Monthly Archives: March 2012

Gardening with Gulls

Gardening on Alcatraz has many challenges – limited fresh water, harsh winds, chilly fog, and transporting  supplies to the island; but one challenge came as a surprise only after we had started planting in 2005 -the Western Gull. Actually 2000 of them. Victoria Seher, National Park Service wildlife biologist monitors their numbers: there were 740 nesting pairs in 2011, up from 722 pairs in 2010, but down from 1061 pairs in 2008. Each nesting pair usually lays three eggs, adding to the population substantially.

The first two years of the project, from 2003 to 2005, was intensely focused on removing overgrown vegetation built up from the 40 years of neglect. By 2005, the trough planter along the main roadway leading to the top of the island had been repaired and was ready to be planted. This was a significant event – the first planting in over 40 years! Staff and volunteers eagerly turned out that day to help plant the 330 feet of trough with ivy leaf geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, that had originally filled the trough in the 1940s. Heirloom pelargoniums were sourced from Geraniaceae in nearby Ross, California and everyone pitched in for a fun day of planting. Standing back proudly at the end of the day, the accomplished work was admired. However, returning the next day, the plants were gone! Unwittingly, 330 feet of prime nesting material had nicely been laid out for the western gull.

Learning from our mistake, new plants are now caged – almost like being imprisoned themselves. We have become experts at building cages out of chicken wire. We have also learned to optimize the time the gulls are away from the island to give the plants the longest time possible to develop their own roots to help anchor themselves in the ground. Seabird nesting season is from February to September, so by October, we are ready for planting and the winter rains.

Cages protect succulents against the gulls. Shelagh Fritz photo


Seagull damage to daylilies. Photo by Marian Beard

Like other gardeners that square off against deer, I have noticed that certain plants seem to attract sea gull vandalism, while other plants go unnoticed by our feathered friends. Strap-like leaves beckon to gulls; I guess this material is easy to harvest and to shape into a nest. Beds planted with Bearded Iris, daffodils (Narcissus) and cottage pink (Dianthus plumarius) in the Officers’ Row gardens have been replanted with more hardy plants that can stand up better against the gulls. This year, the gulls have taken a liking (or dislike) to the beautiful daylily, Hemerocallis ‘Kwanso’. This is a triploid flowering daylily with tangerine colored blossoms. The gulls have nipped down the plants to the bases which will make flowering unlikely this year. However, the gulls that nest

An aloe completeley destroyed by gulls. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

on the west side of the island leave the cottage pinks and bearded iris alone and choose to peck the succulents instead. Tough aloes and aeoniums are shredded instead.

I have also learned a few interesting facts about the Western gull – they mate for life and that they come back to the same spot to nest year after year (up to 20 years is typical for a gull). Waging a 20 year battle against a bird seems a bit ridiculous so it is far easier to accept the gulls. When I started as the gardener in 2006, I took a strong dislike to the gulls, but now, they have really grown on me and I’ve actually gotten to know some of the gulls. There is a one-legged male in Officers’ Row that I try not to disturb so he doesn’t have to stand up. There’s also a whole gauntlet of gulls nesting along the road that leads to the rose terrace. A few years ago, anyone walking down this road was taking a great chance at being marked, but now the gulls barely glance at me when I walk by. However, anyone they don’t recognize gets the full squawking treatment. There’s also a pair that nests in a huge clump of ivy in the Inmate Gardens on the west side. Their young usually wander around the gardens and drink from our hose during the summer.

Come out and see the gardens and gulls this spring! Nowhere else will you be able to experience a major seabird nesting colony, historic gardens, and a former prison on an island so close to a major city. I’ll bet you will admire the gulls in a way you never did before – what took me 6 years to realize, will only take you an afternoon.

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Mighty Mites

Aculops fuchsiae, better known as fuchsia gall mite, has caused irreparable damage to fuchsias growing on the west coast of the United States, especially California, where the mites thrive in our cool summers and mild winters. This little mite, invisible to the naked eye, has the ability to disfigure an entire bush, and once the plant has been affected, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. For such a tiny creature, they make their presence known.

The mite was introduced from Brazil and Mite damage on a Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' leaf. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwas first noticed in northern California in the early 1980s, the mite was likely an accidental introduction. How do you know if you have the mite? If your plants are affected, you will notice leafs, stems and/or the flowers becoming swollen and fused together. New growth is deformed and is covered by small hairs. Aphids can also cause some of these problems, but aphids can easily be seen.

The mites love to travel; after all, they came all the way from Brazil! They easily hitch a ride with birds, hummingbirds are a prime carrier, spread with the wind, but more often, they wait for the faithful gardener to come along. Gardeners can easily spread the mites simply by touching the affected area with their hands or pruners and then moving on to other fuchsias. Typically, the best way to control mites is to remove the plant entirely. On Alcatraz, however, removing historic plants is not an option.

I am not a fan of chemical sprays, but would rather use frequent and consistent applications of Neem oil to control the outbreaks. I also opt for removing affected growths, raking fallen leaves and flowers and keeping plants as healthy as possible with organic fertilizers supplemented with deep waterings during the summer.

Visitors admiring the large Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We have three kinds of Fuchsia on the island that are afflicted with the mite – Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, Fuchsia magellanica, and Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’. The ‘Rose of Castile’ is growing in a few places around the island, with the oldest and best specimen growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. This bush is thought to be at least 50 years old! Visitors are always amazed to see the thickness of the trunk and find it hard to believe that a fuchsia, which they usually associate with being a hanging basket flower, could grow into a full sized shrub. In addition to the mite, this fuchsia is also susceptible to rust.

There is another survivor Fuchsia along Surviving Fuchsia along the main road in 2005. Photo by Diane Ochithe main road that visitors walk by. Located right off the dock, this Fuchsia has grown into a small tree over the years. When the Garden Conservancy first scoped out the gardens in 2003, a photo was taken of this poor tree. The plant was holding its own against the mite while being choked by overgrowth. The tree, believed to have Fuchsia magellanica as a parent, looks good for maybe 2 weeks out of the year. Each year, I hope for it to do well, but this year, was not a good year for it. Heartbreakingly, I gave it a hard cutback this past Monday. I anxiously awaited new growth, and thank goodness, the leaf buds are swelling! The bed has been cleaned up underneath and we will begin again.

Fuchsia thilco resembles survivor Fuchsia magellanica. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In choosing plants for the historic gardens, the Garden Conservancy is aiming to give the ‘look and feel’ of the past gardens. We are able to substitute similar plants and can choose disease and insect resistant plants. We have been successfully growing mite resistant fuchsias and now have a small collection on the island. Plants have been sourced from the local SF Botanical Garden and Berkeley Horticulture. We are now growing Fuchsia campo molina, F. thilco, F. paniculata and F. ‘Grand Harfare’. We also have been growing the very profuse bloomer Fuchsia ‘Angel’s Earrings’, but I have noticed that these have been affected with the mite where they are growing near the affected plants. Alcatraz even has one survivor fuchsia that is mite resistant – Fuchsia denticulata.




Mite resistant Fuchsia denticulata. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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No Garden is an Island

This past Friday the Garden Conservancy hosted a meeting for the Bay Area Gardens Network (Bagnet). Bagnet is represented by all the major public gardens in the Bay Area. Gardens from UC Botanical Gardens, Cornerstone in Sonoma, Filoli, Mendocino Botanical Gardens, Presidio Trust, and Merritt Lake in Oakland, just to name a few, attended. Looking around the room, it was impressive to see the wealth of knowledge that was gathered. We started the meeting by introducing ourselves by stating 1) where we worked, 2) what we liked most about our work, and 3) what we least liked about our work. Going around the room, the common answers were for most liked – seeing visitors enjoying the gardens; while the least liked typically involved budget cuts and wearing multiple hats to get the job done.

The idea of a Bay Area garden group started in 1996 and was the idea of Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Turner saw a need for Bay Area gardens, of all sizes and types, to keep in touch with each other and discuss various issues that everyone faces among gardens; as well as providing an excellent network for staff of all the gardens. With many unique gardens around the Bay Area, it is worth promoting and helping each other, instead of feeling the need to compete for visitors and resources.

The day’s agenda had a few topics of great interest; one being creating a more comprehensive website that lists all the Bay Area gardens and activities scheduled. Currently, a website does exist,, led by Pacific Horticulture. Updates are being planned for this website so stay tuned!

I had the pleasure to update the group on the progress of the Gardens of Alcatraz for the past five years – in 10 minutes! I had a lot to cover but I managed to fit in the highlights – accomplishing five garden area rehabilitations, logging 40 000 volunteer hours to date, noting our sustainability achievements of the water catchment and composting sites; and describing our outreach efforts – 8 new waysides around the island, the self-guided brochure, free docent tours twice a week and the ‘Ask the Gardener’ open garden on Wednesdays; as well as providing our garden t-shirt for purchase in the bookstore and receiving a royalty on each one sold, and our ever-improving website, including this blog! Whew! A lot has been done.

Chatting with members afterwards, many people commented on some aspect of my presentation that they had experienced themselves or were considering undertaking. In the afternoon, the group was toured through the Presidio by Michael Boland. We were fortunate to have him for the afternoon as he showed us the natural areas that had been rehabilitated, the community involvement taking place, as well as the infrastructure of the Doyle Drive bridge construction project, going through the historic Presidio.

Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio. Shelagh Fritz photo

Through the course of the afternoon, I realized that Alcatraz is not really an island. Michael’s history of the military in the Presidio linked Alcatraz to that key time period when the military landscaped their bases, when much of Alcatraz was planted. Island residents were focused on gardening and improving their home. Even today, Alcatraz is connected by being part of the garden network in the Bay Area. This of course, made me realize that even though I work on an island, I’m not isolated in my challenges, and that any success achieved benefits all the area gardens with the sharing of knowledge.


The sun setting over the Presidio, as seen from Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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