Gardening on the Wild Side

Gardening, Home & Family, Odd Jobs, People, This Week in History
on July 12, 2011
Sarah Miller Nancy Bucher is chief horticulturist for the 75-acre Toledo Zoo in Ohio.

With an audience of giraffes, ostriches, zebras and wildebeests watching her every move, Nancy Bucher, 59, lifts a broken tree limb and throws it toward a pile of brush inside the 3½-acre Africa! exhibit at the Toledo (Ohio) Zoo.

Usually the animals provide the show within their daytime habitats, but during early-morning hours before zoo visitors arrive, Bucher and her staff of eight horticulturists serve as amusement for the animals, which gaze at the workers quietly but intently before being released from nearby holding areas.

As the zoo’s chief horticulturalist, Bucher walks the grounds weekly to survey landscapes and identify plants that need trimming and pruning, and barriers that need repairing or replacing.

“The giraffes are reaching over and eating the honey locust leaves. That’s a concern since they need those trees for shade,” says Bucher, pointing with her work gloves toward a broken eucalyptus fence designed to protect trees on the Africa-inspired savannah.

Outsmarting giraffes is just one of the creative challenges Bucher has encountered during her 30-year career at the Toledo Zoo. Not your average gardener, she uses her green thumb to create suitable habitats for many of the zoo’s 8,500 animals, which represent more than 750 species. That means cultivating ground cover for a herd of zebras, foliage that can withstand the playtime antics of giant apes and delicate flowering plants that adorn the zoo’s butterfly gardens.

To garden in exhibits that resemble tropical rainforests, the Sonoran Desert and the wilds of Africa, Bucher works closely with landscape architects, zoologists and her staff to ensure each habitat is both safe and realistic in appearance. She frequently draws on her travels to the animals’ native habitats.

“I’ve been a zoo host on tours to Australia, Africa and Egypt,” says Bucher, who lives in nearby Waterville, Ohio. “I’ve taken many pictures, and we use those to achieve the look we want.”

In Africa!, for instance, visitors can view the habitat from aboard a safari-style train that snakes around the property and breezes past a small forest of bamboo, which not only is native to Africa but cleverly hides the service drive to a maintenance building.

Bucher considers countless other factors to provide the right creature comforts. She consults with zoo veterinarians to ensure that plants are nontoxic. Proper plant selection also is important in providing shade, shelter and even successful mating for some animals, as well as the right nesting for birds.

To protect plants from the animals, Bucher relies on natural barriers such as trenches and fallen trees, and sometimes more conventional obstacles such as live electrical wires. Add cold northwest Ohio winters, a million visitors annually and typical gardening challenges such as rainfall, plant disease and insects, and Bucher must wield “a greener thumb than most.”

Growing up in nearby Whitehouse, Ohio, Bucher developed her love for plants while working in her parents’ vegetable garden and tending the family’s houseplants. One of her earliest memories is an outing to the Toledo Zoo’s conservatory, where banana trees, ferns and palms grow under a glass roof.

“I looked in at all those plants and always secretly wondered if lions were hiding in there,” Bucher says, laughing.

Today, Bucher’s office adjoins the Ziems Conservatory, where she oversees the zoo’s horticulture budget, supplies, research and planning. At her desk is her prized collection of Toledo Zoo postcards dating from the 1900s. Her passion for history is a hallmark of her career, including restoring a Depression-era dolphin fountain and the conservatory’s dome-shaped entrance to its original 1904 grandeur.

“Nancy’s high respect for the zoo’s history shows in everything she does,” says Rick Payeff, 45, the zoo’s director of facilities and planning. “The grounds tie everything together and make it appealing to everyone.”

Master gardener Lori Fenton, 47, who volunteers monthly at the zoo, also appreciates Bucher’s contribution. “Some people come to see the animals, but I’ve been visiting the zoo for the past 20 years because I love the grounds,” she says.