Growing Knowledge: OKC Zoo’s First Botanical Garden Research Study Underway

The OKC Zoo’s butterfly and pollinator habitat is in bloom and teeming with life this month as caterpillars munch away on host plants and butterflies stop by for a quick drink of nectar. June is a great month to enjoy our gardens as many early summer blooming perennials, like milkweed, are in full bloom and attracting countless beneficial insects.

The butterfly garden and pollinator habitat is the scene of a very important research project from the Oklahoma County Conservation District and carried out in coordination with the OKC Zoo horticultural team. This is the first botanical garden study conducted at the Zoo and we are very proud to support a study that promotes biodiversity and a healthy garden system.

A number of tests are taking place monthly which include soil tests, water infiltration tests and vegetation monitoring through the conduction of vegetation transects in the garden. Vegetation transects are essentially plant monitoring in the same location over time. This monitoring location in the butterfly and pollinator habitat is considered the “pollinator prairie” experimental plot and a second monitoring location will be considered the control plot, which is a traditional lawn.

Data on soil moisture and air temperature are also being collected each month. This study seeks to determine the effects of soil health and biodiversity in each of the two plot locations. Any guesses on which plot will have the greater soil health and overall biodiversity? You guessed it! The pollinator prairie plot! So, why is this important if we already have the answer? The community at large needs solid evidence as to why a diverse garden system is better for the overall environment than the traditional lawn, and this study will advise citizens on the best way to take your residential lawn to a more diverse and blooming “no mow” prairie garden/lawn. This will also prevent hours of maintenance and the use of chemicals such as pre and post emergent and phosphorus based fertilizers that are not great for the environment due to runoff into ground and surface waters.

Later this year, a second study will be conducted at the Zoo on four experimental plots to examine the effects of Bermuda grass removal and prairie restoration. This part of the study will test four different treatments such as using black plastic sheeting placed over the grass (solarization) to remove Bermuda grass. Once the Bermuda is removed, the plots will be over seeded with prairie plants and then vegetation monitoring will be conducted on the plots starting next spring.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The OKC Zoo is hosting a "Planting for Pollinators" workshop on Monday, June 17, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., to demonstrate best practices for gardeners looking to incorporate pollinator-friendly plants into their yards, gardens and flower beds. Registration is now open. Click here to learn more.]

Lance Swearengin

-Lance Swearengin, horticultural curator

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