How to mimic Africa & plant 110,000 tulip bulbs

Posted at 6:00 AM, Feb 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-19 06:00:07-05

While it may not feel quite like spring, the grounds of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden are just weeks away from bursting into bloom.

During March and April, the zoo will celebrate the season with a number of flower-friendly events as part of Zoo Blooms. In addition to the concert series Tunes and Blooms, which features local bands on Thursdays in April, the zoo will celebrate Earth Day on April 21 with Party for the Planet and offer a seminar series to educate and engage gardeners from novices to professionals.

Cincinnati Zoo horticulturist Scott Beuerlein is also chairman of the local nonprofit Taking Root. Photo provided by Cincinnati Zoo

In order to bathe the grounds in a sea of color, zoo horticulturist Scott Beuerlein said zoo staff, along with a team of dedicated volunteers, planted 110,000 tulip bulbs during late fall — around the same time maintenance was stringing for Festival of Lights. The mass bloom, now referred to as “tulip mania,” adds to the zoo’s already colorful array of flowering trees, shrubs and daffodils.

While this year’s ever-changing winter temps tricked a few trees into blooming early, Beuerlein reassured those concerned that nature will again take its course.

“I’ve been gardening for 25 years, and every time we have this weird winter, people worry,” he said. “And every year spring comes, and it looks fantastic. I tell people spring is resilient.”

As a botanical garden, Beuerlein explained the zoo’s mission extends beyond ground maintenance to plant sustainability. He said one focus is to encourage locals to plant gardens to improve the overall health of the environment. In particular, he said, gardeners need to make choices that encourage the health of pollinating insects such as bees, wasps and butterflies.

“A lot of our food is pollinated by pollinating insects. The new generation of plants in green spaces are brought to you by pollinating insects doing their thing,” he said. “Pollinating insects prey on pest insects. They contribute big-time to the health of the environment and the general plant community.”

All too often, he said, people set themselves up for failure by purchasing plants that may thrive in areas like the Pacific Northwest but wither due to our climate and soil composition. To assist buyers, Beuerlein said this year they’re offering a brand of plants at local garden retailers known as Zoo’s Best Plants for Pollinators. They’re proven to thrive in our climate.

“We picked out of all the plants that we know grow well here, look great and benefit pollinators the most,” he said, “so the gardening community, the buying public can know that we’ve tried it, and it works well, and it will be a good choice.”

As a certified arborist, Beuerlein’s passion extends beyond zoo grounds. where he’s chairman of Taking Root, a nonprofit initiative to plant 2 million trees in eight Tri-State counties by 2020. The region has lost many trees, he said, due to the emerald ash borer along with other environmental factors. He explained the goal could be met if each Tri-State resident found a spot to plant one tree.

“The things with trees is, wherever you plant them is good. They do so much good for the environment and for the communities,” he said “There are just a handful of places trees would be problems — baseball fields, airports. Anywhere else, it’s all good. “

Growing up, Beuerlein said he was inspired by his father, an avid gardener, until he reached his teens and decided dating girls took precedence over picking green beans. He said his passion resurfaced again after he married and bought his first house. In addition to working his full-time job at Delta Airlines, he said began his own part-time landscaping business to finance his “rare plant addiction.”

It wasn’t until Delta offered a buyout for 25-year employees that his life changed direction.

”All the years we’d been married, my wife and I seldom talked about our jobs, and she said, ‘I think you should take it,’” he said. “It was one of those things that once you accepted, you couldn’t turn back. So I hit submit, then went hysterical for about an hour and a half.”

Beuerlein took his landscaping business full-time. While he loved the work and made great money, he said working alone left a void. He said the perfect opportunity arose five years ago when the horticulture position opened at the zoo.

“I absolutely love it,” he said. “Every day is different. It’s this weird sort or combination of stress to go above and beyond with excitement and opportunity to run free with your passion. And I get to work with an awesome group of people who inspire me every day.”

The Cincinnati Zoo's Africa exhibit uses local plants to mirror those of African savannas. (Provided by Cincinnati Zoo)

In addition to keeping the grounds, Beuerlein explained, the horticultural staff designs and landscapes exhibits to mirror native habitats. When designing the Africa exhibit a few years back, for example, he said they sought out local trees, shrubs and grasses that would give the appearance of the savanna. After construction crews completed their work, horticulture was left with 10 days to plant several hundred trees, shrubs, and thousands of perennials and grasses in time for the opening.

“We did it, and we hit that date,” he said. ”We had this big opening, and there were all kinds of donors on the deck for this big event. And we didn’t have any of the hoofstock animals there — the lions wouldn’t come out. So there was nothing to really look at but the horticulture, and they were loving it. Everybody was saying, ‘This is great. It looks just like Africa.’ So it was a big pat on the back for our department.”

Beuerlein added lightheartedly, “I keep trying to get them to change the name to the Cincinnati Botanical Garden and Zoo, but I haven’t had any success so far.”

Cincinnati Zoo spring and horticulture events

  • Tunes and Blooms: 6–8:30 p.m. Thursdays, April 7–28. Admision free after 5 p.m.; parking $9.
  • Tulip Event: The ninth year of this annual fundraiser is 9 a.m.–noon April 13. Admission $75; tickets available through the zoo’s giving page.
  • Earth Day Party for the Planet: 4–8:30 p.m. April 21. Zoo admission required.
  • Symposiums: Sustainable Urban Landscapes, March 3; Plant Trials Day, Aug. 18. Admission to each is $49; tickets available through the zoo’s Web store.
  • Zoo members receive benefits including unlimited free regular admission and discount offers to other events. See the zoo’s membership page for more information.