The ‘Paperwork’ Side of Gardening

I was fortunate today to be invited to the monthly meeting of the Alameda Master Gardeners to teach them the ‘paperwork’ side of gardening. It’s a side of gardening that most visitors are not aware of, even if they are gardeners themselves.

 

With Alcatraz being a National Historic Landmark, the National Historic Preservation Act applies to everything that is done on the island, not to mention the other roughly 2500 sites in the United States designated as National Historic Landmarks. Adopted as law in 1949 by Congress, National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.’ (https://www.nps.gov/nhl/)

 

Section 110 and 106 of the Preservation Act set out broad responsibilities of Federal agencies and requires the agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) does have its own team of a historic architect, historic landscape architect, archeologist and supporting staff to ensure that historic preservation is fully integrated into the ongoing programs within the Park.

 

Beginning the class off, I introduced the concept of a cultural landscape – special places that reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features, and they ways they were used. The special places include a wide range of landscapes – residential gardens, parks, scenic highways, battlefield and institutional grounds.

 

There are 4 types of cultural landscapes – historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes and ethnographic landscapes. Alcatraz Island is a cultural landscape and the gardens fit in the historic vernacular landscape category. This is a landscape that has evolved through use of people whose activities shaped the landscape. The landscape now reflects the physical, biological and cultural character of the everyday lives of the residents.

 

Alcatraz Island’s period of significance expands from 1847 to 1973. These years span the early exploration of the Bay, military fortification, including the construction of the first lighthouse on the west coast, the military prison, federal penitentiary and the early General Services Administration (GSA) caretaking, Native American Occupation and the beginning of the GSA while the island became part of the GGNRA.

Alcatraz as a military fort.

Perhaps this is where people started to doze off…but we weren’t quite done with terms and definitions.

 

The Secretary of the Interior has Standards for Treatments, which is a series of concepts about maintaining, repairing, and replacing historic materials, as well as designing new additions or making alterations. The standards offer general design and technical recommendations to assist in applying the standards to a specific property.

 

In a nerdy way, these standards are why I love my job. Using the guidelines, you can transform an overgrown historic garden into a cared for landscape once again.

 

Of the 4 types of treatments – preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction – rehabilitation was chosen for the best method for the Alcatraz gardens. “Rehabilitation is making a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions of features that convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.”

 

Rehabilitation fit our goal – to preserve and maintain the gardens created by those who lived on the island during its military and prison eras, and to interpret their history, horticulture, and cultural significance for visitors. The island still had over 200 species of plants, the majority of these were ornamental survivors from past residents, and plenty of remaining garden paths that gave the framework of the gardens.

Looking for evidence of a garden in 2004. Photo by Bill Noble.

With the rehabilitation treatment chosen, we had many considerations to take into account – the use of the gardens – historic, current, and proposed use for the future, archeological resources, the natural systems (nesting seabirds and we had no fresh water), interpretation of the gardens to visitors, accessibility and safety, not to mention the management and maintenance of the gardens.

 

Beginning in 2005, a treatment plan was written up for each garden area that reflected the military and/or federal prison eras. Each plan contained historic photos, documented current existing conditions and described the future use. Working on one area per year, we finished the scope of our project in 2010.

The view today of the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The south end of the island in the 1950s. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

The bulk of our work was done prior to Alcatraz Island having a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). Most historic sites have a report that has documented all of the contributing features of a landscape. However, the longer we waited, features of the gardens and the plants themselves were failing. We received permission to have a Cultural Landscape Inventory done, a much faster process, and with our treatment plans we moved forward.

 

Now, with a CLR we are able to work on areas and while we still need our plans reviewed and approved, our plans fit into the overall plan for Alcatraz Island.

 

Finishing off the lesson with photos of historic, before, and after photographs of the gardens, the terminology learnt earlier made sense (or at least I hoped). Just like compost is the best foundation for thriving plants, well made plans make the best foundation for gardens.

 

Afterwards, people came up to chat and many remarked that they had no idea there was so much history on Alcatraz. I think this quote from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says it best – “History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but history can also be conveyed through place”.

 

Maybe next time just walking down the street, you’ll question why a row of trees was planted or why the fountain was placed where it was, or why a random granite block is in the sidewalk? The cultural landscape is everywhere around us, just waiting to be read.

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Kids these days

Mid-July for some families, may be reaching the point of counting down the days until the kids go back to school and summer vacation is over.

 

But for youth enrolled in the LINC program through the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, their 5-week program is rapidly coming to a close. The 20 youth were strangers to each other when they first met 4 weeks ago but the group quickly bonded and will graduate from the program this coming Thursday.

 

LINC, short for Linking Individuals to their Natural Community, is a summer internship program for high school students based in the Golden Gate National Parks. During this five week long program, students assist with service projects, gain career and leadership skills, and take field trips to special park sites such as Alcatraz and Muir Woods. Projects and activities vary by week and include trail work, plant propagation, and habitat restoration. In addition, students will get the opportunity to learn more about ecology and science. The 2017 summer began with a 4-day camping trip to Point Reyes National Seashore, during which participants will support a service project, engage in team building, explore the sites, and take an 8 mile hike.

 

One big pile of sleeping bags and overnight supplies. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The group arrived this past Friday on Alcatraz, sleeping bags in hand, to do a service project in the gardens and to spend the night on the island. The news of the extra perk of having an overnight was only shared with them this past week by their group leader, Elsa. When Elsa broke the news to them of spending the night, the room was in shock, like ‘wait, what?’, then erupted in cheers and jumping up and down.

 

How to handle 20 excited teenagers at once?

How many students can fit in a bucket?

Lots of planning! One of the goals of LINC is to teach the kids responsibility and help build their resumes and experiences. With that, for each outing they have had, two or three students are elected as the ‘lead’ and are responsible for checklists to ensure a smooth program. For this trip, students had to help with the grocery shopping, make sure everyone had a lunch packed, load the vans with equipment, depart on time, help load the equipment onto the ferry and assist when asked. They all now have an appreciation for the organization that goes into hosting an event.

 

Getting the job done!

Their garden job on Alcatraz was to hand cut our native grass lawn and to cut back ivy that was growing onto the main roadway. Working together, the youth tackled both jobs eagerly.

 

Gathering together for a BBQ dinner and a closing circle as the sun set was a perfect way to end the day. Throughout the program, students share their life stories and, as a guest sitting amongst them, I got a glimpse that this program is more than just building a resume – this group of youth have built a circle trust and unconditional friendship and felt very secure with sharing the toughest parts of their lives with each other.

Campfire and s’mores.

After a campfire and s’mores, everyone found a spot on the floor to sleep in the cellhouse, and, like any teenagers, were told to go to sleep around 1:30am. What they have to talk about after being together for weeks, I don’t know?

One noisy slumber party.

Congratulations to all who of the youth who have completed this course and for those interested in next year’s program, here is the link: http://www.parksconservancy.org/learn/youth/leadership/linc.html

 

The program can also be a stepping stone for youth interested in a career in the Park Service or an environmental path. Many of the graduates go on to be a Park intern at one of the Park Sites and continue to explore careers in the outdoors.

 

 

 

 

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From Volunteer to Intern

Written by Josefina Pacheco

Before volunteering at Alcatraz, I worked at a summer camp in Maine that emphasized teaching ecology and sustainability to elementary and middle school aged students. After ten weeks of running around in the sun and eating lobster every Thursday I found myself asking the question that many college students find themselves asking after graduation, “So, now what?”. I began searching for jobs in the Bay Area and soon discovered that I needed more experience. A friend of mine suggested to look for an internship using volunteer.org; this is where I found the post about volunteering on Alcatraz. I thought to myself I could help with gardening (one of my favorite activities), volunteer (this means experience), and look for jobs at the same time. It seemed like a win-win situation.

One of the first sights of the Golden Gate Bridge after a rainy day while volunteering on Alcatraz. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

 

I contacted Shelagh about volunteering in September 2016. In early October, I was given the unique opportunity to apply for the intern position at Alcatraz. After a cover letter, resume, and interview I became Alcatraz’s newest intern. As an intern I now get to go on the ferry five days of the week (yay!). Twice a week I work with the volunteers which usually starts off with answering the question “So, what are we doing today?”. I then quickly take attendance and work alongside the volunteers for the day’s project for the remainder of the morning. On the other days of the week, I work one-on-one with Shelagh. The day’s schedule varies day by day but some of the more notable ‘behind the scenes’ projects include: learning to prune roses, learning to transfer seedlings to planting pots, propagating succulents, assist with leading volunteer groups, and taking pictures of the watercolor paintings from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to the actual flowers from Alcatraz. Additionally as an intern, I’m learning in greater depth about gardening and plant maintenance in general, along with gardening specifically on Alcatraz and its history.

A watercolor painting of a chasmanthe from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to a chasmanthe near the West Side Lawn. (The notable Gardens of Alcatraz burgundy sweatshirt can be seen attempting to blend in with the background). Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

 

 

To help learn the names of the plants of Alcatraz I take pictures of them and then add their names to the image. For example here is an image of muscari which is often called grape hyacinth in Officers’ Row. Photo taken and edited by Josefina Pacheco.

 

What many people don’t know is that as an intern one gets a stipend and housing at (one of the most breathtaking places) the Marin Headlands. At the Headlands, other interns from other parts of the Park live there as well. To help meet even more interns, specifically those in the Presidio, there are monthly intern swaps. At a swap, interns get to go to another park site and volunteer there for a day (so far I’ve only participated in the Milagra Ridge intern swap where I planted native grasses). To further enhance your knowledge there are Park Academy Classes held a couple times a month. The topics range from botany to fire management to leadership training. Being able to meet new people, volunteer at different parks, and learn more about whatever topic you want to learn more about makes this an incredible experience.

A stunning sunrise at the Marin Headlands on February 1. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

At first I was a little nervous about the transition from volunteer to intern but everyone (staff and volunteers) have been really helpful and supportive, so thank you and I’m looking forward to seeing the gardens through the seasons!

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Rejuvenation of the Eucalyptus Slope

Alcatraz these days is a bustling place of projects. The big project of repairing the west side wall of the cellblock is very apparent but visitors can’t see the work being done as the scaffolding is wrapped in white plastic.

The other significant project that was just completed at the end of December was in full sight of visitors and left a dramatic difference to the island. The Eucalyptus grove at the south end of the island (just off the dock), was removed. The project had been two years in the planning and finally had enough urgency and funding to make it possible. The trees, originally planted by the military in the early 1920s, had reached maturity and were a safety risk of falling.

Marin County Arborists were trusted with the tree removal. The company had previously worked on tree removals on the island and was familiar with barging equipment over and working around visitors.

Arborists tackling removing 18 trees. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Sixteen blue gum eucalyptus trees and two non-historic Monterey cypress trees were removed and chipped over three weeks.

The chips were hauled to the Parade Ground to be stored until the National Park Service’s archeologist had a chance to examine the bare slope for evidence of military construction. We received the ‘all clear’ within a day of the trees being removed and we set to work!

The chip pile growing to the size of a house on the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

First, chips from 18 trees is a heck of a lot more than I could envision!  The recommendation from consulting arborist was to put the chips back on the slope to a depth of 4”, place jute netting over top and anchor wattles horizontally across the slope to stabilize the slope. The slope had been eroding badly for years, so this would be the perfect opportunity to stop the erosion.

Volunteer groups were enlisted to manually place the chips on the slope. With bucket brigades and teamwork, the slope was covered over a month. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Stewardship Team (of which the Alcatraz Gardens is a division within the company’s organization) were set to take a day off from their normal sites and lend a hand. To sweeten the deal, an overnight was planned (and what better way to say thank you than a night in solitary?).

Biodegradable wattles were placed across the slope to control erosion. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The effort was a huge success with people filling

Bucket brigade in action! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

buckets, people carrying the full buckets to the bottom of the slope, to the chain of people to send the full buckets up the slope, and empty bucket retrievers! Maria Durana captured the well-oiled machine of the bucket brigade:

https://www.facebook.com/Gardens-of-Alcatraz-170269806449529/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE&fref=nf

Once the chips were in place, the jute netting could be placed on top. The rolls were heavy and we soon figured that cutting them first was best.

Rolling the jute rolls from the top. We soon realized, cutting the netting was much better. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

Two volunteers pretending to be Kate Middleton and Pippa carrying her train. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aside from the Stewardship Team, four corporate groups and the regular drop-in garden volunteers pitched in to help spread the mulch. In total 900 yards of jute netting was placed and 750′ of wattles were installed.

The slope almost halfway done. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The slope will be replanted with Eucalyptus cinerea ‘Pendula’ in September 2017 in keeping with the historic look of the island.

On another note of discovery, the perimeter wall of the Parade ground was further revealed along with the basement of one of the former cottages. And a new fern was found growing! With more years of planning to come, hopefully this neglected garden are will be the next focus of garden preservation.

 

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Gardens of Alcatraz Volunteers 2016

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We Have Roots!

The island’s first purpose as a military prison introduced the construction of the Sally port and this is where all visitors first walk by today on their way up to the cell house. Before entering the Sally port, they are greeted with the island’s first garden and home to some survivor plants thought to be planted in the 1920s. Among this bed are two historic Cordyline that are very old and are showing signs of decline. The Cordyline australis planted in the Sally port gardens is an old variety and have been very hard to find in the nursery trade.  The Cultural Landscape report suggests that these be replaced, but not until we have the same plant with the same genetic makeup of the replacements.

ALCA_050715_ANON_12

Sally port in 1920s. Young Cordyline pictured on right side. Photo courtesy of GOGA archives

In efforts to replace these declining historic Cordyline, we have tried several propagation methods to ensure they remain as part of the gardens for years to come. All of the methods were done in mid-March and we recently have had some promising results. Below are detailed descriptions of the propagation techniques trialed.

Sally Port today with declining Cordyline pictured. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Sally Port today with declining Cordyline pictured. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Methods of Propagation

Cutting of Cordyline (Photo Cred: Caity Chander)

Cutting of Cordyline. Photo by Caity Chander

Cutting:

We first tried just a cutting of one of the canes and potted it up in a pot of our compost. We removed some of the foliage and trimmed some of the fronds back to reduce that amount of energy going into the foliage and instead put it into the formation of roots. At first, it seemed as though this method might work, but after about a month, the fronds were almost all dead. The cane itself had become soft and the inside had become rotten. I think this method would work using a thinner cane or a smaller one with less foliage.

 

 

 

Layered:

For this method, we took three pieces of cane, about 6 inches long each and laid them horizontally, half way deep, in a tray of sphagnum peat moss mixed with our compost. I had thought this method would work best, and we actually did have roots start to form alongside the canes, but I think they ended up getting over watered and the canes started to rot. Unfortunately, all three were unsuccessful. I think if we were to try this method again, we would use a different media composition and not allow the soil to get too wet.

Presentation1

Top left: Bark removed around cane. Top right: Cane wrapped with soaked peat moss and plastic. Bottom left: Plant removed from mother plant. Bottom right: Roots shown after unwrapping the plastic.

Air layering:

The air layering method turned out to be the most successful of the three that we tried. This method is actually done on the mother plant itself. We started by soaking sphagnum peat moss for a few hours. This is crucial to keep the stem moisturized to allow roots to form.  On one of the canes, we cut an inch wide ring through the cambium layer and removed the bark around the cane. Next, we took the soaked peat moss and wrapped it around the cut tightly and then wrapped it with plastic wrap and tied string around it to hold it in place. We did this twice more on separate canes. We recently cut the three successful air layered canes from the mother plant because roots had formed and they were ready to be potted up. We first soaked them before potting them to allow the peat moss to rehydrate. We put the new plants in five gallon containers and they are happily living in our greenhouse until they reach a more mature state with more developed roots to replace the ones at the Sally port.

 

 

The air layering method can be used for other woody shrubs and works well for some trees. This method does take a while to see some roots form, but once they do and it is cut from the mother plant, you already have a bigger plant than you would if you propagated it by seed or a cutting.

To replace the survivors, it is important that they are replanted with the same species of the current Cordyline. By propagating them by the methods we tried, it ensures that the replacements have the same genetic makeup of the current plants. We are very excited to have successful clones to replace the current failing Cordyline.

IMG_6524 (1)

Caity with successful air layered cordyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

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Plant Shopping in the Best Shopping

The gardens were fortunate this summer to have two youth interns through the Parks Conservancy youth program. As they wrap up their 140 hours working in the gardens, there was still another skill they needed to know – how to select plants from a nursery.

We headed down to Pacific Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Colma to do our shopping. Our mission was to find plants that would fill in areas on the windy west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. Sections of this garden are always struggling to cope with the extremes of heat and fog, wind and the curiosity of gulls, even after the gardens were restored in 2009, they still aren’t quite right.

Upon pulling into the parking area, my eyes always light up with seeing the plants laid out in groupings of perennials, shrubs, roses, succulents, annuals and shade lovers. Sometimes, I place an order and can go and have everything ready, but often, I just see what is available and chose from the vast selection.

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

For the Prisoner gardens we were on the hunt for perennials, mostly Salvias as the ones we already have are thriving.

We started with 1 gallon pots of Salvia clevelandii. The first thing to notice was the health of the leaves and checking that the stems are not broken. Salvia clevelandii tends to be brittle anyway so extra care needs to be taken while handling them.

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Turning the pots around, it’s is essential that we are not taking any hitchhikers to Alcatraz – namely snails and slugs and weeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explaining what a ‘root bound’ plant

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

looks like is a lot easier when standing in a nursery. While Pacific Nurseries have excellent plants to choose from, sometimes roots get circling the inside of their container and can even root into the ground through the drainage holes. Plants like this tend not to adapt well once wrestled out of their stricken home and in bad cases, there may be hardly any soil left in the pot, leaving the plant suffering from drought as well.

With plants we choose, we have to go through quite an effort to haul them to the boat to get them to the island. Checking that the plants are well watered helps the plants with the trip. The interns could feel the weight difference in pots that were dry versus heavier pots that were well watered. Of course, the growing median makes a difference too (but we’ll save this lesson for another day).

We soon had our carts full and packed the van!

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

While we checked out with our purchases, the interns had 15 minutes to run around and look at all the types of plants. I’m sure their Instagram accounts are full of selfies with the plants. Pulling off the freeway to come back along the Embarcadero, the van was noticeably quieter – a look into the back showed both interns had fallen asleep. Definitely a sign of a great shopping day!

 

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Invasive vs Naturalized

The term ‘invasive’ is often misused to label plants or anything that is intrusive in the natural environment. It is something I have only recently began to question. What actually validates a plant being invasive? (I’m going to stick to just talking about plants… I am a gardener after all!) My experience with talking to the public when removing invasive or unwanted plants has been pretty limited, but this past week as I was weeding the lawn, a guest on the island asked me, “Are you weeding invasive grasses?” Without really thinking about the question, I said, “Yeah.” The grasses we were removing from the lawn were crabgrass, annual bluegrass, and rattail six weeks grass.  After he walked away I was left thinking, “Are those really considered ‘invasive’?” This led me to a bit of research in pursuit of an answer…

Plants that are invasive are actually scientifically categorized as so. It seems like scientists also have trouble labeling whether or not a plant is invasive or how plants can eventually become invasive over a long period of time. Plants that aren’t native to an area aren’t considered to be an invasive species until they have a negative impact in disrupting a native area. The displacement of native species and the ability for a non-native to cause economic and human harm are the two attributes for a plant becoming an invasive species. The Environmental Detection Distribution and Mapping System (EDDMS) have a simple list of characteristics showing the differences between an invasive and an ornamental plant:

Invasive

Habitat generalist

Out-competes other plants

Reproduces easily

Abundant seeds

Bird-dispersed seeds

Not affected by native pests/diseases

Ornamental

Hardy-easy to grow

Requires little attention, “care free”

Easy to propagate

Abundant flowers

Fruits to attract birds

Disease and pest resistant

(https://www.eddmaps.org/about/why_plants_invasive.html)

The three grasses we were removing from the lawn are actually not on the invasive list for California. They are weeds, unwanted in our native sedge lawn, but aren’t labeled as invasive. Plants can however become invasive over a period of time. Because of this, it’s important to monitor non-natives and their growth in native areas.

graph

 

 

This graph is a good representation of how plants begin to become a threat to natives and the actions that should take place to keep it under control.

(https://www.eddmaps.org/about/why_plants_invasive.html)

 

During the lag phase and early recognition is when it is less costly and easier to eradicate. To prevent plants from reaching levels of higher efforts to control, it is crucial to catch them and be aware of the plant’s potential threat to a native area.

So, with all that being said, let’s see if we can clear up some misunderstanding on a few plants that call Alcatraz home. I think my favorite example, is the Echium candicans or commonly known as Pride of Madeira.  It is a plant native to the island of Madeira, but has been introduced to the coast of California and thrives very well here. Many think that this plant is invasive because it is found among the hillsides and coastal bluffs mixed with native plants. Although it does spread fairly easily, it has shown no threat to native plants and is listed on the California Invasive Plant Council, (Cal-IPC), as a limited threat. It is a well admired plant on the island and copes well with the high winds and little rainfall. It is an island survivor plant that has naturalized itself and is a great pollinator for bees.

Echium getting some bee lovin'. Photo by: Caity Chandler

Echium getting some bee lovin’. Photo by: Caity Chandler

On the other hand, English ivy, (Hedera canariensis), is a plant that is considered to be a high threat on the Cal- IPC list. It is found all over the island and was one of the more prevalent plants contributing to the overgrowth in the gardens and is still a plant that we are consistently working on cutting back to keep it at bay from the garden beds. In other overgrown areas though, the ivy plays a vital role during water bird nesting season. They use the ivy overgrowth as a nesting site to lay their eggs and raise their young. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), is another plant found on the island that is listed as a high threat and we eradicate it from the garden beds, but leave it be in overgrowth areas because the birds also use it for nesting.

Snowy Egrets nesting in ivy and blackberry overgrowth. (Photo by: Caity Chandler

Snowy Egrets nesting in ivy and blackberry overgrowth. Photo by: Caity Chandler

Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), and Mimosa tree (Albizia distachya), are examples of plants on the island that are commonly mistaken as invasive. They both are island survivors and spread fairly easily, but neither is listed on Cal-IPC as invasive. We like to use the term ‘aggressive’ and we monitor them and remove any unwanted seedlings. The mimosa tree is a nesting site for Anna’s hummingbirds and Jupiter’s beard adds a seasonal burst of color throughout the gardens.

Jupiter's beard thriving in one of the maintained garden areas. (Photo by: Caity Chandler)

Jupiter’s beard thriving in one of the maintained garden areas. Photo by: Caity Chandler

I hope this clears up some confusion about what invasive actually signifies. Just because a plant isn’t native doesn’t make it invasive. The invasive plants on the island are kept in check and tell the story of the islands past gardeners. For today’s gardeners, you should check local plant lists for invasive species before purchasing.

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Creating a Photo Florilegium

Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.

 

Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.

The Alcatraz Florilegium captures the collection of plants on Alcatraz.

The Alcatraz Florilegium captures the collection of plants on Alcatraz.

First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.

 

Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.

Ribes sanguineum, California Currant, flowering native shrub by Saxon Holt

Ribes sanguineum, California Currant, flowering native shrub by Saxon Holt

First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.

 

One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium

Iris 'King's Ransom' illustrated by Catherine Dellor shows the plant as it grows in the gardens with the fading leaves.

Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ illustrated by Catherine Dellor shows the plant as it grows in the gardens with the fading leaves.

illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.

 

David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.

 

Mug shot of Pelargonoium 'Prince Bismark' provides a close-up but tells nothing about plant other than it is bright pink. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Mug shot of Pelargonoium ‘Prince Bismark’ provides a close-up but tells nothing about plant other than it is bright pink. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.

 

 

 

 

Tips from David made perfect sense:

-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.

-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.

-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.

-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.

-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.

 

David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.

 

Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.

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You are Forever Responsible for what you Tame

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz, as a Historic National Landmark, has a pretty constant look, even the silhouette view of the island from the city is considered historical. However, over the past two weeks, the look of the island has changed dramatically. Unlike earthquakes that suddenly jolt the landscape into a different look, tree maintenance can (and should be) planned for.

Like all changes to the landscape, approval from the National Park Service was essential, especially when two one-hundred year old trees are being questioned. As a starting point, the Cultural Landscape Report that was adopted in 2010, had made the recommendation for tree work on the island’s historic and non-historic tree. The difference between historic and non-historic is any tree growing on the island between 1854 and 1963 is considered historic – any tree outside of that time frame is non-historic.

Tree maintenance, and especially tree removals, are quite expensive. With limited funds, we realized we could not do all of the recommended work at once, but would need to spread it over a few years. To help us decide what work should be done right away, tree consultants were brought in. The consultants evaluated each of the historic trees on health and safety. Non-historic trees were not examined as they will be removed anyway and were not posing any safety hazards.

The consultant’s report made a few recommendations that went against the recommendations in the Cultural Landscape Report. With experts advising us, we decided to go with the consultant’s report.

To obtain the National Park Service’s final permission, a detailed description of all the work to be performed needed to be entered into the Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC). A well written summary answers the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and the 1 H (how). Maps and diagrams may be attached and often help to explain to the people who review the projects who are not familiar with project sites. For the tree work, an administration approval was granted, however, sometimes a presentation must be made to a committee.

The consultant’s gave safety priority ranking and trees along the main roadway that leads to the cell house were ranked highest. The consequences of a tree falling along the main roadway would have frightening implications for visitors and staff, not to mention close down the only road that leads to the cell house.

Loud disruptive work must be completed before the annual bird nesting season begins on February 1, so a push was on to get the work done.

Sounding like an opening scene for a scary novel, the arborists boarded a ferry on a dark and stormy morning out of San Francisco with their chainsaws in hand.

Starting work on probably the rainiest day was just bad luck. Nevertheless, lines got strung up in the trees, equipment moved to where it needed to be and the next morning work started promptly at 6am with the ferry ride.

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The arborists made steady work pruning the large Eucalyptus and moved onto various cypress along the roadway. The arborists were more like trapeze artists up in the trees. The crews skillfully tying limbs to be lowered to the ground instead of just letting them drop. Visitors actually cheered them on when large limbs were cut.

The amount of light and the feeling of airiness was apparent to us immediately. Often you don’t notice how overgrown a plant has become.

While it is sad that trees were cut down, it is important to remember that trees have lifespans as well. One of the trees will be replanted with another cypress and in another 100 years, we will likely cut it down again and replant. Even looking at historic photos from the military, there are many trees in the photos that are no longer there. Plus, for an island that originally had no trees, we should keep Antoine De Saint-Exupery quote from The Little Prince in mind ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

The in-progress image - the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The in-progress image – the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Historic photo of the cypress along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

Historic photo of the cypress and eucalptus along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

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