A new native lawn

At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.

This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.

The lawn of oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The lawn of oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!

It was inevitable that the lawn failed.

The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.

Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:

  • we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
  • a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
  • a grass that would tolerate being mowed
  • a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
  • a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold

 

Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the  summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!

Volunteers working on the last patch of weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Volunteers working on the last patch of weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms.  Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.

Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!

After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).

Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).

Installing the irrigation drip lines took

Installing the new drip line irrigation of NetaFim. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Installing the new drip line irrigation of NetaFim. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.

We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.

We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,

Helping hands to get the grass plugs to the island on the ferry. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Helping hands to get the grass plugs to the island on the ferry. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).

Rootbound plugs of grass. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Rootbound plugs of grass. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

Assembly line of volunteers teasing apart the root bound plugs. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Assembly line of volunteers teasing apart the root bound plugs. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

Beginning to plant! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Beginning to plant! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.

Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.

The newly planted lawn. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The newly planted lawn. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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From One ‘A’ List Island to Another

This week Alcatraz staff and volunteers were invited to visit their neighbour, Angel Island for a tour. While we are very familiar with Alcatraz’s history, it was really fascinating to see the same history but from the perspective of Angel Island.

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz and San Francisco from Angel Island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Angel Island is a State Park that is only 1 mile away from Alcatraz and is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Alcatraz, coastal natives, the Miwok, did live on Angel Island with its source of fresh water and a population of deer established when the island was still connected to the mainland.

Alcatraz is described as a ‘layered cake of history’ and our tour of Angel Island took us through many layers. Like Alcatraz, the military had a very strong presence to protect the Bay with the start of the Civil War. In 1863, artillery guns and batteries were constructed, houses were built and camps were set up. In the coming years, Angel Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants and  troops returning from the Spanish-American war in 1899, a discharge station for troops coming and going to the Pacific, an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 and a prisoner of war facility for the second World War.

The island is best known for being the Ellis Island of the West – an immigration station. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed all of San Francisco’s City Hall’s records and this became an opportunity for established immigrants to invite family members to America. Officials became wise to the sudden influx of immigrants and soon changed the rules – now extensive interviews were required and family member’s answers must match each other in closed interviews. Angel Island became a holding facility while the interviews were being carried out. Stays could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 months. Today, the immigration station is open for visitors and it really is moving. Alcatraz was a place where inmates were imprisoned for behaving badly, whereas Angel Island’s detainees were imprisoned for wanting a better life. Poems were inscribed in the wooden walls, many are in Asian languages, to release the anger and frustration felt. Our ranger described how the officials filled in the carvings with

Incriptions carved into the wooden walls. The green color was referred to in many poems. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Incriptions carved into the wooden walls. The green color was referred to in many poems. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

wood putty and painted over the repair to erase the ‘graffiti’, only to have more poems take their place. In their efforts to erase the poems, the wood putty actually preserved the writings! Many of the poems have been translated and a few of them speak of being surrounded by green fields. It turns out that the original paint had been a jade green. In Chinese culture, jade brings luck and good fortune, so it must have been especially cruel to be held in a green holding room uncertain of your future.

I was especially interested in the plant life on the island. Alcatraz’s topsoil actually had been imported from Angel Island and the ranger joked that we have their soil. Initially, the military chopped down all the trees on Angel Island to use for construction and then

Gardens around the Bake House. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Gardens around the Bake House. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

realized that perhaps a few trees would look much better. Eucalyptus groves were planted, much like on Alcatraz and in the Presidio in San Francisco. As well, around Officers’ homes gardens were planted. Today, the gardens are suffering from neglect with lack of funding for garden staff to revitalize them. With deer constantly grazing, it will be a challenge to restore them (I’ll take my 2000 seagulls any day).

The gardens around the Bake House were very interesting. The pathways were set with brick edges with the stamp of the brick maker – I noted some C.H. (from city hall) and Carneige that we have on Alcatraz too. There were also a few plants in common with Alcatraz  – chasmanthe, calla lilies, a few rambling roses, Echium, Agave and daffodils in bloom. One of the more interesting plantings was a row of Monterrey cypress trees planted by the hospital. The row had actually been maintained as a high hedge!

The military planted Agave americana, just like on Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the fog. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The military planted Agave americana, just like on Alcatraz. The Golden Gate Bridge can be seen in the fog. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

I hope Angel Island will someday have the good fortune that Alcatraz has had with the gardens being restored and the garden story being told. I really do think the gardens are the icing on the layered cake of history.

 

Angel Island can be visited year round and even combined with a trip to Alcatraz on the ‘Island Hop tour’ with Alcatraz Cruises. Learn more about Angel Island here.

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Time for Dividing

Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.

 

Generally, we aim to divide our iris

Overgrown clump of bearded iris. Photo by Melissa Harris.

Overgrown clump of bearded iris. Photo by Melissa Harris.

every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.

 

The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!

 

Bins of extra iris rhizomes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bins of extra iris rhizomes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.

 

One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens

 

 

Holes from old roots are visible on the underside of the iris rhizome. Photo by Shelagh Fritz
Holes from old roots are visible on the underside of the iris rhizome. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The growing point is on the right, the old part without roots can be seen on the left. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The growing point is on the right, the old part without roots can be seen on the left. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.

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Garden Update

A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.

The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.

For snow bound East Coasters,

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.

Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.

 

The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.

 

The Echium was started in a 4" pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium was started in a 4″ pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium is on its way to being 10 feet tall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.

 

 

 

All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.

As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.

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The Toolshed Terraces Receive their Deserved Attention

 

 

Our winter renovation projects are moving right along even though we are still waiting for rain.

 

The toolshed terraces have never really

Out of season. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Out of season. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

been overhauled in the years of the garden restoration project, other than the removal of forty years of overgrowth to allow the survivor plants some breathing room.

 

The terraces were built by the inmates of the Federal prison in the early 1940s and was tended up until 1963 when the prison closed. The Mediterranean plants, such as Chasmanthe, Echium, Aeonium, artichokes and Sedum praealtum have thrived, plus the tough Rose ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ is still holding its own. The majority of these plants put on a great spring show but by July, the garden is looking like the ugly duckling with no hint of really how pretty it is.

 

Other than needing plants to bloom throughout the year that will tolerate the dry, windy slope, we needed two main ingredients – better soil and an irrigation system.

 

Fresh compost ready to be mixed into the beds.

Fresh compost ready to be mixed into the beds.

Normally, bringing in supplies to the island is a chore, but luckily, our compost pile provides rich compost. We did purchase chicken manure that was brought out on the monthly barge. We installed drip line irrigation so we will not have to wrangle the hose up and down the fragile terraces. Even though all of our chosen plants are drought tolerant, the plants will do better with weekly deep watering.

 

The succulents growing across the road provided inspiration for the corner of the terraces. We had Dudleya, Echeveria and Aeonium cuneatum on the island already from a planting project this past spring. The seagulls took a liking to the plants and we ended up rescuing the plants and placing them in the greenhouse to nurse them back to life. Let’s hope the seagulls leave them alone in this garden! A few larger Agave attenuata were planted as well to tie in with the established Agave.

 

Most of the succulents we propagated ourselves from island stock. Photo by  Shelagh Fritz

Most of the succulents we propagated ourselves from island stock. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We had taken cuttings of the Crassula ovata and these propagations were planted on lower terraces to carryon the block of plantings.

 

We also added Fremontodendron californicum (flannel bush) to this garden. And an interesting fact – this is the last plant that we needed back on the island from the plant lists that were mentioned in the 1996 book The Gardens of Alcatraz.

Karolina bringing our purchased plants from the Alcatraz dock to the work site. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Karolina bringing our purchased plants from the Alcatraz dock to the work site. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The Leonotis leonurus, lion’s tail, that was planted in the lawn borders have been receiving a hugs amount of attention, and so we added in more on the terraces to give a punch of orange throughout the summer and fall. Purple Limonium perezii were added in as well, as they are great for seaside conditions.

 

We wanted to add a bit more red and purple so we introduced Asclepias curassavica and purple trailing Lantana to the mix.

 

One thing that needs to be finished yet it to divide the surviving bearded iris! They don’t ever seem to slow down.

 

With the fence removed, visitors are now strolling past this garden to get a better look I can’t wait to see how the garden will only get better.

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Get Back in Line!

As the end of December approaches and we get into the depths of winter (California winter, of course), we are busy with our planting projects in the gardens.

 

High on the ‘to-do’ list was to replant a terraced garden in Officers’ Row, the eastern facing gardens. These gardens were first rehabilitated in 2006 and looked fantastic for the first 8 years, but had noticeably declined this past summer. This garden is open every Wednesday for our casual garden viewing with a gardener present so it was vital that our showcase garden impressed our visitors.

 

The gardens were designed by the late Carola Ashford, the first project manager, to resemble the cutting flower gardens created by the wives of the federal penitentiary during the 1940s and 1950s. She selected perennials and bulbs that would give year-round color based on a few key photographs.

 

The historic photo showing red and yellow cutting flowers. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak

The historic photo showing red and yellow cutting flowers. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak

In the photos, reds and yellows are predominant, so Gaillardia ‘Burgandy’ and ‘Goblin’ were selected to give the cheerful look. Yellow Aurinia saxatilis, gold basket, was chosen to edge the pathway mixed in with blue Muscari, grape hyacinth, for a spring mix. Heirloom daffodils were planted in rows to bloom successively through the spring months. As the garden matured, many of the neat planting rows were beginning to meander, and the perennials were not blooming as fiercely as they once had.

 

While we could have gone back to Carola’s original planting plan and done the same, this was an opportunity to introduce a few new plants to Alcatraz that provided the look we were after.

 

The first step was to supplement the soil with rich compost from our own pile and chicken manure that we had purchased. The sparrows had a field day scurrying around after insects.

 

A sparrow watching our every move. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A sparrow watching our every move. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The burgundy gaillardia was replaced with Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ that has a brilliant mix of red and yellow on each flower. This is a very forgiving perennial that also makes a great cut flower, plus it is also an heirloom plant, first introduced in 1885. We did keep the Gaillardia ‘Goblin’ but needed to transplant a few of the plants to keep the orderly lines of cut flowers.

 

We have become big fans of Coreopsis!

Coreopsis grandiflora 'Sunburst'. Photo courtesty of Annie's Annuals

Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunburst’. Photo courtesty of Annie’s Annuals

We also introduced Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunburst’. This is a great bloomer with golden flowers. The coreopsis does perform better when regularly deadheaded but this garden task is very meditative.

 

We had also noted that the garden was lacking in fall blooms – we would always make an emergency trip to the local nursery for some fall plants to fill in the blanks when the iris and dahlias had died back. This past fall we purchased Rudbeckia, black eyed Susan, to give us the extra color we needed, and they were very happy on the island. So happy that they spread! Not a lot, but they were wandering. We never had the heart to weed out the strays, and the neat lines of a cutting garden were beginning to be lost.

 

The bearded iris also needed rethinking. This was a difficult one, as they are legacy plants to the gardens. Mostly blooming in spring, the large section of iris would remain barren and become a chore to nip the brown leaf tips throughout the rest of the year. We dug up the entire patch (and hopefully got rid of some nasty grass with long rhizomes as well) and tucked a single row of iris between the gaillardia and the coreopsis. The iris blooms should rise above its neighbors and then we can cut the foliage back to be hidden by the other perennials.

 

Placing all the plants first and then planting really helps to see what the garden will look like; and lets you make any changes before you actually plant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Placing all the plants first and then planting really helps to see what the garden will look like; and lets you make any changes before you actually plant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We also added in a few missing plants – a couple of Limonium perezii (statice), penstemon (beard tongue), and centranthus (Jupiter’s Beard). With Centranthus being a notable naturalizer, I refused to buy one. Ironically, we had to hunt around for a seedling of a red centranthus, the gardeners do a great job of removing them.

 

The daffodils remain to be tackled though. This will need to be done in the spring when we can identify each flower. The dahlias and the daffodils are inter-planted as they bloom at different times of the year. Unfortunately, with constant digging in this bed, the neat rows of heirloom daffodils have become interspersed with each other. The daffodils will need dividing anyway, as they have formed big clumps that are forcing themselves out of the ground.

 

All done! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All done! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All in all, it was a great week to be in the gardens. Now we just need some rain.

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Mallow Versus Hollyhock

 

Two similar plants that often get confused are mallow (Lavatera) and hollyhock (Alcea). A quick glance at these two and it is easy to see how they can be mistaken for each other.

 

Both plants belong to the same family of Malvaceae, and so they do share many common characteristics. The flower is the most obvious similarity. Resembling a hibiscus flower, the lavatera is very showy in shades of

Flower of Lavatera assurgentiflora (mallow). Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Flower of Lavatera assurgentiflora (mallow). Photo by Shelagh Fritz

pink, red and white. The flower of the hollyhock is also very pretty and in similar shades. Both plants can be annuals, biennials or perennials, although the Lavatera is more often seen as a shrub in gardens while the hollyhock is typically a biennial with a stalk of flowers during its second year.

 

The hollyhock, with its 60 species, is native to Asia and Europe while the Lavatera, with 25 species, is more of a world traveler.  Its range is in the Mediterranean region, central and eastern Asia, Australia and from California to Mexico. Looking at the adaptability of the Lavatera, its no surprise that it can tolerate a wide range of soil to grow in. It actually prefers sandy, rocky or even clay soil in coastal regions (perfect for Alcatraz!). The hollyhock is a bit more fussy preferring rich, well drained garden soil.

 

On Alcatraz, we have introduced the mallow,

Lavatera assurgentiflora shrub. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Lavatera assurgentiflora shrub. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Lavatera assurgentiflora. Native to the Channel Islands, it has naturalized to the coastal areas of Southern California. We have had it in our Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island for over a year now and it is doing extremely well. The shrubs have grown to 4 feet tall and wide, and have been consistently blooming for most of the summer and is still going strong.

 

 

 

 

Flower of a hollyhock. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Flower of a hollyhock. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Most of our hollyhocks have set seed already and we will have to replant them again next spring.

 

Both hollyhocks and mallows are good for hummingbird and butterflies.

 

We often tell visitors the common name of the Lavatera is mallow, which then leads to them asking if this is where marshmallows come from? The answer is ‘no’, marshmallows were originally derived from the plant Althaea officinalis, native to Egypt, but it is a member of the Malvaceae family.

 

Both Lavatera and hollyhock fit nicely with the cottage garden style of the Prisoner gardens with our mid1940s time period and we are already looking at seed catalogues for next year to add more to our gardens.

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Plants from Around the World

Seeing plants on Alcatraz catches visitors by surprise. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Seeing plants on Alcatraz catches visitors by surprise. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

As visitors arrive on Alcatraz, they are greeted by a Park Service ranger who gives them an orientation to the island. The ranger needs to keep the crowd entertained until the entire boat is empty before they can dispense the vital information of where to get the audio tour and a few words of safety.

 

Each ranger shares different snippets of the island’s history, little teasers to keep people occupied. Having listened to the ‘dock talks’ for more than 6 years now, I’ve heard most of them and to be honest, it’s where I’ve learned most of the more interesting pieces of Alcatraz history.

 

One of my favorite talks is a true or false quiz. The ranger makes a statement, and then gets people to raise their hands if they think it is true or not. One of the questions is ‘True or False – Alcatraz hosts plants from every continent except Antarctica’. There is usually a split amongst the crowd of those that believe it is true, and those that doubt the statement. But, the answer is TRUE!

 

Even before we began to introduce plants

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

to restore the gardens, the plant survey done in 2005 found that there were more than 200 species of plants still surviving on Alcatraz from the gardening days of the military and the federal prison.

 

 

 

 

 

The range in plants from the different continents is quite surprising – how could plants that are from drastically different parts of the world all survive on a tiny 22 acre island?

 

 

 

This is one of the aspects of the story of gardens that I love – these surviving plants, introduced years ago, could survive on their own because they each found the right microclimate on Alcatraz to make it.

 

 

 

 

Here is a partial list of the surviving plants by continents:

 

North America –  Monterrey cypress, Agave americana, Douglas iris, various ferns

 

South America – Nasturtium, Fuchsia

Fuchsia magellanica that grows on the island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fuchsia magellanica that grows on the island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Nasturtium from South America. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Nasturtium from South America. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Asia –  bearded iris, Fig tree,

 

Europe – Bear’s breeches, perennial sweet pea, periwinkle, ivy

 

Australia – Australian tea tree, New Zealand Christmas tree, Eucalyptus, Cordyline

Periwinkle from Europe. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Periwinkle from Europe. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Africa –  Lily of the Nile, Chasmanthe, Pelargonium, Crocosmia

 

Not only do we have plants from around the world, but we also have visitors from around the world. Again, with the exception of Antarctica.

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Sharing Gardens

Gardeners tend to be sharers, whether it be gardening advice, seeds, surplus zucchini or to just share their gardens with others. The inmate island gardeners were no different. They shared flowers with island residents on Sundays by leaving bouquets at the dock, and they traded seeds and gardening advice back and forth amongst themselves. However, one thing that was not permitted on Alcatraz was to visit each other’s gardens.

 

Inmates Elliot Michener, who gardened the West side Prisoner gardens, and his friend, Richard Franseen, who tended the Rose Terrace on the East side of the island, were not allowed to visit each other’s gardens. With five overlapping years of served time on the small island, the priviledge of enjoying their friend’s garden was withheld – another small reminder to the men that they were still in prison.

 

Gardeners from around the world now visit the island to see the restored gardens. On behalf of Elliot and Richard, it is our pleasure to share the gardens with them.

 

On the reverse side, it is also fun to go and visit gardens and be lucky enough to get the ‘special tour’. The horticulture world is pretty small, whether it is the Bay Area, USA or even worldwide, chances are there is a connection that will add a spark to your trip.

 

I was lucky enough to have Marion Brenner ask me if I could show a couple of her friends from France the gardens while they visited San Francisco. Marion is a longtime friend of the Garden Conservancy and professional photographer and landscape designer. Her work has illustrated many articles in garden magazines and publications, including Martha Stewart Living. Delighted to be asked, I mentioned that I actually had a trip planned to France. Marion quickly put me in touch with her friend, Catherine Delvaux, editor of the bi-monthly garden magazine Detente jardin, who had been showing Marion around Paris for her upcoming book on Parisian gardens.

 

Catherine generously offered to pick us

Monet's Giverny gardens full of color. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

Monet’s Giverny gardens full of color. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

up in Paris and drive us to Monet’s Giverny garden – a garden high on my ‘must see list’ While Catherine knew the head gardener, he was pretty busy and we never had a chance to meet. We learned that upon undertaking his position, he had researched which heirloom varieties were available during Monet’s time and has since recreated overflowing beds of color. Monet grouped plants by color so he could study the effect of the lighting on them. In fact, he chose to make Giverny his home because of the quality of light in the valley. Seeing the ‘real life’ version of the lily pond was quite impressive.

 

Waterlily pond at Giverny. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Waterlily pond at Giverny. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Before leaving the tiny village of Giverny, Catherine took us for quick respite from the warm day in a shaded restaurant courtyard just down the street. The restaurant actually had an entire hillside garden behind it that had the starting signs of being neglected and on its way to being overgrown. The little garden had its own charm and not a single person in it, despite the busloads of visitors just down the street.

 

Catherine next took us to an out of the way garden treasure by the name of Le Jardin Plume. This country garden is also not as popular as the famous Giverny, but it should be. A couple had bought three hectacres of farmland in 1996 and have slowly turned it into many garden rooms separated by shaped boxwood hedges.

Shaped boxwood hedges at Le Jardin Plume. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Shaped boxwood hedges at Le Jardin Plume. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Each room is a surprise – we wandered through butterfly gardens, prairie grasses grown in quadrants, and each room offered unique plant combinations. We were able to meet with the owners and I really wished I had paid more attention in my grammar school French classes, but we managed to have a full conversation. Even in French, the word Alcatraz needs no translation.

 

Flower gardens at Le Jardin Plume. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Flower gardens at Le Jardin Plume. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Being a tourist instead of being a staff member at a famous destination was an eye opener. It is really too easy when we are at work to just focus on getting the tasks done, but on my trip, I’ll always remember the staff that took the extra time to chat or to point out something, or even to just help with directions. So, please, ask the staff and garden volunteers questions! We do love to help and more importantly, we really want to share our gardens with you.

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National Park Shutdowns – how the Gardens were Affected.

The government shutdown that closed all National Parks, and disrupted many other services lasted from October 1 through October 17.  Not only was the closure interruptive to lives and normal routines, but the gardens of Alcatraz were also affected. During the shutdown, non-government employees were allowed on the island only a few days during the 16 day closure. Being Garden Conservancy staff, the two gardeners were in a race to water and care for the 4.5 acres of gardens before the only return boat at 4pm.

On the whole, the gardens fared well, but we still had a few casualties. New plantings were shriveling; leaves from the eucalyptus were piling up on roadways, and the original wooden

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

doors of the garden ‘closet’ in the basement of the 1940s garden decided to fall down in our absence. With only two weeks of neglect, it is easy to imagine how the neglect of 40+ years after the prison closed in 1963 was nearly the end of these wonderful gardens.

Our drought tolerant gardens were designed to cope with the limited fresh water on the island, not the absence of gardeners to tend them. However, the plants were chosen well and most perked up again after being watered. The gardens on the west side were needed the most attention. During the shutdown, the beautiful weather dried out the soil and the plants were

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

getting very crispy. The hebe shrub began to wilt and the asters were completed desiccated. The hebe has recovered while the asters were cut back to the ground to come back next year.

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The human reaction to not being allowed in the gardens was more surprising. For the first week, having the island just to staff was actually nice (sorry to say). Cell house staff who never venture outside to the gardens were assigned to sweeping roadways and finally saw the gardens that are off the beaten path to the cell house audio tour. After a day or two of this, the visitors were missed, and for the garden staff, not having visitors to share the gardens with was tough.

Garden volunteers, many of whom are retired, suddenly found themselves without anywhere to go. Gardening on Alcatraz is largely a social outing for many people – the team of volunteers are a close knit bunch, who look forward to not only the gardening but to catch up with each other. In total we lost five volunteer days and two scheduled work groups.

Sadly for the many thousands of would-be visitors, they missed out altogether on an Alcatraz experience. The island receives roughly 5000 visitors a day, many of whom are from other parts of the world. A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete unless they see Alcatraz and the other Golden Gate National Recreational Area sites that make the Bay Area so wonderful to visit.

Unfortunately, the appreciation reception for the florilegium exhibit was to be held for 100 guests the evening of October 1. Needless to say, this fundraiser for the gardens had to be cancelled. This was particularly disappointing after so much work had gone into planning both the exhibit and the reception. As well, a visiting group of conference attendees that had been organized by the National Tropical Botanical Garden to visit the gardens on October 5 had to be cancelled.

As the shutdown continued, access to the island for staff slowed down and then halted.  As we finished this work week, we are all caught up with sweeping, tidying and watering the gardens. All the volunteers and staff were in a joyous spirit!

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