Usually, the dead of winter is when gardeners haul out their stashes of seed catalogues and start planning for next year. On Alcatraz, we never receive any frost and are lucky to enjoy year round gardening, so we skip an obvious break and instead start planning for winter and early spring annuals during fall.
Planning for next year involves examining the past year;
noting which plants did well, which ones need to be served their notice, and plant combinations that were striking. Some of the best plant combinations were ones that were created by chance. Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, was introduced to the island in 1924 and self-sows where it pleases. The whimsical seeding finds itself amongst contrasting plants – purple trailing verbena, magenta Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and bright pink Persian carpet (Drosanthemum floribundum) to mention a few.
The annuals in the Inmate Gardens on the west side of the island did very well this year, especially the calendula. The calendula were sown in the greenhouse last December, planted out at the end of January and bloomed continuously through the summer. We cut them back in late September and they are blooming again. The cheerful yellow blooms contrasted nicely with many of the other garden plants.
Expecting the calendulas to be replaced by summer annuals, we had sown many flats of snapdragons to be their replacements. But with the calendulas doing well, we had to find other homes for the snapdragons. Tucking them into pockets around perennials was easy. Interestingly, the snapdragons were slow to grow in the east side Officers’ Row gardens but flourished on the west side of the island.
A native, California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica, was planted last year and finally flowered this past summer. The plant has soft grey leaves and bright orange flowers that complement the other plants growing near – purple agapanthus, pink Salvia chiapensis, and the freely growing nasturtiums on the hillside above.
Another combination that did well was the purple annual flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata growing with purple statice or sea lavender, Limonium perezii. The flowering tobacco self-seeds but not obnoxiously and the new plants are easy to transplant.
One of the new plants that was tried this year was butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. The plant flowered but did not gain much height. We hope that monarch butterflies that pass through the area will stop in the gardens. Another new introduction to the island was lion’s tail, Leonotis leonurus to the west side lawn borders. Being a member of the mint family from South Africa, the evergreen shrub should have done very well on the island; but the plant was likely missed during hand-watering the borders and it did not make it. However, it will be worth trying again this coming year. Once established, it is very drought tolerant and the masses of orange flowers attract butterflies.
A plant that has had its final year on the island is the common purple cone flower, Echinacea purpurea. A row of these were planted in Officers’ Row in 2007 and every year I hope they do better. They start out blooming well with healthy leaves but then they decide they are finished and refuse to grow. Luckily, we had plenty of snapdragons to fill in around them.
Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden from 1934 to 1939, wrote in a letter “I kept no records of my failures, for I had many – the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to those plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest”. These words are still true today, except that we keep better records of our successes and failures.