For most gardeners living in northern Minnesota, the start of the spring growing season is still a few weeks away.
But at Forest Glen Farm in rural Frazee, the Flynn family has been hard at work for a couple of months already, getting their herbs and vegetables started from seed and ready to transplant into the farm's two high tunnel greenhouses."Our growing season starts in January and goes into October," said Lisa Flynn during a gardening workshop hosted by the Washington Square Mall on March 25, as part of its Blooming Art Spring Craft & Vendor Show.
The all-organic farm operation was started by Dallas Flynn (Lisa's father), back in 1985 — but these days Dallas says he leaves most of the growing to his daughter and wife, Mary.
"Mary and Lisa are the gardeners," he added. "I do the tilling and watering, and run the irrigation systems."
In fact, Mary and Lisa are so adept at growing things that they have started up their own online blog, called The Gardening Gals, at www.gardeninggals.com. It was this blog that caught the attention of Washington Square Mall Manager Dawn Olson, who asked the Flynns if they would like to do a gardening workshop as part of the mall's spring showcase for small local vendors and artists.
While it's Mary who knows "pretty much all there is to know about growing tomatoes," according to Dallas, it was Lisa who stepped up to the task of presenting the gardening workshop, so she chose to focus on her specialty: growing herbs, from seed to garden.
"It's the same process for vegetables and flowers," Lisa said, noting that when it comes to choosing which varieties to plant, "It's kind of trial and error."
"We use organic principles," she added, but because the farm has two high-tunnel greenhouses that use solar energy to heat the soil as well as the air, they are actually able to extend their growing season from the standard 3-4 months for this region to as long as 9-10 months — all without the use of chemicals.
"We typically have tomatoes the first week of June," says Dallas. "Most people don't have their first crop until August."
Though high tunnel technology has been around the agriculture and gardening industry for decades, the Flynns' operation is unique enough that it has garnered significant media attention over the years, Lisa noted. "People are always asking for tours," she added.
This is because their method of using solar energy to not only heat the air, but also the soil — from underneath — is an innovation that Dallas came up with himself.
"I like to experiment," he says. "I put up a bunch of solar panels, then funneled the hot air (generated by the panels) down into the soil."
More specifically, he used a series of corrugated tile lines buried beneath each of their two high tunnel houses to pump the heat from the solar panels underneath the soil, in a manner similar to a geothermal heating system.
"It's the first one in the world, that's what I've been told," Flynn said of his system.
In fact, the environment inside the greenhouses is warm enough that the Flynns can grow everything from tomatoes, cucumbers and raspberries to fruit trees that bear "peaches, pears, sweet cherries, nectarines, big blue plums and apricots," says Dallas.
"It's a fun hobby," he added, noting that they also have "about 1,000 logs for growing shiitake mushrooms."
And then of course, there are the herbs: Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just the beginning. Oregano, cilantro, mint and more can also be found in the Flynns' gardens, which actually take up a fairly small portion of the 160 acres bordering a small environmental lake and a piece of the Otter Tail River.
"It's heaven," says Dallas, noting that he and his wife like to spend many a summer evening out in their gazebo (which he built himself), occasionally sampling some of the wine that was made from the Frontenac grapes that they grow in their small vineyard.
In fact, he added, it's gotten to the point where they don't do much traveling anymore, even in winter: they simply stay indoors when it gets too cold, and the view is beautiful no matter the time of year.
And when he wants to go deer hunting, all he has to do is invite some friends out to the log cabin that he built in the middle of the woods, about a half mile from the main house. His "deer camp" even has bedrooms now, which were added on in the last few years.
"We absolutely love it out here," says Dallas. "I have no desire to leave."