Growing close to home: Nashville Zoo harvests garden to feed animals

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Growing close to home: Nashville Zoo harvests garden to feed animals

Nashville Zoo isn’t just home to growing animals. A not-so-secret garden has been blossoming since 1997 when the Zoo first established its home here at Grassmere.

Davidson County Master Gardeners took hold of the once overgrown Croft House garden and transformed it season over season into a cornucopia of crops for use by many of the Nashville Zoo animals.

Growing favorites from banana peppers to heirloom tomatoes, to more unique crops such as Dragon Tongue Bush Beans to Burgundy Okra, the gardeners are game to grow anything, no matter the challenges.

“We grow a lot of different plants with different colors and flowers,” said Davidson County Master Gardener Kay Gragg. “Everyone is familiar with the okra that you see in grocery stores, but we grow a burgundy variety that’s almost purple. The flowers on okra are in the hibiscus family, so they are absolutely beautiful. They are something you would want to cut and put in your house.”

Although the gardeners have been sowing seeds for more than 20 years at this location, the idea for growing plants specifically for the animals started about 7-8 years ago.

All of the plants are grown organically and use natural remedies for common garden pests.

“Many gardeners believe marigolds attract many of the pest insects, so the pests are kept away from the other crops," Gragg said. "We have marigolds growing nearby."

Once harvested, crops are sent to the Zoo commissary for preparation before they are given to animals. The plants are then used for animal enrichment and supplemental dietary needs. Because the garden has been so beneficial to the animals, one master gardener decided to bring a portion of the garden closer to the animals. Jennifer Cox, who has been a Master Gardener since 2014 and also volunteers as a docent at Nashville Zoo, came up with the idea to put a satellite garden by the Behavioral Husbandry Department (BHD) building.

“As a docent, I started to train to handle animals on the trail and I went behind the scenes where the animals live, and when I walked in and it wasn’t the most beautiful place on Earth," Cox said. "I then asked if I could plant something back here."

This 4’x10’ garden doesn’t compare to the acre and a half Croft House garden, but contributes to the enrichment needs of the furry and not so furry animals taken care of by the Zoo’s BHD team. Lemongrass, rosemary, lettuce, spinach, parsley, sweet peas, tomatoes and sweet peppers are only some of the plants that have been grown in this space.

“I started the garden to be nice and because I love the keepers here,” Cox said. “I wanted to have a pretty spot for them that they could use and have some fun with.”

Keepers use the satellite garden as a space for training and enrichment.

“I use this as enrichment for the animals and also as a training reinforcer for the rabbits,” said Alison Day, Behavioral Husbandry Keeper.

The gardeners said the gardens at the Zoo are more than just for show.

“As a retired teacher, I love it when children come through there and the only vegetables they’ve seen are those in the supermarket,” Gragg said. “They see things growing in the Croft House garden and their eyes just light up.”



List of Crops Grown in Croft House Garden


  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Turnips
  • Lavender
  • Rosemary


  • Basil
  • Beans
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn
  • Cotton
  • Cucumbers
  • Gourds
  • Okra
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Watermelon
Posted by Nashville Zoo at 12:42 PM

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