67-County Alabama Garden Party: Walker County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Deep Woods Tart with Wild Mushrooms, Leeks, Walnuts and Blackberries and a Berry, Balsamic Drizzle (right)

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.

Walker County

I’m writing this in August in Alabama heat that is hotter than the hinges of Hell. Most of the fragrant garden blossoms faded in mid-summer and the air is scented in much of the state with the pungent aroma of melted tar. It’s too hot to fish, too hot for golf but a perfect time to enjoy the emerald green coolness of the woodlands of Walker County.

When I was a child, this was the storybook forest from the tall tales my Alabama dad told. “Wicked John and the Devil” came alive in this coal-mining part of the country and I was certain Hansel and Gretel left a trail of crumbs and gumdrops in the Walker County woods. Plant life here is fantastically, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” larger-than-life and magically transporting.

Walker County is still proudly removed from the business of urban life, but it has always been a welcoming place. The winding roads, treacherous with even a dusting of snow in the winter, take you through green-tufted hills and craggy mountain ridges. For gardeners, a question that comes to mind in this part of the state is, “What plants thrive in this lovely shade?”

A “woodlands garden” is a romantic idea for many, but in forested areas like Walker County where a dense tree canopy and underbrush are concerns, gardening that is compatible with the shade just makes sense. As you walk under the shady canopy start a mental inventory of native plants that thrive in this rich, acidic soil carpeted with evergreen needles.

When you are imagining your woodlands garden, think like someone writing a fairy tale. Where do you want your story to lead someone? That is where you place steppingstones, walking paths and moments of intrigue and surprise. Nothing is angular or geometric. You are weaving an alluring tale through the woods. You don’t need to add a garden gnome, though you might just for fun.

Plan for a relaxed, lulling, natural look. Even though you are creating a dreamscape, be realistic about garden maintenance. This can be almost carefree gardening. What are the native grasses, ground covers and blooming plants? Your woodlands garden could be an ideal opportunity to celebrate native azaleas and rhododendrons.

Woodlands gardens are different from woodlands in that you impose some design. You’ll want to remove some scrubby undergrowth and random saplings and purge undesirable plants like poison oak and poison ivy. You might selectively, artistically prune some lower branches of trees to allow a bit more dappled sunlight.

Then, for most of us gardeners, the fun part is planting and nurturing new additions. Plants to consider for your “Alabama woodlands garden” would be the aforementioned azaleas, birches, flowering dogwood, oakleaf hydrangea and smaller magnolias. Many ferns want a shady glade; hostas, trilliums and wood lilies would be good choices. Consider a fernery or a stumpery. This is a garden where such imaginings would be a natural delight.

Shade-loving groundcovers like ajuga, mosses and vinca are good candidates for your woodlands garden. Allow them to undulate in cascading curves like the many creeks and streams in Walker County.

Finally, don’t over-garden and over-fiddle with the fiddlehead ferns. Relax with a storybook on your deck or picnic blanket and smile, enjoying the beauty of your Alabama woodlands garden as you pity those hot-time-summer-in-the-city urbanites sweltering while you and your gnomes and friendly giants and fairies savor the fantastical shade.

Here are other pleasurable and positive ways PLANTS + PEOPLE come together in Walker County, including a rustic, delicious, Deep Woods Tart recipe by Laurie Johnson which highlights woodland-gathered, wild mushrooms, wild onions, berries and walnuts, perfect for our Bicentennial salute:

*WALKER COUNTY FARMERS’ MARKET- 1600 North Airport Road, Jasper, AL 35504; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 7 a.m.-noon, May 18-November

*FORD GREENHOUSE AND HORTICULTURE- 8114 Old Tuscaloosa Road, Parrish, AL 35580; for local produce and plants; contact Richard Ford, 205-275-5335

*WALKER COUNTY BLUEBERRIES- Pike Deason U-Pick; 138 Deason Lane, Parrish, AL 35580; Mondays-Saturdays, 8 a.m.-noon, beginning in July; call ahead for what’s available, 334-686-7031

*JASPER FOOTHILLS FESTIVAL- (Jasper, AL) This FREE music, food and crafts event is on the historic courthouse square in downtown Jasper. Enjoy the burgeoning “foodie” culture with two craft beer breweries and seven restaurants celebrating Alabama-grown farm produce and products, Sept. 6-7. Two favorites are the Southern-fried onions at Warehouse 319 and the sweet potato pie at Victoria’s Restaurant, Bakery and Boutique.

*LEWIS SMITH DAM- The largest earthen dam east of the Mississippi River; enjoy boating, swimming, fishing, hiking, canoeing, picnicking, lollygagging. When I asked Danny Cain, coordinator of the Walker County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System where he would take a landscape photographer to capture the beauty of this part of the state, this was his enthusiastic suggestion.

*ARCHERY PARK- This is a major Alabama destination for bow-hunting enthusiasts at Walker County Lake.

*BANKHEAD HOUSE AND HERITAGE CENTER- 611 Eighth Ave., Jasper, AL 35501; This impressive arts and cultural hub for north Alabama was once the family home of earthy actress Tallulah Bankhead, star of stage and screen. Locals still share stories of Tallulah’s visits and her nude sunbathing in the backyard.

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Walker County woodlands would be an ideal place for an Alabama State Fernery for garden tourism and research. Some entrepreneurial plantsman or plantswoman might consider growing and branding Walker County Ferns with a marketing thrust something like that of the popular and lucrative Vidalia Georgia Onion plant brand, highlighting place and quality. There are numerous ferns to consider growing in this woodland area: Jeweled Chain Fern (woodwardia unigemmata) is showy with green arching fronds of red and green, Chilean hard fern (blechnum chilense)wows with heights as tall as 5 feet and Himalayan maidenhair fern (adiantum venustum) considered an easy-grower, creates a lacy, fine-textured, evergreen carpet.

Y’ALL COME to Walker County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour. Even in hot-as-Hades, Alabama summers this is a cool place to connect with nature. As noted naturalist John Muir said, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

Many thanks to Danny Cain and Pat Blackwell of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Walker County) and to Laurie Johnson for her original and delectable Walker County Deep Woods Tart recipe.

Walker County Deep Woods Tart with Wild Mushrooms, Leeks, Walnuts and Blackberries and a Berry, Balsamic Drizzle (8 small tarts ~ 4 main dish servings or 8 side dish servings)

This savory, rustic tart features plants likely gathered from the woods by our ancestors for their daily sustenance.  The combination of wild mushrooms, wild onions/leeks, walnuts, berries and herbs in a walnut-herb crust yields a bite that is “deep woods-earthy.” The balsamic berry drizzle adds a sweet, yet tart accent to this satisfying, meatless main dish, or it can accompany roasted wild game such as rabbit, venison or quail.

Ingredients for fillings and drizzle:

  • Cheese filling – 1 cup ricotta cheese, 1 egg, 3 tbsp. minced FRESH thyme, rosemary and sage
  • 2 cups mixed wild mushrooms, sliced (If using dried mushrooms – first, rehydrate as directed and save the rehydrating liquid.)
  • 2 large leeks, sliced lengthwise and roughly chopped (Reserve some green parts for later.)
  • Olive oil, butter, salt and black pepper (to taste)
  • 1/2 cup walnut quarters (Reserve a few for garnish.)
  • Additional approximately 3 tbsp. FRESH chopped thyme, rosemary and sage
  • 1 1/2 cup blackberries, divided – 1 for the drizzle and 1/2 for the filling (Reserve a few for garnish.)
  • 3 tbsp. balsamic vinegar divided – 2 for drizzle and 1 for filling – berry- or herb-infused if you have it
  • Lemon juice (from one lemon)
  • 2 tbsp. local honey (more or less, depending on how sweet your berries are)
  • Corn starch for thickening
  • Shaved Parmesan cheese (optional)

 

Ingredients for crust:

(Make your own using this recipe, or for a shortcut, use refrigerated pie crust and press the pulverized walnuts and herbs into it as you roll it out.)

  • 3 tbsp. walnut pieces
  • 1/2 tbsp. each DRIED thyme, rosemary and sage (Using fresh here will turn it into a paste instead of a pulverized “flour-like” mixture.)
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for handling and rolling out
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 8 oz. unsalted butter – cubed and chilled
  • 2/3 cups ice cold water
  • 1 egg – whisked until frothy – for egg wash on crust

 

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425F, line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and spritz with cooking spray.
  2. For crust:
    1. In a food processor, pulverize the walnuts and the DRIED herbs (Do this first step even if using a prepared crust.).  Add the flour and salt and process again until well mixed.  A little at a time, add the cold butter through the cylinder and pulse/process until crumbly.  With the processor running, add the ice-cold water all at once through the cylinder and process until the mixture forms a ball. If it’s a little sticky at this point, add more flour as you handle and press or it roll out.
    2. With floured hands, divide the dough into our equal balls, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes (or up to overnight) while you prepare the other ingredients.
  3. Prepare the drizzling sauce:
    1. Place 1 cup blackberries, balsamic, lemon juice and honey in a small saucepan.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer and stir occasionally for about 10 minutes, smashing the berries as they break down.  Strain through a fine sieve, pressing the last liquid through with a spoon. Discard seeds and set sauce aside.
  4. Prepare the 2 fillings:
    1. Mix ricotta with the fresh herbs, 1 beaten egg and salt and pepper.  Put into a strainer/sieve over a bowl or sink to allow extra moisture to drain out; set aside.  Press with paper towels to press out more liquid before using.
    2. In a heavy skillet, sauté the mushrooms and leeks in 2 tbsp. (total) olive oil and butter with salt and pepper until softened and the moisture mostly cooks off.  Add 1 tbsp. balsamic about halfway into the sautéing.  If you have reserved mushroom rehydrating liquid, add a few tbsp. (or red or white wine or water, if not) and a little corn starch (1 tbsp. max).  Cook very lightly while mixing in the extra moisture and thickening agent.  Turn off the heat and fold in additional chopped fresh herbs, walnuts and 1/2 C blackberries.  Let the filling stand and thicken on the warm burner while you roll the crusts, stirring occasionally.
  5. Assemble the tarts:
    1. On a floured board or counter, halve the 4 dough balls and press/roll out into 8 roughly 5-inch circles, ovals or squares (whatever works for you).  If using prepared crust, sprinkle with the pulverized walnuts and herbs and press into the dough. Transfer the crusts to the prepared pan.
    2. Spread each crust, in the center approximately 3 inches, with a layer of the ricotta mixture and then cover with a layer of the mushroom filling.
    3. Lightly brush the inside rim of the crust with egg wash and turn up around the filling from each corner toward the center, pinching the corners so the filling can’t escape easily.  Don’t completely cover the tart; leave some filling exposed in the middle.  Brush the tops of the crusts with egg wash and sprinkle with a little coarse salt.
  6. Bake at 425 F for about 25-30 minutes until brown and set.  Rotate pan 1/3 and 2/3 of the way through. Cover lightly with foil if browning too quickly.  Sprinkle with shaved Parmesan (if desired) and uncover during last few minutes of baking.
  7. Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then slide tarts onto a serving platter or plates.  Drizzle with berry sauce and garnish with extra berries, walnuts, herbs or leeks, as desired.

 

Also, check out Alabama Bicentennial: 200 ways to save Alabama for the next 200 years.

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Ben South