67-County Alabama Garden Party: Marshall County

The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Marshall County Tomato Fest – A Four-Course Tomato Sampler Meal (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.

Marshall County

Sand Mountain, Alabama is to tomatoes what Vidalia, Georgia is to onions. Tomatoes from Marshall County and surrounding area—ARE THE TOP! In the words of Broadway composer Cole Porter, “(Sand Mountain tomatoes) are the Mona Lisa, the Tower of Pisa, the Roman Coliseum and the Louvre Museum.” Baby, Sand Mountain tomatoes–ARE THE TOP!

Archaeological evidence indicates this part of Alabama has been inhabited by humans for 9,000 years. Cherokee and Creek Indians had many villages here along the Tennessee River. After the Native American removal of the early 1800s, Marshall County was established by the state Legislature in January 1836.

Sand Mountain is a sandstone plateau in northeastern Alabama and is the tip of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The elevation makes this “the coolest climate” in the state. There is also rich soil and plenty of sunshine. This naturally occurring combination of elements ensures tomatoes grown in Marshall County and the immediate area—ARE THE TOP!

One of the findings from the 67-County Alabama Garden Party is, “Gardening is our popular art.” Alabama has produced world-class artists like Harper Lee, Brother Joseph Zoettel and Nat King Cole. But, where art stars shine brightest in our state is with the hundreds of colorful, imaginatively composed and exquisitely executed gardens.

It is estimated more than 80% of Alabamians practice the art and science of gardening, whether that’s creating an ornamental flower garden, an “edible schoolyard” vegetable garden, a window box or farming.

Even though I am a certified Alabama Master Gardener, I fully recognize there are many, many gardeners throughout the state who never heard a professional horticulture lecture or read a page in the superb Master Garden curriculum who can run rings of well-tilled soil around me and most Master Gardeners. A gathering of these uncertified-but-masterful Alabama gardeners could fill Jordan-Hare and Bryant-Denney Stadiums.

That said, back in June of this year, the program for my Master Gardener county meeting provided a powerfully positive answer for the question: WHY BECOME AN ALABAMA MASTER GARDENER?

The coordinator of the Marshall County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System traveled to the county I live in to share “Tips for Growing Alabama’s Top Tomatoes.” And, the learning was made fun because the Extension coordinator in our county created a “Jeopardy-like” quiz game on tomatoes. Here are some Master Gardener notes, but the information with a dynamic exchange of tomato Q&A was much better LIVE with these knowledgeable plantsmen:

*TOP TOMATOES NEED TOP SUNLIGHT- Choose an area that regularly gets at least seven hours of unfiltered sunshine. If you absolutely can’t find a sunny spot to grow tomatoes you may have to accept that fruit production will be lower than in gardens with full-day, direct sun. Also, gardens without good morning sun to dry the dewy leaves are subject to more plant diseases. These heirloom tomatoes grow rather well in partial shade but will need some sunlight: Green Zebra (striped), Topaz (yellow), Arkansas Traveler (pink), Principe Borghese (red), Golden Sunray (orange), Black Cherry (purple/black).

*TOP TOMATO PLANTS NEED ROOM TO GROW- Plant seedlings 30 to 48 inches apart and rows should be 48 inches apart—this allows the lower parts of the plants to receive sunlight and improves the air flow.

*TOP TOMATO PLANTS HAVE UNIQUE SOIL NEEDS- and thrive in rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soil with a pH of 6.5 to 6.8. Pick up a “soil tester” from your local office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System or a garden center. If soil is too alkaline add composted organic matter. If soil is too acidic add dolomite lime.

*TIMING FOR TOP TOMATOES- Tomatoes like warmth. Wait until the soil temperature is consistently over 60 degrees Fahrenheit before planting outside. If the temperature is still iffy, use row covers.

*TOP TOMATOES NEED DEEP ROOTS- When you plant, snip off lower branches, then cover the root and stem to the first set of leaves.

*TOP NEIGHBORING PLANTS FOR TOP TOMATOES- Plant basil and onions near your tomatoes plants to help the tomatoes repel pests like those dastardly nematodes. (The Dastardly Nematodes would make a good name for a punk rock band.)

*TOP TOMATOES AIN’T FOR SUCKERS- Tomato plants send out “suckers” (leaves that shoot out from the main stem). Carefully prune these “suckers” off to let the plant’s energy go to produce fruit.

*TOAST TOP TOMATOES WITH COMPOST “TEA”- Soak one part water to one part organic compost and let this sit for 24 hours. Then, pour the “tea” and nourish your plants.

*TOP TOMATOES WANT TO BE CAGED- When fruit begins to sag on a branch give the plant support with a tomato stake or a cage.

One last thing to do for “top tomatoes”- Rather than putting unripe tomatoes on your windowsill, they will ripen better if you put them in a lightly-closed brown paper sack. What tomatoes at this stage need to help them ripen is warmth, not sunlight.

Marshall County and the Sand Mountain area are TOP for tomato growing, but there are many other positive and pleasurable PLANTS + PEOPLE things to explore here on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour. Also, enjoy the array of festive recipes Laurie Johnson has created to celebrate gardeners in this part of our state:

*ALBERTVILLE FARMERS’ MARKET- 116 West Main St., Albertville, AL 35551; Thursdays 3-6 p.m., May-October

*ARAB FARMERS’ MARKET- 307 North Main St., Arab, AL 36016; Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; April-November

*ASBURY FARMERS’ MARKET- 5000 Martling Road, Albertville, AL 35551; Fridays 3-6 p.m., May-November

*BOAZ FARMERS’ MARKET- 108 Line St., Boaz, AL 35957; Mondays-Saturdays, 6 a.m.-8 p.m., YEAR ROUND

*GUNTERSVILLE FARMERS’ MARKET- 880 Sunset Dr., Guntersville, AL 35976; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday 7 a.m.-1 p.m. (or until sold out), April 2-October 31

*MARSHALL COUNTY FARMSTANDS- Harville Harvest (Albertville), Jean Moore (Albertville), Kris Atchley (Grant), Winfrey Farms (Boaz)



*MARSHALL COUNTY STRAWBERRIES- Jerry Phillips (Guntersville)

*LAKE GUNTERSVILLE STATE PARK- (Guntersville area) created as Little Mountain State Park in 1947; 5,909 acres on the eastern shore of Guntersville Lake, a 69,000 impoundment of the Tennessee River; enjoy hiking trails, wildflowers, American Bald Eagle nests and sightings amongst the tall trees, and a Level 2 ziplining course through the tree canopy.

*POKE SALAT (Salad) FESTIVAL- (Arab) The 35th Annual celebration of this roadside plant was held in May 2019 with imaginative and tasty recipes, live music and a giant salad bowl of tasty fun.

*THREE-ACRE STALAGMITE FOREST- (Grant) Cathedral Caverns State Park is a publicly-owned recreation area and natural history preserve at Kennamer Cove near Grant. Much of the caverns is wheelchair-accessible. During the American Civil War, the Kennamer family of Marshall County lived in the cave for months after its home was burned by Union soldiers.

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Create a “SAND MOUNTAIN TOP TOMATO” branding program to highlight the consistent customer demand for tomatoes from this part of Alabama. Vidalia, Georgia has created a vast, passionate desire for its onion brand. And, Georgia farmers and farm workers have benefited from its efforts. Sand Mountain tomatoes are valued as the “top” and deserve top recognition and top dollar. For years, in farmers’ markets in the Birmingham and Huntsville metro areas, chefs, cooks and many just making a BLT know to purchase Sand Mountain tomatoes.

*MARSHALL COUNTY TOMATO & OTHER PLANT ADVICE: Marshall County office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, 424 Blount Ave. #G21, Guntersville, AL 35976, 256-582-4796; this is also the place to explore being an Alabama Master Gardener.

Y’ALL COME to Marshall County on your 67-County Alabama Garden Party tour! You’ll have top-prize tomatoes and the friendly folks will make you feel like—YOU’RE THE TOP!

Marshall County Tomato Fest – A Four-Course Tomato Sampler Meal (~ 4 servings)

“You say toe-maae-toe, I say toe-mayyh-toe.”  We can’t even agree on how to pronounce it, so we certainly couldn’t agree on just one way to enjoy seasonal, Alabama-grown tomatoes – wouldn’t be right.  This is a true “tomato fest,” a four-course sampler meal, complete with a soup, salad, main dish and dessert course.  Since there are four of them, these recipes are a bit abbreviated, integrating ingredients and instructions into one narrative (so please read through them all before starting).  Have fun celebrating Marshall County’s, and all of Alabama’s, home-grown tomatoes with this comforting, yet creative “tomato fest” four–course meal! 

  • Soup Course – Tomato Basil Bisque with Grilled Cheese Crouton
    • Core and coarsely chop 8 large vine-ripe tomatoes. Roast half of them in a 400F oven with some chopped onions, salt/pepper and olive oil for ~ 8 minutes.  Place the other half with 2 tbsp. minced mint leaves into a food processor or blender and process until smooth.  Place the half with mint into the refrigerator to chill until used with the Sorbet recipe.  Take the roasted half and puree in the blender or processor and place into a saucepan.  Add 3 tbsp. minced fresh basil leaves, 1-2 cup white wine, salt and pepper and simmer on low for ~ 30 minutes until thickened. Taste and season as needed. Before serving, add 1/4 cup heavy cream and simmer a few more minutes until thickened again.  Serve warm with a grilled cheese crouton- a crostini, broiled with butter, grated cheddar and Parmesan cheese, and a basil sprinkle garnish. (If wanting to keep a day before serving, which can enhance the flavors) refrigerate or even freeze before adding the cream. Re-heat, add cream, simmer and serve.)
  • Salad Course – BLT Boats
    • Mix 3 tbsp. mayonnaise with 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar together and spread lightly into 4 romaine lettuce spears. Top with halved cherry tomato chunks and crispy fried bacon or diced pancetta chunks.  If desired, top with blue cheese crumbles and black pepper.
  • Main Course – Fried Green Tomatoes with Gulf Shrimp Remoulade
    • Slice 4 green tomatoes into ~ 1/4-inch slices and soak in buttermilk with several shakes of hot sauce in the refrigerator for a few hours or even overnight. In a plastic storage bag, mix 1 cup cornmeal, 1/2 cup flour, and liberally season with salt, black pepper, garlic powder, dried parsley and paprika.  Drain excess liquid from tomatoes and shake them in the meal/flour mixture.  In a skillet with about 1 inch of hot vegetable oil, pan fry tomatoes until golden on both sides.  Drain on paper towels and serve hot, topped with a dollop of roasted tomato remoulade sauce (see Hale County recipe) a couple of large, seasoned Gulf shrimp (steamed or roasted), more sauce and minced fresh 
  • Dessert – Tomato Sorbet with Local Honey Drizzle and Mint
    • In a sauce pan, bring 1 cup each granulated cane sugar and water to boil until sugar dissolves and the mixture thickens a little. Add 1 tsp. balsamic vinegar (fruit-flavored, like black cherry if you have it) and 2 tbsp. grenadine syrup (I used one with cherry and pomegranate). Press the (earlier refrigerated) tomato/mint puree though a fine sieve and discard solids (or re-process and press again). Stir together the sieved tomato puree, the sugar syrup and 1 tbsp. additional minced mint leaves and chill well (a few hours) before processing, as directed, in an ice cream machine until firm. Freeze until ready to serve.  If no ice cream machine, pour into a shallow pan, freeze, and scrape out with a fork, like a granita.  Serve frozen tomato sorbet scoops with a shortbread or sugar cookie and a drizzle of local honey, garnished with fresh mint leaves.

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

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Ben South