|Petals From The Past|
Arlie Powell Passing on a Lifetime of Learning in Horticulture
Arlie Powell hasn’t let age and retirement keep him from his passion in life – teaching.
It’s kept him going for as long as he can remember and, at 72, he’s working hard at a unique facility in Chilton County where he and his family have created something special in the heart of Alabama.
Their creation is called "Petals from the Past" and business has been brisk since it opened a decade ago in Jemison.
In addition to offering plants, flowers and gifts for sale, the site also includes a huge barn-shaped classroom where groups from around Alabama and America arrive for lessons on growing fruits, vegetables, flowers and other aspects of horticulture.
When they’re not discussing issues at conferences in "The Barn," as it’s known, Powell escorts groups to areas where he teaches them how to prune apple and peach trees as well as other gardening tips.
"I enjoy showing people how various varieties look at certain ages," he said. "If they want to reach out and touch something, I’m all for it."
Once Powell was the State Agriculture Program Coordinator for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) and an educator for more than half a century, now he has easily settled into the role of country squire in Chilton County.
One thing he refused to do was nothing and that’s why he enjoys getting his hands dirty and his brain picked by weekend gardeners who know they are in the presence of a real pro.
"I’m not sure I could just retire and sit back or go fishing or play a little golf," he said. "I did do something that really thrilled me and that was when Jason and I went quail hunting in South Dakota once."
Jason Powell, his son, is a partner in "Petals from the Past" while Gwen does more than just support her husband and son. She also produces jam and jellies that have attracted a wide following.
Becoming involved in annual educational conferences is what really gets Powell’s juices flowing. He was in his early 60s when he started and hasn’t regretted it for a moment.
Earlier this year he greeted 70 agriculture superintendents from across the country. Most conferences are for people who live within a 100-mile radius, usually between Birmingham and Montgomery, but Powell is so well-known it’s not unusual for visitors from California to Maine to come calling for help.
Since Chilton County is the geographic center of Alabama, it’s an ideal location for statewide meetings and, as the county continues to grow, so does "Petals from the Past."
"We’re only a mile from I-65 and that makes it easy to get here," Powell said. "I’m very proud of what we have to offer. I just wish we had more space to work with."
Operating a garden center and huge conference facility wasn’t the future Powell envisioned when he arrived in Alabama in 1978 to become a horticulturist for ACES. His responsibility included outreach programs aimed at commercial fruit production.
His reputation grew rapidly in the years that followed with Auburn University professors as well as county agents continuing to be impressed by his knowledge and versatility.
Gaines Smith, retired director of ACES, said Powell’s knowledge "of all aspects of peach production was, and I’m sure remains today, unsurpassed.
"As an educator, Arlie has the ability to conduct and interpret highly technical research into practical techniques that growers and homeowners can put into practice in their orchards, fields and gardens."
Gary Gray, a regional Extension agent based in Chilton County, is amazed by Powell’s ability to produce, teach and inspire. He said it’s been that way since he joined the Extension system.
"I love to tell folks that Arlie ‘wrote the book’ on fruit culture in Alabama because he really did," Gray remarked.
Once a county agent in Florida before returning to college to get his doctorate, Powell has churned out hundreds of publications for horticulture professionals and enthusiasts.
He also played a key role in the creation of the Alabama Fruit Growers Association that eventually added vegetables to its coverage area.
If there is one thing Powell is best known for it’s peaches. He is pretty much the undisputed expert when it comes to the popular fruit – most of which is grown in Chilton County where he lives.
During the past three decades, Powell has completed numerous studies aimed at increasing peach production. Among them were advances in limb girdling and mechanical fruit thinning – something now used throughout the Southeast by peach producers.
Chilton County has occasionally suffered devastating losses to its peach crop because of unseasonably warm temperatures or bitter cold weather producing snow and ice. Some years saw the crop completely wiped out.
Jim Langcuster, a spokesman for ACES said Powell developed a number of methods to help growers avoid those losses from occasional deep freezes along with warmer-than-needed temperatures.
Langcuster said Powell’s studies with a growth regulator helped peach producers reduce yield losses linked to inadequate chilling hours.
The annual Chilton County Peach Festival wouldn’t be the same without Powell around to help judge the best baskets and greet friends he may not have seen for months.
His reputation became so well-known across the South that, in 1998, he served as President of the Southern Region American Society of Horticultural Science.
Powell, born and raised in Fort Meade, FL, has spent about half his life in Alabama and wouldn’t think of relocating to any other state.
He said meeting and greeting the public is one of the most rewarding parts of his "retirement" these days.
"The biggest kick I get is seeing people enjoy what we’re doing here and then go back to their own gardens with a greater level of success," he said. "Our whole purpose is enabling them to do a much better job in their gardens."
Among Powell’s many business responsibilities and volunteer efforts is something that has become a labor of love for him and that’s the Peach Festival held each June in Clanton.
When Powell’s name is mentioned on the public address system each year it always get a roar of approval from peach growers and their families who attend the festival and line up to chat with him.
Powell has been a judge at the festival for the past 20 years and, according to those who know him, no better choice could have been made.
"Arlie knows a good peach when he sees one and he’s seen plenty over the years," Gray said.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.