I think many readers of these blogs would be interested in meeting some of the incredible staff here at the San Diego Zoo. We have an amazing Horticulture Department, and the people are what makes that so. So, I’d like to introduce some of our workers, and the first person I want you to meet is Senior Gardener Bruce Fontaine.
Bruce started working at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park before it opened in 1972. Within a couple of years, he transferred to the Zoo. Although many of our original “Hort” staff started out in other departments, Bruce was actually hired by Horticulture and has stayed for 35 years!
He says he has always enjoyed working at the Zoo, but he likes it even more these days. He says the crew has become more professional over the years and Bruce notes that the people working in Horticulture really want to be here.
Some of Bruce’s favorite things about the job are working with both the people and the plants. The people are “earthy” and the plants “pretty.” He loves the satisfaction of seeing the finished garden after having put so much work into it. He especially enjoys the section of the Zoo that runs from the Terrace Lagoon to koalas. This strip begins with the Oriental Garden, and then the path meanders through our New World cycads, African cycads, the first of three Hawaiian Gardens, and below that, the Australian cycads. He loves to see some of the rare plants we have growing there “going bananas.” Some of the interesting things we have been able to participate in recently include assisting a local cycad expert hand pollinate one of our more rare cycads, Encephalartos munchii. Bruce likes seeing a stark and cold building or enclosure transformed into a beautiful, natural habitat by adding the right plants.
Cycad Encephalartos pterogonus
Bruce notes several changes over the years: The Zoo has gone from using mostly synthetic fertilizers to almost entirely natural ones. We have learned a lot about working with nature and soil to create landscape designs that are healthy for people and sustainable without using chemicals. We have gone from grid maps to GIS mapping. Irrigation has shifted from manual valves to state-of-the-art centralized computer controlled clocks (in process now). We are, according to Bruce, gardening smarter. He enjoys being on what he describes as the cutting edge of horticultural practices.
Working a physical job for 35 years could take its toll on the body. Bruce has some suggestions for longevity in a gardening career. Although many people would think that as a gardener one would get exercise enough, there are other kinds of exercise needed to keep in shape. Bruce goes home most days and does some stretching and cardio training. Keeping oneself limber and strong prevents a lot of injuries at work. Bruce must be doing something right. He’s been at it for three and a half decades and still keeps up with the younger workers. We are lucky to have Bruce around!
Mychael McNeeley is a lead gardener at the San Diego Zoo.
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