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Outdoors: Turkeys

Turkey numbers down, but optimism rising

Glenn Wheeler arranges Knight and Hale turkey decoys for a hunt. Photo by John N. Felsher
Glenn Wheeler arranges Knight and Hale turkey decoys for a hunt. Photo by John N. Felsher

Turkey hunters hope to spot more birds when the 2016 season begins across most of Alabama on March 15. During the past few years, turkey populations have dropped, but that trend might change.

“During the past five years, Alabama turkey numbers slightly declined from about 500,000 to 400,000 statewide, but that’s only an estimate,” says Steve Barnett, the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’ Wild Turkey Project Study Leader. “Turkey numbers can vary greatly from one site to the next.”

Turkeys thrive in hardwood bottomlands and diverse forests where they roost in trees. They also like fields and meadows where they can catch insects. Poults, or juvenile birds, rely heavily upon insects for food. Turkeys also need nesting cover.

“Most wildlife biologists feel that the turkey population is declining because of a lack of good nesting and brood-rearing habitat,” Barnett says. “The best turkey woods are those with open canopies so a lot of sunlight reaches the ground, encouraging ground-layer plants to grow. It can’t be so thick that poults can’t move through it, but enough to provide cover from predators. They need plants that harbor good insect populations because that’s what poults mostly eat.”

Increasing predator populations, such as bobcats, foxes and coyotes, also affect turkey populations. Birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles, take many poults. In addition, increasing numbers of skunks, opossums and raccoons can hurt turkey populations. These animals raid nests and eat turkey eggs. Years ago, people used to trap these animals for fur, but few people hunt or trap these furbearers now.

To sustain a viable population, each turkey hen must produce two poults per year. Across Alabama, hens produced slightly more than two poults per year from 2010 to 2012. Production dropped to 1.43 poults in 2013, but rose slightly to 1.74 by 2015. Turkeys can live about 10 years, but hunters typically kill two-year-old birds. Therefore, hunter success largely depends upon how the breeding season went two years earlier.

“The good news, based upon turkey hunter surveys comparing 2014 to 2015, hunters saw a lot more jakes, or immature male turkeys, during the 2015 season,” Barnett says. “That should bode well for the upcoming season. Turkeys about two years old typically gobble the most. Like all animals, turkey populations go in cycles. I hope we are in the valley of that cycle and rebounding. We need some consecutive years of good brood rearing success.”

Working with Auburn University, the state began trapping turkeys on Oakmulgee, James D. Martin-Skyline and Barbour wildlife management areas in early 2015 to fit them with radio transmitters and leg bands. Data collected will provide biologists with information about turkey movements, reproduction and survival rates on the study areas. The research project will last several years.

Part of the Talladega National Forest, Oakmulgee WMA includes 44,500 acres in Bibb, Hale, Perry and Tuscaloosa counties southeast of Tuscaloosa. One of the most scenic public properties in Alabama, Oakmulgee primarily consists of longleaf pine forests on broad, sloping ridges interlaced with steams and floodplains. Hardwoods line several large creeks.

“Oakmulgee WMA had a really good turkey population for many years,” says Chris Cook, a state biologist from Northport. “It has a good mix of open areas, which are good bugging areas for poults, as well as good areas for seed-producing plants that turkeys need for food all year long.”

James D. Martin-Skyline WMA covers 60,732 acres of mountainous terrain along the Tennessee state line near Scottsboro in Jackson County. Skyline produced a 12-year high of 57 gobblers in 2015, up three from the previous year.

“Skyline WMA has a lot of rugged mountains with abundant hardwoods and some pines,” says Steve Bryant, an ADWFF wildlife biologist in Jacksonville. “It also has a reasonable percentage of area managed for early succession vegetation.”

Barbour WMA covers 28,214 acres of Barbour and Bullock counties near Clayton. The area consists of mixed upland pine forests with some hardwood drains, swamps, hills and hollows. Oak and hickory trees line several streams in the area.

“Historically, Barbour WMA has had high turkey harvests,” Barnett says. “Choccolocco also has a good turkey population. Hunters killed 80 turkeys on it in the 2015 spring season. Freedom Hills is another good area.”

Dating to 1940, Choccolocco WMA covers 56,838 acres of Cleburne County near Heflin. Very hilly, Choccolocco contains mostly restored longleaf pine forests with good ground cover. Freedom Hills WMA covers 31,868 acres of Colbert County near Cherokee. The area consists mostly of mature upland hardwoods and mixed pine and hardwood forests.

Turkey season runs through April 30 in most of the state. In other parts of Alabama, the season lasts from April 1-30 or April 22-26 depending upon the location. Consult for specific zone boundaries. In addition, season dates and rules on public areas may differ, so check the regulations carefully before hunting any area.


John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Semmes, Ala. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors show that is syndicated to stations in Alabama. For more on the show, see Contact him through his website at

Alabama Gardens: Garlic


Garlic: An easy-to-grow and tasty protector

It has been used for some 7,000 years to fuel the building of pyramids and the athleticism of early Olympians, ward off vampires and other pests (including some humans), treat all manner of illnesses and add exceptional flavor to food.

“It” is garlic, a relative of onions, shallots, leeks and chives (all members of the Allium genus) that originated in Asia but became naturalized across the globe as humankind embraced it for its culinary, medicinal and mystical qualities.

In early human times, garlic was used in many religious rituals and was eaten to increase strength and enhance physical performance. It was also thought to be effective against any number of ailments, a fact born out today — scientists have found that eating garlic can help protect us from cancer, hypertension and other illnesses and provides antioxidant and antimicrobial benefits. Though there’s no scientific proof that garlic fends off garden pests and vampires, it does appear to repel mosquitoes and fleas (though it should be used judiciously with pets).

Most of us, however, just love garlic for its taste, and these days we have hundreds of garlic varieties to choose from, each with its own nuanced flavor. Garlic is also quite easy to grow in Alabama, though knowing a little about the types of garlic and their growing requirements helps ensure the best success. So here’s a little garlic primer.

True garlics are divided into two categories – hardneck and softneck. Like their names, hardneck garlics have stiff stems that are typically removed at harvest while softneck garlics have soft stems that can be braided into garlands for curing, storing and displaying. Elephant garlic, which is quite popular for its giant bulbs, is actually a type of leek rather than a true garlic and produces milder-tasting cloves.

Because all these plants originated in colder climates, the greatest challenge for Alabama growers is providing just the right amount of cold to help them develop big, plump bulbs. And because softneck garlics typically require the fewest chilling hours, they are a great choice for growing in Alabama; however, there’s nothing wrong with trying them all in your garden.

Regardless of the type you choose, garlics should be planted in the fall (October and November for north and central Alabama and on through January in south Alabama). Refrigerating the bulbs for 6 to 8 weeks prior to planting can also give them an extra boost, though chilling requirements vary depending on the variety, so check their planting guides to figure out how long they need to be kept in the fridge.

Prepare your garlic bed now

Garlics prefer loose, well-drained soils with lots of organic matter and they don’t compete well with weeds. While we can’t plant them right now, we can use this spring and summer to prepare a garlic bed for fall planting. (They can be a bit invasive, so giving them a bed to themselves is a good idea.)

Choose a spot with partial sun, but shady enough so the soil stays cool as the bulbs mature. If the soil gets too warm too fast it can slow down the bulbs’ development. You can also lay a wooden board, sheet of shade cloth or a loose, deep layer of mulch on top of the soil near the base of the plants in early spring to keep the soil cooler.

Garlic is typically ready to harvest in Alabama during May and June after the plants’ leaves begin to brown and die away. Carefully dig up the bulbs, shake off any excess dirt (do not wash them, though) and hang or lay them out to cure in a cool, shaded and well-ventilated spot for about a month. This curing process helps eliminate that green garlic flavor and enriches their flavors.

Cured garlic keeps for 9 months or longer without refrigeration, so you’ll have some at hand all year to use in your own dishes (or try some of the garlic recipes in this month’s Alabama Living food section on page 46) and of course to keep those pesky ailments, bugs and vampires away. Oh, and hang on to some of the biggest, nicest bulbs to replant the following fall.

To learn more about growing garlic in Alabama, check out the Alabama Cooperative Extension publication Add Garlic to Your Garden (ANR-1093), which can be found at or the Southern Garden Growers Guide at


March Tips

  •  If you haven’t already done so, get a soil test!
  •  Amend your garden soil with compost, manure, peat moss and any fertilizer recommended from your soil test.
  •  Plant cool season peas, asparagus, horseradish and artichokes.
  •  Plant eggplant, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, celery, leeks, onions, early potatoes and radish seeds.
  •  Plant strawberries, blueberries, grapes and fruit trees.
  •  Sow seeds for tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and other spring vegetables.
  •  Transplant shrubs and trees.
  •  As new spring growth appears, remove winter mulches from garden beds and transplant summer-blooming perennials.
  •  Get lawn mowers and other garden equipment to ready them for the coming season.
  •  Prune or pinch back house plants that are getting leggy and begin fertilizing them with a diluted solution of plant food.
  •  Begin weeding garden or flowerbeds as soon as weeds emerge.
  •  Clean out birdhouses and feeders.

JACKSON, KATIE Gardening 2013

 Katie Jackson is a freelance writer and editor based in Opelika, Alabama. Contact her at


All hail the snails!

Anguispira (snail of Jackson County, Al). Courtesy of Dr. R. Wayne Van Devender, Appalachian State University.
Anguispira (snail of Jackson County, Al). Courtesy of Dr. R. Wayne Van Devender, Appalachian State University.

More than 200 species call Alabama home

By Emmett Burnett

Referenced in the Bible, depicted in ancient art, and oh so tasty, snails have been with us since recorded history. Most tote on-board housing, live within inches of food, and are synonymous with ‘slow.’ But whatever they are doing has worked for millenniums, so why hurry?

The little slip-sliding JELL-O on the half shell is in no rush to leave us either. Alabama has the most diverse snail species in the U.S, making the Heart of Dixie a mollusk mecca.

Pomacea paludosa
Pomacea paludosa

“I wish we knew exactly how many kinds the state has,” notes Dr. Paul Johnson, Program Supervisor of the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center near Marion. “Jackson County alone has over a hundred species. Of the 710 freshwater species described in the U.S., about 210 live in Alabama. ”

In addition to freshwater, snails are available in marine and terrestrial packages too. They come in shells, or the convertible, non-shelled ‘slug.’ All are represented here. And most of us are unaware when experiencing a close encounter of the slime kind.

In fact, according to Dr. Kathryn Perez, professor in the Department of Biology, University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley, “When walking on your lawn, you probably stand on a dozen of them.” Thousands live among us virtually undetectable.

Perez adds, “Many species, including Alabama’s, are no larger than a period on a printed page. Millions – pinhead sized – climb on blades of grass, or crawl in soil, embed in crevices, and maneuver over terrain without our knowledge.”

And if you think snails travel slowly, wait until you hear how they sleep. Some species can hibernate, without food or water, for over 50 years. In perspective, a snail bedding down during the 1960s appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show could wake up today, wondering how it went.

Perez recalls, “There have been situations of snail specimens in museums, for decades, motionless, preserved, and assumed dead – until one day they suddenly start crawling in the display case.”

The crawl is actually a glide, made possible by lubrication, from excreted mucus, from a mucus-embedded body. Escargot anyone?

Remarkable creatures

Doug Shelton is a malacologist – one who studies mollusks, clams, and similar creatures. Based in Mobile, he works with the Alabama Malacological Research Center, and explains just how remarkable snails are:

“It has two eyes, each mounted on the tips of stalks, protruding from its head,” Shelton says. “The eyes/stalks move independently of each other.” Depending on species, snails have varying degrees of sense of smell, vision, and taste. Most eat vegetation, which isn’t a problem. A snail can have up to 25,000 teeth.

“They don’t chew,” Shelton adds. “It eats by rasping or grinding its teeth over food.” The process is similar to the teeth of a chainsaw kicking sawdust off of wood. And snails do two things well: eat and multiply. We have a problem.

Snail_Pomacea maculatum egg clutches - Oct. 30, 2013 (2)
Pomacea maculatum (apple snail eggs); BELOW: Pomacea paludosa (apple snail plate). Courtesy of Dr. Paul Johnson and the Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center

Experts are concerned with the aquatic menace of Mobile, Pomacea Maculata, commonly known as the island apple snail, because it’s about the size of an apple. Apples are about the only plant products it doesn’t eat, only because apples don’t grow in water.

Apple snails are showing up in alarming numbers in Mobile Municipal (Langan) Park. It is not native to Alabama but probably introduced to our waters as a home aquarium escapee. It is anything but a pet.

“The concern is that apple snails will find a way into the delta,” Shelton says. “If that happens, it will be hard to stop.” A prolific breeder, it lays thousands of bright pink eggs in clusters. They hatch and start eating, depleting food sources for other animals and potentially altering the aquatic eco-system’s balance. Fortunately apple snails only live underwater, except sticking out just long enough to lay eggs above the waterline. Babies then hatch and dive back in.

“For the most part, snails are beneficial,” Johnson says. “They are ecological facilitators, food to other animals, and excellent at moving nutrients.” He adds, “In aquatics, the presence of snails is an indicator of good water quality.” But around the house they are an indicator of “it’s time to take action.”

Snails not only love Alabama’s wilderness, but they are quite fond of your place, too. “A few aren’t that bothersome,” says Danny Lipford, TV and radio host of “Today’s Homeowner with Danny Lipford.” “Basically, down here, snails and slugs have the same patterns. They like Alabama’s high humidity and moist areas in our yards.”

Lipford says that a few onsite snails may not cause much harm, but they are visiting you for one reason only: to eat. Main course for residential areas are container gardens, crops, and landscapes. “They are generally regarded as pests because of that unsightly silver streak path they leave and their appetite for vegetation.”

Solutions from your kitchen

But there is good news. According to Lipford, “Most home remedies you’ve heard about for eliminating snails, work. Many are non-toxic.”

He recommends several: Coffee grounds repel slugs. “I guess they don’t like the coffee smell. It doesn’t kill them but they move away” – as if a mucus secreting, stalk-eyed creature that resembles something from Star Wars can be picky.

Other remedies suggested by Lipford include salad dressing. “I’m not sure what type, but snails don’t like salad dressing,” he laughs.

And try beer – on snails, that is. Beer attracts snails because of the fermenting / grainy odor. They will fall in a bowl of beer and drown in it like a mollusk frat party.

Salt is also a common deterrent but fatal, and toxic to almost every living thing it touches, including plants. A weak solution of ammonia in water sprayed on the area repels snails too, but the smell may repel you as well.

From the elevations of Lookout Mountain to the shores of Dauphin Island, snails are survivors. Most are beneficial. Some are not. But these little guys were in our woods and property long before it was our woods and property. Most harmful species were introduced here from somewhere else.

Today, some will hibernate. Fifty years from now, they will wake up, and still be here. Many of us won’t be. There are advantages to moving at a snail’s pace.



7 worst gardening blunders

House? What house? These evergreens were planted too closely to the front foundation of this house and are now dwarfing it.
House? What house? These evergreens were planted too closely to the front foundation of this house and are now dwarfing it.

Story and photos by George Wiegel

Good gardeners aren’t born with “green thumbs” that give them mystical powers to make any plant thrive.

Gardening is like any endeavor. The more you know, the more success you’re likely to have.

Every setback can serve as a learning experience and evidence for the saying that “Everything I learned about gardening can be found in my compost pile.”

One way to speed up the process is by taking advantage of the knowledge of those who have killed their petunias and dogwood trees before you.

Here are seven of the most important woes that our “foregardeners” would warn you about:


Not improving lousy soil. If you’re blessed with reasonably good soil, just loosen and plant. But if you’re starting with “soil” that’s more of a sand pile, clay pit, quarry-in-waiting or compacted subsoil left behind by home construction, plan on some remediation.

One school of thought advises rototilling or deeply digging the ground to at least 10 or 12 inches deep, then working about 2 inches of compost, rotted leaves or similar organic matter into it.

A second school of thought advises topping the landscape-bed-to-be with about 12 inches of wood chips and then waiting at least six weeks for decomposition to start. Then the chips can be pulled back to plant and move among the plants as mulch.

You only need to do either of these once – before planting. From then on, just keep a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter over the surface and let the earthworms and microbes be your “soil improvers.”


Planting too closely. This common blunder includes planting plants too closely to one another as well as too closely to the house.

Crowding sets you up for a jungle look within a few years, sets the stage for unnecessary pruning, and makes plants more prone to disease since crowded foliage doesn’t dry as well.

Determine the mature width of your new plant and space according to that – not its current size. A good rule of thumb: Add mature widths together and divide by two, then plant no closer than that. (Example: 8-foot holly beside a 4-foot spirea. 8+4=12, divide by 2, equals 6-foot minimum spacing.)

To space from houses, simply divide the mature width in half and plant no closer than that. (Example: An 8-foot holly should go no closer than 4 feet from the house.)


Too-deep planting. This one’s a major killer of trees. Planting deeply doesn’t make a tree less likely to blow over. It’s likely to suffocate the roots and rot the buried bark.

Before planting a new tree, identify its “root flare” – the area at the base of the trunk where it begins to slightly widen. Plant so that this flare is just above grade.

Be aware that potted and balled-and-burlapped trees are often already planted too deeply in their pots and bags. You may need to excavate soil to expose the flare.


Poor planting practices. Go wide but not overly deep with those holes when planting trees and shrubs.

Most roots spread out within the top 1 to 2 feet of the surface as opposed to going straight down deeply.

Dig holes for your trees and shrubs three to five times as wide as the root ball but only as deep as the root ball (so the soil doesn’t settle underneath and cause the root balls to sink).

Fray out circling roots, and don’t plant too deeply. Tamp the soil and water well after planting.


Mulching miscues. You can overdo it or underdo it with mulch, which is the coarse wood or organic matter used on soil surfaces to discourage weeds and retain soil moisture.

Too much mulch can cause the same problems as planting too deeply. Too little won’t stop weeds or retain moisture very well.

Especially be careful not to pack mulch up against the stems and trunks of plants. That can rot the stems and bark and possibly kill the plants.

Two to three inches of organic mulch (i.e. bark mulch, chopped leaves, pine straw, shredded hardwood) is ideal around trees and shrubs. One to 2 inches is fine around flowers.


Watering blunders. Your goal is to keep the soil consistently damp (never soggy) all around the root ball and to just below it. That encourages roots to grow out toward the water without rotting them.

The best way to gauge the amount: water slowly enough that the water soaks in instead of runs off for the time you think is right. Wait 10 or 15 minutes and use a stick or probe to go down beside the root ball to see how deeply the soil has been moistened.

If it’s excessively wet, cut back next time. If it’s not wet deeply enough, you’ll need to water more or for longer.

Once you know the time and amount that’s just right for that bed, deliver it according to weather and plant size.

Plants with bigger root balls, such as trees and shrubs, are best soaked deeply once or twice a week. Vegetables, annual flowers and newly planted perennials are best watered two to three times a week in hot, dry weather since their roots are shallower and closer to the surface (which dries out fastest).

You won’t need to water as much when it’s cooler and cloudier and probably not at all if a soaking rain does the deed for you.

Pay more careful attention to regularly watering young plants, ones whose roots are limited and more at risk from dry soil.


Picking problem-prone plants. Plants have their own particular site preferences (especially when it comes to light and soil moisture), and some are pickier about them than others.

Some do a good job of adapting to a variety of sites, while others need close to ideal conditions or else they’ll struggle and possibly die.

A big part of good gardening involves figuring out where each plant will be “happiest.” Just as important is knowing which are the most trouble-prone plants – a lineup that varies from area to area.

Check with trusted local experts (Extension educators and local garden centers are good starting points), as well as experienced local gardeners and published lists targeted as closely as possible to your area.

As for plants that you realize are struggling because you’ve guessed wrong on the site, don’t be afraid to move them – the sooner the better.

Most “green-thumb” gardeners will tell you they’ve moved every plant in their yard a minimum of three times before they got it right.

George Weigel is a horticulturist, garden consultant, author and newspaper garden columnist. His website is

Popcorn trees

Photo: James H. Miller USPA Forest Service/
Photo: James H. Miller
USPA Forest Service/

Popcorn trees are far from a treat

Landowners urged to eradicate this invasive tree

By Lenela Glass-Godwin

Our founding father Benjamin Franklin was known for his wisdom and sound advice during his lifetime, and he is still admired today for the legacy of common sense suggestions he left us. But even the architects of great countries make mistakes.

Mr. Franklin made a big one when he introduced the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebifera or Triadica sebifera) to the eastern United States during the colonial period. His error in judgment is one from which the South is likely to suffer for a long time.

Chinese tallow tree, also known as popcorn tree or Florida “aspen,” is native to eastern Asia. Unfortunately, plants like tallow trees, kudzu, privet, mimosa, Japanese honeysuckle, chinaberries, and a host of other Asian plants that may not pose problems in their native countries have created colossal invasive nightmares in the southern U.S.

The invasive Chinese tallow tree, or popcorn tree, above, can reach heights of 60 feet. Below: The trees can rapidly overtake unmanaged pasture areas and abandoned farms.  Photo: Ronald F. billings, Texas A&M Forest Service/
The invasive Chinese tallow tree, or popcorn tree, above, can reach heights of 60 feet. Below: The trees can rapidly overtake unmanaged pasture areas and abandoned farms. Photo: Ronald F. billings, Texas A&M Forest Service/

One of the biggest headaches facing land managers now on the Atlantic and Gulf coastal plains is the tallow tree. A deciduous tree with bright, waxy green heart-shaped leaves that turn glowing red in autumn, tallow trees may grow 40 to 50 feet in height. In the spring the trees produce long, light-green inflorescences that are easily seen even from a distance. In September and October dark brown, three-valved fruits mature, producing the characteristic “popcorn” seeds that are spread far and wide by both water and birds.

For many years tallow trees were planted by property owners as ornamentals for the yard. Many people thought that they were

just planting an exotic that would provide shade and pretty fall color. But the private landowner who continues to allow a tallow tree to grow on his property does a great disservice to his neighbors as the trees quickly invade adjoining properties and are extremely difficult to control.

According to Dr. Nancy Loewenstein of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, a mature tree can produce more than 100,000 seeds per year and the trees also propagate by means of “runners” or “suckers.” The leaves and sap of these trees are toxic to humans and cattle and can cause serious illness if ingested. Most states have now declared tallow trees a noxious weed.

The Chinese tallow tree is spreading like an aggressive cancer throughout Alabama, and is now a problem in all of the south and central parts of the state. The website provides an excellent representation of the current distribution of tallow trees in the South. The tree has taken over huge areas along the banks of the Coosa, Alabama, and Tallapoosa Rivers and is steadily invading many wetlands. It rapidly overtakes unmanaged pasture areas and abandoned farms, and because certain bird species disperse the abundant seeds in their droppings, it is often seen growing along fence lines where birds perch. The fence lines and pastures along Interstate 65 south of Montgomery close to the Hyundai plant are prime examples of unchecked tallow tree growth in upland areas.

Concerned land managers throughout the southeastern U.S. who are fighting the spread of invasive pest plant species are encouraging property owners to eradicate the Chinese tallow tree from their yards and land holdings. According to Dr. James Miller of the U.S. Forest Service, forest landowners can take a number of steps to control or eradicate this pest species. Small specimens (diameter of less than 6 inches) of tallow tree should be pulled up as soon as they are observed, and foliar applications of herbicides may also be used to kill young trees.

For larger trees with a diameter of more than 6 inches, the trees should be cut with a chainsaw as close to ground level as possible. After that, herbicide applications to the cut stumps or basal bark are essential. A 15-20% application of the herbicide triclopyr (found in formulations such as Ortho Brush-B-Gon and Bayer Advanced Brush Killer) mixed with oil should be sprayed on the root collar area, sides of the stumps, and outer portion of all cut surfaces until thoroughly wet. The herbicides Garlon 3A and 4, Arsenal AC, and Clearcast are also effective. Herbicide treatments are best done during early to mid-growing season before the trees have a chance to set seed. For specific application information, consult A Management Guide for Invasive Plants in Southern Forests, General Technical Report SRS-131, written by James Miller, Steven Manning, and Stephen Enloe and published by the U.S. Forest Service.

For more information on Chinese tallow tree invasion and eradication advice, please contact your county office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service, or check out the Alabama Invasive Plant Council website at


How to give your yard four-season interest

Story and photos by George Wiegel

Sometimes it’s not easy making a yard look good even in one season, much less all four.

Spring bulbs add the season’s first color to this garden.
Spring bulbs add the season’s first color to this garden.

Yet high on many a landscaping wish list lately is the goal of creating a yard that changes with the seasons and looks good in all of them.The job is a little easier in spring to early summer when the majority of plants bloom and in moderate climates where seasonal differences aren’t as harsh.

It’s possible to milk the most out of any landscape anywhere with good planning. The key to that is picking a diverse selection of plants that has something different going on at different times of the year.

Too often that doesn’t happen because gardening tends to be viewed as a “spring thing.” The result is that everyone shows up at the garden center as the weather warms in spring and ends up buying the same plants that happen to be peaking then.

Grasses have grown and perennials bloom at different times throughout summer in the same garden.
Grasses have grown and perennials bloom at
different times throughout summer in the same garden.

A crape myrtle, for example, that will bloom beautifully by late summer, but that looks like a bare set of moose antlers at purchase time, has little chance next to an azalea that’s blooming in full glory.

Buy your plants at the same time year after year, and it’s no wonder that many yards end up as one-season wonders.

If you’d like to start spreading out your interest this season, here are 10 ways to do it:

1.) Add more variety. Plant more plants and different kinds of them. You’ll get multi-season change and interest just by dumb luck. Even when planting a particular species, choose several different varieties of it to capitalize on their differences.

2.) Evaluate your seasonal weaknesses. Do homework into what plants are in prime form at what times. Then think about what each part of your yard looks like in each season, and seek out plants that will add interest to those boring gaps. Make notes during the course of the season to help identify the down times most in need of help.

The ornamental grasses that were green in summer have turned golden by fall, and the background tree has taken on its deep-red fall foliage.

3.) Move beyond two-week wonders. Many of our favorite landscape plants happen to be one-dimensional plants that peak only for a few weeks out of the whole year. They tend to be ones that have the good marketing sense to bloom when the most people are shopping, such as azaleas, rhododendrons, lilacs, peonies and forsythia.

If your yard is heavy with short-term performers, it’s time to…

4.) Look for harder-workers – plants that do more than one thing in one season. One example is oakleaf hydrangea, the state wildflower of Alabama that blooms white in late spring, gets burgundy foliage in fall and then shows off peeling bark when the leaves drop for winter. Viburnums are shrubs that flower fragrantly in spring, turn yellow or red in fall, then develop berry-sized fruits of red, gold, blue or black from fall into early winter. Some even hold their leaves in winter. And native ninebarks are shrubs that flower pinkish-white in late spring, then get BB-sized clusters of red seed-heads in early summer, then turn blood red in fall, then display peeling stems when bare over winter. Leaning toward plants with multi-season interest is especially helpful in smaller yards where limited space limits the number of different plants that can be used.

The arbor and evergreens take center stage in the same garden in winter.
The arbor and evergreens take center stage in the same garden in winter.

5.) Pay attention to leaf color, especially in plants that hold their foliage over winter. Blooms are fleeting, but colorful leaves and needles add interest much longer … some of them all year long.

6.) Don’t plant-shop only in spring. You’ll tend to buy only what’s looking good then… or on sale. Shop in different seasons. Make it a point to go to the garden center whenever your yard is looking particularly barren.

7.) Visit public gardens. They’re great for getting ideas and seeing what’s doing what at any given time. Take advantage of public gardens near you because the plants doing well there are likely to do well in the same climate and soils as your yard. Visit these in different seasons, too. Public gardens are especially helpful because plants are usually labeled.

8.) Pay attention to what other people have planted. If you see plants nearby doing something interesting at a time when your yard is snoozing, find out what those plants are and add them to your list. Odds are your neighbors will be flattered that you noticed how nice their plants were looking.

9.) Don’t overlook the “hardscaping.” These are the paver walks, the stone walls, the arbors, the fences, the benches and the other non-plant features of the landscape. Not only do they add structure or “bones” to the look during the growing season, they’re at their best in winter when many to most plants are off stage.

10.) Add dedicated seasonal gardens. In addition to mixing plants with multi-season interest throughout the yard, consider planning whole gardens that peak in a particular season. Load each of those gardens with plants at their best in each assigned season, for example, a summer garden filled with annual flowers and summer bulbs, and a fall garden highlighted with plants that get late-season berries and turn leaf color.

Four good books to help you with your four-season homework:

  1. “Continuous Bloom: A Month-by-Month Guide to Nonstop Color in the Perennial Garden” by Pam Duthie (Chicago Review Press, $49.95, 2000).
  2. “Time-Tested Plants: Thirty Years in a Four-Season Landscape” by Pamela Harper (Timber Press, $39.94, 2005).
  3. The “Nonstop Color Garden” by Nellie Neal (Cool Springs Press, $24.99 paperback, 2014).
  4. “The Nonstop Garden” by Stephanie Cohen and Jennifer Benner (Timber Press, $19.95 paperback, 2014).

Alabama Recipes: Garlic


Get to know garlic

If you have a tongue, and that tongue is dotted with working taste buds, you should get to know garlic. If you already have a relationship with this bulbous, potent plant, I urge you to get even closer and delve into all it offers in the way of taste. Really, unless you’re a vampire, there’s no reason to shy away from garlic. Forget “garlic breath.” There are quick, easy remedies (see below). And if you think you don’t like it — “It’s so strong!”— I’m betting you’ve never had it roasted or pickled, where high heat or vinegar mellows and softens its sharpness.

Because of its strength, garlic often remains in the background, becoming the foundation to support a dish’s layers of other complex flavors. A few of this month’s recipes use it this way. But when it’s allowed to stand on it’s own, it truly shines. The recipe from our cook of the month and my personal rendition of a classic both put the spotlight on garlic.

– Jennifer Kornegay

Cook of the Month

Mary Donaldson, Covington EC

Mary has been making her Speedy Mushrooms with Garlic Butter for so long, she can’t remember exactly what inspired it, other than a love of garlic and mushrooms and an appreciation for easy ways to combine two of her favorites. “The recipe is so good and so simple; that’s why I make it so much, and I’ve just made it for forever,” she said. She offered this tip: “You can use any leftover garlic butter in many other ways.” Spreading some on a baguette and broiling it to create garlic bread is one idea. Or use it as the base for a sautéed onion and mushroom steak sauce.


Speedy Mushrooms in Garlic Butter

  • ½ cup butter
  • 1 tablespoon green onion tops, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
  • Dash of seasoned pepper
  • 1 pound fresh mushrooms

Blend butter, onion, garlic, parsley and pepper. Cover and chill. (Unused garlic butter can be kept in refrigerator.) Rinse, clean and dry mushrooms; remove stems. Fill each cap with ½ teaspoon garlic butter and arrange in the serving dish. Cook 1 or 2 dozen mushrooms, uncovered, on HIGH 2 to 4 minutes. (I use a glass, microwave-approved pie plate to cook and serve.)


Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic

  • 1 chicken, broken down to eight pieces (could also
  • use eight, bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs)
  • 40 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 ½ tablespoons butter
  • ¼ cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • ½ cup chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper

Heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven. Salt and pepper the chicken pieces, and working in batches, cook them, starting with the skin side down, about five minutes on each side. Once the last of the pieces have been browned, remove them from the pot and add the garlic. Cook the garlic, stirring often, about 10 minutes. It should get browned a bit. Add the wine and stir to remove any bits on the bottom of the pot. Add the chicken back to the pot and pour in any juices. Sprinkle the rosemary on top and cover. Turn the heat back to medium. You want the liquid in the pot simmering, but not at a full boil. Cook for 35-45 minutes or until chicken is done. Check often to make sure you don’t burn the garlic. Once the chicken is done, remove it and most of the garlic to a plate and set aside. Add the chicken stock to the pot and bring to a boil. Mash the garlic left in the pot (about 6 to 8 cloves) into the sauce. Cook, stirring often, for about 2 to 3 minutes and remove from heat. Add salt if needed. Drizzle over the chicken right before serving.

Cheach Chicken

(Chipotle Peach Glazed Chicken)


  • 1 whole chicken
  • Olive oil
  • Poultry seasoning
  • 1 apple
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • ½ cup white wine
  • Glaze sauce:
  • ½ cup peach preserves
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • 3 chopped canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, seeds removed
  • ½ cup of white wine
  • ¼ tablespoon of minced garlic
  • ¼ tablespoon of nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon of kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper

In a saucepan on medium heat, melt t gether and stir glaze sauce ingredients and set aside. Coat chicken with olive oil and sprinkle with poultry seasoning. Chop apple and place inside cavity along with 2 whole cloves of garlic. Fold neck skin over and pin to trap flavor while cooking. Grill indirect at 200 degrees for 1 ½ hours, basting every 30 minutes with white wine. Coat chicken with glaze sauce and grill for 10 more minutes until chicken reaches 165 -170 degrees. Let chicken rest for 5 minutes before serving so juices can flow back throughout the meat.

Kirk Vantrease, Cullman EC

Tortellini Soup

  • 1 pound Italian sausage, browned
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic, sauteed
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • One large can spinach
  • 2 large cans petite chopped stewed tomatoes
  • 1 large package cheese or spinach/cheese tortellini
  • Small carton cream

Simmer first five ingredients for 20-30 minutes. Add in tortellini and cook until tender. Stir in cream just before serving.

Jennifer Dansby, Covington EC


All-Purpose Garlic Sauce

  • 12 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 ½ cups of high-quality extra virgin olive oil

In small food processor or blender combine all ingredients. Process until you reach desired consistency and thickness. Store in a tightly lidded jar in the refrigerator. Improves with keeping in the refrigerator. Yields 2 cups.

Cook’s Note: This is one way I use up the excess garlic I grow in my garden. I use this sauce to flavor soups, stews, vegetables, as a spread for garlic bread or toss with pasta and add olives and cherry tomatoes. Endless possibilities.

Shari Lowery, Pioneer EC

Football Fan Spinach Dip

  • 1 pound frozen spinach
  • 2 cups sour cream
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • ½ teaspoon Cavender’s all-purpose Greek seasoning
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed and then diced
  • Fritos corn chips

Pour frozen spinach in a pan and cover with water. Boil for 3-5 minutes. Drain well (squeezing may be required to prevent the dip from being soupy.) Combine all ingredients in a large bowl; mix well. Chill 6-8 hours before serving with corn chips.

Elaina Gordon, Southern Pine EC

Garlic Red Potatoes


  • 2 pounds red potatoes, quartered
  • ¼ cup butter, melted
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1-2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
  • Real bacon bits (optional topping)
  • Chopped green onions (optional topping)

Wash and quarter the potatoes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place potatoes in an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish coated with non-stick cooking spray. In a small bowl combine melted butter, garlic, salt and lemon juice. Pour over the potatoes and stir to coat. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over potatoes. Bake covered for 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork-tender. Uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes or until potatoes are golden in color. Optional: Sprinkle top with bacon bits and green onions before serving and additional Parmesan cheese, if desired.

Kim Robertson, Baldwin EMC

Upcoming recipe themes and deadlines:

  • May Chicken Salad March 8
  • June Picnic Dishes April 8
  • July Peaches May 8


Mail: Recipes, P.O. Box 244014
Montgomery, AL 36124

We welcome your recipes!

Please send us your original recipes, developed by you or family members, and not ones copied from a book or magazine. You may adapt a recipe from another source by changing as little as the amount of one ingredient. Cook of the Month winners will receive $50, and may win “Cook of the Month” only once per calendar year.

Share a story about your recipe! Whether it’s your grandmother’s best cake or your uncle’s camp stew, every recipe has a story behind it. We’ll pay $50 for the best recipe-related story each month.


Mellow Out!

Roasting garlic is the best way to take its astringency down a few notches; the heat burnishes each clove bronze and softens both its texture and taste, making it a little sweet and mild enough to be spread on some crusty bread and enjoyed as is. But it’s also delish in salad dressings, sauces and soups. And the intoxicating scent is one you won’t be scrambling to get rid of. Here’s how you do it.


Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Remove any outer layers of skin that are loose, but leave the head intact. Slice very top off of it, exposing the tops of the cloves.

Drizzle a tablespoon or so of olive oil over it and wrap it up in foil. Place in a shallow baking dish or on a cookie sheet.

Roasting time will vary based on the size of the head and its cloves. Check it at about 45 minutes. It’s done when all of the cloves are very soft.

Once cool, squeeze the now caramelized cloves free of the head. If you’re not using it right away or have leftovers, store in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Worth the drive: Keep Your Fork Café

Delectable desserts await patrons at Keep Your Fork Café

Story and photos by Jennifer Crossley Howard

 Juanita Healy, co-owner of Keep Your Fork, has been making cheesecake for 15 years, but plain recipes are her least favorite to cook. Here is a piece of dressed-up New York-Style cheesecake.
Juanita Healy, co-owner of Keep Your Fork, has been making cheesecake for 15 years, but plain recipes are her least favorite to cook. Here is a piece of dressed-up New York-Style cheesecake.

Neither Juanita Healy nor her business partner Donna Reeves Robertson had restaurant experience when they opened Keep Your Fork Cafe last May in downtown Decatur, but they haven’t looked back.

They haven’t had time to.

Workdays often begin at 3 a.m. when they begin baking Danish pastries and croissants and usually end 12 hours later.

When Healy and Robertson made an offer on the former All-Wright Bakery & Eatery, the restaurant wasn’t even for sale. But by the end of the week, their offer was accepted.

“I’ve always been one of those make up your mind and do it people,” Healy says. Healy decided to leave her career as a realtor, and Robertson had worked as a dental hygienist since the 1980s.

All-Wright Bakery & Eatery, a Decatur institution, thrived since 1946 under various ownerships. Keep Your Fork still serves breakfast and lunch, including quiches and tuna melts. The bakery makes the date bars All-Wright was known for, and specializes in the sweet tooth, particularly cheesecake.

Healy baked them at home for 15 years, and then she ran out of space.

“My friends joke that I needed a commercial oven, and a restaurant came with it,” she says.

She and Robertson inherited a large, black oven with the All-Wright building that they rent. The oven, which would look at home in any Grimm’s fairy tale, dates to 1935.

Robin Oden, cake decorator and food prepper, is one of four full-time and two part-time workers at Keep Your Fork. She takes lunch rolls out of the bakery’s original oven from the 1930s.
Robin Oden, cake decorator and food prepper, is one of four full-time and two part-time workers at Keep Your Fork. She takes lunch rolls out of the bakery’s original oven from the 1930s.

The cafe sells 10-inch and 4-inch cheesecakes with such traditional flavors as Bailey’s Irish Cream and caramel-chocolate turtle. But there are also some unexpected recipes, such as balsamic vinegar and basil and bourbon and blackberry.

“I can’t keep them in the case,” Healy says.

Robertson has perfected chicken salad on sourdough bread and cookies, especially fruitcake ones that were a hit around Christmas.

The transition of customers from All-Wright to Keep Your Fork has been mostly seamless. “We had to win over a few people,” Healy says.

Regulars include an older couple that visits once a week and a group of doctors, lawyers and businessmen.

“We need to give them a key if we ever have bad weather and can’t come in,” Robertson joked.

The men stay about an hour drinking coffee. “They talk football, politics, and women,” Healy says. “We laugh at that.”

Both women wore rhinestone fork pens and scurried around the dining area to help customers on a recent winter afternoon. Consistency is key to running a successful restaurant, Robertson said.

“You’ve got to do the same thing, and do it every day,” she says.

Teaming with other restaurants

Keep Your Fork teams with other Decatur restaurants including Albany Bistro, for whom the cafe bakes a signature Coffee & Toffee cheesecake, and Simp McGhee’s. Tennessee Valley Pecan Company sells the cafe’s mini pecan muffins and pecan pies, which feature the former’s pecans.

“We like working with local people, and are very behind the local food movement,” Healy says.

Much of the restaurant looks the same as when it was All-Wright: a wood and mirror display case, black and white flooring and an antique mixer painted blue and green remains in front of the cafe.

Teal and yellow accent colors around the restaurant represent tragedy and hope that have touched both women’s lives. Teal represents ovarian cancer awareness and yellow represents suicide prevention. Robertson lost her brother to suicide in 2007; Healy’s daughter died of ovarian cancer in 2004.

Robertson remains involved with Hospice of the Valley to talk with suicide survivors, and the women support The Brooke Hill Run for Awareness in Decatur, named for Healy’s daughter.

Robertson and Healy honor the past while looking to the future, which includes a lot of cheesecake. Healy’s orders easily reach 60 to 70 dozen.

When you’re eating out, you keep your fork for dessert. The women chose to name their bakery as such because, “the best is yet to come,” Healy says.

Keep Your Fork Café
224 Moulton St. E., Decatur, AL 35601
Hours: 7 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday
Find them on Facebook: Keep Your Fork Café

Gulf State Park


Upgrades ahead for Gulf State Park

By Emmett Burnett

Nearly 12 years ago, Hurricane Ivan devastated Alabama Gulf State Park, demolishing the convention center, wrecking facilities, and erasing sand dunes. Orange Beach/Gulf Shores’ beachside playground was gone with the wind. But today the winds of change are blowing for the better.

Major upgrades are in store for the state’s wilderness wonder, visited annually by 600,000 people and served by Baldwin EMC. It is part of the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project, administered by the University of Alabama System, and with secured funding of $135 million. The project was launched through an $85.5 million allocation of early restoration dollars from the BP oil spill. In 2016, shovels hit the sand.


On the beach where the 1970s convention center used to be, a new one is coming. But this one will be a lodge, physically smaller, with approximately 350 rooms, meeting spaces, restaurants, and other features architecturally smarter, and environmentally friendlier.

In addition, more than 50 football fields’ worth of sand dune restoration work is under way to replace the Ivan-ravaged coastline. Dunes are not just pretty, according to project officials, but are vital for wildlife habitat and wind and surf protection. But beach work is just the tip of the sandcastle.

“Everyone recognizes the tremendous asset we have with Gulf State Park,” says Cooper Shattuck, executive director for the University of Alabama System project. But people do not realize how large an area Gulf State Park encompasses. “The beach is just a piece – granted, a two-mile long gorgeous piece – but the park land covers 6,000 acres.”

Even many longtime Baldwin and Mobile County residents do not realize the vastness. Turn off the beach highway to the winding roads of Coyote Crossing, Rattlesnake Ridge, and Cotton Bayou. Adventure awaits, as colorful as the roads leading to it. Whether your interests are a fishing cork bobbing in the surf or a golf ball bobbing on the 9th hole, there is something here for you.

About 10 miles of new walking, cycling and running trails will be built as part of the enhancement project. Photo courtesy of Alabama Gulf Coast CVB
About 10 miles of new walking, cycling and running trails will be built as part of the enhancement project.
Photo courtesy of Alabama Gulf Coast CVB

And for those tiring of the beaches – if that’s possible – the park has three inland lakes: Little, Middle and Shelby. Secluded cabins dot the shorelines. Hiking, bicycle trails, wildlife observation areas, sailing, kayaking, canoeing opportunities are around each corner. And look, up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No, it’s a 30 mph Ohio snowbird, zip-lining across treetops. And you can, too.

For the camping purist, last summer Gulf State Park premiered its newest attraction, the Outpost Campsites: Bonanza, the Duke and the Alamo. Each has tents that sleep four, already set up. Each comes with a bathroom, about 3/10 of a mile away; a public bathhouse is also included, about two miles away.

For less primitive wilderness experiences, more like Daniel Boone with a microwave oven, try one of 20 cabins and 11 cottages, minutes from sandy saltwater shores. Some cabins line the lake in a pristine wilderness community. Others are on individual lots, nestled almost hidden from road view, with exclusive access to guests and occasional free range pelicans.

Much more is coming. “There is nothing like it in the U.S.,” Shattuck notes about what is constantly a top Alabama tourist destination. “It is a unique piece of property. For a state to have such a small piece of coastline, the vision to have a state park is incredible.”

He adds, “Things have changed so much since the convention center was built in the 1970s. Construction materials, designs, and people’s expectations are different, too, and we will meet those expectations. This will not be a tower plopped down on the sand.”

The new lodge is set to open in spring 2018. New sand dunes are set to open this year. Some assembly required.

Dune fencing is used to trap sand from blowing wind, which helps to restore the dunes. Photo by Emmett Burnett
Dune fencing is used to trap sand from blowing wind, which helps to restore the dunes. Photo by Emmett Burnett

Do not think of a dune as a mound of sand. “Think of it as a living organism. It’s like a body,” says Jill Allen Dixon of Sasaki Associates and dune restoration project manager. “The front part is the first line of defense against storms but there are other, secondary layers. Dunes also are wildlife habitats.

“Dunes grow over time,” she adds. “Currents in the gulf pick up sand and redistribute it along the Gulf Coast. The dunes are always changing and restoring” themselves. And they get by with a little help from a friend.

The restoration project teams will be ‘seeding’ dunes with discarded Christmas trees and building ‘dune fences,’ both designed to trap and hold sand in place until the natural structure is established. The project will move relatively fast, possibly within a month, according to workers. But it will be monitored for at least a year, to check progress.

Building a lodge to replace the convention center and dune restoration are two of the park’s five key components. The others include:

  • Enhancing the visitor experience – including about 10 miles of new walking, cycling, and running trails and approximately 3.5 miles of enhancements to existing park trails will be built/implemented throughout the park.
  • Building an environmental information center – An interactive exhibit space is planned for hosting meetings and educational spaces. The new facility will feature indoor and outdoor educational information devoted to the unique coastal environment.
  • Creating a research and education center – the new building’s component will be designed to expand capacity for research and education programs through its educational spaces and laboratories for researchers, including K-12 students.

But for most people, the park’s education system is self-study, on its golf course, pine forest picnic tables, or the Gulf State Pier, extending 1,500 feet offshore. Alabama Gulf State Park is one of America’s only public playgrounds with ocean shores and thick forests in the same park. And much more is coming.

For more information, visit:

On fire for native Azaleas

Photos by Patrick Thompson
Photos by Patrick Thompson

By Katie Jackson

Fire in the hills. That’s what American naturalist William Bartram thought he was seeing when he rounded a wooded bend on the Savannah River in the late 1700s and saw an entire hillside ablaze with red and orange color.

It wasn’t fire that Bartram saw, however. It was a stand of native Flame azaleas blooming in all their intense glory, a sight that is increasingly rare these days in the wild, but is being preserved and expanded by a dedicated cadre of modern-day horticulturists.


Native azaleas, often called bush honeysuckles, are relatives of the white and pastel-colored landscape azaleas that herald spring in Alabama. Both types of azaleas are members of the rhododendron genus; however, those iconic “Southern” azaleas actually originated in Asia and were brought here via England in the 1800s. Native azaleas, on the other hand, have been here since long before humankind was around to appreciate their beauty.

Though related, Asian and native azaleas have distinct differences. For example, native azaleas are deciduous, not evergreen, like their Asian cousins, and native azaleas bloom in a palette of colors from gentle whites and pinks to brilliant yellows and intense oranges and reds.

Of the estimated 17 species of native azaleas in the United States, most are found along the east coast and a dozen or more of those are native to the Southeast. Depending on the type, those Southeastern native azaleas can range in height from knee high up to 15 feet at maturity and have bloom times in spring, summer or early fall.

Groups working hard to preserve and expand species

Members of the Azalea Society of America and The American Rhododendron Society marvel at an enormous specimen of the Red Hills Azalea, R. colemanii, growing at Callaway Gardens.
Members of the Azalea Society of America and The American Rhododendron Society marvel at an enormous specimen of the Red Hills Azalea, R. colemanii, growing at Callaway Gardens.

Sadly, habitat destruction has severely diminished many pockets of wild native azaleas, but groups of guardians are working hard to preserve and expand native azalea numbers. Those guardians can be found throughout the state and beyond, including one enclave in east central Alabama.

Among that group is Robert Greenleaf, emeritus professor of music at Auburn University who has some 300 different native azalea varieties growing around his Auburn home. The son of an Auburn University horticulture professor, Greenleaf remembered seeing native azaleas in the woods when he was young. When he came back to Auburn as a music department faculty member in the 1970s, Greenleaf began planting them around his house site.

His collection expanded thanks in large part to two local plantsmen, Tom Corley and Dennis Rouse, who had been collecting and hybridizing wild native azaleas for years and shared their seeds with Greenleaf, who was soon hooked on the plants.

“They are attractive, noninvasive and very hardy,” Greenleaf says, adding that growing them is extremely rewarding — so much so that he is attempting to have one of every available native azalea variety on his property, where he intersperses them with other trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials for a stunning natural display.

Patrick Thompson, a specialist at Auburn University’s Donald E. Davis Arboretum, is also a member of this east central Alabama cadre. He became immersed in native azaleas when the late R.O. Smitherman, another Auburn man who worked with Corley, Rouse and others to increase the native azalea gene pool, donated several hundred plants to the arboretum beginning in 2008. The plants came from Smitherman’s own collection of several hundred selections from thousands of varieties and hybrids, a collection that included “Corley’s Cardinal” and “Patsy’s Pink,” both of which Smitherman registered with the Royal Horticulture Society.

For several years since, Thompson has been evaluating Smitherman’s donated plants for performance in east central Alabama and at other sites across the state. He’s also been propagating them and now has enough to sell five dazzling varieties to the public, with more coming available soon (see them at He’s also become a native azalea evangelist.

More fragrant, with more nectar and pollen

“Both (native and non-native azaleas) have their merits,” says Thompson, who is the current president of Alabama’s Azalea Society of America chapter, but he’s especially fond of the native ones.

According to Thompson, native azaleas are often more fragrant and produce nectar and pollen throughout more of the year than their imported relatives. Those traits draw bees and butterflies as well as birds (including hummingbirds) and other animals to them, ultimately helping sustain the local ecosystem.

“That’s a missing link in a lot of gardens,” says Thompson, noting that non-native plants often can’t provide such ecosystem support.

For that reason, and because of their beauty and hardiness, native azaleas are a great option for home landscapes. Thompson noted that native azaleas may not be as abundantly available as their Asian counterparts, but they can be purchased from growers who specialize in native plants and often at native plant sales sponsored by public gardens and civic groups across the state.

Though the best time to plant native azaleas is in the fall (see the sidebar for planting tips), now is an ideal time to see them blooming at locations across the state such as the Davis Arboretum, the Huntsville and Mobile botanical garden and other public gardens and along many of this spring’s azalea trails (Auburn’s trail goes right past Greenleaf’s house).

Or go into the woods and keep your eyes open. The hills may well be on fire.

Cover Azaleas


The azalea in our cover photo was grown from a plant originally found on Mt. Cheaha.  This clone of that plant can be found perched above the waterfall at Auburn University’s Donald E. Davis Arboretum.  The late R.O. Smitherman, who donated many native azaleas from his collection to the arboretum, said it was the only species of azalea you can hear.  Reports the arboretum’s Patrick Thompson: “We would be walking along a straight stretch of creek bank and when he heard the sound of falling or rushing water he would perk up and say, ‘Hear that? Sounds like arborescent.’  He was right too often to have been finding all those plants for the first time.”The flowers are often solid white, sometimes with a yellow blotch, and always with red pistil and stamens.  The cover photograph was taken in late April, but the plants growing wild on Lake Martin, Hallawakee Creek and other places bloom as late as September and may one day be described as a new subspecies. It has been referred to as Rhododendron arborescens georgiana.


Establishing native azaleas in your landscape

Once they are established, which may take up to three years, native azaleas offer low-maintenance beauty to the landscape and are ideal as understory plants or in partially shaded areas. If planted correctly, they need little if any pruning and fertilizer and have few pests.

This light yellow native azalea, “Smitty’s Special,” is one of the hundreds of azaleas donated to the Auburn University Donald E. Davis Arboretum by the late R.O. Smitherman that can be seen there in bloom this spring.
This light yellow native azalea, “Smitty’s Special,” is one of the hundreds of azaleas donated to the Auburn University Donald E. Davis Arboretum by the late R.O. Smitherman that can be seen there in bloom this spring.

Because they need a loose, well-drained and well-aerated soil with a pH of about 5.5, it pays to get a soil test and amend soils accordingly with any needed nutrients and lots of organic matter before planting.

To ensure proper establishment, plant native azaleas in the late fall by following these steps recommended by native azalea aficionado Robert Greenleaf and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Dig a hole about 2 to 3 feet wider than the root ball and deep enough so that about half the root ball will remain exposed above the ground.

Amend the soil with a mixture of one part ground pine bark, peat moss or other organic matter to one part soil (a 50/50 blend).

A soil pH of about 5.5 is ideal for native azaleas. If your soil is extremely acidic or alkaline you may need to adjust the pH using limestone amendments. (In his part of east central Alabama where soils tend to be acidic and high in phosphorus, Greenleaf uses 1 cup of dolomitic limestone to ½ cup gypsum per wheelbarrow of soil mix.)

Place the plant in the hole and mound the soil mixture over the root ball.

Mulch with 2 to 3 inches of pine straw, ground pine bark or other organic mulch.

Water deeply and slowly a couple of times each week for the first 6 to 8 weeks, then weekly thereafter during dry spells.

Continue to water the plant regularly, add new mulch and remove weeds as needed.

Take time to enjoy the blooms and all the creatures that visit those blooms!

More information on native azaleas and their maintenance is available through the Donald E. Davis Arboretum at, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System at, the Azalea Society of America at or through many botanical gardens and native plant nurseries in Alabama and the Southeast.