Master Gardeners grow cranberries “the size of quarters” in home garden

A bounty of  cranberries from the home garden.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
A bounty of cranberries from the home garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

Cranberry salad … cranberry sauce … cranberry relish … cranberry juice … cranberry cocktails — aah, the holidays are upon us.

There are many ways to enjoy this tart native fruit during the holidays and the whole year-round that don’t include cutting off a slice from a jiggling cylinder of cranberry goo.

You can even grow your own cranberries at home, no bog required!

Vaccinium macrocarpon is the native species of cranberry in North America, and is also the one commercially grown here in the United States.

It is in the same genus as the highly regarded blueberry, the oft-reminisced huckleberry, and the lingonberry, which is famous in Scandinavian circles. It’s even related to something called a sparkleberry, which sounds like it would be grown by someone who likes glitter just a little too much.

Cranberries in cooperation

In 1930, the commercial success of cranberries changed course when three competing companies formed a cooperative called Cranberry Canners Inc. While you might have never heard of that company, I assure you they are still big in the business.

You may know them by their product line, which became the cooperative name in 1956 — Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc.

The cooperative formed to develop markets for cranberries beyond the holiday season. Their first product beyond canned cranberry “sauce” was juice cocktail, giving birth to a whole new world of alcoholic concoctions. An early ad for cranberry juice proclaimed that it was “a pleasant, smooth drink with delicious flavor and sure relief from faintness, exhaustion and thirst. A glass when retiring promotes sleep and a clean mouth in the morning — even to the smoker.”

While the juice may promote a clean mouth, research is showing that its health effects when it comes to urinary tract infections might be more hype than help. There is a compound that can reduce bacterial growth (hence the “clean mouth”), but it isn’t a high enough concentration to help with bladder problems.

Cranberries at home

It is quite possible to grow cranberries in the home garden. While in the wild they do grow in acidic bogs and marshes, you don’t need those to grow them yourself.

Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.
Master Gardener Susan Maslowski grew cranberries the size of quarters in her West Virginia garden. Photo courtesy Susan Maslsowski.

I’ve been preaching for years that people need to grow cranberries at home. The native growth in bogs has more to do with the acidic soil than anything else, and commercial cranberries are grown in artificial bogs that are flooded for easy harvest, since ripe cranberries float.

Here in West Virginia, we have Cranberry Glades, a native bog that is home to cranberries and many other rare species, including several orchids and carnivorous plants (I highly suggest a visit). But we also have the farm of Bob and Susan Maslowski in Milton. Bob and Susan are Master Gardeners and are always friendly and smiling at meetings and conferences, eager to share their own story.

Susan started growing cranberries a few years ago in a raised bed, and has been so pleased with their success that they are adding a second raised bed of cranberries. From one single 4- by 8-foot raised bed, she raised enough cranberries to make it through the holiday season (and Susan cooks a lot — she writes a cooking article for the local paper).

The cranberries they raise are the size of a quarter — that puts what you buy at the grocery store to shame.

As Susan tells it, she even had plenty to freeze some for later use, but she found them missing from the freezer. As it turns out, Bob, a winemaker, found the cranberries and turned them into cranberry liqueur. I’m not sure what Susan was planning on cooking, but I think I like Bob’s recipe better.

Growing cranberries

Cranberries form a dense ground cover.  Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski
Cranberries form a dense ground cover. Photo courtesy Susan Maslowski

You can now find cranberry plants in several garden catalogs and even at big box retailers during the growing season. The thing to remember about growing cranberries is the need for acidic soil.  They do appreciate moist soil, so you definitely need to keep them watered.

You need to test your soil, then lower the pH accordingly using something like powdered elemental sulfur, aluminum sulfate or ammonium sulfate. Adding in lots of peat moss may lower the pH slightly, but will provide more of the soil texture and organic matter that the plant needs than altering the pH of the soil.

It will take only a few plants to get started. While the individual plants may be small and short, they will easily spread to form a mat or groundcover (you can easily use them as a ground cover in acidic locations too — they don’t have to be stuck in a bed).

Bob and Susan are adding a second raised bed because their plants have quickly outgrown their raised-bed borders.



This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent.  You can find more of his articles archived at WV Garden Guru.  You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.

Thanksgiving flavor from ancient herbs

Family and friends are gathered ’round the table. The dog sits patiently below, waiting for a morsel dropped by accident or on purpose.  Platters and bowls fill the table, a reminder of the bounty that sustained our forebears when they first arrived on this continent — and a current testament to overabundance and gluttony.  My mom gets so excited about Thanksgiving dinner that she can’t wait for the day to arrive. She often has to have turkey and dressing sometime between mid-October and Thanksgiving.

Among the smells that waft from the holiday table, the ones that elicit the strongest memory are those of the herbs used to flavor the dressing (or stuffing) and the featured poultry.  These herbs include sage, thyme, rosemary and marjoram.  Let’s take a minute to learn a little bit about these herbs so that we can be even more thankful for them.

Sage, rosemary, and thyme are ancient herbs that are the backbone of Thanksgiving flavors.
Sage, rosemary, and thyme are ancient herbs that are the backbone of Thanksgiving flavors.

Sage (Salvia officinalis) has been used medicinally for centuries. The name Salvia comes from the Roman name for the herb, and means to heal or feel well (the root of the word “salve”). Not only has the herb been used as a diuretic, anesthetic and tonic, but it has also been used to ward off plague and even evil. That’s one powerful herb.

Sage, along with all the other herbs we celebrate and consume at Thanksgiving, are members of the herb family. They’ll have square stems and, most commonly, blue flowers (that bees adore).

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is a native of the Mediterranean, where it thrives on rocky sea coasts. The Latin name comes from ros (dew) and marinus (sea), meaning dew of the sea. It has also been long revered as a medicinal plant, and has even been used as a love charm and as a divination tool. Those wishing to divine the identity of their true love would write the name of potential suitors on pots of rosemary. The plant that grew the fastest and healthiest would foretell true love … or so the story goes.

While sage would repel plague, rosemary was said to repel witches. Having a garden full of rosemary was sometimes associated with the woman ruling the home, much to dismay of their husbands. This is probably when men started taking over the garden chores (or at least “accidentally” cutting down specific plants).

Rosemary is also a sign of remembrance, and can still be found as such a symbol at funerals, war commemorations and weddings. The significance of remembrance also led to the belief that rosemary improves memory.

Thyme (Thymus officinalis) may appear on more than just the Thanksgiving table at your house. Thyme oil contains the compound thymol, which is a strong antiseptic. Pre-antibiotics, thyme oil and thymol were used to soak bandages to reduce infection. It is still in use today, in products such as mouthwash (Listerine, for example) and natural, alcohol-free hand sanitizers. It’s even reported to be effective against toenail fungus, which explains why I’ve seen people on Facebook say to soak your feet in mouthwash.

The name, in Greek and Latin, means to “rise in a cloud,” which could be attributed to either the strong smell it gives off or to its historical use as an incense. The ancient Greeks thought that thyme incense would bestow courage, a tradition that continued through the Middle Ages when ladies’ favors given to their favorite knights would often contain the herb.

Marjoram (Origanum majorana) is the least appreciated and understood of the poultry players. And with good reason. It is in the same genus as oregano, which we usually ascribe to Italian, or sometimes Mexican, cuisine, and in some parts of the Middle East the two are synonymous.

To Greeks and Romans, marjoram was a symbol of happiness. The word is connected to, but not directly derived from, the Latin word meaning “major.”

Growing your own Thanksgiving flavors

Most herbs are among the easiest-to-grow edible plants. They grow wild in regions that are dry and are usually drought-tolerant.

Rosemary, for example, does not do well with overwatering. It can typically grow on its own, without your help. Both sage and thyme are pretty hardy and there shouldn’t be any trouble growing them here. Rosemary is sensitive to harsh winter (most of them died in the Kanawha Valley last winter). Marjoram can also be tender.

Sage and rosemary grow as upright woody shrubs, while thyme and marjoram grow as woody groundcovers. They also make great houseplants.

You can usually find rosemary around the holidays, trained up to be mini indoor Christmas trees. You can sometimes also find live plants in the produce section of the grocery store. My local grocery store typically carries thyme as a live plant year-round.

Herbs like lots of light, so keep them in a very bright window or grow them under lights. If you can’t find any this time of year, be sure to add some to your garden next year to flavor your holiday favorites. You can also plan early next summer and pot up some plants to have on hand indoors to keep your turkey perky.


This post was originally published in the Charleston Gazette by John Porter, WVU Extension Agent.  You can find more of his article archived at WV Garden Guru.  You can follow him on Twitter @wvgardenguru or Facebook at Garden Guru John Porter.

Fun Vegetable Food Facts for Thanksgiving

As the Holiday season is upon us our gardens take backstage to family, friends and food.  As garden junkies looking at where our food comes from, it is always in the back of our minds.  As a fun conversation piece over the Thanksgiving table we wanted to see where our Thanksgiving meal comes from …

Time to enjoy produce from our gardens
Thanksgiving - A time to enjoy produce from our gardens (Photo: Collierville Victory Garden produce, Carl Wayne Hardeman MG Shelby County, Tennessee)

Sweet Potatoes:

  •  George Washington grew sweet potatoes at Mount Vernon
  • Native of South America – and domesticated more than 5,000 years ago
  • Sweet potatoes are roots – unlike regular potatoes which are tubers (underground stems)
  • Sweet potatoes, Ipomoea batatas, are not true yams, or members of Dioscorea spp
  • North Carolina’s State vegetable is the sweet potato
  • SP can be substituted in recipes that call for apple, squash, and white potatoes
Children harvest sweet potatoes at Collierville Victory Garden
Children harvest sweet potatoes at Collierville Victory Garden (Photo: Carl Wayne Hardeman, MG Shelby County, Tennessee)

Sweet potato source and reference links:


  • The top pumpkin production states are Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and California.
  • Pumpkins originated in Central America.
  • Pumpkins range in size from less than a pound to over 1,000 pounds.
  • Pumpkins are 90 percent water.
  • Pumpkins are fruit.
  • Eighty percent of the pumpkin supply in the United States is available in October.
  • In early colonial times, pumpkins were used as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.
  • Colonists sliced off pumpkin tops; removed seeds and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey. This was baked in hot ashes and is the origin of pumpkin pie.
  • The largest pumpkin pie ever made was over five feet in diameter and weighed over 350 pounds. It used 80 pounds of cooked pumpkin, 36 pounds of sugar, 12 dozen eggs and took six hours to bake.
Rouge vif D'Etampes pumpkin nestled in thyme in garden (Photo from: Debbie Courson Smith, MG Boise, Idaho)

Pumpkin source and reference links:


  • Potatoes were the first vegetable grown in space
  • Potatoes are the best-selling side dish in American restaurants
  • Potatoes have one of the first commodity groups to develop and use an FDA-approved nutrition label
  • French Fries were introduced to the U.S. when Thomas Jefferson served them in the White House during his Presidency of 1801-1809.
  • Potatoes were originally cultivated in South America, probably in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. More than 400 years ago, the Inca Indians in those countries grew potatoes in their mountain valleys. They made a light floury mixture that they used to bake a potato-type bread.
The Royal Potato
The potato is a rather 'royal' vegetable (Photo from: Debbie Courson Smith, MG Boise, Idaho)

Potato source and reference links:

 Green Beans:

  • An estimated 40 million green bean casseroles are served on Thanksgiving
  • Green beans have been cultivated in Mexico for over 7,000 years
Green beans (Source: Flickr, Tony.Bailey)

Green bean source and reference links:

Thanksgiving Facts:

  • Thanksgiving was not declared a National Holiday by Congress until 1941
  • The first Thanksgiving was celebrated by the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag tribe Native Americans in 1621 and lasted for 3 days.
  • At the original Thanksgiving, there was no milk, cheese, bread, butter, mashed potatoes, corn or pumpkin pie.
  • President Thomas Jefferson did not like the idea of a national Thanksgiving Day.
  • The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in Plymouth, Massachusetts where the Plymouth Pilgrims were building on the land.
  • The famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in the 1920’s.

Thanksgiving Facts Source:

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!

We hope you have a happy and safe Thanksgiving.

For more information, search the web for ‘state extension food safety’ to find your nearest university food safety websites, or consult some of the following resources for more information on Thanksgiving food safety tips:

Terri James, Extension Assistant-Urban Gardening
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension