Turtle Back Zoo Project

Essex County’s Turtle Back Zoo offers exciting and unique volunteer opportunities for Rutgers Master Gardeners. TBZ MG volunteers will learn about Zoo Horticulture from experts in the field, assist with the installation of large and small-scale exhibits and work outdoors surrounded by animals while enriching their environment with plants.

MG volunteers help the zoo Horticulture Team increase the beauty of the zoo by planting seasonally rotating annual beds and raised planters, perennial beds specific to the habitat of the surrounding animals, enhancing indoor exhibits with tropical and aquatic plants, decorating with live plant material for holidays and special events, creating unique botanical favors for fundraising and so much more! 

Zoo horticulture encompasses a wide range of activities which require a diversity of knowledge and skills in gardening, plant identification/selection, landscape development/management, plant/animal interactions, plant toxicity, animal browse production, etc. Volunteers have a unique opportunity to learn the vital connections between flora and fauna that are essential to a healthy habitat for all living things.

The zoo asks that volunteers within this team are able to commit to a schedule from March 1–October 31 on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m.  With the brand-new addition of a Greenhouse in 2020, and the exciting addition of the Browse Propagation Tunnel coming in 2021, it is important that the TBZ MG volunteer team consists of at least a core team of ‘regulars’ who can impart training and critical zoo specific rules and regulations to volunteers who aren’t able to commit to a full season but would like to come as often as able. This year we have also added a secure, locked Tool Shed where regulars can leave their own preferred tools and supplies or borrow ours.

It’s also important that folks feel comfortable working outdoors in the elements, and don’t mind doing manual labor. While there are some fun ‘seated’ or less physical projects throughout the season, accessing the 30+ acres of zoo landscape requires walking the winding and often hilly paths to project sites. Volunteers should be in fairly good shape—we do a lot of digging, lifting and walking!  As some of the work can be physically demanding, projects are detailed in advance so volunteers can sign up according to their abilities. 

All of our work is done under the watchful, knowledgeable supervision and direction of Deborah MacEvoy,  a Rutgers Master Gardener of Essex County herself. As a member of the Association of Zoological Horticulture and other zoo-related horticulture agencies, Deborah is able to share a unique animal-centric perspective. 

As there are 30+ acres within the zoo, and another 40+ acres in the surrounding South Mountain Recreation Complex, the Horticulture budget is often stretched thin. This offers many opportunities to learn proper plant division, transplanting and propagation to maximize existing or rare plant material. Volunteers get inspired by the creative methods used to deliver bold and attractive views using common as well as exotic plant material. The zoo also has many plant species that require special overwintering and/or cold weather storage processes.

And the creativity doesn’t end there—Deborah’s vision has been to select the plantings in and around each exhibit to replicate or mimic the natural habitat of the region. This poses quite a challenge in Northern New Jersey’s USDA zone 6a/6b, and Deborah says it’s often the MG volunteers with their fresh perspective who come up with the most creative solutions. There are tropical plantings around the flamingos, Mid-West desert plants at Cougars, bamboo surrounding the Asian exhibits and plants native to Africa near the giraffes. 

On the most recent AZA Accreditation inspection, which is the most prestigious zoo affiliation in the United States, the Turtle Back Zoo Horticulture Department was praised for “creating a natural immersive experience in the landscaping and exhibits for guests as well as the animal habitats.” Humble gardening words which carry a lot of weight when your mission is wildlife habitat conservation!