The Cullman Tribune is celebrating the Alabama Bicentennial (1819-2019) with statewide field reporting by Alabama Master Gardener/Botanical Artist Ben Johnson South. This year-long feature, “The 67-County Alabama Garden Party,” will spotlight different counties each week. Each county will get its own “quilt block,” along with a historical profile, and we’ll share a recipe specific to the area. At the end of the year, all 67 counties will be put in a book to commemorate the Bicentennial.
Pickens County is “the berries.” Back when Pickens was established by the new State of Alabama in 1820, when something was “the berries” it meant it was “sweet, it was great, had you soppin’ the berry juice off the plate.” A line from an old parlor song said, “Life is just a bowl of cherries. So, keep repeating ‘it’s the berries.’”
An abundance of berries is grown in this west Alabama county on the Mississippi line. Pickens County is far enough north to grow some varieties of raspberries and even gooseberries. There are bushel baskets of strawberries grown every spring and you can still enjoy the sound of ping-ping-ping as you fill tin pails of wild blackberries every summer.
Berries are small fruits without a stone. Berries are extremely healthy to eat, promising protection against cancer and heart disease and boosting the immune system. One study indicates women with a higher intake of berries delay cognitive aging by two-and-a-half years.
Berries are even good for helping us humans get along with each other. As America’s greatest poet/farmer, Wendell Berry (his real and perfect name) has written, “Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup.”
Considering this contentious period in our country’s history, anybody with unfarmed parcels in Pickens County should start planting berries and shipping them throughout the nation. Thank y’all “berry” much.
Pickens County has a new coordinator, Dr. Jed Smart, at the local office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. His office is in the courthouse in Carrollton. This is the place to go in this part of the state with all your gardening, farming, landscaping and plant questions. While you visit, ask Smart about how you might add more berries to your plant inventory. There are berry varieties you can grow in pots, some that make handsome hedges and some ideal as edible ground covers.
Here are just a few berries to consider growing in Alabama:
*HEIRLOOM RASPBERRIES- Most raspberries find Alabama sun too hot, but there are varieties that thrive here; raspberries want full sun and well-drained, humus-rich soil; well-rotted cow manure makes a good mulch.
*BLUEBERRIES- You’ll get a summer bounty of big, beautiful blues in most parts of Alabama. Some high-bush varieties make an attractive, food-producing hedge. Get a soil test for the particular parts of land you are considering planting. For the greatest chance of success with blueberries, plan for acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. Blueberries want full sun for part of the day and light shade when the heat gets more intense. On a single plant, blueberries can vary from sweet to tart, which makes the most flavorful pies.
*BLACKBERRIES- You can enjoy fresh blackberries in Alabama from midsummer to frost, just be sure you choose plants that can take the heat. Blackberries grow nicely against a fence or “stand-alone” in a garden. Some blackberry bushes can yield up to 10 pounds of fruit.
Here are other PLANTS + PEOPLE things to enjoy in Pickens County on “THE 67-COUNTY, ALABAMA GARDEN PARTY” tour, including an original recipe for Pickens County Blackberry and Chicken Panini by gifted Alabama cook, Wren Manners:
*ALICEVILLE FARMERS’ MARKET- 419 Memorial Parkway East, Aliceville, AL 35442, Thursdays and Saturdays, 8 a.m.-noon, June 6-November 14
*GORDO FARMERS’ MARKET- 201 South Main Street, Gordo, AL 35466; Thursdays, 6-10 a.m., beginning each April
*WEST ALABAMA AG COMPANY- 25661 Highway 17 N, Carrollton, AL 35447; Wednesdays and Fridays, 7-11 a.m., May 23-Sept. 29
*THE LOVELIEST VIEW IN PICKENS COUNTY- I asked this of Karli Bridges Snoddy, who works with the Pickens County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System and lives in Pickensville, and she said she would take a landscape photographer or painter to the beautiful, Antebellum home at the Tom Bevill Welcome Center at the lock and dam on the Tombigbee River. While there, everyone will be charmed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers snagboat Montgomery, circa 1926, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
*MULE DAY and CHICKENFEST- (Gordo) annually the first weekend in June
*CREPE MYRTLE FESTIVAL- (Reform) local foods, crafts making and shopping, fun and games each June
*FACE IN THE WINDOW- For decades, ghost tourists have traveled to Pickens County Courthouse to see the outlined face of condemned prisoner, Henry Wells, which was etched by lightning. https://alabama.travel/places-to-go/pickens-county-courthouse-face-in-the-window
*FACE IN THE WINDOW FESTIVAL- (Carrollton) every fall on the downtown square
*SAM PLANT FARM- Greenhouses with rows and rows of plants available for cash-and-carry; 2804 County Road 45, Reform, AL 35482 205-375-2718
*PLANTING AN IDEA- With the great variety of berries grown in Pickens County and the variety of delicious food dishes the local cooks create with those berries, this would be a sweet place to launch A BERRY GOOD ALABAMA COOKBOOK. This could be a smart idea to explore with Dr. Smart and the friendly folks at the Alabama Cooperative Extension System office. I’m drooling as I imagine recipes and taste tests for Pickens County takes on: Blackberry and Chicken Panini, Blueberry Yogurt Popsicles, Vanilla Layer Cake with Strawberry Curd, Grilled Fontina and Blackberry Sandwiches, Mixed Berry Burrata Salad. This could be very berry tasty. (Stop your groaning, I promise this is my last berry pun.)
Y’all come to Pickens County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party. You’ll be berry glad you did.
Many thanks to Karli Bridges Snoddy of the Pickens County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System for her enthusiastic embrace of this plant-tourism salute and for her many ideas and suggestions. Also, THANK YOU to superb cook Wren Manners for sharing her coveted Blackberry and Chicken Panini recipe.
Pickens County – Blackberry and Chicken Panini
This is a very simple yet light and tasty summer sandwich.
- 2 slices of bread of your choice (I used a Naan flatbread.)
- 1 baked or grilled chicken breast
- 2 slices of cheese of your choice (I used provolone.)
- 1/3 cup of cleaned blackberries
- 1/4 thinly sliced red onion
- 2 fresh basil leaves
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp. apricot or peach jam
- Mayo (I used mayo mixed with a fuji apple dressing.)
- Spread the mayo and jam on both slices of bread.
- Lay your chicken breast down first on bottom slice of bread.
- Top the chicken with your cheese.
- Top with the basil leaves and red onion slices.
- Top with the fresh blackberries and salt and pepper.
- Top with sliced bread, jam side down.
- Lightly butter the top and bottom of the bread.
- In either a skillet or panini maker, grill your sandwich for about two minutes per side in skillet or about three minutes on the panini maker until the cheese has melted.
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