Gardening at the Tennessee Aquarium
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Wildflowers: Calendar of