Turning Over a New Leaf

The Virginia Zoo is home to more than 700 animals from rhinos to tortoises, snakes and primates, and an array of birds and insects. While the animals are the Zoo’s number one draw for nearly half a million guests every year, the Zoo wouldn’t be the same without its vibrant and lush gardens.

Tending to the gardens can be a tedious task for the Zoo’s Horticulture Department. From watering and planting, weeding and even cutting the grass, our Horticulture technicians do it all. Keeping the grounds beautiful and making sure the plants are thriving in the appropriate season isn’t only time consuming, but can also be costly, especially when plans are in the works to revamp some of the Zoo’s gardens.

The latest undertaking for our Horticulture staff was to envelop the ZooFarm with bee-friendly flowers, herbs and an array of crops that would be perfect as treats for the animals. With the help of a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, the Zoo was able to make this dream a reality.

The Hampton Roads Community Foundation is southeastern Virginia’s largest grant and scholarship provider. Since its founding in 1950, the regional community foundation and its donors have provided more than $250 million in grants and scholarships to improve life in southeastern Virginia.

The Zoo applied for a grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in 2017 by submitting a proposal outlining the purpose of the renovated garden, the impacts on the animals at the Zoo, and the educational experience for guests. As a result, the Julian Haden Gary and Margaret Savage Gary Fund of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation has donated $5,000 to the Zoo toward re-purposing gardens in the ZooFarm.

With this generous donation, the Horticulture Department was able to sow rows of corn, green beans, tomatoes, eggplant and other vegetables along the Screamer exhibit in early spring. Along a fence near the yellow barn, the team grew cucumbers on trellises and pots of a variety of pepper plants. Guests’ favorite part of the renovated garden were the towering sunflowers that grew to 10 feet tall and provided a unique photo opportunity. As the seasons change, staff will rotate out crops. For the fall, guests may be able to find kale, cabbage and spinach growing.

Formerly the Virginia Barnyard Garden, the new and improved ZooFarm Garden is an important asset to the Zoo’s grounds. The fruits of our staff’s labor will almost certainly be enjoyed by many of the animals, such as Zoo-grown green beans for a Patagonian cavy snack or fresh-picked melon for the White rhinos. The animals aren’t the only ones who are reaping the benefits from the garden.

Hundreds of thousands of children and adults visit the Zoo every year and the ZooFarm Garden can teach our visitors about making informed choices to maximize their nutrition, health, and the health of the planet. With an informational and educational garden with fresh produce guests can sample, as well as volunteers and professional Horticulture staff on hand to educate, the ZooFarm Garden is already helping to grow knowledge and delicious foods, like this Red chard!

This project would not have been possible without the help of the Julian Haden Gary and Margaret Savage Gary Fund of the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. The Zoo would like to thank its donors for helping the Horticulture Department bring the ZooFarm Garden to life.