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Group working to achieve certification of botanical gardens

There's a lot more to see besides the animals at ZooMontana.

That's what a local group of volunteers that helps maintain the grounds there hopes to get across to the public in its efforts to get the zoo classified nationally as a certified botanical garden.

Botanical Group Meeting

"We would like it to be known as ZooMontana and Botanical Garden," said Teresa Bessette, president of the Botanical Society at ZooMontana. "We are in the process right now of reclaiming what was lost."

Scattered around the grounds at the zoo and along the short walks between animal exhibits are a number of gardens featuring dozens of flowers, trees and other plants and the society hopes to grow, improve and maintain those gardens.

Since last year, the dozen or so members of the society, which is in the process of being designated by the state of Montana as a nonprofit organization, have been ramping up their efforts to reach that goal.

"This year is kind of our year for spreading out and reclaiming what we need to reclaim," Bessette said. "We have big visions but we need to be realistic. We know what needs to be done first."

That includes lots of work on the grounds -- gardening, clearing out weeds, planting new flora, repairing equipment -- but they also need zoo officials and the board of directors to provide support, which they're well on their way to getting.

Recently, the zoo board agreed to make a seat available for the society's acting president, which Bessette eagerly accepted. That gives the group an official voice at the table and a hand in the directions the garden can take.

"We would like it to be known as ZooMontana and Botanical Garden," said Teresa Bessette, president of the Botanical Society at ZooMontana.

"We both thought, 'What a great opportunity,'" said Jeff Ewelt, the zoo's executive director. "We thought it was a great way to integrate the animal side, the zoo operation and the grounds. Teresa gives us a first-person voice from an individual who's actually out there doing the work, getting her fingernails dirty."

The zoo is very supportive of the group's efforts, Ewelt said. The group approached him as soon as he took over in the summer of 2011 and said they wanted to make sure the grounds were taken care of.

"I understand that these grounds are important," he said. "They're a part of the zoo. Part of what makes us the zoo is not only the animal life, but the plant life and it all has to work together."

Susan Betz, a member of the society, said they're partly inspired to renew the efforts by a group of women called the Horticulture Society that used to work the gardens on a weekly basis years ago, when the zoo was also presented as a botanical garden. Many of them have taken the Master Gardener class in Billings.

"This is going back with the history of the zoo, when it first opened," she said. "I'm not sure if people know that."

First off, the society will work to get the zoo classified as an arboretum, and to do so it must be able to identify 25 or more kinds of trees or other woody plants.

Sensory Garden Arial

The second level requires 100 identifiable woody plants, and certification also needs proof of along an established plan, organizational structure and a governance group.

"There has to be a certain amount of plants that are identified, a certain amount of trees that are identified," Bessette said. "We're thinking that we probably qualify for that, that we're definitely good for level one."

While the group feels good about the initial number of plants needed and its organizational progress, there is still plenty of work to do.

A major focus in the coming months will be on gathering money to maintain and improve the gardens. Betz and Bessette said that they understand the zoo is still in a transitional phase after losing accreditation in 2011 and overhauling its operations.

"We understand that there are a lot of financial concerns," Betz said. "We do have some money from a couple of fundraisers and we want to do more. We're trying to stay consistent with that."

Bessette said that lemonade sales by the group last year raised about $1,000.

Ewelt said the zoo also will provide some funding and that the group will split money earned from the upcoming GeraniumFest with the rest of the zoo.

"We'll be there any way we can," he said. "That's the best-case scenario for us because we'll be behind the zoo itself. We have committed in our budget this year at least $2,500 to them."

There's not a full-time staff member at the zoo dedicated to maintaining the grounds, so group members have been volunteering.

One of the first priorities will be getting the sprinkler system fixed in order to keep the plants watered and healthy, Bessette said.

Other plans include using the gardens for educational purposes, holding classes for the public on gardening, communicating and collaborating with other botanical gardens in the region and getting the preschool class at the zoo involved in planting gardens.

Even though there's not a set target date they're working toward for certification, members have already done plenty of work at the zoo, clearing out garden space and weeding and improving existing ones. They planted 1,000 new bulbs right before the winter cold kicked in, the group got a pair of fountains up and running, they have worked in the Sensory Garden and Bessette put in numerous hours in the Children's Garden last year.

"Spring should be the beginning of something really, really nice," Bessette said.

From the Billings Gazette Feb 15, 2013