grow your own – July 2013

After last month’s stroll through the newly renovated Olmsted Gardens at the Cummer Museum, I thought it would be fun to talk about the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, another local treasure you might want to put on your list of horticultural “must sees.”
I went to the Zoo recently to talk with Bob Chabot, Director of Horticulture and Facilities, to hear about their plans for the future. Chabot has been Horticulture Director since 2005, and it has been a real treat to watch the transformation of the gardens under his leadership. Seventy-one of the Zoo’s 125 acres have been developed, and all the exhibits are beautifully enhanced by plantings that the animals might encounter in their native habitat. The establishment of new gardens has naturally slowed as the Zoo has matured. As a result, Chabot has assumed additional responsibilities (the “Facilities” part of his title) that involve him in more than garden planning, development and maintenance.
I had read about the new tiger exhibit under construction, so I asked Chabot about the gardens where the tigers would be housed. He was as eager to talk about the tiger exhibit as the gardens, which will open in March of 2014, the Zoo’s 100th birthday year. Visitors can expect to see a natural progression of Asian plantings extending from the Komodo dragon exhibit next door to the new tiger exhibit. Bamboo, palms, hardwood trees, ferns, and a variety of Asian shrubs will be featured, with larger trees providing a backdrop for viewing the animals.
The targeted species of Sumatran Tigers will share two acres with small-clawed otters. Birds, including two types of Asian hornbills, will be housed in two aviaries. The exhibit will also feature Babirusa and Warty Pigs, two endangered Asian pigs. Because they like to root in the soil, the pigs’ habitat will look somewhat different than the lush plantings in other areas of the Zoo. Their surroundings will include faux rock planters and electrified “hot grass” to protect the plants from the animals.
Besides the animals, the most dramatic feature of the exhibit may be the chain-link-fortified tunnels that will wind around the area. These vine-draped tunnels will allow the tigers to wander safely around and over the visitors, providing a spectacular view not seen in the other large cat areas.
Another plan in the works is to refurbish the water gardens at the entrance. The newly-named “Century Garden,” also opening in the Zoo’s 100th year, will welcome visitors for years to come.
The Zoo’s gardens have received local and state awards, including the Florida Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Award in 2007 for the Botanical Garden Master Plan, and two FNGLA Landscape Awards of Excellence, one in 2010 for the Gardens at Trout River Plaza and another in 2012 for the Asian Gardens housing the Komodo dragon exhibit.
Strolling through our fantastic Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens can be almost as satisfying as growing your own.