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Voyageur's Best Features of 2001

Great River Gardens

A farm that has grown
Great River Gardens gears up for the growing season
by Cynthia Brekke  |  April 24, 2001

Spring is beginning to bust out all over, and nowhere so obviously as on our area farms, where newborn animals can be seen hobbling about and fields are being prepared to plant. This month we visited Great River Gardens, located north of Aitkin on Highway 169.

Great River Gardens is a huge, bustling operation, with six giant greenhouses filled with annuals and perennials, ornamental grasses, ground covers, and hanging baskets. A field of perennials was recently uncovered from under layers of hay and plastic, ready to be coaxed back to beauty after a winter's rest. Fields lay ready to be tilled and planted. Soon, asparagus will be ready to harvest.

Joe Riehle, owner of Great River Gardens, began his venture in 1986, when he and a partner planted a new strain of blueberries to sell on the market. They needed a source of income earlier in the season, and so purchased a greenhouse from the Ogren Brothers Nursery on Highway 210, who had just gone out of business. Joe has been on his own for the past ten years, and in that time the farm has grown to include many different facets: greenhouse/nursery, the Garden Center, fresh produce farm (wholesale, retail, and pick-your-own), and landscaping.

"Coordinating all of the different ventures is a real challenge," Joe said of the farm. "We are focusing on a variety of things in a limited market, and that means a lot of details to keep on top of." All of the segments of the business are seasonal, and that means a boom and bust cash flow, as well as a highly varied job description for each of the 25 employees at the farm.

Before working at Great River Gardens, Manager Deb Roettger says she "had some interest in gardening". After five years of being employed at the farm, she can't help but be a bit of an expert. The work required may be physical or repetitive at times, but it requires knowledge of what is happening with the plants and why. Deb says that Joe, who has a degree in Horticulture, "is really good at teaching his employees, and wants them to really think." As anyone who is involved in gardening of any kind knows, the learning never ends.

Employees came back to work in February, when they began their weekly seeding and transplanting schedule. They not only start their own plants to grow or sell, but also start plants for large farms and special civic projects such as a wetland project they are currently involved in to restore the lakeshore.

Great River Gardens supplies it's Aitkin Garden Center, and various farmers markets, farm stands and grocery stores in the area with its produce grown at the farm. They have five acres planted in asparagus, (available May - July), five acres of blueberries (available in August), five acres of sweet corn, one acre of strawberries, and four acres of a variety of other vegetables, including melons, squash, pumpkins, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage.

But the biggest part of their business is in selling their plants and trees, which they either start from seed or ship in from other wholesalers. They receive large flats of plugs, which are transplanted and grown to various sizes to sell. Seeing the rows upon rows of available plants and hanging pots is enough to make any gardener's heart beat faster.

The Aitkin Garden Center opens for the season in late April. For more information on products or pick-your own fields you can call Great River Gardens at (218) 927-2521.