By Eric Beuning, Correspondent
Berry bushes and fruit trees explode with vibrant flowers that please the eye each spring. As spring turns to summer and fall they offer up their sweet bounty to those who are willing to grow and harvest them.
For Judy Heiling growing berries, fruit trees and perennial plants has been a lifelong passion.
“I grew up on the home farm between Browerville and Randall,” said Heiling. “I was always in the garden or working with trees. Even when I moved away I still had plants. When I moved back home 16 years ago my sister and I took up five of the home farm 325 acres to start a nursery business and you-pick orchard.”
Originally, Heiling started out growing June bearing strawberries and Evan’s pie cherries.
“The Evan’s pie cherries started doing really well. I was very impressed with them, so I started selling the plants,” said Heiling.
“I also do a lot of grafting, so I started working with all kinds of fruit trees,” she said.
Grafting is a popular way for experienced gardeners and orchard keepers to propagate fruit trees and other plants. The process involves attaching a piece of a living plant onto another plant or alternative root stock. Grafting a fruit tree onto an alternate root stock is a popular way to control its mature size as well as improve the cold tolerance and other traits.
Heiling’s passion for developing and propagating quality plants has yielded many successes over the years. One of her biggest success stories has been European pears. Most of Morrison County is U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) growing zone 4a, bordering on growing zone 3b. European pears generally are only hardy enough to handle growing zones 5a through 8b.
“Normally people think you can’t grow European pears all the way up here. That’s because a lot of nurseries graft them onto a quince root stock. Well quince won’t grow native here either, so of course they couldn’t survive,” she said.
“What I do is graft strong trees onto cold hardy stock like sand pear root stock, which allows them to grow up here just fine,” said Heiling.
“I’m also working on grafting a dwarf root stock for peaches. The root stock is originally from plum trees that can handle our cold winters,” she said.
Heiling also grows and sells several varieties of heritage apple. During the 1800s, there were hundreds if not thousands of apple varieties grown all across North America. In the time leading up to the Great Depression apples were considered one of the most diverse crops in the world.
After World War II many commercial orchards developed a monoculture approach to growing fruit trees. This essentially means that shoppers will see around a dozen total apples available at the grocery store in a given year.
Heritage apples can be unique in color and flavor. One variety might be best for eating out of hand, while another has the tartness and juice to make a crisp homebrew apple cider.
In recent years, heritage apples have started gaining in popularity. The trees are still considered rare and hard to find at retail nursery stores.
At her you-pick orchard outside of Browerville, Heiling offers the opportunity to pick in-season fruits, including European pears, blueberries, strawberries, Evan’s pie cherries and a wide variety of apples.
“The berries I have change from time to time. I suppose I’ve grown just about every type of berry at one point or another, but grapes don’t really thrill me,” said Heiling.
Heiling maintains a diverse approach to agriculture and what she offers at markets across Central Minnesota. Her property affords her the space to grow and develop several different types of perennial landscaping plants including shrubs, shade trees, birch, hostas and Asian lilies.
“Last year I was selling some Asian lilies that had amazing colors you’ll just never see again,” she said.
Heiling also sells several birds including bantam chickens, peacocks and black swans. “I’ve also raised pheasants, ducks and geese in the past,” she said.
“I used to travel a lot selling birds but Avian Influenza has put a stop to a lot of opportunities, so I’ve got birds everywhere,” Heiling said.
Heiling travels all across Minnesota selling her plants in Annandale, Detroit Lakes, Pine City, Belgrade and Fergus Falls. Residents interested in buying her plants or connecting with her for you-pick opportunities can find her at the Farmers-Growers market in Little Falls on Wednesdays. She is currently offering a wide assortment of hardy perennial landscaping plants and flowers.
“Right now I’m in the process of starting and moving to a new property, so I’m still developing some plans for the future. Eventually I would like to have people come visit in the fall when the apples are at their peak. I want them to have the chance to taste all the different apples and then I’d have potted plants available for them to buy. In time I would love to do that with pears too,” said Heiling.
“I love this lifestyle, working with plants and in the garden,” she said. “I always joke with people saying that someday I’ll die in the garden and they’ll just have to till me under. I’ll never quit doing this.”