Monthly Archives: April 2012

Plant Rusts

Even though the plants on Alcatraz are separated from the mainland, they can still be afflicted with disease. One of the plant diseases that affect our plants is rust mostly at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. The most noticeable plants are the heirloom Pelargoniums, commonly called geraniums. These plants are growing in masses along the main roadway, the rose terrace and in the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. There are many types of rust – the rust that affects pelargoniums is caused by the fungus Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis. This rust shows on the upper side of the leaf as dark ringed circles with a whitish center.

Rust on Pelargonium leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, “Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis produces only two types of spore and only one of these, the rusty brown urediniospores, appear to be involved in the disease cycle. The other spore type is rare and has not been observed to germinate. The urediniospores are capable of surviving for several weeks in leaf debris.” Furthermore, some types of rust require two different plant hosts to complete its life cycle, but pelargonium rust can complete its cycle on one plant, making it easier for it to develop spores for the next generation. In just two weeks, the next generation can begin infecting nearby plants.

On the island, we do not use any chemicals in the gardens. We rely on cultural control, a fancy way to say volunteers and staff pick off the infected leaves and rake out any plant material from underneath the plants. We are also careful when watering not to splash the leaves, as water helps to spread the spores. Temperature and humidity dictate when the rust is active; temperatures below freezing and above 85 degrees Fahrenheit along with low humidity will prevent rust from developing. As lucky as we are to garden in coastal California, we never receive a frost and very rarely do temperatures ever go above 75. So we will continue to hand pick our leaves!

Hollyhocks are another plant that

Rust on Hollyhock leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

does get infected with rust Puccinia malvacearum. This fungus has similar characteristics of the geranium rust with needing only one host and is prevented by careful watering and removing wild mallows that are a source for inoculation. On Alcatraz, we do have the weedy cheese weed mallow, Malva parviflora that is growing in non-restored areas and is a source for this fungus to thrive.

 

 

Heirloom gladiolus also suffers from rust, believed to be caused by the fungus Uromyces transversalis.Two different spore stages are found on the leaves. Urediniospores are produced all summer and are responsible for the

Rust on Gladiolus. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

orange lesions known as sori that erupt on both sides of the leaves. Gladiolus rust is relatively new to the United States, first being detected in Florida in 2006. The rust, as well as gladiolus, are from South Africa, and were likely brought to America through bulbs that were being introduced. Once in America, the rust can easily be spread through the cut flower industry. The rust on gladiolus leaves spreads across the veins, unlike other rusts that form along veins or forms circles (University of Illinois). In our gardens, we are quick to spot the gladiolus rust and remove dispose of the infected foliage.

Through dedicated and consistent maintenance, we are able to control many of the outbreaks from rust; again demonstrating that it is possible to garden without the use of chemicals.

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Gardening for Exercise

Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.

According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.

Pushing loaded wheelbarrows on the island keeps volunteers fit. Photo by Diana LaWithout a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s

Yoga stretches on the hillsides. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.

Turning the compost pile is the same as lifting weights. Photo by Fergal Moran

Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.

For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.

Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.

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What’s growing in our greenhouse?

Spring in Northern California is well underway. The daffodils have another week or so of blooming and then we will be planting our summer annuals. Our greenhouse is bursting with plants ready to be planted outside.

Many old fashioned annuals are easy to start from seed.

Shirley poppy seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We have had great success with pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), and Zinnia elegans.

One of my volunteers started blue columbine (Aquilegia) and they are doing fantastic. Often gardeners find that columbine prefers to re-seed itself in cracks in sidewalks, but is fussy when given the perfect potting medium. Just like former residents, my volunteer collected seed from her beloved garden in Philadelphia and brought them with her to her new home in San Francisco.

Columbine seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Last spring we collected seed from the survivor grape hyacinth (Muscari  armeniacum) just to see if we could get some to germinate. The seed heads were dried and then crushed to release the seeds. We researched the best methods to grow the plants from seed and found recommendations that the seeds be soaked in water first. We collected enough seed that we decided to do an experiment – soaking seeds and not soaking the seeds. We found that the soaked seeds did produce more seedlings; but we also had the dry seeds sprout. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for these new seedlings to flower.

Muscari seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We are also trying to propagate Fuchsia paniculata, but these are proving to be a challenge. So far, we have done 30 cuttings and only two are showing promise.

Our token tomato plant is doing well, going into its second year. We have one historic photo from the 1950s of tomatoes being grown in Officers’ Row. We have tried growing tomatoes again in the garden but in the chilly summer fog, the plants are not happy. I only wish we could find photos of lettuce and cool season veggies; so that we could historically grow them as well. But, residents primarily chose to grow flowers to brighten up their landscape and to have cut flowers in their homes.

The gardens are delighting visitors again this year, especially the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. Be sure not to miss them when you visit!

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