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Friday, Jun 22, 2018
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Going ape for grapes

BRANDON – Dover resident Augustine Nobles, 69, knows a thing or two about picking grapes.

“They should be soft to the touch,” Nobles said, walking between rows bulging with muscadine grapes bearing monikers such as Scarlett and Tara. She plucked one and held it out for inspection. “The softer they are, the sweeter they are.”

Granddaughters Asia Nobles, 10, and Jordyn Close, 9, dutifully poked the grape, peered into the golden clusters and soon began to plop their own plump little fruits into plastic lime-colored buckets.

The trio descended upon Thompson’s Nursery & Vineyard in Valrico on a recent sunny morning to pick grapes to eat, and to take to Nobles’ 95-year-old mother in Jakin, Ga. At $1.99 a pound, Nobles thought it a bargain.

The nursery, nestled between housing developments on 5.5 acres on Miller Road, opened its annual “pick your own” produce to the public in early August, and likely will remain open until the end of the month, said 73-year-old proprietors Randy Thompson, and his wife, LaRay.

They opened to the public later than usual because unrelenting rains slowed the ripening process. “We needed sunshine. We clipped rows to make sure sun could get to the majority of grapes,” Randy Thompson explained. “The grapes tell us when to do U-Pick.”

The vineyard, started in 2007, contains seven varieties of muscadines, which are large, thick-skinned fruits developed from grapes native to the southeastern United States. When ripe, they can be eaten off the vine, made into jellies and juice, or turned into wine.

Town ‘N Country residents Brent and Connie Worrell made the trek to Valrico to gather advice, as well as grapes. The couple has six vines of their own, but a favorite producer is ailing. The leaves are yellow with brown streaks and the fruit has a crusty coating.

Randy Thompson eyed the bagged evidence and shook his head.

“I don’t know.” After considering several possibilities, Thompson called a Florida Grape Growers Association colleague to consult. The diagnosis: “It’s a fungus.”

The Worrells left with information and a few pounds of grapes.

“I just love those muscadine grapes,” Brent Worrell said. “They are very expensive and you can only get them for one month of the year, so I decided to start growing my own. It’s fun going out there and checking on your plants, pruning them and just taking care of them.”

The Thompsons also sell grape vine cuttings for customers to plant, though they have fewer to offer this summer. “A lot of cuttings drowned this year,” said Thompson. Only about 50 remain for sale, most in the $8 to $12 range.

Two varieties, the Southern Jewel and Delicious, are relatively new grape cultivars developed by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The Southern Jewel is a high-yielding, disease-resistant grape that produces fruit in big bunches. The Delicious also ripens early, is disease resistant and has exceptional taste and texture.

The nursery also participates in the University of Florida’s Stone Fruit Program, growing and selling a variety of peach trees cultivated to perform well in Central Florida.

Thompson estimates the nursery has 250 to 300 trees on the Miller Road property and at another location. The 3- to 4-foot-high trees cost $20 each.

Peach season in Florida runs from mid-March to the end of May. In August, though, it’s all about grapes.

“Ninety-nine percent of (customers) buy to eat and make jelly,” Thompson said.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to make your own jelly, a storefront on the property includes a Department of Agriculture-certified kitchen where LaRay Thompson concocts jewel-hued jellies in 8-ounce jars priced at $3.50 each. Jellies usually on hand include varieties of peach and grape, guava, star fruit, blueberry and – most popular, therefore often sold-out – pomegranate. LaRay Thompson makes one batch at a time “with lots of love and care, and it comes out great.”

The “pick your own” produce section is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, weather permitting. Customers are asked to leave during storms.

“There are seven to eight miles of wire (holding the vines), so we close down when there’s thunder and lightning,” said Thompson.

The nursery is open year-round. If the gate isn’t open, call the number at the front and someone will come around to help, Thompson said.

“It isn’t all about the money. We love people.”

If You Go

What: Thompson’s Nursery and Vineyard U-Pick; seven varieties of muscadine grapes

Where: 1104 S. Miller Road. Valrico

When: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays, weather permitting, throughout August

Cost: $1.99 per pound of muscadines

Contact: (813) 685-5175

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