Historic Landscapes

Last week I travelled to Miami, Florida to participate in a conference hosted by the American Public Gardens Association. The theme of the discussions was ‘On the Ground: Putting Preservation into Practice’. Listening to people from gardens all over the country

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

speak the language of historic preservation – Cultural Landscape Inventories, Cultural Landscape Report, As-Built Drawings and Maintaining Design Intent – was very informative, especially as each of us could relate to the lessons learned through hindsight.

I was invited to speak about lessons learned with the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project. Our project began in the later part of 2003, and now, at the end of 2011, while the project has been extremely successful in accomplishing our mission of rehabilitating five garden areas and interpreting their significance to the public, there are a few practices that could have been carried out slightly differently.

Palms capable of withstanding hurricanes are being grown at Montgomery Botanical Center, as well as many endangered palms. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

Starting out, there were limited funds topurchase a chipper a garden vehicle. Both pieces of equipment would have helped out immensely with the early gardening work of clearing 40 years of overgrowth. The accumulated biomass amounted to huge piles that was then hauled away mostly by wheelbarrow to decompose on the island’s Parade Ground. Today, we have our own chipper, a garden vehicle and most importantly, a designated compost site where 99% of our biomass is composted to be recycled back into the gardens.

Documenting changes and progress to the landscape is vital, especially when working with a historic site. The National Park Service holds an amazing collection of historic photographs that show the gardens and the landscape in the military and penitentiary eras. The photographs from the late penitentiary, 1940s to the 1960s, were used to design the gardens that visitors experience today. Taking pictures of the overgrowth from the same vantage point of the historic photographs was done for some garden areas but unfortunately, not all. Having a complete series of photographs of the historic, before, and after rehabilitation, and then continuing the series each year afterwards at different times of the year illustrates the work accomplished. A photo really does say a thousand words. We have used our before and after photos to apply for grants and on our website as well.

Lastly, funding for our project has been provided through many grants and donations -large and small. A federally supported grant, Save America’s Treasures, was awarded in 2006. Matching funds were required to be raised, which the Garden Conservancy was able to do. The combined $500 000 provided the funds for the rehabilitation work through to 2009. However, since 2009, the project has largely relied on donations. Long-term sustainable funding for these reclaimed historic gardens will require creative solutions.

One could wonder what gardens in Miami have in common with the Gardens of Alcatraz? We had the opportunity to tour the gardens of Vizcaya, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Montgomery Botanical Center and the Kampong. The plant material in these gardens could not be more different than

The Kampong garden.

Alcatraz. But, the horticulture history with each of these gardens is rich. Each of these gardens continue to carry out their owners’ original intent, as we do on Alcatraz. Botanic gardens provide vital homes for historically significant plants that are often rare and threatened in the wild. When possible, seeds are collected and distributed to botanic gardens around the world to help insure their survival. On Alcatraz, we not only preserve heirloom plants that were introduced long ago, but we also preserve the past by telling the stories of the island’s residents that worked and cared for the gardens. Preservation of historic gardens – whether it be a home garden, large estate, or a National Park, protects history.

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