It's no surprise that a couple of biologists would have what it takes to win an Edwardsville Green Thumb Award.
But Dave Jennings and Randi Papke see landscaping as more than trees, bushes and flowers. It's a way for them to express creativity and practice sustainability.
They use recycled materials for garden accents whenever possible and plant "edibles" that can be consumed by humans, birds or animals.
"(David is) always coming up with something, and I'll either say, 'Let's do it!' or 'Hmmm, I don't know," said Randi, 46, who teaches biology at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
"He had an idea for this giant kinetic sculpture made with bowling balls, but I was like, 'I'm not sure if that's safe for kids.'"
What has Randi said "yes" to? A rounded wall of old stones that forms a sunken outdoor living room with chairs surrounding a fire pit. The entrance is a red metal hay-bale cattle feeder.
Natural decor ranges from purple balloon flowers to orange day lilies and a butterfly bush with magenta blooms.
"This is called a monk's pepper tree," Randi said, pointing to a tree next to a stone path. "Its leaves have a spicy scent. They smell herbal, like you could put them in a soup or stew, but don't do that.
"Supposedly, it's an anti-aphrodisiac. Monks put them on their beds to keep their libidos down. I don't know if that's true, but it's a good story."
Randi and David's yard at 303 Circle Drive in Edwardsville is one of 11 properties that received Green Thumb Awards from the Edwardsville Beautification and Tree Commission recently.
The program honors residents who go that extra mile to beautify public or private spaces with flowers and other plants, regardless of cost, size or location.
Nominations are submitted by the gardeners themselves or neighbors, friends, family members or passersby who appreciate their hard work and creativity.
"This year, it seemed like we had a lot of do-it-yourselfers," said committee chair Zyann Kinney, 55. "They did all the work themselves, so that was kind of fun."
Randi and David moved to Edwardsville from Arizona eight years ago so David could accept a job at McKendree University. He now teaches biology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
The couple bought their 1953 yellow-brick home mainly because of its 2/3 -acre corner lot and towering shade trees, including oak, linden, pecan, maple and hickory.
"I said, 'You can replace the kitchen in five years, but you can't grow giant trees in five years,'" said David, 47.
The couple inherited a few flower beds with tulips, peonies and daffodils, as well as a wooden gazebo and benches made of imperfect tombstones turned upside-down. (The former owner worked for a monument company.)
David and Randi planted more perennials, such as balloon flowers, butterfly bushes, rose of Sharon, bottlebrush, false indigo, elderberry, bamboo, hydrangeas, irises, chokeberries, cone flowers and climbing Don Juan roses.
"We knew we wanted less grass," David said. "We used to live in Arizona, and we felt guilty about grass. It's not very environmentally friendly. It requires so much water."
The couple converted a large section of the backyard into a vegetable garden with lettuce, beets, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, squash, asparagus and tomatoes.
They also planted raspberries, strawberries and three apple trees. David built a tool shed out of wood from old pallets. A small chicken coop sits unoccupied.
"That was our attempt to have chickens, which apparently are illegal," Randi said with a smile. "So we had to get rid of them."
The property is guarded by "Tree Man," an upright log resembling a human figure, the remnant of a maple tree that had to be cut down.
Another whimsical conversation piece is a gong made of an old gas cylinder, which stands next to a deck lined with tiki torches.
David used old fencing to turn a store-bought play structure into a deluxe, five-room treehouse for son Paul, 8. (Randi also has a 24-year-old daughter, Kathleen Mendoza, in Arizona.)
"I play games in (the treehouse) or I play ship with one of my friends," Paul said. "His name is Alex. We (pretend) that we're on a ship in the middle of the ocean."
David and Randi were nominated for a Green Thumb Award by their neighbor, Miriam Burns. She's a past winner.
Burns, 70, enjoys the yard's creative accents and variety of flowers and plants.
"Every time, I go by there, it makes me smile," she said. "Then they have that great vegetable garden that you don't even see from the road. It's like a secret garden."
Other Green Thumb winners in the residential category this year are Craig and Joan Hackett, 843 Amherst Place; Charlene Sultan, 1307 Randle St.; Michael and Adria Hildebrand, 106 Magnolia St.; Betsy Parks, 421 Douglas Ave.; Brian Sneed, 1605 Duke St.; and Elizabeth Stoff and Eric Darnell, 516 N. Kansas St.
Neighborhood winners are the Meeker-Kraft neighborhood, bordered by West Fourth, Randle and Clay streets and Watershed Trail; and the Grandview Place subdivision entrance at Schwarz Street and Grandview Drive.
St. John's United Methodist Church at 7372 Marine Road won in the civic category, and South Side's All-Star Collision Center (Mike Smith and Norman Beck) at 1709 Troy Road won in the business/commercial category.