Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
September, 2005
Regional Report

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The new gateway to the San Francisco Zoo is located on the Great Highway.

Do the Zoo!

It's all happening at the zoo ... the San Francisco Zoo that is. My last visit there was probably some time in the 1980s. On my recent trip I found it to be a very changed place.

New Landscape
If you haven't been to the SF Zoo lately, it's worth a trip, if only to see the magnificent new landscaping. For example, the sloping entrance to the African Savannah exhibit is a mixture of plants native to that region. Protea, succulents, and grasses blend naturally to create an impressive and horticulturally correct impression of the African plain. Gigantic mock boulders hide a cavern tunnel that delivers you to the heartland of Africa. Zebras, giraffes, ostrich, and gazelle graze together in harmony just a few feet from the viewing station.

There are only eight full-time gardeners at the SF Zoo, and two of those are dedicated to collecting browse for the various animal residents. Perennials and grasses are the primary landscape plants used, however there are areas that mimic different ecologies. The resident great blue heron was surrounded by tule and arundo donax, which reminded me of our own Sacramento/San Joaquin River Delta area. The tiny meer cats live in harmony with scrubby grasses similar to those in their native habitat.

The zoo is committed to conservation, so drought-resistant plantings are used where appropriate throughout the grounds. The landscape is very inventive and although the grounds cover over 60 acres, the zoo has an intimate feel. The use of curved paths provides a sense of intrigue and discovery. Rounding a verdant corner reveals a flock of pink flamingoes. Tall, colorful cannas are used in combination with bamboo to separate pathways.

Color has been added to the landscape palate with the combination of foliage and flowering shrubs. Rich red protea are flanked by some delightful and mysterious succulents that are decidedly orange in color. Purple fountain grass, zebra grass, and tibouchina make for a spectacular display near the entrance of the lemur forrest. Low-growing ferns and breath-of-heaven flank pathways and create a lush, jungly feeling. Flowering vines of all kinds are used to screen wire cages and provide privacy for the inhabitants. Passion vine is used extensively near the insect house, a very appropriate choice because it is host to the Gulf Fritillary butterfly.

I asked the PR person who accompanied us on our tour if the gardeners ever had to mow the grassy plain in the African Savannah exhibit. She told me that the grazing animals do a tidy job of mowing, and as a matter of fact the gardeners had tried to plant some bunch grasses for some of the more shy animals to hide within, but they got eaten (not the gardeners, the grasses!).

The entrance to the San Francisco Zoo has been moved from Sloat Boulevard to the Great Highway. Public transportation will drop you off at the front door. There is a senior group that meets the first Tuesday of every month at 9 a.m. for a docent-lead tour. I heartily recommend a visit.

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