What's Happening

When zoos teach gardening, do they get it right?

On my visit to the National Zoo last October, I discovered something new and previously unimagined – a whole exhibit about wildlife in our backyards.  How to encourage and protect critters.  Good stuff.

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So, what do you all think of their advice?  Especially this part:  "Don't apply fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides."  Labeling all fertilizers as harmful?  Wow.

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And in several signs, they take a very hard line against outdoor cats.  As a bird-lover and indoor-cat owner, I fine with that.
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This next sign provides a possible explanation for their no-fertilizer position – that it harms pond animals.  If you have a pond, which most people don't.

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Readers, have you seen something like this at any other zoo?  And was the message the same?

Posted by on January 17, 2012 at 5:09 am, in the category What's Happening.
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23 Responses to “When zoos teach gardening, do they get it right?”

  1. Laura S says:

    In this circumstance if I read “don’t apply fertilizer” I would assume they meant man-made, but then again I’m a gardener. I’m happy to see this.

  2. John says:

    In my past life I worked at a zoo for many years. Part of that time was as a zookeeper and part of it as a graphic artist where I designed and made the signs. We had two areas where we talked about everything mentioned above – our butterfly garden (in the outdoor, native plants/native butterfly area); and in our migratory bird exhibit where we talked about songbirds and all the problems they face which included predation by housecats and loss of insects or pollution from farm/garden chemical use. And all that was 20 years ago.

  3. My trip to a zoo in Orlando had nothing like that. About the only signs I saw were either keep off the grass or dont put your fingers in the cage. Here at home though, I don;t use anything but organic because of the birds and the bees. We have cattle, so what better fertilizer is there?

  4. janeb says:

    It’s counterintuitive to think of a “good” thing like fertilizer as a pollutant, but even organic fertilizers can be overapplied. Nitrogen that passes beyond plant root zones (because more has been applied than the plants can use or because it has been applied at a time when plants are not actively growing) can wash away into a pond or down a storm drain to end up in some other water body, or leach into groundwater.

  5. Chris U says:

    I’m so proud of these comments! Most people can garden well without using fertilizers. Think compost.

  6. Pam J. says:

    I also like the “no fertilizer” message. The majority of Americans don’t garden at all, and those who decide to try usually use much more “stuff” than is needed. Our planet would be in much better shape if people erred on the side of using too little (of everything) rather than too much.

  7. Marte says:

    I am in complete agreement with all of the comments above!

  8. Laura Bell says:

    1) I think too many people would completely dismiss the “don’t apply fertilizer” part and thus dismiss a lot of the other advice. I’d assume it meant artificial fertilizers, but like Laura S (above), I’m a gardener & have educated myself about the good & bad of garden chemicals.

    2) They needed to elaborate on the “Don’t keep garden objects that collect still water” advice. Tell folks why. Always explain.

    3) I like that they take a hard line on outdoor cats. Aside from the bird issue, there’s also the matter of little gifts found in mulch, potted plants, or freshly dug soil. And if you keep them indoors then they aren’t likely to go missing (when I’ve asked missing-cat owners what happened, the reply is usually that they let the cat out for the day/night & it just didn’t return).

    4) The reference to “pond animals” needs to be expanded to ‘aquatic plants and animals’. Many people don’t live near a pond … or it’s merely a water feature in their backyard. But lots of folks can relate to lakes, creeks, & rivers.

    Most of all, though, I’m really glad to see the Zoo working to make people aware of their own surroundings & their role in keeping a healthy environment. Usually this is something seen only at botanical gardens or nature trails but it makes a lot of sense for zoos to do the same

  9. The Oregon Zoo in Portland has a display called the Back Yard Makeover, where they attempt to educate homeowners about many aspects of greener outdoor management including most of what you mentioned above, and adding reduction of hardscape, composting, and education and planting of native species. It’s manned by the Multnomah County Master Gardeners and they have great take-home literature created (mostly) by Metro, our local tri-county government. I have had wonderful interactions with interested gardeners there.

    Like some posters here, I have no issue with people being urged not to fertilize: so many newbies really overdo that.

  10. tai haku says:

    the only zoos I can really remember doing much in this regard are San Diego Zoo/Wild Animal Park and Singapore. SDZ/SDWAP are essentially together an awesome botanic garden but I don’t remember much by way of signs pointing out the significance of (for example) their awesome cycad collection. they do however at least label their less common/more wildlife significant native plants well. Singapore labeled some of their more significant stuff too and had a nicely informative little kitchen garden section but I don’t recall much regarding planting/wildlife interaction or “how to” information.

  11. Janes'_kid says:

    I should like to comment upon “Don’t apply fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.”

    When I went to a liberal arts college all freshmen had to take two semesters of “communication”, writing and speaking stuff. One of my segments how to write to sell my composition. One tool was to include lists of do’s and dont’s.

    It seems to me that “Don’t apply fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.” is a very popular don’t. Perhaps it was included by the author to make the message sell well.

  12. Phil says:

    I think it’s important to say why for each “don’t”. I would have said:

    “Don’t use pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers because they are harmful to many of the plants, animals and other beneficial organisms in your garden”

    …or something like that. Robert Cialdini did some interesting experiments showing how powerful the word “because” is. And although it’s implied, I think giving a reason is important. What do you think? Is it overkill?

  13. susan harris says:

    Phil, I agree with your remedy. Just one more word – synthetic – and I wouldn’t be questioning this. Also, a short “because” would, I think, reinforce the education they’re hoping to make happen here.
    And Jane, I read a lot of eco-gardening info and I’ve never actually seen this all-encompasing a “don’t” before: “Don’t apply fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.”
    And I DO agree that most newbie gardeners and homeowners overfertilize, but it’s usually with the synthetic stuff. Think multiple steps of some “miracle” product.

  14. tibs says:

    I never use bought fertilizer or pesticides- synthetic or organic. Too cheap and unorganized to apply it at the right time. I use compost. And to all you no outside cats – I never have a mole/vole problem. And I love the company of my cats when I garden.

  15. I agree with ALL

    and am SO perplexed why you don’t get that “pond” also means frogs and pesticides are killers of butterflies & bluebirds too…

  16. Laurie says:

    All fertilizers can be detrimental to pond life. My family has a barn that is uphill (far up hill) from their pond and after heavy rains there is usually a heavy algae bloom from barnyard manure trickling downhill into the water. Nitrogen disrupts the natural pond cycle, even from an organic product. And even organic nitrogen runs off of gardens and urban lawns and into gutters, then directly into local creeks without treatment. In California, recent studies show that it’s even greater in the summer because we irrigate and the extra water has a way of running off. Excess nitrogen is a BIG problem in my local creeks and much of it is from gardens like mine.

  17. D Lacy says:

    Out here in Seattle, folk have signs in their yards stating that it’s a wildlife habitat or that their yards are a “Pesticide Free Zone”. People are encouraged to do this by the city and also give rebates for installations of rain gardens. Storm water management is a major focus as run off is a major source of pollution in Puget Sound. Signs like what’s at your zoo are important educational tools. I hope programs are being implemented that encourage folk to transform their yards and to tone down the use of chemicals. Integrated Pest Management is the way to go, and compost goes a long way to having healthy soil.

  18. janeb says:

    From Susan: “And I DO agree that most newbie gardeners and homeowners overfertilize, but it’s usually with the synthetic stuff. Think multiple steps of some “miracle” product.” Usually, yes, but nitrogen is nitrogen no matter what the source and you can overapply nitrogen from an organic source as well. Plants only use nitrogen when they are actively growing. Nitrogen doesn’t bind to soil so any nitrogen not used at the time it is applied (or “released” in the case of slow-release fertilizers) will end up somewhere else (waterways or back into the atmosphere). Compost is good because it releases N so slowly and mostly when plants are growing and so will use it (i.e., in warm weather). I, too, live in the PNW, and fertilizer run-off from home gardens is a huge issue here.

  19. Sarah says:

    My one issue is with the no outside cats. I firmly believe that cats SHOULD be allowed outside. They are much happier when they get to roam than they are when they are locked inside. Yes, they disappear every once in a while, but I believe the increased quality of life is worth that chance.

    As for the birds, I like them too,but believe there is space for both.

  20. DBO says:

    Not to mention the usual herbicide pesticide redundancy. Herbicides are pesticides, just like insecticides and any number of garden-applied -cides. They are for the removal of pests, and thus are pesticides. If the zoo can’t get the nomenclature right,…..

  21. Rochelle says:

    I agree with Sarah, free the cats.

    If you kept children inside they wouldn’t get hurt either. I’m sure we can all see the faulty logic there.

    Population control is better. Spay and neuter your cats. Support charities like Planned Ferralhood that spay/neuter ferral cats.

  22. “My one issue is with the no outside cats. I firmly believe that cats SHOULD be allowed outside. They are much happier when they get to roam than they are when they are locked inside. Yes, they disappear every once in a while, but I believe the increased quality of life is worth that chance.

    As for the birds, I like them too,but believe there is space for both.”

    and

    “I agree with Sarah, free the cats.

    If you kept children inside they wouldn’t get hurt either. I’m sure we can all see the faulty logic there.

    Population control is better. Spay and neuter your cats. Support charities like Planned Ferralhood that spay/neuter ferral cats.”

    Cats are not a natural part of the North American eco-system and are extremely destructive to the native wildlife. The faulty logic here is on the part of those in favor of letting their cats outside. Cats are not analogous to children. If we want to have a non-native pet, then we need to be responsible and keep our pets from harming native wildlife. The only way to do that with cats is to keep them inside or let them outside only in large runs/cages.

    And before anyone accuses me of being a cat-hater, I have four kitties. All of them live indoors. It’s safer for them and better for the environment.

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