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July 29, 2015 Calgary Zoo

The Dorothy Harvie Gardens – Thirty Years and Growing

In celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Dorothy Harvie Gardens, Calgary Zoo Horticulturalist, Corinne Hannah, takes a fond look back at the hard work that made it all possible.

It’s no secret that it can be difficult to grow things in Calgary. The Chinook environment can be restrictive to botanists, arborists and horticulturalists looking to ‘branch’ out from their comfort zone. However, through hard work and a little ingenuity, this Calgary landscape can be transformed- and that’s exactly what happened years ago to the Calgary Zoo’s Dorothy Harvie Gardens. As the zoo celebrates an amazing milestone, 30 years of successful botanical gardens, we take a fond look back at the hard work that made it all possible.

Beginning in the 1920’s, there has always been a garden of sorts on St. George’s Island- far before it became the home of the Calgary Zoo. The garden evolved over time to feature a Biergarten (which quickly became a tea house when it became clear that it was illegal to sell alcohol on city property), zoo staff quarters, and then in the 1960’s work began on the Tropical Aviary and Conservatory. Though the landscape of the island advanced, the surrounding setting always featured expansive lawns and flower beds.

It wasn’t until years later in 1984 when visionary zoo director Don Peterkin dreamt up an inspiring plan. What if the zoo could use this landscape as a botanical garden to trial and showcase plants that are hardy to the challenging Chinook environment? His idea piqued the curiosity of philanthropist Dorothy Harvie. A garden enthusiast herself, she offered to provide seed money for the entire garden, under the stipulation that it be ready for the following June.

The plan was ambitious, but so were the gardeners, proving that Calgary zoo staff have always been a ‘can do’ group. Sure enough, after eight months of plans, ordering and hard work, the ‘Show Gardens’ opened in 1985. Later renamed the Dorothy Harvie Gardens in honour of their generous patron, they thrilled the guests and staff alike.

The zoo’s first Horticulturalist joined the family in 1986, and it was none other than the esteemed Donna Balzer. She elevated this new garden to botanical garden standards, which meant labelling the collection, creating an extensive database, and introducing horticulturally based education at the zoo. That was no small feat! The staff’s knowledge grew along with the gardens, and there is evidence of Donna’s expertise throughout the gardens to this day.

Following in Donna’s shoes, the next horticulturalist, Olivia Johns, continued to build the zoo’s garden legacy. She helped establish themed collections like the Perennial Trial Garden, created the Master Gardener training program, and was an integral part of the renovation of the ENMAX Conservatory. Olivia noted that, “The Calgary Zoo became a culmination of all things horticulture for me, love of design, sharing a gardening passion with others and working with some incredible, dedicated staff members.”

Today I am fortunate to continue to work with a dedicated team. Even amidst the challenges of our climate – hail, flood waters, short growing season, lack of insulating snow cover, semi-arid conditions – this garden stands as a testament that yes, we can have beautiful gardens in the Chinook belt.

This milestone couldn’t pass without being marked in some special way, and so we’ve prepared a fun surprise for our visitors. The entrance to the gardens features a special installation to celebrate ‘30 Years & Growing’, including a three dimensional mosaic culture panda named, Ping. It has taken thousands of Alternanthera, Sedum, Echeveria and Santolina to create this display, with 1,500 in our mosaic culture alone. A new entrance to the gardens has also been built with artistic panels that illustrate the four seasons in our unique foothills setting. Since we strongly believe our garden has a four season appeal, we thought this particularly fitting.

And what would be an anniversary without flowers? We’ve filled our annual display with classics, like ‘Daddy Blue’ petunias, ‘Indian Summer’ rudbeckia, ‘Only the Lonely’ nicotiana, ‘Songbird’ flowering cabbage and our curly parsley border. Visitors often think we are crazy planting parsley in a border, but when they see the deep green texture it offers they quickly become converts. Don’t be surprised to see our sous chefs out there doing some strategic harvesting for our local and sustainable on-park restaurant, Grazers!

Our biggest lesson in these thirty years? See challenges as opportunity. Yes, things do grow more slowly here, and our choices are a little narrower (who wants to learn 10,000 different plant names anyway) but persistence pays off. Celebrate your botanical successes and those occasional disappointments are really just a new opportunity to discover your next favorite plant. How great is that!

*This article is adapted from Corinne Hannah’s article for the Calgary Herald of the same title.

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