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Prairie River Greenhouse: Heirlooms and Grapes

When Tim O'Brien looks around the vegetable house at Prairie River Greenhouse, he sees  "a sea of tomatoes." This makes sense; he and his wife Lynn are offering 70 varieties of heirloom tomatoes this year at their 2-person operation located on a city lot in the town of LaPrairie MN.

Prairie River Greenhouse is a post-retirement "second career" for the O'Briens.  Tim is a retired forestry researcher for the University of MN at its North Central Research and Outreach Center in Grand Rapids. Lynn worked in a variety of jobs with customer service at their core.

Tim says Prairie River offers the things typically found at a greenhouse--like hanging baskets--but this greenhouse specializes in heirloom plants. Tim gets seed from Baker Creek and Seed Savers. He grows about 20 varieties of heirloom flowers, 20 different peppers, plus herbs, cabbage, kale, cukes, summer and winter squash, and more. The most popular plants are tomatoes--especially Paul Robeson, Black Cherry tomatoes, and Aunt Ruby's German Green (you can tell it's ripe when it gets a blush and softens to the touch).

Heirlooms, Tim explains, are open pollinated. They are selected for characteristics rather than bred for characteristics, as hybrids are. Heirloom tomatoes are more susceptible to certain diseases, like blight, because they have been chosen for flavor and not necessarily for disease resistance. Tim recommends pruning off lower branches to avoid blight, and mulching plants to minimize soil splash. "Blight is in the soil," he says.

No pesticides are used at Prairie River Greenhouse. The O'Briens use beneficial insects, such as nematodes for fungus gnats, and native lady bugs and green lacewings for aphid control. "Our flower suppliers also assure us that they do not use neonicotinoid insecticides that have been linked to harming pollinators," writes Tim.

The O'Briens experiment with growing grapes in a 30 X 72' high tunnel. They grow Jupiter table grapes for fresh eating, and several U of MN varieties of wine grapes: Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, Frontenac Blanc, LaCrescent, and Marquette. The first batch of grapes were planted in 2013. They collected 200# of grapes in 2015 and 550# in 2016, from 30 plants. This last batch of grapes was frozen over the winter and this spring was pressed for wine. At 15#/gallon, 550# of grapes yielded 40-45 gallons. They are adding another high tunnel for more grapes soon.

Tim says, "We also host by arrangement tomato and pepper tasting parties towards the end of summer. Last year we had about 20 people attend and we sample many of the tomatoes that we offer. In the future we envision having grape harvesting parties also."

Find out more about Prairie River Greenhouse on their Facebook page, their website, and in this interview with Tim O'Brien:

Maggie is a rural public radio guru; someone who can get you through both minor jams and near catastrophes and still come out ahead of the game. She pens our grants, reports to the Board of Directors and helps guide our station into the dawn of a new era. Maggie is a locavore to the max (as evidenced on Wednesday mornings), brings in months’ worth of kale each fall, has heat on in her office 12 months a year, and drinks coffee out of a plastic 1987 KAXE mug every day. Doting parents and grandparents, she and her husband Dennis live in the asphalt jungle of East Nary.