Although this widely known American fruit has long been commercial and found in the market of about every city, village, and mining and lumber camp of the Union, it may be said that it is a wild fruit. While it is true that selected varieties have been propagated, it cannot be said that they are larger or better than were found in the cranberry marshes when the first settlements were made at Cape Cod or in Wisconsin. In the early days of our history, the home supply and the relatively small quantity marketed was picked from the primitive marshes. The first systematic planting and management of the plants began on the Atlantic coast from 1835 to 1840. Since that time tens of thousands of acres of land, almost or wholly worthless for other uses, have been planted. In many cases low boggy tracts on the Atlantic coast and in Wisconsin, that bred miasmatic diseases, have been changed into handsome fruit gardens that are not only profitable but inviting and healthful. In some respects the systematic growing of the cranberry is like growing the rice-plant for crops, as it involves both flooding and arrangements for partial drying of the land at stated periods. At Cape Cod, in New Jersey, and in Wisconsin, the preparation of the land and the management of the plants and crops are about the same. The first work is usually clearing away the sod and moss and levelling. But if very wet the ditches are first excavated around blocks of the marsh, all leading to an outlet on a lower level. Where possible, this main outlet of the ditches is provided with a dam with gates to flood the whole plantation when needed. In many cases a brook is diverted from its course to flow through the ditches. In other cases a reservoir is constructed on a higher level from which water can be supplied as needed. In Wisconsin the plantations are quite usually started near a stream from which water can be drawn into a reservoir. This is preferred, as the stream water is often too cold. Usually the land has enough sand. But if not four inches of sand is spread over the surface, after turfing and clearing, in which the plants are set. The best method of planting observed by the writer is to set out the plants one foot apart, cover the roots lightly, and then firm the earth by stepping over the roots. The plants should be kept moist. But often cuttings are used six to eight inches long with leaves on, which are stuck at an angle in the moist sand with an inch or two of the cutting exposed to the air. A full crop is obtained in three or four years. The cultivation is mainly in the way of pulling the weeds by hand. The plant roots so readily that the runners cut up in a straw cutter are often sown over the field, followed by rolling to press them down. But it pays to plant rooted cuttings, as a rule, as a full stand of plants soon gives returns for the added expense.
To start the plants the ditches are kept about half full of water, which keeps the surface sand moist by capillary attraction. As the plants are set early, late frosts at the North often work damage to the growing points. Hence flooding at night, when frost is suspected, is practised, drawing it off the next morning. In the fall the plants are more mature and are not easily injured by frosts. Early in November the plantation is flooded and the water remains until spring frosts are over. Sometimes late frosts come when the fruit has set in Wisconsin. If this is threatened the beds are again flooded, letting it off the next morning to prevent scalding the berries. Floods from rains or melted snow sometimes give trouble in winter by lifting the ice and the plants with it where the water is shallow. To prevent this the surplus water is drawn off at the gates.
Indeed, it is an unusual crop to cultivate, and its profitable management, including the picking and sale of the fruit, only gives large profits to those who study the habits of the plant and the evolution of its culture as practised by successful growers. The large cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) is now the main species grown. This is a North American species, and as yet it is not cultivated in other countries.
In granitic soils, free from lime mainly, the Bell cranberry is often grown on sandy or sandy-loam soil, with a coating of swamp mud or peat mixed in. Culture is given early in the season, followed by a mulching of sawdust. But this is only in an amateur way; yet recent experiments show that seedling production and selection may give varieties that will grow on moist sandy land wherever the blueberry will thrive and bear fruit under cultivation. The seeds should be treated the same as those of its near relative, the huckleberry (277. The Huckleberry).