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Whether you’re at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium for a visit with family or attending an evening event, the Zoo’s beautiful and diverse landscaping sets a vibrant backdrop for our exhibits that never fails to surprise and delight.
That’s all thanks to Terri Gouveia, our curator of horticulture and her team of about 15 full-time horticulturists and gardeners (plus some seasonal staff and dedicated volunteers) who spend 52 weeks a year maintaining the Zoo’s lush plant life and transforming the grounds from season to season.
We were excited to have the opportunity to talk to three of these professionals about their passion for plants and how the Zoo’s spectacular gardens enhance the experience for both the animals and our guests.
Matt Bonham, Horticulture Grounds Supervisor and Capital Projects
The Asian Highlands exhibit opened in 2019, so it may surprise some Zoo visitors to come across 20-foot-tall Himalayan pine trees that look like they’ve been growing there for centuries. But for Matt Bonham, it’s all in a day’s work. “We usually try to get the big stuff in early, like 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, before the guests arrive,” he says.
Bonham, who grew up in Ralston and holds a degree in environmental science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, started his career at the Zoo 21 years ago, and took on his current role just in time to oversee the installation of trees in the Asian Highlands, which he says was also his most challenging project to date.
“After that, the new Owen Sea Lion Shores was a breeze,” he says, laughing at the notion that using a crane to install spruces, aspens, and fir trees native to the Pacific Northwest Coast in the middle of a busy zoo in Omaha could be considered easy. As it happened, that project was scheduled for the time the Zoo was closed during the Covid-19 shutdown last spring—which meant the crew had a little more room to maneuver, but also that they had to break up into smaller teams due to social distancing guidelines.
Bonham says that he gets a lot of satisfaction out of being able to see a project through from the early stages to completion, “The best part about working at the Zoo is the way everyone collaborates to enhance the experience for the animals and the people.”
He adds that he’s particularly grateful for those who entrust the Zoo to honor a loved one’s legacy with a plaque or a memorial tree, as well the donors who make the projects he works on possible. “We couldn’t do any of this without them.”
Ted Nestroyl, Horticulture Facilities Supervisor
When Ted Nestroyl started at the Zoo as a volunteer in 1993, the Lied Jungle had only been open for a year, the Desert Dome was nearly a decade from completion, and places like the African Grasslands and the Asian Highlands were still a world away.
A lot has changed since then. “We’ve been under construction at the Zoo every year since I’ve been here,” Nestroyl, who earned his degree in architecture and worked in landscaping before coming to the Zoo, says. “The horticulture department has grown from a small team that worked on bits and pieces to overseeing the landscaping of the whole park.”
Nestroyl’s role has grown by leaps and bounds as well. He now oversees the Lied Jungle, the Desert Dome, the greenhouses and all the irrigation throughout the Zoo. While there is a seasonal framework to his job: tree work in the winter, planting in spring, maintenance in summer and clean-up in fall, he says no two days are ever the same. “Where else could you come and work with tropicals one day and cactuses the next? We never know what’s going to pop up. We’re always learning.”
Nestroyl says he loves the challenge of working with rare and exotic plants, such as the welwitschia that Gouveia acquired for the Desert Dome, which he believes is several hundred years old, and may have a life span of up to 1,500 years. “People are amazed when they come here and see what we’re growing in Omaha, Nebraska. Especially after we put the new roof on the Lied Jungle—everything in the building just exploded. One gentleman from the Los Angeles Zoo came and said we have the largest breadnut tree in any indoor exhibit in the world.”
Perhaps the only thing about his job that Nestroyl enjoys more than the plants is the people. “Everyone here is always pushing themselves to be better and to make sure the Zoo is the best it can be,” he says. “There may be a visitor who only gets to come once, so we want to be sure that person has the best possible experience.”
Katy Burr, Greenhouse Manager and designer
“Begonias,” Katy Burr says without a moment’s hesitation when asked what her favorite flower is. “I try to include them in every garden because they do well anywhere—in the shade, in the sun, in the greenhouse in the dead of winter. They’re so showy. They’re kind of like a little smile.”
Burr, a lifelong gardener who worked as a florist for more than 20 years before joining the Zoo’s horticulture team in 2007, manages the Zoo’s greenhouse which is home to several species of begonias (and other popular annuals and perennials), as well as dozens of exotic plants and trees that may grow there for months, years or even decades before making their way to a permanent home in an exhibit like the Lied Jungle or the Desert Dome
She also helps Gouveia design the beds, baskets and pots all over the Zoo. This includes more than 10,000 annuals as well as thousands of bulbs. “Annuals are so important because they’re super hardy and they give you that color while you’re waiting for your perennials to come in,” says Burr.
In keeping with the Zoo’s ethos of responsible financial stewardship, Burr and her team take on a lot of plant production themselves—including propagating new plants from cuttings, and ensuring that plants are transplanted when needed in order to really thrive. “We always want to be the best of the best, so everything always has to look great,” she says, then adds humbly, “You can make things look pretty good with a few plants and some nice, fresh mulch.”
Having grown up in Omaha, Burr takes great pride in the way the horticulture team is able to honor the Zoo’s history as a city park while helping to build its legacy as world class home to flora as well as fauna. “Even after all these years, sometimes I drive through and I see all the rhododendrons and azaleas in bloom, and it just brings tears to my eyes how beautiful it all is.”