The latest nor’easter might have put a damper on your dreams for this year’s garden. It’s hard to imagine flowers in full bloom or juicy tomatoes on the vine when there is nearly a foot of snow on the ground.
Elmwood Park Zoo horticulturist Mark Pulcini is a lot like the United States Parcel Service. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” can keep him from his mission.
A rainy day at the zoo is obviously bad for attendance but it means indoor projects for Pulcini like the recently completed bluebird houses for the Norristown Farm Park. On this particular rainy and cold day, Pulcini plans to tackle administrative tasks and putting together orders for spring.
His eyes and his thoughts are always on his main job, cultivating plants for the beatification of the zoo grounds. Pulcini peers outside at the heavy precipitation and smiles.
“It does help the plants grow. When we have a wet spring like this, I don’t mind.”
Pulcini, a Norristown native and resident, is the first staff horticulturist at Elmwood Park Zoo. A horticulturist job is to take care of plants and plant material. At the zoo, it entails a bit more work. Their plants are used for browsing and enrichment so it’s important to know which ones are safe for use.
Pulcini’s comes from a family of gardeners. He admitted to struggling for years on a career path. He spent years as a local bartender while moonlighting as a garden designer. While attending Temple University for Landscape Architecture and Design and he “found his happiness”
One of his garden designs ended up at the zoo and caught the attention of the zoo’s CEO Al Zone who asked to meet Pulcini.
“Gardening in the backyard is simply pure joy and pure pleasure. Gardening at the zoo is pleasure joy and work,” commented Pulcini.
There are many more eyes and feet at his “zoo garden” then his backyard garden. The zoo welcomed 530,000 guests in 2016, a huge leap from 2011’s 114,000 guests.
It doesn’t bother Pulcini that plants t get stepped on. One of his regular tasks is keeping everything looking fresh and thriving.
As a horticulturist, Pulcini views he 16-acre zoo as a canvas. Everything doesn’t look the same, but it blends seamlessly.
The giraffe exhibit looks different than the jaguar exhibit. There are over 300 types of grasses planted in the giraffe yard.
“Come June it looks like the African savanna.”
Last year, they installed a new main path with an EP Henry stone wall and Pulcini added a lot of pollinator plants.
“There is a lot of color and insect activity,” said Pulcini. He pointed out he does not use chemicals on plants at the zoo. “To be able create such beauty without chemicals was a great source of pride for me. A pollinator garden should never have chemicals.”
His favorite animal is an eagle and not just because he is a fan of the Super Bowl Champions.
“I’ve always admired birds and birds of prey. The greatest thing about the zoo is as soon as you walk in you are immersed with our national emblem.”
When guests ask why the eagles don’t fly away, Pulcini tells them that all of the eagles in the exhibit have been injured in the wild and are nursed back to health at the zoo. However, some can’t be rereleased into the wild due to the injuries they sustained. Then they remain at the zoo as animal ambassadors.
“The zoo is successful right now. It hasn’t always been that way but with the new people coming in, the chance to showcase my work is a rare opportunity and what I really enjoy about gardening here at the zoo,” said Pulcini.
He still loves to garden at home and offered his number one tip.
He urges gardeners to remove and discard all the mulch from their garden. Many people put mulch on top of mulch each year. Pulcini strongly advises against it since it will suffocate plants and mulch is a host for an artillery fungus that will fire spores (up to 30 feet in the air).
Yes, that is the black spots you might see against houses.
“If you would have removed the mulch and put fresh down you wouldn’t have that problem.”