Wild Zoo Gardening

Mike Thomas wild zoo gardens memo
Gardens memo by Mike Thomas Director / owner of Newquay Zoo, 1993-2003 

“Remember Zoo Grounds should be a jungle – dense and interesting.”

Cornwall is a county well known for its amazing exotic and varied gardens, gardens  which attract tens of thousands of visitors from around the world each year.

Following up our recent post on the wild edges of gardening at Newquay Zoo, https://newquayzoohistory.wordpress.com/2017/11/22/the-half-round-and-bus-shelter/

here is an interesting short memo to our gardens team by Mike Thomas in the late 1990s / early 2000s:

“Remember Zoo Grounds should be a Jungle – dense and interesting. Do not chop anything down. (Only do) Minimum pruning, weeding, edging, digging. Nothing more. Mike.” 

Still wild – the Maze Road wild flower bank, Newquay Zoo 2017 

Maybe the memo was inspired by a return to the Lost Gardens of Heligan look (when it was lost or overgrown, “asleep” before it was discovered again)  or avoiding the overclipped and very neat style of some gardens and amenity horticulture.

The original zoo planting in 1969 was planted by Head Council Gardener Ernie Littlefield, aided by young apprentices like Michael Perry. Mike Perry returned to the zoo for a number of years from c. 1993 to garden it again when Ernie retired, giving a garden continuity of 30 to 40 years.  The late Ernie Littlefield was our guest of honour at the Zoo’s 30th Birthday, returning to see how his trees and shrubs had grown.


1999 30 birthday Littlefield
Cornish Guardian, c. 26 May 1999 – Ernie Littlefield cuts the cake for the zoo he planted,  Newquay Zoo’s 30th Birthday.  


There are some amusing stories about zoo gardens in Mike Thomas’ memoir Strange Things Happened on My Way to The Zoo  https://newquayzoohistory.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/strange-things-happened-on-my-way-to-the-zoo-by-mike-thomas/

Mike tells the story of the occasion (late 1990s / early 2000s) when ‘Exotic Clive’ (of Hardy Exotics) planted what seemed like thousands of pounds worth of hardy exotic plants in and around the zoo. These proved an expensive overnight snack to a range of equally exotic wildlife from capybara to free-ranging mara and wallabies. Whoops!


“An attractive selection of Wild Animals in Six Acres of Landscaped Gardens2 (Newspaper Adverts, 1969) 



Newquay Zoo Gardening, planted by Head Council Gardener  Ernie Littlefield, early 1970s  Newquay town guidebook.  A mix of Cornish exotic (palms?) and amenity horticulture bedding. This photograph shows the original Zoological Cafe (still standing!) and planting on what is now our front lawn, Bird Hide and Birds of Brazil aviary.  


Now our gardens are managed by the combined experience of our onsite team of  Steve, Roy and the rest of our Site and Maintenance team  and  the wider gardens team based at Paignton Zoo, headed by Giles Palmer and the former Director of Newquay Zoo, Stewart Muir, now Director of Living Collections (Plants and Animals) at all three of our sites. The fruits of this combined experience can be seen in the new “Gems of the Jungle” walkthrough aviary and its exotic planting (opened 2017).

Our sister zoo Paignton Zoo has long been a recognised Botanic Gardens, part of the international botanic gardens education and horticulture network,  as well as a ‘zoological gardens’ like Newquay was originally styled in its early adverts.

Both Giles and Stewart have just come back from an exciting rainforest trip to the jungles of Vietnam – part of the link between a zoo and the wild  that is modern conservation.


A useful experience of a proper rainforest jungle.


“Remember Zoo Grounds should be  a jungle – dense and interesting.” 


Blogposted by Mark Norris, using the Newquay Zoo Archive collection.