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Adopt a Garden

At 28 acres, Henry Vilas Zoo relies on a team of talented and dedicated volunteers to maintain its many garden beds. Gardening at HVZ is a unique opportunity to leave your mark and create a beautiful experience for guests and staff.

Scroll down to learn more about gardening at HVZ. Ready to adopt a plot? Go to our garden descriptions to find out more about our flora and fauna!

What is it like gardening at a zoo?
Gardening at HVZ is a truly unique experience. As a gardener, you’ll be one of the few people permitted on grounds at 8AM before the Zoo opens at 9:30AM. Not only are these the cooler hours of the morning, but it’s also when our animals are just waking up. If you’re a morning gardener, you can expect to work to the sound of gibbons, seals, lions, lemurs and sometimes penguins. Many of our gardeners take the opportunity to stroll the grounds and say good morning to the animals before starting up. If you’re here during open hours, you may find that many guests have questions for you about everything under the sun. They may ask you about directions, what you’re planting or even the animals you’re working near (Don’t worry. We provide training to help you be more help.). Gardening at HVZ is truly an experience, and one that is unlike any other in Madison.

How much experience do I need for this?
It varies. Some of our gardens are natural growth areas that require no more than regular weeding. Some are for more advanced gardeners who should be knowledgeable about a variety of native plants, planting times and gardening techniques. Each garden description will have an experience level listed of:

  • Beginner: Mostly weeding/mulching. Should be able to tell a weed from a plant. We will help provide guidance.
  • Intermediate: Heavier weeding/mulching with some planting. Should be experienced in basic garden design, and comfortable planting/mulching without too much guidance.
  • Advanced: Area needs a good makeover. Heavy weeding, plant selection, possible mulching. May require working more closely with grounds staff and/or keepers.
  • Master: Must be a certified Master Gardener

Can I do this with other people?
Yes! Each garden description has a recommended number of people depending on the size/skill needed. Some gardens will absolutely take more than one person. If you have at least one experienced gardener in your group, this would be a good way to get less experienced gardeners involved.

When can I start?
Gardening at HVZ opens in March and continues throughout the summer through October.

What kind of training will I receive?
All volunteers must complete an online orientation (about 1.5hrs) that goes over basic Zoo information, expectations, and inclusive practices. Upon completing the orientation, volunteers complete an on-site training with our groundskeeper (about 1hr) that includes a brief tour of Zoo grounds, gardener resources, and your chosen bed.

Do you provide tools?
Our toolshed on grounds is open to you, and has basic tools such as: work gloves, shovels, rakes, trowels, etc. We also provide access to hoses and water spigots. Gardeners are welcome to bring in their own tools as long as long as everything is labeled (so we don’t confuse your equipment with ours).*

Are there any tools you don’t allow?
Volunteer gardeners may not bring in any power gardening tools without first clearing it with our Groundskeeper and/or Operations Manager. Volunteers are also prohibited from using any kind of chemical weed killer.

Why do all your gardens look abandoned in the photos?
We took most of the photos on a cloudy day in fall! It was our last chance to show you the space before the snow started for the season. We’re looking forward to updated shots this spring/summer as our gardeners make the spaces beautiful!