An abridged version of the podcast. Interviewer is Rebecca Slack, PlantNetwork Coordinator.
Jess Brown is a gardener at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland Edinburgh Zoo and is also a member of the Plant Working Group at BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums).
Can you tell us a little about your role at RZSS Edinburgh Zoo?
The Zoo’s gardens department is divided into three different teams: the Parks Team look after the public areas, the Nursery Team look after the glasshouses and indoor planted areas, and the Enclosures Team takes care of the animal enclosures. I work on the Enclosures Team where we carry out regular maintenance of the animal enclosures – from strimming and leaf clearance to pruning and weeding – as well as designing and implementing new enclosures or redeveloping older areas. We work closely with the animal keepers as while there are some enclosures we can work in with the animals present, such as flamingos and wallabies, there are many more where the animals must be removed before we can access the enclosure. Safety is paramount and we must follow safety procedures for different enclosures to ensure safe working. We look after 70 enclosures.
Do you have a favourite enclosure?
It depends on the time of the year! We have a few enclosures planted quite densely with trees so leaf clearance can be a major operation, especially when dragging tonne bags out of enclosures, often up hill. These enclosures are not in you favourite list then. Later in the year, when the trees provide shade on hot days, these same enclosures can be really pleasant to work in. It’s always great to work in enclosures when the animals are with us and they are inquisitive. It’s amazing how used to us the animals are: we can strim, we can use leaf blowers and many don’t seem to mind at all. There are some that more sensitive to noise so you have to be more cautious then. The Enclosures Team is quite a niche role even within zoo horticulture – not many zoos operate such a team – but each day can provide an amazing experience. It can be quite difficult too as you are planting and maintaining that enclosure for the animal so you need to understand what the animal needs (shelter etc.), toxicity issues (different animals find different plants toxic), and how the animals interact with the plants. You are looking to create a natural environment for the animal and not a garden so this differs quite a lot to working in a botanic garden, for example. My steepest learning curve when I started here five years ago, was learning the toxic and non toxic plants very, very quickly.
Do you find that you have a restricted palette of plants to use in the enclosures or at least in certain enclosures?
It does depend on the animal, toxicity issues and the look of the enclosure. For a tropical look, it might mean a limited palette as we also must contend with Edinburgh weather. For a new sloth enclosure recently, we used a lot of big leaved plants with Dicksonia and bamboos to create a lush jungle feel. While the giraffe enclosure has a more savannah look. We do have to be careful when choosing the plants and we do lots of research in the planning stages. The sloth enclosure is one of the few indoor enclosures at the zoo and it meant we could really explore using a new palette of plants that would be able to thrive in high humidity and temperatures of 20-25 degrees. Many of the plants we used would be considered houseplants in Scotland and not plants we were used to working with so we needed to research their toxicity. BIAZA has a website called zooplants.net which is created by zoo horticulturists for zoo horticulturists and is always the first point of call when checking plants for use in enclosures but it isn’t totally comprehensive so other resources need to be checked such as the resident vets and books on toxicity.
You have to expect that there will be lots of damage to the planting once animals are introduced to a new scheme so we always take pictures before and after the animals have been reintroduced. Sometimes you have to over plant or ensure there are spare plants to replace at intervals. Trying to plant anything in any of the primate enclosures in hopeless: as soon as they are allowed back in, they just pull it out again so over planting and spares are certainly needed then! While the plants are there to create a habitat for the animals, they are also there for enrichment so a certain amount of eating and tearing up should be expected. It is the animals that take priority in all the enclosures.
Could you tell us a little bit about your working day?
There isn’t a typical work day and it is very dependent on the time of year. We do, however, need to do any machinery work in the enclosures before the zoo opens at 10am. Our work day is 8am to 4pm so those first two hours of the day are spent in strimming in spring/summer or leaf blowing in autumn/winter. As we need to work closely with the animal keepers, we need a maintenance programme for the enclosures so that we all know when we need to access the different areas of the zoo and we rotate around the different sections. So one week we might be working on the carnivore enclosures and another will be primates and birds. Each enclosure will have different needs depending on the time of year – from pruning and weeding to replanting. An important part of our work is providing browse to animals that need it and that involves a lot of work: from cutting and collection to removal of old browse which is taken for chipping (with the wood chip used as mulch across the zoo). So there are lots of behind-the-scenes jobs taking place as well as the work in the enclosures. One key part of our role is checking jump zones in enclosures to ensure animal and visitor safety. Regular pruning helps towards this but there are emergency jobs that come up when a tree branch falls into a jump zone following high winds.
We also manage big projects – development of new enclosures or redevelopment of an old enclosure. When we have a big project running, we will generally do the two hours of strimming/blowing in the morning and then we’ll jump straight onto the project work. There really isn’t a typical day!
How did you get to be a gardener in a zoo?.
I had a previous life in a completely different sector so am a career changer into horticulture. I spent many years working in the private childcare sector as a manager of a private children’s nursery, but had always been a keen gardener and so decided to retrain. I did that whilst working full time so it was a slow transition. I did my qualifications and then volunteered at a local wholesale plant nursery in return for a reference. Quite quickly they offered to pay me so I did that for quite a until I finally left childcare and went to work in a garden centre for two and a half years. I enjoyed working with the public and helping with planting suggestions – but didn’t enjoy the weekend working. I then moved on to a garden maintenance company, looking after private garden. I learnt a lot about the job – especially machinery use – and then saw an advert for Gardner at Edinburgh Zoo. I applied and was invited to interview, which was quite comprehensive and included plant identifications. I just said if there was anything I didn’t know so when I left, I thought I wouldn’t get the job as they were looking for someone with more experience and knowledge. But a few days later, I got the phone call offering me the job! That was five years ago. It’s one of those jobs where you’re never ever bored. While there are core talks like strimming, there is still something new and we are given quite a free hand with new landscaping projects and new enclosures. Then you step back and see how the animals use their enclosure that you have designed and maintained for them – and that animal contact really makes it! There are not many other jobs around where you get to feed rhinos, herd flamingos, feed lion cubs, stroke a hairy armadillo and hold a lorikeet chick. Then it’s just magic.
Do you make notes on how the animals interact with the planting to inform future planting?
We might not take actual paper notes but we definitely take mental notes as well as photographs. It’s very much about learning as you go because you’re trying things and then you realise that that’s not going to work. We might go back in and move something or it might be that the next time we’ll do a similar enclosure, we’ll do something different.
Would you have done anything differently to get to where you are now? And what does the future hold for you?
I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I did enjoy my previous career, but it got to the point of ‘done that, got the t-shirt’ and I wanted a new challenge. I’ve been very fortunate in having good mentors for all the jobs I’ve had and this really helped my learning curve. I’m very happy where I am and see myself here for the foreseeable future. If I start getting bored, that will be when I get itchy feet and start looking for something new but I can’t see that happening for the next 10 years or so. There’s always going to be new enclosures new animals, new things.
What advice would you have for anybody who wants to get into zoo horticulture?
I think one of the things that you must remember coming into this job is that the animals do come first. You are very dependent of the animals and their keepers in getting your job done and there are days when you can’t do what you planned. You need to be flexible – and also need to change your horticultural mindset. You might need to do tasks at the wrong time of year – such as tree pruning – for the sake of the animals e.g. to clear a jump zone. Just find what you’re passionate about and concentrate on that!
Is there an enclosure you’re particularly proud of or would recommend to someone interested in the work you do?
There are quite a few of them, for different reasons. The sloth enclosure because that’s the most recent one we’ve done and it’s still looking reasonably good. The otter enclosure because it looks so natural – a difficult feat to attain!
I wondered whether you could share your plant, tool and book that mean the most to your horticultural life?
You can’t have a favourite plant – it is like having a favourite child! I do have a favourite group of plants: those with a tropical, jungly look. My own garden is jungle meets cottage garden, with lots of big leaved and tropical looking plants. I also really like bamboo. Which is just as well as we have to cut bamboo every day for the UK’s only resident pandas! For tools, it will have to be my Felco secateurs as I use them every day – and my Silky saw for pruning. When it comes to books, I used the Dr Hessayon series a lot when I first started off in horticulture. They are very easy to use, with each volume being focused on one topic so much less daunting. Now I use the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants as well as plant specific books. There are some really good books on bamboo, such as Bamboo for Gardens by Ted Jordan Meredith, and Hardy Bamboos: Taming the Dragon by Paul Whittaker. As technology moves on, the internet is also a great resource and I regularly use zooplants.net.
Listen to the podcast to hear more about Jess’ role, including working with pandas. Find out more about horticulture in zoos at the Horticulture in Zoos webinar on Thursday 24 February 2022 from 2:30pm – book now!