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Extreme Gardening at the Tennessee Aquarium

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Feb. 1, 2001) - Gardening around alligators, crocodiles, lizards and fish is not your average 9 to 5, but Tennessee Aquarium horticulturists Christine Bock and Charlene Nash (shown left) are not your average gardeners.

Since the Aquarium opened in 1992, Bock and Nash have watered, pruned, fed and planted - all next to animals that could severely impair, or even kill. In and out of the water these caretakers demonstrate strength and agility, and quite often a little bit of bravery.

In the Zaire River exhibit, Bock works next to a Nile monitor (Africa's largest lizard) and three keenly alert dwarf crocodiles. But before the decision is made to enter this exhibit, staff herpetologists are called to confirm the crocs' feeding schedule.

"It seems like they're always hungry," Bock says, "and they come at your feet if they are. I want to make sure they've been fed recently."

And while the Nile monitor is pretty harmless, he's fast and he's curious. Staff members have to be especially careful when opening the door. Anytime a new plant is brought into the exhibit, the monitor looks at it and gets on top of it to check things out. And though the native fish of Africa in the Zaire exhibit are not so intimidating, they are curious as well, and can't resist nibbling on the plants.

Many of the exhibits were not designed to hold live plants. Artificial lighting and extremely hot exhibits create a perpetual cycle of moving plants in and out. Containers are constantly being tucked away into tight spaces and trees that barely fit into elevators are maneuvered in and out daily.

Changing out plants in the Amazon River exhibit requires getting face-to-fang with 6-foot anacondas, a 7-foot boa constrictor and an abundance of piranha. But horticulturist Nash plays down her interaction. In fact, she refutes the myths that come with their names and describes them as "mild mannered."

Finding and keeping native plants looking healthy is more of an issue. "We are constantly experimenting with submerged plants to see what works and what doesn't," says Nash. "Part of the problem is that plants do better in soil than in gravel, and now that some submerged exhibits are older, the gravel is more compact, which creates a challenge for their roots."

In the Reelfoot exhibit, Nash ties 21-pound weights around her stomach, holds onto driftwood with one hand and digs with the other as fast as she can, so the holes don't fill back up. "It's hard to dig a hole when you're underwater," she says.

When asked what horticulturists at other aquariums do to meet these challenges, Nash says that most aquariums don't try to replicate their exhibits with live plants. But when they do? "They call us," Nash says.

In addition to the in-house challenges, numerous hours are spent searching out native plants of the regions. Plants from Africa, South America, Asia and the United States have to be special ordered.

But locating and buying rare and native trees, shrubs and plants is just one facet of this garden under glass. The Cove Forest and Delta exhibits are living forests with heights reaching over 40 feet, which makes maneuvering these large plants and trees in and out of elevators and through exhibits even more interesting.

And there are a few more obstacles to maneuver around in the Delta exhibit: five alligator snapping turtles, an alligator, a gray rat snake and an Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake, to be exact. Horticulturist Nash pays close attention when working in this exhibit-especially when carrying things around the alligator. "When you have something in your hands, she thinks you're coming to feed her," Nash says.

And though staff herpetologists are always on hand to "spot" the eastern diamondback rattlesnake while the horticulturist works at the other end of its casing, the area, barely 3-feet in height, leaves little room to move about. Yet staff horticulturists don't hesitate to enter. It's all in a day's work - gardening at the Tennessee Aquarium.

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