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Couple creates sustainable garden over the years

In Ed and Cynthia Powers’ tree-filled front yard outside Roanoke stands a rustic wooden sign reading “Wildlife Habitat.”

It could be seen as a joke about the retired couple’s relaxed gardening style – “benign neglect,” Ed calls it.

But it’s also a reflection of the couple’s serious and lifelong approach to the environment – it was earned as an official designation from the National Wildlife Federation decades ago.

Ed, 76, and Cynthia, 75, were “green” long before most folks even knew what it meant. When they were young in the 1970s, they – well, mostly Ed – built their house themselves. They say they were inspired by articles in the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine of the time.

So, when the two heard of a new program of the Purdue Extension’s Allen County office to certify sustainable gardens, they were soon on board.

“We enjoy wildlife and birds, and we wanted to promote sustainable living,” says Cynthia, a master gardener and master naturalist who continues to teach about wildlife at Fox Island County Park.

The couple say they were a bit intimidated when they received a nearly 50-item checklist of sustainable practices. But they easily accumulated 61 points – the three-star, or next-to-highest, level – without having to do much of anything different or additional, Cynthia says.

Use compost as mulch or fertilizer in gardens or lawns? Check. Remove or replace a problem tree? Check. Interplant flowers and vegetables? Check. Have raised-bed gardens? Check.

Include native plants in landscaping? Check – and immediately apparent from the bright-orange cluster of flowering butterfly milkweed in a bed at the end of the driveway.

Master gardener Pam Snyder of Fort Wayne, a coordinator of the certification program, says best gardening practices relative to the environment have been changing rapidly. She says members of the local extension committee that drew up the certification checklist wanted to promote their wider use.

“We wanted to go beyond things like just recycling,” she says. “We wanted to see more people getting into other things, like encouraging people to compost, grow native plants, use low-phosphate fertilizers, rain barrels and things like that.”

She and the committee began two years ago to research sustainable practices with the certification program rolled out this year.

With minimal publicity, eight homes and businesses in Fort Wayne and Allen County have been certified, says Ricky Kemery, horticulture educator for the extension and program adviser.

The “modest goal,” he says, is certifying 10 properties in the first year and aiming for additional homes and businesses and neighborhood organizations in upcoming years.

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of people are interested in being sustainable,” he says. “And we find that people are a lot more sustainable than they think they are.”

People qualify for certification by gathering points in three checklist categories: Vegetable and Flower Gardens, Lawn and Landscapes and General.

In the latter category, points can be garnered for patronizing a farm market or Community Supported Agriculture grower, buying organic produce, joining a local environmental organization or using the Extension services.

The former two categories include more land-specific practices.

They include not using cypress or dyed mulch, leaving grass clippings on the lawn, mulching leaves into the lawn or garden plots, planting drought-tolerant species, using low-phosphorous and/or corn gluten lawn and garden fertilizer and removing invasive plants.

Homeowners are sometimes asked to provide documentation of their practices in the form of photos, bills or receipts. And an evaluation team from the Extension visits the property before certification is issued.

The certification form comes with a sheet of definitions and resources for homeowners to use in making changes.

So far, the main reward for participation is bragging rights, Kemery says – and a nice plaque. But certification also offers other incentives – free or discounted perennials at Riverview Nursery in Spencerville, a guide to ACRES Land Trust preserves and a map of Eagle Marsh Trails.

“We’re encouraged by our visits,” Kemery says. “People are very proud that someone is recognizing that they’re trying to be sustainable. We’re hoping that more folks see that and get on board with the program.”

Cynthia Powers says she can’t imagine a reason not to be on board. As she leads a visitor around her yard, she points out a busy hummingbird feeder and a bee box on a pole – a home for small native pollinators.

“Look,” she says as a couple of tiny bees buzz around her head. “There’s one. They’re definitely using it.”

She shows off the native Virginia creeper she uses as ground cover between her hosta plants and the wild ginger that grows without a lot of encouragement. A native prairie mix she sowed in one of her raised beds is growing tall.

Then there’s the native redbud that was recently planted. And there’s where invasive honeysuckle used to grow – before Ed, a retired engineering company draftsman, pulled it out.

In the couple’s 40 years on the property, she says, the two, both avid birdwatchers, have documented more than 120 species of birds on or over the land.

“I think it’s very important to get children interested in nature,” Cynthia says. “I think if people’s backyards are managed in ways that to favor nature and attract wildlife, people will get more interested in it and want to take care of it more.”

Ed Powers – who, 40 years ago, recycled maple wood out of Portland Forge and Foundry for his kitchen cabinets and incorporated passive solar principles into his family’s house – decides to add his two cents’ worth.

“Why do this? Stuff isn’t infinite,” he says. “And it’s an interdependent web we live in.”

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