67-County Alabama Garden Party: Elmore County

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The Alabama honeysuckle border was inspired by an 18th century, Southern applique quilt. (left) Elmore County Greek Inspired Chicken (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.

Elmore County

My mother’s favorite ornamental garden in Alabama, other than the one she and my dad created, was Jasmine Hill in Elmore County. Jasmine Hill is more than 20 acres of floral beauty and classical, Greek sculpture including statuary honoring mythical gods and goddesses and numerous tributes to Olympic heroes and heroines. In fact, the Olympic flame burned in a cauldron at Jasmine Hill on its way from Olympia, Greece to the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jasmine Hill is known as “Alabama’s Little Corner of Greece.”  This is a quiet place except for birdsong and a peaceful, green haven for thinkers and dreamers. There are spectacular vistas of the Appalachian Mountain foothills which undulate through Elmore County near the middle of the state. Above the towering pines and flowering dogwoods, American eagles and hawks soar.

The austere stoicism of stone statuary transports you to the Mediterranean coastline with waves of blooming flowers and spreading evergreens replacing the sea. As you gaze at an exact replica of The Temple of Hera you are mentally transported to the Greece of 7th century B.C.

Jasmine Hill was the creation of Benjamin and Mary Fitzgerald, who began it in the 1930s. The Fitzgeralds were a wealthy couple who owned various stores throughout the American South and had the good fortune to sell their businesses just before the crash of the “Great Depression” and then retired to the remote countryside in Elmore County.

Grecophiles, “characterized by a love of Greece and Grecian things,” is a word the Fitzgeralds used to describe themselves and their passion. They made 20 trips to Greece to purchase art objects and to study at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Jasmine Hill is something like an outdoor museum, a “living memorial” to ancient Greece slapdab in the middle of Alabama.

Since the early 1970s, Jasmine Hill has been supported by Jim and Elmore Inscoe, who have continued the work of the Fitzgeralds. What visitors often comment on is how the Fitzgeralds and then the Inscoes after them have combined “great works of man and glorious nature in harmony.”

When you tour the gardens at Jasmine Hill, don’t expect to be abruptly flung into a Disney-esque mini-Greece. There has been great thought given to marrying the natural terrain and plantlife of Elmore County with the ancient Greek elements. For instance, the paths that meander through much of the acreage were crafted from native stone where “carved and harvested from neighboring valleys.” This was part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) skills instruction project in the 1930s.

Most of us can’t match the financial resources of the Fitzgeralds and few match their Grecophile obsession, but there are still many Greek garden inspirations for Alabama gardeners to be discovered at Jasmine Hill including these:

SYMMETRY- in garden design lends an illusion of order and generally makes for a more formal experience. Think of this as one side “mirroring” another. Symmetrical elements mean a pairing of plantings or possibly a pair of urns or columns. If you desire order and symmetry, when you place an urn or shrub on one side of a walkway, then place an urn or shrub of similar scale and type on the opposite side of the path. In a word, duplicate.

GARDEN STATUARY- is a grand way to add a focal point or points. Jasmine Hill has an array of magnificent original and reproduction stoneworks to inspire home and public gardeners.

TERRACOTTA- is not a gardening trend. Terracotta is timeless. It’s been in gardens for thousands of years. Terracotta is classic as are many of the traditional pots made of this hard-baked clay. The quality of terracotta varies by the quality of clay sourced to create it and the craft of the artisan. Many certain terracotta pots used out-of-doors in Alabama have holes for drainage. The greatest risk to terracotta is standing water in freezing temperatures. Terracotta ages beautifully through the years as the pots at Jasmine Hill attest, but if you wish to speed the aged look of patina, paint your pots with organic yogurt. This simple “aging” process is also effective on stoneworks like garden statuary.

DROUGHT-TOLERANT PLANTS- in Greek gardens are tough and weather-resistant. Plant selection avoids the overly delicate and temperamental.

SHADE- is as treasured in Greek gardens in the intense summers as it is in Alabama landscapes. Plan for vine-covered pergolas and drought-tolerant shade trees.

OLIVE TREES- can be grown in Alabama. There is even a commercial olive farm in southernmost Baldwin County. A few years ago, Jason Powell, who owns the popular Alabama nursery, Petals from the Past (Thorsby, AL), started supplying olive trees for customers who want to grow their own olives and possibly make olive oil at home. The Texas olive Petals from the Past offers is the cold-hardy Arbequina. Olive trees in our state have a spotty history, including a failed “French olive colony” in west Alabama in the 18th century. It is estimated there are 800 million olive trees grown in countries like Greece, which surround the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps the Arbequina and other cold-hardy olives can give Alabama gardeners some 21st century success with this cherished plant.

“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the poem written by John Keats in 1819, has a theme of the transient nature of human existence. The scenes he describes, which circle the vessel from ancient Greece, are of romantic pursuit and religious ceremony. What Keats reminds us is human life is fleeting, but beauty like that of the urn or his poem or the gardens at Jasmine Hill remain. The famous ending lines of the work are: “Beauty is truth. Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.”

Jasmine Hill gardens are open Fridays and Saturdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m.; admission is $10 for adults, $6 for children 3-12, free for children 2 and younger, $8 for military and senior citizens; www.jasminehill.org

When you come to experience the truth and beauty found at Jasmine Hill on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour, here are other pleasurable and positive PLANTS + PEOPLE things to enjoy in Elmore County including an ode-worthy Grecian chicken recipe by talented culinary Olympian Wren Manners:

*MILLBROOK FARMERS’ MARKET- Main Street at Grandview Road, Millbrook, AL 35054; Tuesdays 8 a.m.-noon, May-August

*TRINITY EPISCOPAL FARMERS’ MARKET- Charles Avenue at Highway 231, Wetumpka, AL 36092; Saturdays 8 a.m.-noon, May-July

*ELMORE COUNTY FARMSTANDS- Arnold Witherspoon, 7148 Coosa River Road, Deatsville, AL 36022; Oakview Farms, 164 Dewberry Trail, Wetumpka, AL 36093

*ELMORE COUNTY BLACKBERRIES- (Millbrook) Barber Berry Farm; also, blueberries and muscadines

*ELMORE COUNTY DAYLILIES- (Wetumpka) J&J Berry Farm; also, blueberries and blackberries

*ELMORE COUNTY STRAWBERRIES- (Wetumpka) Oakview Farms; also blueberries

*ELMORE COUNTY FIGS/PERSIMMONS/PEARS/GRAPES- Porter’s Place, 3865 Central Plank Road, Wetumpka, AL 36092, 334-514-9642

*ELMORE COUNTY PLANT ADVICE/EDUCATION- Alabama Cooperative Extension System local office at 340 Queen Ann Road, Wetumpka, AL 36092, 334-567-6301

*JIM SCOTT’S GARDEN- (Lake Martin) Mr. Scott, a retired lawyer and Montgomery, AL native, is another mesmerizing gardening storyteller in this county, something like the famous Fitzgeralds and Inscoes of Jasmine Hill. His lakeside garden is a popular site for fundraising events and is regularly open for tours; it’s 9 acres of landscaped intrigue with numerous viewpoints on winding trails.

*ELMORE COUNTY BOTANICAL PHOTOGRAPHY- The apple doesn’t fall far for garden-loving families as is proven by the extraordinary artworks of Elmore DeMott, daughter of the Jasmine Hill Inscoes. www.elmoredemott.com

*WILLIAM BARTRAM ARBORETUM TRAIL- Celebrates the famed botanist who worked in this part of the state. The trail winds through the forested section of the Fort Toulouse/Jackson National Historic Site which also has heritage crafts events and campgrounds with a boat launch; 2521 West Fort Toulouse Road, Wetumpka, AL 36093, 334-567-3002.

*ELMORE COUNTY PLANT NURSERIES- 3 AM Growers; Little Mountain Growers; Seman Growers

*ELMORE COUNTY LOCAL FOOD EATERIES- Blue Ribbon Dairy; George’s River Market & Butchery

*CORNFIELD COUNTY FARMS- (Redland/Wetumpka) family-owned, agri-entertainment business open each Fall during pumpkins season for wagon rides, zipline, cotton/pumpkin/peanut patch

*BLUE RIBBON DAIRY- 5290 Chana Creek Road, Tallassee, AL 36078, 334-207-5979; batch pasteurized, cream-like milk that comes straight from pasture-raised cows

*ALABAMA COTTON FESTIVAL- (Eclectic) www.townofeclectic.com; every October

*PLANTING AN IDEA- Jasmine Hill in Elmore County has been nationally recognized for garden design for 90 years. This would be a natural place in Alabama for an annual showcase on garden design which could span centuries from ancient Greece to 21st century sustainability.

Y’ALL COME to Elmore County on your 67-County, Alabama Garden Party tour! It’s quite unique, and Jasmine Hill is delightfully Greek.

Elmore County Greek Inspired Chicken (4 servings)

Elmore County, Alabama may seem an unlikely spot to have a little haven of Greek-influenced landscaping and structures, but not an unlikely place to create wonderful Greek-inspired recipes.  This simple chicken dish combines wine, olives and herbs and is paired with flavorful jasmine rice and asparagus for a comforting Greek feast, right here in Alabama.

Ingredients:

  • 4 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • 1 tbsp. canola oil
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/4cup pitted Kalamata olives, halved
  • Fresh rosemary
  • 1 shallot, sliced into rings
  • 2 cups cooked jasmine rice
  • 1 bunch of asparagus – tough ends removed

Instructions:

  1. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper.
  2. In a cast iron or other oven-proof skillet, melt butter and add canola oil on medium-high heat.
  3. Place chicken thighs in skillet, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes.
  4. Flip the chicken over and cook another 4 minutes.
  5. Add the wine and nestle the olives and some rosemary sprigs between the chicken pieces.
  6. Preheat the oven to 375 and bake the thighs for 40 minutes (internal temp of 165).
  7. While the chicken is baking, sauté the asparagus and shallots in butter for 4 to 6 minutes, then add the precooked jasmine rice to the asparagus.
  8. Remove the chicken from the skillet and set aside. Use the juice in the pan and add the rice and asparagus to the skillet. Mix and place the chicken thighs back on top of the rice mixture.
  9. Garnish with fresh rosemary.

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

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Ben South