News Column

Science center awaits a lush landscape

September 3, 2014

By Susan Ladd, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Sept. 03--GREENSBORO -- It always had animals. It always had exhibits. It always had attractions. What the Greensboro Science Center has never had are grounds that looked like much more than, well, ground.

For the first time, the center has hired a full-time horticulturist who plans to turn the grounds into lush botanical exhibits, edible forests and sustainable permaculture gardens.

"Actually, it's been identified as a need for the 10 years I've been here," said Glenn Dobrogosz, the executive director of the science center. "We just had to build the capacity and budget to be able to hire somebody full time."

"Uninspired" would be a generous description of the current landscaping, Dobrogosz said.

For horticulturist Chandra Metheny, 28, it's like having a blank canvas. That is both a wonderful opportunity and a huge challenge.

Metheny wants to turn the grounds into something more than just beautiful.

"The beauty will be a side benefit of the healthy use of land here," she said. "We want to achieve a balance that mimics the ecosystem of a healthy forest."

She plans to create sustainable gardens within the zoo that will provide shade for visitors, supplemental food for the animals, and education to adults and children alike.

And yes, it will be beautiful.

"For one thing, it's going to feel like you're walking into a groomed and well-manicured facility when you come in the front entrance," Dobrogosz said.

The grass-covered areas will be landscaped. Work areas will be screened with trees and shrubs.

Around the exhibits, Metheny will add plants that reflect the natural habitat of the animals within. Around the meerkats, for example, she might have a bed of succulents.

"It will give visitors a chance to learn where these animals come from," she said.

It also will help create more of an immersion experience for the visitor, Dobrogosz said.

"When you walk into the zoo, it will be more wild, and feel like a more natural setting," he said.

Metheny said she hopes to put arbors covered with grapevines around the plaza area at the entrance to Animal Discovery to provide more shade. Beneficial flowering plants and edibles here and elsewhere on the grounds will provide supplemental food to the animals for enrichment. In essence, healthful snacks.

Green and sustainable gardening techniques will be used throughout, such as organic pest management. Metheny brushes aphids off the milkweed plants by hand as she goes through the butterfly garden. But

in time, ladybugs will do the job, not chemical pesticides.

The free-range guinea hens and peacocks also eat insects and help fertilize the soil. There may eventually be a duck pond by the Barnyard.

Starting in the butterfly garden, Metheny is installing microdrip irrigation, which conserves water and is more effective for feeding the plants. Before, staff members would come out and spray the plants down with water when they had a chance. That meant a lot of water was wasted through runoff and evaporation, Metheny said.

"Drip irrigation systems conserve water, minimize evaporation and get the water directly to the roots of the plant," she said.

She also plans to turn a problem at the center into an asset. Installing rain barrels and a cistern behind the science center will catch the water from the roof, cutting down on erosion and drainage problems, as well as capturing water to irrigate the gardens.

Beside the Barnyard, she plans to build a demonstration permaculture garden, which may be the first of its kind at a zoo and museum.

"Permaculture is both ancient and modern," Metheny said. "It's about getting back to the balance and energy of the natural world."

Permaculture gardening works with nature, encouraging the interplay of beneficial plants, insects, soil and water. They will use no-till techniques to turn the scrubby grass and hard red clay into a rich planting bed for annuals and reseeding perennials.

"Most places with zoos bill themselves as a botanical garden, too," Dobrogosz said. "There's an awful lot we can do that we haven't done. We should be leading the way, not lagging."

The gardens will be used to educate as well as beautify and enrich the environment.

Though it is an ancient method, permaculture solves many contemporary problems, such as pollution, runoff and erosion, Metheny said.

Teaching about permaculture and sustainable gardening is something she is passionate about. For the past five years, she taught and helped establish gardens at the Greensboro Montessori School.

She also has been an employee of the science center for the past five years, working weekends in the herpetology lab.

A graduate of UNCG with a bachelor's of science in environmental biology, Metheny is also certified in permaculture landscaping design. She has worked often with Charlie Headington, who heads the gardening program at the Montessori School and co-designed the Edible Schoolyard at the Greensboro Children's Museum.

"This whole place has changed drastically in the last 10 years," Metheny said, looking around the science center. "We're just catching up on the horticulture piece of it."


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