bed only needs to be about 15cm high. It’s best to dig over the existing soil below before filling the bed, removing any perennial weeds like dandelions. Firm it down well after digging to make sure that the raised bed on top won’t suddenly subside! The raised bed itself should be filled with either bought-in acid soil or a mixture of two parts peat and one part coarse, lime-free sand. If using soil, you’ll need to add plenty of organic matter such as well-rotted farmyard manure, or composted conifer prunings, which are both relatively acidic. Ordinary garden compost is best avoided, as this tends to be much more alkaline.

Whether at ground-level or in raised bed, the final step for a cranberry bed is to spread a 2cm thick layer of lime-free sand over the surface of the bed. This suppresses weeds and moss, which would otherwise like the damp soil conditions, and provides a good surface for the trailing stems of the cranberries to root into as they spread out to cover the bed.

Getting started

Like most soft fruit, cranberries are best planted during the winter dormant season. As they are evergreens, they are usually available from soft fruit suppliers as small potted plants. If you have a friend with an established cranberry bed, they may be able to give you freshly lifted suckers to plant, rather like strawberry runners. With these, it’s important to make sure the roots don’t dry out before you can plant them, so keep them either wrapped in damp newspaper or in a plastic bag with plenty of damp leafmould around the roots.

Before planting, water the cranberry bed very thoroughly and leave it to drain, until both the soil and sand layer feel like a wrung-out but still damp sponge. Cranberries are planted 30cm apart each way, at the same depth that they were in the pot, or the soil mark for suckers. Any long, trailing branches or “vines” should be spread out across the surface of the bed, and pegged down or partially buried in the sand to encourage these to root too. Water lightly afterwards, ideally using rainwater as this is usually more acidic than tap water. If you have cats, you may need to put a net over the cranberry bed to stop them using the surface layer of sand as a litter tray!

Through the year

The most important thing for looking after your cranberry bed is to keep it well watered, especially during its first year. While they don’t like waterlogged soil, cranberries do need their roots to stay damp, so daily watering may be needed over the summer, depending on your weather. Use a watering can or seep-hose if possible, to avoid disturbing the surface layer of sand and the shallow roots of the cranberries.

In their second year, the trailing stems of the cranberries will produce 8-10cm high upright shoots, which bear pink flowers in midsummer. These tend to be popular with bees, so there are no worries about pollination, and the berries follow in early- to mid-autumn. Amidst the low-growing, evergreen foliage, birds tend not to notice the berries, but it’s a good idea to put a net over the bed just in case. The berries should be picked once they are fully red, but still firm to the touch, and will keep for several weeks in the fridge. After harvesting, the cranberry plants go on to provide a decorative display, as their leaves turn bronze and red over the winter.

 

Although cranberries don’t need much pruning, any damaged fruiting uprights should be cut back after harvesting. On a well-established bed, some of the trailing stems may need cutting out so they stay on the surface of the bed and don’t heap up into large mounds of overcrowded stems. You may also want to trim round the edge of the bed in early spring, to stop the cranberries spreading out across the rest of the garden.

Once established, a cranberry bed shouldn’t need replacing – some commercial cranberry fields in the USA are over 150 years old and still vigorously producing! It’s a good idea to top up the sand layer with a fresh 1cm of sand every 2-3 years, as the original surface layer will have become clogged with dead leaves and such from the cranberry plants.

Cooking with cranberries

While home-grown cranberries taste wonderful fresh, cooking with them is a good way to make a small harvest from your newly planted bushes go further. Home-made cranberry sauce is a perfect way to add a self-sufficient touch to your Christmas dinner, but cranberries are also good in sweet dishes such as cakes, puddings and biscuits. They can be substituted into most recipes that call for blackcurrants, redcurrants or blueberries, and taste particularly good combined with orange flavour.

Cranberry sauce

 

You will need:

• 100g sugar

• 100ml orange juice

• 250g cranberries

• grated rind of 1 small orange or clementine

To make:

Measure the orange juice and sugar into a pan and bring slowly to the boil, making sure the sugar has dissolved. Stir in the cranberries and orange rind, then simmer for 5-10 minutes until the cranberries are tender. Pour into a glass jug or bowl, and chill. The sauce appears very thin at this point, but will thicken as it cools. Remove from the fridge and allow to warm back to room temperature before serving.

Cranberry and orange cookies

 

You will need:

• 225g butter

• 300g sugar

• 1 egg

• 1 tsp orange rind

• 2 tbsp orange juice

• 300g plain flour

• 1 tsp baking powder

• 225g cranberries

To make:

Cream the butter and sugar together until smooth, then beat in the egg, orange rind and juice. Sift the flour and baking powder together and stir into orange mixture, then mix the cranberries evenly through the dough. Drop tablespoons of the dough onto an ungreased baking tray, leaving at least 5cm between cookies for them to spread. Bake at 190oC for 12-15 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are golden, but they are still a little soft in the middle. Remove from the tray and cool on a wire rack. These cookies will keep for up to a week in an air-tight tin, but rarely last that long on my busy smallholding!