Cool Green Gardens

Groovy Zoo Gardens

If you love gardening, want to discover some new plants, and make new friends who understand why you have dirt under your fingernails, how about volunteering at your local zoo? More about tapping this mother lode of horticultural fun in a second, but first, a quick detour…

I was always grateful my former neighbor Janie, the elephant tender at the Santa Barbara Zoo, didn’t bring her work home with her. The steps to her second story apartment were not up to her “co-workers” popping in for an after-hours beer.

Elephants Have Tough Teeth

leave the bamboo to the elephants

I was thinking about Janie – who has since moved up the food chain to the San Diego Wild Animal Park – the other day while researching a story on zoo landscaping. I was admiring the Santa Barbara Zoo’s Asian elephants as they reached for stalks of bamboo and giant bird of paradise leaves, suspended from a towering umbrella-covered support system. Their meal hadn’t traveled far. Called “browse” in zoo parlance, these munchies were harvested from landscaped areas around the grounds, doing double duty not only as a staple in the diets of zoo inhabitants (gorillas and giraffes get second “dibs”), but also as ornamental plants simulating of each animal’s native habitat.

The giant condors’ exhibit was surrounded by native California vegetation, the lions’ by exotic South African aloes and other indigenous succulents. Walking through the fern-festooned, free-flight aviary took on the ambience of a Tarzan movie.

The Santa Barbara Zoo's walk-through aviary has a Tarzan movie vibe.
The Santa Barbara Zoo’s walk-through aviary has a Tarzan movie vibe.

I also learned that volunteers play a big part in keeping the zoo’s landscaping in tiptop shape. A recent series of volunteer work parties eradicated invasive non-native plants from the banks of the neighboring salt pond and installed appropriate native vegetation. These volunteers receive top-notch horticultural training and get to build friendships with other like-minded gardening fans.

Lions and Tigers and Bare Roots!

And it’s not just a Santa Barbara thing. A quick scan of websites across the country revealed a wealth of programs for backyard gardeners and youth.

For example, the Little Rock Zoo is always looking for individuals who have a strong commitment to “the art of plant, flower, fruit, and vegetable care.” Typical tasks include spring planting of trees, shrubs, and bedding plants, summer flowerbed watering, and fall mulching. They also have special projects that are ideally suited to garden clubs.

South African aloes enhance the lion and giraffe exhibits.
South African aloes enhance the lion and giraffe exhibits.

The Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden has a generous offering for local gardeners. Earlier this year they offered a series of 10 classes covering design, plant selection, maintenance, gardening for wildlife, and how to approach a garden make-over, taught by Steve Foltz, Director of Horticulture. Looks like they’ll be offering the series again in 2012, so check their website for more info.

Aside from involving the general public in horticultural happenings, some organizations take it a step further. The Zoo InternQuest program at the San Diego Zoo is a seven-week career exploration program for county high school juniors and seniors. Through their horticultural curriculum, students learn about the rare and valuable plant collections at the zoo, seed bank programs, and gain awareness about conservation of threaten habitats around the world.

The Zoomazium at the Woodland Zoo in Seattle takes the idea of landscaping beyond just the aesthetic benefits, designing and constructing a LEED Gold building [What is LEED?] that reduces the impacts of stormwater runoff with a 8,300 square foot green roof, planted with 22,000 native plants, some of them self-sowing to reduce the need for replanting.

Plan A Visit

Zoos have come a long way since the days of unimaginative, concrete and steel bar cages. They are at the forefront of enlightened stewardship, conservation of habitat and resources, and educational efforts that help all generations appreciate the fragility of the planet we all share. Visit yours soon, and while you’re there, see if there are a few botanical wonders you can find a home for in your own garden.

penguins populate northern Chile and southern Peru, where palm trees do just fine.
At first I thought this was a joke. Then I learned that Humboldt penguins populate northern Chile and southern Peru, where palm trees do just fine.
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