Cincinnati Zoo: Bees Are Buzzin' About Avondale's Urban Garden

Cincinnati Zoo: Bees Are Buzzin' About Avondale's Urban Garden

What do birds, bats, butterflies, and bees have in common? They all have wings, yes. Their names start with the letter “B,” that’s true. And most importantly, they’re all pollinating animals. 

Pollinating animals — or pollinators — help plants reproduce. As they travel from plant to plant, pollinators transport and deposit pollen grains that are responsible for countless fruits and vegetables, along with half of the world’s oils, fibers, and raw materials. They also help prevent soil erosion and increase carbon sequestration. Pollinators service over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops. 

Additionally, they support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden has been a friend to pollinators since opening in 1875. It has been working hard to boost the pollinator population — which has been rapidly declining — with initiatives like the Plant for Pollinators Challenge (P4P) and Pollen Nation BioBlitz. The Zoo’s passion for pollinators extends far beyond Giraffe Ridge, Cat Canyon, and Fiona’s cove and touches several Cincinnati communities.

In the spring of 2019, Brazee Street Studios sponsored a contest where 24 Greater Cincinnati schools competed for a pollinator garden to be built by the Zoo on the winner’s campus. The Fairview-Clifton German Language School in Clifton and Rockdale Academy in Avondale were named finalists, with the German Language School narrowly claiming the victory.

“Both schools had outstanding proposals,” says Steve Foltz, the director of horticulture at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden. “It came down to space. Rockdale had a very small plot of land on their playground.”

Chelsea Clark, global conservation consultant at Rockdale Academy, wasn’t deterred by the loss. As a STEM and environmental sciences educator, she wanted to create an outdoor learning space where students could enjoy immersive experiences and connect with the food they eat. Her commitment to teaching students the importance of horticulture resonated with Foltz.

“Chelsea wants her students to understand and appreciate where their food comes from,” Foltz explains. “I told her that while Rockdale might not have the space, we could work something out.” 

Foltz kept that promise with help from the Cincinnati Reds, Procter & Gamble, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Since 2014, the Zoo has partnered with the Reds on their Community Makeover service projects. As fate would have it, the Reds had been eyeing Rockdale Academy as one of six Avondale-based sites to receive a makeover in 2021.

“Although Rockdale didn’t have the right space for a pollinator garden on their campus at the time, they did have an amazing lawn that was sitting relatively idle,” Foltz says. 

“Some of our horticulturists surveyed the land and determined it was the perfect spot for an educational garden.”

Thus, the seeds for the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden were planted.

With help from over 400 volunteers from the Cincinnati Reds Community Makeover team, Children’s Hospital, and the team at the Zoo, the garden was ready just in time for school to return in August. Within its 1.8 acres are vegetables, fruiting trees, herbs, flowers, native plants, and, of course, plants that attract pollinators.  

“We have put every possible food crop into this garden,” Foltz says. “We lined the entire parameter with fruit-bearing trees, and we also have smaller fruits, like raspberries and strawberries. The kids love it and they’re learning so much. Not only are they starting to understand their food doesn’t just come from Kroger, they’re also seeing that it’s possible to grow these things — on a smaller scale — in their own backyards.” 

The garden sports a 30-foot-by-50-foot greenhouse, donated by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, which is powered with solar panels provided by SonLight Power. There is also a small amphitheater and a sensory garden designed for children with autism. The Zoo plans to install a hydroponic system where students will have the opportunity to watch seeds grow into plants. 

“Rockdale Academy is focused on global conservation,” Foltz says. “This garden wouldn’t have been made possible without the support of people like Chelsea Clark and Dr. Jeran Finney, Rockdale’s principal. I hope the hands-on learning experience will inspire students to explore careers in horticulture.”

With the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden thriving, the Zoo believes other local schools, along with everyday citizens, will be inspired to start their own gardens — particularly gardens that help boost pollinator activity.

“Urban and suburban communities desperately need more green space,” Foltz says. “If everyone with a backyard or balcony would grow their own herbs or plant a few perennials known to attract pollinators, the benefits to the environment would be astonishing.” Foltz also notes that when a city has plenty of green space, the population’s overall health and wellness are better.

Foltz would love to see Cincinnati named the best pollinator region in the country one day, and he believes having more green spaces like the Rockdale Urban Learning Garden is a great first step in achieving that goal.

“Rockdale is not only one of the best gardens I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the best projects the Zoo has ever worked on,” Foltz says with pride. “It offers students a one-of-a-kind learning experience, adds green space to Avondale, and boosts the pollinator population. It doesn’t get much better than that!"

Want to do your part in boosting the pollinator population? Find out how at

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