Grow Your Own Backyard Zoo

Grow Your Own Backyard Zoo

By Ruth and John Lopez

"Every child needs a garden

and a small animal to tend"

-- George Washinton Carver

Well, how about a small animal garden? Grow lions, tigers, and kangaroos in a backyard zoo! How? Turn your garden into a zoo of plants with animal names. Some are enormous, some are tiny. Some are a little wild, some are rather gentle. Often, plants are named after an animal because some part of the plant reminds us of that animal. For example, it might be something about the color, such as tiger lily's tiger like colors. Some plants are named after animals because of their shape (snail vine) or the way they "behave" (piggy back plant).

As zookeeper, children can be in charge of caring for their plant animals. They will need to water them, and feed them with a little organic fertilizer once in a while. When you visit a real zoo you'll notice that special habitats have been created for each animal. These habitats try to imitate the animal's natural environment by providing cool air and water for animals that live near the north pole, or warm sandy places for animals that live in deserts. Just like animals, plants need habitats that meet their needs. Kids will need to find out whether a plant likes sun or shade, damp soil or dry soil, and so on.

Create Your Zoo

Create an outdoor zoo and invite friends over to see your collection. Here are some suggestions for a zoo garden:

Give Your child the tactile experience of a soft, woolly lamb's ear. Lamb's ears (Stachys byzantina) feels just like the real thing, with ear shaped leaves. The soft silver-white leaves of Lamb's ears spread out 2 or 3 feet to form a ground cover that will grow in any climate zone, and in sun or light shade. It needs little water but is not quite drought tolerant.

Dogwood (Cornus sp.) Some varieties of this small tree or shrub are best loved for their wonderful 'bark'. It's not the sound of the bark, but rather the color of the bark that attracts attention! Some dogwoods have spectacular red branches that stand out in winter, especially against snow. Dogwoods are deciduous shrubs or small trees that grow best under the shade of taller trees. Dogwoods need little water once they are established and since there are many varieties of them, there is bound to be one that grows well in your area.

Your zoo might include Foxglove. Have you ever seen a fox wearing gloves? It has been said that fairies would give these flowers to foxes to wear so that they could quietly sneak into the chicken coop. Pick five foxglove flowers (Digitalis purpurea) and slip them onto the ends of your fingers. It feels a little like wearing the soft fingertips of a glove. The flowers grow in a bunch along a stalk. They bloom all summer long and will grow in sun or part shade anywhere. They don't need too much water, and often will reseed themselves and grow without any assistance at all. Foxglove is a plant that can sometimes help people and sometimes hurt people. Foxglove contains a chemical that can help people with heart troubles, but foxglove is also poisonous and no part of the plant should ever be eaten. (Note: A child should always be taught to ask an adult before tasting any plants)

Bunny ears These bunnies (Opuntia microdasys) grow in warm winter climates only. They are cactus plants with 6 inch pads that are velvety soft green with neatly spaced bristles. Small round new pads on top of larger old pads gives the plant a silhouette of a rabbit's head.

You don't have to hatch eggs to get Hens and Chicks in your zoo garden. Echeveria imbricata is a succulent plant that grows in the shape of a large rose flower called rosettes. Baby plants spring up freely in clusters near the mother plant, hence the mother hen with her baby chicks all around. Bell shaped little orange flowers form on slender stems. Plants are very drought tolerant.

Horsetail Most of these 'horses' run wild in meadows, marshes and along roadsides. Some may even come into your garden as weeds. The bushy whorls of slender stems that radiate out from a main stem look like a horse's tail. Millions of years ago horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) grew sixty feet tall, like trees. Horsetails today don't usually grow taller than four feet.

Say hello to the kangaroo and shake his paw. The flowers of Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos flavidus) are tubular and curved at the tip, like a paw. What's more, the flowers feel like suede leather or like an animal's hide. Kangaroo paw is native to Australia. Being of Australian origin this plant will not survive winters colder than 20°, but they like the sun and are drought tolerant once established.

Lion's tail (Leonotis leonurus) has tubular, 2 inch long deep orange flowers which are covered with fine fur like hairs. Flowers are assembled on dense whorls and look like a lion's tail. Blooms summer to fall in full sun. Lion's tail is drought tolerant and hardy to 13°.

In the early spring, when snow is still on the ground, hundreds of pussy cats come out to play in the willow trees. The 'pussies' are really flower buds called catkins on the Pussy willow tree(Salix discolor). Touch one. It feels just like the soft fur of a real kitten. Soon the catkins will open and you will see tiny yellow flowers emerge. If you want to keep the pussies all year, cut some branches in spring before the catkins open. The buds will stay on the cut branches as soft pussies and never open up.

Tiger lilies (Lilium tigrinum) were once kept in gardens, just as tigers are kept in zoos, but some of them escaped and grow wild now along streams, fields, and roadsides. Tiger lilies are orange, like tigers, but instead of stripes they have black spots. They will grow in any part of the country. If you want to grow tiger lilies in your garden, plant the bulbs in fall and your beastly plants will bloom the following spring.

Every zoo garden needs a Leopard's bane (Doronicum). Here's a perennial that blooms in the shade. It grows happiest under the dappled shade of deciduous trees. Flowers are showy and yellow on long stems. Leaves are dark green and heart shaped. Give it good soil and average water.

Snail Vine (Vigna caracalla) This perennial vine looks like a pole bean until you see the flowers. The twisted flowers petals are coiled like a snail shell. Dozens of snail flowers cling to the vine. Not only are they are beautiful, they won't chew the leaves! Keep these snails in full sun and give them ample water.

Your zoo garden will probably need some garden markers to help identify the plants. Make garden markers by cutting out pictures from old Ranger Rick or National Geographic magazines. Glue the picture to a square of poster board and write the name of the plant on it. Cover the sign with a laminating sheet to protect it from the rain, and attach the sign to a wooden stake or popsickle stick with a staple gun.

About the Authors

Ruth and John Lopez are committed to providing resources for garden based education. You can visit them at their site Gardens for Growing People where they have resources, curriculum, books and many more activities. They also have a free newsletter you can subscribe to.

Article copyright 2000 Ruth and John Lopez


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