City Gardeners: Edmonton Valley Zoo

The Edmonton Horticultural Society maintains several gardens at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, under a partnership that includes the EHS, the Zoo, and Salisbury Greenhouse.

When most of us think of gardens, we envision edible fruits and veggies and fragrant floral eye candy, but the overall purpose of these special Zoo gardens may not be what you think.

If you haven’t been to the Edmonton Valley Zoo for quite a while, you will find major changes there, both physical and educational. From the urban farm initiative to the greening and sustainability of ecosystems to the enrichment gardens, there are exciting developments unfolding.


Zoo certification depends on having enrichment activities that provide sensory stimulation to encourage mental and physical health for the zoo fauna. Access to innovative textures, smells, sounds, tastes and problem-solving puzzles invokes play and curiosity, important elements in animal health. While plants are important for the nourishment they offer, they also are useful in stimulating the bird and animal population who live at the Zoo.

For example, primates love to rub their bodies with green onion. Lucy, the beloved long-time resident elephant, enjoys eating sweetgrass and mint popsicles. The snow leopard likes shucking corn; Newton, the New Zealand kea, spends time rolling in fountain grass and fuzzy lamb’s ears. Ornamental grasses provide material for building nests, allowing birds to choose the strands they want; and the ultraviolet spectrum of flowers stimulate them in unique ways. Providing sunflowers enable birds to forage and pick at the seeds. The Arctic wolf, reindeer and serval cat are regularly taken for walks on a leash so they can eat from the shrubs in the Wandering Way.

History of the partnerships

So, how did EHS come to be involved with the enrichment program? When the EHS received a Communities in Bloom Legacy grant in 2014, Patricia McKendrick contacted Dean Treichel, operations supervisor at the Zoo, about partnering to enhance what the Zoo had already established. The partners agreed that a Herb and Browse Garden would be beneficial.

Herb and Browse Garden (now Pollinator Garden)

Maggie Neilson prepared the initial landscape plan. Neilson broadly defines an herb as “any plant that has a scent when you crush it.” Herbs, therefore, were considered to be excellent for stimulating the sense of smell for enrichment purposes. The Zoo veterinarians were consulted to approve all the proposed plants so that there was no toxicity for the animals. (e.g. Calla lilies have high toxicity).

The ground was prepared in late spring 2014 with topsoil, boulders, and mulch, and the herbs were planted in July 2014.

Many of the herbs are also pollinator plants, and the bed has morphed into a pollinator garden. Across the way are several beehives and bee hotels where bees do their “buzzy-ness” within easy access of the herbs. In the pollinator garden, the EHS volunteers planted flora such as asters, giant hyssop, swamp milkweed, Joe Pye weed, purple coneflower and black-eyed Susan. In September there were lots of Painted Lady Butterflies on the Verbena Bonariens.

Enrichment Garden

In 2016 but the EHS was offered a second garden location. This is the Enrichment Garden, located near the reindeer habitat. It comprises nine raised bed boxes measuring 10 feet by 4 feet, courtesy of the third partner sponsoring this initiative, Rob Sproule of Salisbury Greenhouse. Rob has been involved with the Zoo project for seven years. He provides the soil for the boxes, the vegetable seeds, plants and shrubs.

The plants in each raised bed are specifically chosen for various taxonomies of zoo residents. Zookeeper Trevor Hickey has been working with the animals for the past nine years and has been chairing the enrichment committee for six years. He provides the list of plants appropriate for the carnivores, hoof stock, primates, birds, reptiles, and specialty foods for Lucy the elephant.

The tigers and snow leopards are treated to pungent native plants to stimulate their olfactory and tactile senses: artemesia, catnip, citrosa, lavender, sage and savoury. The hoof stock (e.g. zebras, Sichuan takins and alpacas) get leafy greens such as beets, peas, green beans, pickling cucumbers and lettuce. Some of the plantings for the primates (e.g. squirrel monkeys) are strawberries, sunflowers, sweet grass and nasturtiums. The birds appreciate plants such as cosmos, purple majesty millet and purple fountain grass. Lucy gets her own giant plants in compliance with her diet restrictions, including banana plants, corn stock, pampas grass and treats such as dill, mint, pansies and stevia. The urban farm box has plants for sheep, rabbits and guinea pigs: beets, carrots, lettuce, nasturtiums and small tomatoes. The tortoises, iguana, snakes and other reptiles enjoy calendula, bok choy, broccoli, kale, marigolds and Swiss chard. As much as possible all parts of the plants are used, whether for bedding, fibre, nourishment, or enrichment.

Kitchen Garden

In 2016, the EHS was offered a third location, the Kitchen Garden. This bed, which was made for us by the zoo, is 20 feet by 12 feet and is located near the front entrance. It is planted with a variety of vegetables, some herbs, and flowers to attract beneficial insects. It has a trellis for the beans to grow up in the centre of the garden and bamboo poles for the peas and beans.

It is always nice to see Lucy the beloved long-time resident elephant, enjoying one of her walks around the Kitchen Garden, and sometimes she evens get to taste a treat or two!

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What’s Next?

2018 is looking to be a very exciting year for the EHS  zoo gardens! The Enrichment Garden is due for some improvements. The zoo will build 9 new raised planters and move them forward so they will be in a more visible location. The centre of this area is very overgrown, so the zoo will be cleaning it up with a bobcat. They will also provide our group with a new shed for tools, as the tool box that we are using now as a very heavy lid.

The Kitchen Garden will see another enrichment garden beside it, where we would like to grow more corn, pumpkins, and squash.

Another new opportunity for our group is at the urban farm, where we hope to use a bed to showcase different grains.

In 2017 the EHS  garden group was invited to work with the 100 Voices at the Zoo. This a pre-kindergarten school program run by the Catholic School Board. We worked with  Lynne Novak to create a child-focused garden behind the classroom. In 2017, the children grew vegetables in wood pallets, but in future we’ve suggested that that a raised bed would work better for them.

The children enjoyed making a Fairy Garden and a Pizza Garden. Maybe next will be a Dinosaur Garden!

100 Voices has also been asked to participate by preparing creative signage for the raised planters in the enrichment area. The signs would need to be weatherproof and large enough to be read by the public. There is some wonderful art work in their classroom!


So, how does this all get accomplished? A small team of core EHS volunteers work diligently to prepare the soil, plant the veggies and flowers, weed, prune, water, maintain, harvest and clean up the beds each year. The volunteers, who work in pairs, are at the Zoo twice a week on a structured schedule with rotation. In 2014 we had 9 volunteers and by 2017 we grew to 18 volunteers.

If you are interested in helping out, use the Contact Us form and select “Volunteer” from the drop-down subject menu.

As a volunteer, you will go through an orientation, which includes a tour of the zoo and how to comply with safety rules. You are required to undergo a police check and expected to sign in and out for your shift.

Even if you are not a volunteer, you can enjoy a stroll at the Zoo to see the “special place that inspires love and learning of animals and nature.” And, when you go, be sure to check out the gardens tended by your fellow EHS members. All gardeners can be “zoobilant” about the success of this beneficial project.

Written by Carolyn D. Hall with additional information by Susan Parker and Jane Starr.