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A Kentucky Proud yard

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While many strive for a perfectly manicured lawn, Joan Brown has instead cultivated a native yard that attracts and welcomes the commonwealth’s flora and fauna. And now the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife and the National Wildlife Federation have taken notice of those efforts.

By Ashley Wilkins

The temperatures may be rising into the nineties this week but Joan Brown, known to many locals as the Road Kill Chef, isn’t slowing down in her garden.

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“Sometimes I have to tell myself, Joan slow down you can’t work like you used to,” she said with a smile.

But those years of hard work are being recognized.

Brown’s yard was recently certified by The National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat, which recognizes that she has “created a garden space that improves habitats for birds, butterflies, frogs and other wildlife by providing essential elements needed by all wildlife…” according to the NWF.

Also certified by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resource’s Habitat Improvement program, her yard is filled with plants that are native to Kentucky.

Brown proudly pointed out her some of her native plants like Trumpet Honeysuckle, Maximilian Sunflower, Goldenrod, and Elderberry bushes.

“A lot of people don’t know this but you can actually make jelly from elderberries,” Brown said. “It’s been a long time, but I’ve made it before and it tastes a lot like blueberry jelly.”

Along the side of Brown’s home more wildlife has taken over, including a prickly pear cactus, which Brown says many are unaware is native to Kentucky.

She also explained that strawberries native to Kentucky have white flowers.

“If you talk to your grandmother, she’ll tell you about those native strawberries that grew along the railroad tracks,” she said. “You could actually walk along and pick ‘em.”

Pesticide and heavy rains have hurt wild strawberries this year, she said. But it’s easy to see why they’re native to this area in her yard as they have spread quickly and she noted they have just about taken over.

In order to receive her certification with the NWF, Brown had to list the plants in her yard and document what wildlife had visited her natural space. 

“I’ve forgotten now how many birds I’ve documented,” she said as she pointed out a Blue Jay and a woodpecker at her feeders. She estimated that more 40 different species of birds had stopped to rest or roost in her yard.

“My entertainment is seeing how many different ones I can see,” she said.

She has had so many aviary visitors, Brown said she became a citizen science member for Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology where she documents what birds visit her yard and often reports their behavior. The program, which collects data from citizen scientists around the country, uses the information to study and monitor the habits of birds.

“The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's citizen science participants gather data at such a large scale that their efforts could never be matched by any ordinary research team,” the program’s Web site states.

Raised on a farm in Spencer County, Brown has spent her entire life observing nature and animals.

“I’ve been around wildlife all my life,” she said. “Forty years ago, I was one of the first keepers at the Louisville Zoo.”

Following her time at the zoo, Brown said she worked with cats at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

However, Brown returned to Kentucky and retired from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

And now with 73 years of wildlife knowledge and experience, Brown isn’t slowing down a bit.  Gardening under the hot summer sun for sometimes 12-hours a day, she’s still logging longer hours than most.

But as she ages, and battles a few health issues, she only has one rule – “As long as you don’t take me out of my yard, I’ll be fine.”