Archive for the ‘Landscape-Horticulture’ Category

Making it Green: Oakland Zoo’s Creek and Garden Programs

by | July 17th, 2015

You might not know this but Oakland Zoo deals with a lot more than just animals. Surrounding the Zoo, like a giant green oasis, lies the expansive Knowland Park. And running through the park you’ll find crew with bagsthe meandering Arroyo Viejo Creek, making its way from the East Bay hills to San Leandro Bay. But this creek isn’t some man-made exhibit with fake foliage. It’s a naturally occurring bio zone, complete with its own plant life, animal life and geological features. In other words, it’s home to a lot of living things. And like far too many natural ecosystems, Arroyo Viejo Creek faces ongoing threats from the human world. So it needs a little help. That’s where Oakland Zoo comes in.

For several years now the Zoo has facilitated restoration work on the creek in an effort to return it to its natural, healthy state. This work involves cleaning up accumulated trash, removing invasive plants (such as French Broom, thistle, poison hemlock and English ivy) and planting weed pullersnative species, such as coastal live oak. Most of this work is done by a group known as the Creek Crew, a team of up to fifty zoo-led volunteers that get together one Saturday each month. Armed with shovels, rakes and work gloves, the Creek Crew involves people of all ages, from kids to seniors. And they have a great time too. Overseeing these efforts is Oakland Zoo’s Creek and Garden Programs Manager, Olivia Lott.

A recent arrival at the Zoo, Olivia is also organizing an ambitious plan to create a series of themed demonstration gardens to use in our Education Creek and Garden programs. These gardens will illustrate a variety of biomes and will be used to educate the public about the role of various plant species. Utilizing our existing planter space in the Education Center courtyard, Olivia hopes to create eight different plots, including an edible garden, a medicinal garden, a xeriscaped garden for sun loving plants, a habitat and shelter garden to attract local wildlife, one for shade plants (filled with ferns native to our northern California woodlands) and other gardens for aquatic plants, carnivorous plants and for attracting butterflies and other pollinators. There’s even a group on grassgarden consisting of plants that grow without the need for soil that will be grown vertically along one wall of our Education facility!

Olivia plans to involve the public in creating the space for these gardens. Projects like building planter boxes, vertical garden frames and small fences, plus soil preparation and even some planting can all be fun educational projects for the dedicated groups and individuals who volunteer their time here at the Zoo each month. Education Department staff will maintain the gardens once they are established.

Another conservation project Olivia is helping to launch involves sharing a bit of beautiful Knowland Park with the rest of the East Bay. Starting this September, several groups including Creek and Garden classes, Creek Crew volunteers and Zoo staff will begin collecting acorns that have fallen from the Coast purple and chipsLive Oak trees living in the upper park. The acorns will be brought down to the Education Center to be prepped and planted in containers where they will grow for the next 24 months or so. Once the acorns have become small oak saplings, they will be given to East Bay residents who are interested in helping to re-populate their neighborhoods and yards with these magnificent native trees that once gave Oakland its name. Instructions for caring for the saplings as well as small markers that tell about the trees and where they came from will be provided with each tree. This project grew out of the Zoo’s desire to not only replace the few oak trees that will be removed during CA Trail construction, but to also “spread some of the wealth” of Knowland Park throughout East Bay neighborhoods.


If you’re interested in joining the Creek Crew or know someone who is, contact Oakland Zoo at or 510-632-9525 x 233 and get involved with the next work day at Arroyo Viejo Creek. If you’re interested in helping with the gardens, contact Chantal at Either way, you’ll have a great time working with nature and meeting new friends. And it’s a good feeling knowing that you too can make a difference!


Oakland Zoo Welcomes New Educator

by | August 14th, 2014
Katie with Spike, the Indigo Snake

Katie with Spike, the Indigo Snake

Recently, Oakland Zoo welcomed a new member to its Education Staff. Katie Desmond is the new Creek and Garden Programs Manager. Raised in Sebastopol (Sonoma County) Katie earned her BS in Biology and Animal Physiology at Sonoma State University. Later she worked at nature preserves where she led workshops for kids. In 2010 she arrived here at Oakland Zoo, where she worked as an intern, helping with the Western Pond Turtle Project. Following a three-year stint at Safari West near Santa Rosa, Katie returned to the Zoo as a full time employee in the Education Department.
As part of her new position here, Katie oversees the restoration and upkeep of the Zoo’s Arroyo Viejo Creek which runs through Knowland Park on its way from the Oakland hills to the bay. She will also be helping to establish a series of themed gardens in the Education Center courtyard. Seven in all, these will include a native California wild edibles garden; a waterscape with marshy habitat for aquatic plants; a xeriscaped drought-resistant sun garden; and several others with different types of soil, utilizing urban composting. The Zoo’s horticultural staff will help with the big job of designing and planting. Katie will eventually be developing a curriculum to go with each of these gardens, so they can serve as “living laboratories.” At a later time when the gardens are established, school kids will become involved, learning about the different types of plant communities when they visit the Zoo.
As the coordinator of the creek program, Katie will also be facilitating the intrepid Creek Crew, an ever-changing group of various outside volunteers that meet here every 3rd Saturday of the month. She’ll be helping them with their ongoing goal to restore the creek to its former natural, healthy state.
In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, gardening, hiking and snowboarding. Asked why she’s here at Oakland Zoo, Katie says she wants to help educate people about the environment we live in. So let’s all welcome Katie to her new position here, and we look forward to her enthusiastic involvement with Arroyo Viejo Creek!


A Creek Runs Through It

by | August 12th, 2014

The natural occurrence of clean water used to be commonplace throughout the world. But these days, especially within urban settings, water needs all the help it can get. Part of that help involves taking care of the waterways that wind their way through our neighborhoods. Here at Oakland Zoo, our group of dedicated teen volunteers, the Teen Wild Guides (or TWGs), have been doing just that, helping the local creek return to its natural, healthy state. Along with a wide array of other volunteers, the TWGs have been joining the ongoing effort to restore habitat along Oakland’s Arroyo Viejo Creek, which runs through Knowland Park on its way to San Leandro Bay. These volunteers, who range in age from 10 to 100 years old, include high school groups, families, church groups, scout groups as well as alumni and corporate (22)

During several weekends last year, the TWGs assisted the Zoo’s Education Department and Horticulture staff in leading Arroyo Viejo Creek volunteers and various community groups with the following projects: planting native species including Stipa grass plugs; clearing dirt debris and invasive plants from an adjacent new lawn area; clearing weeds from around new oak saplings and mulching around nearby trees; and creating a wooden border between a new parking area and the habitat restoration site to prevent native grasses from being damaged by zoo guests.

photo (14)Funding for the tools and materials needed for this restoration work has been provided by a generous $4900 grant from the Alameda County Flood Control and Water Conservation District’s Clean Water Program and Community Stewardship Grant Program. But the TWGs’ contributions to the creek’s welfare have gone beyond performing physical labor. These teens understand how important clean water is to the environment and humans, and that riparian habitats are critical for wildlife and ecosystem functions.

With this in mind, they’ve also assisted with sharing conservation information with our volunteers on a variety of pertinent topics, including:DSC02973

  • What are Watersheds?
  • Why watersheds are so important
  • Invasive Plant Species
  • Native Plant Species
  • Edible plants that are found alongside the creek
  • Riparian habitats
  • Animals that inhabit riparian habitats at the creek

Kiwanis Group with Hort 4613 037


Through their involvement with the county’s Clean Water Program, the TWGs have learned how to restore native vegetation on creek banks and wetland transition zones, and how this work has contributed to the long-term protection and biological health of streams, aquifers, and terrestrial resources of our watersheds in the North Bay. As part of this grant, the TWGs have also worked with teen volunteers at Fruitvale’s Peralta Hacienda Park, restoring native gardens and working on the restoration of Peralta Creek. The Oakland Zoo TWGs are always looking for new members. If you know an enthusiastic teen who’s interested in animals and community service, give the Zoo a call at 510-632-9525 ext 201. It could be the opportunity they’ve been waiting for—the chance to help make a difference in the natural world!

Life on the Hacienda: Oakland Zoo Teens Get Gardening

by | March 3rd, 2014

In case you hadn’t heard, the Oakland Zoo Teen Wild Guides (or Twigs as we call them) recently participated in a new community program here in Oakland. Trained primarily as weekend interpreters in the Children’s Zoo, this dedicated group of local teen volunteers can also be seen at the tiger, chimp and sun bear exhibits, where they answer questions and provide information about the animals. In their first long-term partnership effort, the TWGs gathered at Hacienda Peralta Historical Park in December to volunteer their services in the park’s native plants garden. This newly-established 6-acre park, located in the Fruitvale District along the banks of Peralta Creek, is one of the most significant historical sites in the East Bay, being one of the earliest European settlements in the area.
On December 8, during one of four national community service days of the year, the TWGs brought their tools, gloves, and tarps to the park for a morning of pulling invasive weeds. During several scheduled days in the spring and summer, the TWGs will be returning to Hacienda Peralta to continue their work, allowing them to witness the development of the garden over time. This program represents a hopeful new direction for the Zoo, involving the TWGs with community institutions that work to promote wildlife conservation.
But this doesn’t end with the tossing out of a bunch of weeds. As it turns out, a great deal of this invasive plant material is edible. So the TWGs transport it back to the Zoo where (after being identified and approved by the staff horticulturists) is fed out to a wide variety of herbivorous animals. (Our giraffes especially like the thorny blackberry vines.) It’s a definite win-win situation.
The other day I had the pleasure of interviewing one of the TWGs who had participated in the gardening at Hacienda Peralta in December. As a 1st year TWG, Tano was proud to be a part of the project: “It was really cool to do habitat restoration. It was fun, with lots of wildlife, but the (blackberry) thorns hurt you.” Tano told me he was excited to have discovered a new type of plant at the park that he hadn’t seen before. “It was wrapped around another plant and appeared to be stealing nutrients from it.” As a passionate devotee of science, Tano impressed me by saying that the person he’d most like to be was Charles Darwin. He even recited one of the famous scientist’s quotes about evolution.
It was gratifying to witness this young man’s passion for science and discovery. It made me realize how important these science education programs are for channeling the energies of today’s youth. As a member of the Oakland Zoo TWGs, Tano definitely seems to be heading in the right direction. So the next time you visit the Zoo, take a moment to say “Hi” to some of the TWGs. You just might be chatting with the next Charles Darwin!



The Magical World of Composting

by | September 10th, 2010

Here’s something to ponder when you’re sitting there, stuck in traffic. What does the Zoo do with all that animal poop? Do we bury it or ship it overseas? Or do we simply flush it? Hey, there isn’t a toilet big enough for that job! The answer? We make soil out if it! The Oakland Zoo’s on-site composting program, which has been underway for several years now, successfully diverts tons of waste from landfills and provides us with a valuable new resource: organic compost!

The Raw Material

It’s a big job, but here’s how we do it: Manure from elephants, giraffes, zebras and other herbivores, along with straw (soiled animal bedding) is collected daily around the Zoo. Included with this are scraps of fruit and vegetables, eggshells and other items discarded from the animal kitchens. It takes several truck loads.

Inside the Scrapper

Everything would be much simpler if it wasn’t for the straw. It makes up a huge percentage of our compostable material—somewhere in the neighborhood of ninety percent! Early on, this was causing us problems, as we discovered that straw is much slower to decompose than manure. So the Scrapper was brought in to the rescue. The Scrapper is a six-foot long bin with rotating blades that chew up the straw into smaller, more easily digestible bits—sort of like the way your teeth help out your stomach by breaking down the food in your mouth before you swallow it.

The Ag-Bag Machine

Once this is done, the material is ready to be sent to the composting machine. Visualize a giant mechanical sausage-stuffer and you’ll get the idea. Using a small Bobcat tractor, we dump this chopped material into the hopper of the machine (also known as the Ag-Bag.)  Here, it’s mixed with a special liquid to accelerate the breakdown process. Then, a hydraulic compression ram stuffs the mixture into a tube-like plastic bag (imagine a long trash bag open at both ends.) The Ag-Bag machine has wheels which allow it to be pulled slowly along the ground by the Bobcat, as it leaves the filled portion of the bag behind it, like a tail. A plastic hose is attached to the far end of the bag through which air is pumped, providing circulation. Later, the bag is fitted with a series of small vents to release the waste gases that are produced.

Bags Soaking up the Sun

For several weeks, this bag continues to be filled until it reaches a length of about 75 feet. Then, the end is sealed and a new bag is started alongside. These long gray bags sit in the sun, allowing the mixture inside to heat up. When it gets to a temperature of 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit, pathogens are destroyed. During the following months, the material breaks down, gradually becoming less like straw and manure, and more like soil. It’s basically the same process that has created topsoil for the earth for millions of years! After three or four months, the bags are opened.

The finished product is an incredibly rich, 100% organic compound that amends the soil and allows our horticulture department to grow healthy and beautiful plants throughout the zoo grounds.

But don’t think that you have to be a zoo in order to participate in the composting process. Anyone can start their own compost pile right at home. It’s very simple. Just alternate layers of waste produce with dried leaves, cover it up and let the worms do the rest. In fact, I’ve been doing that very thing for years now, using this compost to enrich the vegetable garden in my backyard. It’s good to know that nothing goes to waste—it’s all part of the ongoing cycle of life!

Are You Savanna Savvy?

by | August 16th, 2010

What is a savanna if not a place inhabited by savanna plants and animals?  Well at the Oakland Zoo, we have such a place.

Our African Savanna garden is situated near the Lion, Elephant and Meerkat exhibits and contains within it a nice selection of native savanna plants.
We recently renovated the garden by topdressing it with several dump-truck loads of our very own compost, fixing the irrigation and adding to the existing plants (Acacia spp., Melianthus major, Sparmannia africana, Kniphofia, Aloe spp., and grasses) several Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus), and more grasses and aloes, including the strikingly beautiful Aloe polyphylla.  When adding the new plants, I worked with landscape architect Roseann Dal Bello on the design before getting approval from our director Dr. Parrott.  I would be remiss not to acknowledge here, for their generosity, John Miller (who donated the aloes)  and John Greenlee (who donated the grasses).

Though the ornamental plants in the garden are exotic and unusual, the weeds are fairly mundane (although the Bermuda grass IS native to South Africa, coincidentally enough).  The two most pernicious weeds here are… Bermuda grass (Cynodon dactylon) and Himalayan blackberry (Rubus procerus).  The most effective way to deal with the Bermuda grass is to spray it with herbicide, as it is nearly impossible to remove all the resprouting rhizomes from the soil (Note: because of the foliar mechanism of uptake, when applying the herbicide you will want the Bermuda grass to be in it’s most active growth – summer, full water, otherwise undisturbed, and you WILL need to apply it several times).  For the blackberry, vigilance and a Hori hori (Japanese gardening tool) to dig up the roots seem to be the most efficacious course of action, though it is a long course.  Less fearsome weeds including Bristly ox tongue (Picris echioides) and Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill (Geranium molle) also appear, and can be sprayed or easily plucked.  In addition to the regular weeding of the garden,  I have on my maintenance schedule to prune the trees and shrubs and cut the grasses to the ground in late winter.

Another duty of mine as a horticulturalist is the adjustment of irrigation systems, and this has been tested in the savanna- I had to replace a broken head, fix a cracked lateral, monitor the unreliable valve, and because of the garden’s unusual shape (curved triangle) it being difficult to achieve head to head coverage without any over spray; with a very slim margin of wiggle room on the arc of each head, I have found it necessary to adjust the rotor heads periodically as they slip/slide and begin to spray into the path.

Our future plans include adding Arctotis, Ixia and Watsonia to the garden, and we will at the Member’s Nite event be exchanging four-inch pots of the amazing Juncus effusus ‘Afro’ rush for the nominal contribution of $5 to raise money to this cause.  I hope to see you there!

Thanks for reading, I gladly welcome any questions or comments.
-Landscape-Horticulturalist Devon Curry-Leech

"South African Savanna" themed garden