The polar bears have acquired a taste for Swiss chard. The sloths prefer to take their time munching on beets, while the great apes would rather chow down on some onions.
These animals aren’t eating like animals anymore. They’re eating organic produce growing in their own back yard.
The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory is feeding its inhabitants and surrounding community from its Edible Garden.
The summerlong exhibit opened Friday as more than 100 visitors stopped by to see and touch the vegetable, herb and fruit plants just now sprouting.
Parents wove through the exhibit, pushing strollers and watching as young ones removed their hands from their mouths long enough to grab hold of the greenery.
Bell peppers, pumpkins, celery and butternut squash are only a few of the foodstuffs to be found peeking from the soil. The scent of basil wafted through the exhibit as visitors rubbed the herb to get a whiff. Garden staff approached each visitor to talk about the plants and answer any questions about planting a garden at home.
In 2013, the garden produced about 972 pounds of food. Zoo animals ate about 230 pounds while the rest went to St. Paul Recreation Centers for cooking classes and summer programs. Last year, donations from the garden exceeded 1,500 pounds of produce, and Matt Reinartz, communications director, said the popular exhibit is set to harvest about 1,600 pounds before it closes on Labor Day this year.
“It’s incredible and it’s edible,” Reinartz said. “It’s tended to every day by volunteers.”
Rick and Michelle Tucker brought their children, ages 2 and 4, to the garden. At their home in Iowa, they grow their own tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and peppers.
Rick, 34, said he was impressed by the amount of produce growing in the garden. Michelle said their daughter, Ellie, enjoyed smelling the herbs.
The garden, which began five years ago, was supposed to stay open for only two.
The exhibit was kept on to promote community gardening and to teach children about different kinds of produce, said Susie VanBlaircom, garden operations manager.
“It’s a fun way for them to start eating the colors of the rainbow,” she said.
Before it was a vegetable garden, the site near the visitor’s center was a butterfly habitat. As a remembrance of that, the garden has a butterfly-shaped herb topiary named Bertha. The garden was funded by a Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment grant.
The Edible Garden is interactive, but its produce is not meant to be eaten by visitors. Touching the plants is allowed, and on Friday, children and adults all wanted to touch the little furry tips of the bunny tail grass on their way out of the exhibit.
Marlys Gaucher came to the garden on a community education trip from Arlington, Minn.
“Being raised on the farm, it was nice seeing all the familiar plants,” she said.