Cranberry Marshes

Dave Law

Joined April 2008

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Johnstons Cranberry Marsh – Bala – Muskoka – Ontario

The Cranberry
Early settlers and natives picked by hand. Dry scoops came along with commercial cultivation in the early 1800’s. Later, when beds were flooded for frost protection, longer handles were added to the scoops. Finally, mechanical pickers were introduced. Cranberries are a perennial, evergreen plant.
Early settlers thought the cranberry blossom resembled the head a crane, hence, the name “crane berry,” which was shortened to cranberry. Cranberry blossoms, pretty, delicate pink flowers, come out in late June and early July. Small, green fruit develops behind the flower, growing and changing from green to white to dark red through the months of August and September.

There are three methods of picking: 1) The dry rake method uses a mechanical picker, but the beds are not flooded. 2) The wet rake method. The beds are flooded so the berries will float toward the surface. A mechanical picker called a Getzinger Retracto-Tooth picker then gently combs the berries off the vines. This method causes little bruising and ensures excellent quality fresh fruit. 3) The most common method in the industry is called “beating.” A machine with a water reel is driven over the beds. The reel beats the berries off the vines, and they float to the surface of the water. The berries are then corralled and taken off the marsh. This method is used for berries that are to be processed.

Cranberry plants spend the growing season above the water table. They are only flooded three times during the year: 1) At harvest the beds are flooded individually to facilitate picking. 2) During the first, cold days of winter, the beds are flooded to form a layer of ice. This ice protects the vines from winter kill. 3) In early spring, the beds are flooded to protect the vines from frost damage.

At harvest time, when the berries come off the marsh, they go in a large hopper. From there, they go into a de grasser which removes twigs and vines. Then, they enter the dryer which blows air on the berries to dry off the surface moisture. They are then graded using a mill and then go on to be visually inspected.

In spring, the tops of the vines become exposed while the roots are still frozen. The plants can become desiccated. Flooding protects the plants and also controls some weeds and insects.

Once a suitable marsh has been chosen, a ditch is dug around the perimeter to lower the water level. Trees are cut, and the surface vegetation is pushed into rows. These rows are shaped into the dikes that surround each cranberry bed. Dikes make it possible to flood each bed individually and also provide vehicle access. Ditches are then dug around the perimeter of each bed as well as down the centre. A system of reservoirs, dams and flow gates is required to manage water. Once the beds are level, a thick layer of sand may be spread out on the surface. After the irrigation system is installed, the bed is ready for planting.

Planting is done in the spring. A suitable variety is selected and an existing bed with that variety is pruned. It will be two years before the pruned bed will produce a crop again. The cuttings are then taken, chopped into smaller segments, and spread evenly on the prepared bed. The vines are then pressed down into the soil and watered regularly. They immediately send out roots, but it will be five years before they produce a full crop. If well cared for, cranberry vines can continue to produce indefinitely. There are marshes in Massachusetts that have been producing crops for over 100 years! These plantings are over 50 years old.

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