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Monthly Archives: May 2012
I’ve written a few times about
the Cellhouse Slope that faces San Francisco – the hours spent weeding oxalis in the rain and wind on the steep slope; but I can’t resist writing about it again.
I am very pleased to report that the Slope, as all the gardeners call it, is looking fantastic this year! The bright pink is easily visible from the city, even as far as Fort Point, the military fort on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge! Amazing enough, but there’s more – this is the first year since we started rehabilitating this area that we never had to weed oxalis on the section of the slope that was begun in 2007! Both of these achievements are something that all the volunteers and garden staff are very proud of.
We got ambitious and decided to go beyond our original plan and restore the entire slope to its original planting plan of having the ENTIRE slope planted with the ice plant, as is recommended in the Cultural Landscape Report. We began snipping cuttings last summer and grew the plugs in 4” pots in our greenhouse. We were able to weed the slope of germinating grasses, wild radish and mallow weeds and were able to stay ahead of the lush growth that came with the rains this past fall and winter. We weeded and planted simultaneously, clearing an area and then planting it right away. We have now covered the second half of the slope, and the new plants have even started to flower. I guarantee that next May, this slope will be truly incredible (and I may just have to write about it again).
This past Friday, I had the pleasure of showing Russ Beatty the restored gardens. Beatty was one of the authors of the Gardens of Alcatraz book that was published in 1996, long before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began in 2003.
Beatty is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. His interest in historical landscapes is initially what got him interested in the Gardens of Alcatraz. In 1995, he was asked by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to write a chapter for an upcoming book (Gardens of Alcatraz) that the Parks Conservancy hoped would draw attention to the withering gardens on the island.
Beatty delved into researching the gardens – combing through National Park Service archives for letters and photos that would provide a glimpse of the people who created and tended the gardens. He also set about trying to find people to interview that could give a first-hand account of gardening on the Rock. The National Park Service hosts an annual Alumni Day on Alcatraz where past residents (guards and their families and inmates) come back to the Rock and share their stories. Ever hopeful, Beatty sent a questionnaire to the Alumni visiting the island that August day in 1995. Amazingly, he had one response – from Elliot Michener, inmate number AZ 578, who was there and sent Beatty a long letter after he returned to his home. The letter detailed his experiences gardening on the island. Many of his quotes are in the book as well as on interpretive signs in the gardens and are used throughout our website.
At the time, Elliot lived in Sierra Madre and Beatty travelled twice to his home to interview him. Beatty had a difficult time drawing Elliot out of himself but recalls that his home, a rented basement flat in a cottage, was sparsely decorated. He photographed Michener, age 89, under a bougainvillea growing outside in the yard. Elliot recounted one incident on the island shortly
after he started working as the houseboy for Warden Swope and his wife. It seemed that the previous inmate houseboy had built a still to make moonshine in the Warden’s attic. Fearing of being blamed for the still if it was discovered, and no doubt losing his new earned position and the perks it came with, he quickly disassembled the still and buried the pieces in the garden. The Warden’s garden is one of the remaining historic gardens on the island that has not been restored yet, perhaps if we do, we will turn up pieces of copper – at least we will have an explanation ready for the finds.
A year after the book was published, Beatty found himself along on a Garden Conservancy Fellows Tour of Napa Valley. Antonia Adezio, President of the Garden Conservancy, was also there. Beatty excitedly shared a copy of the book with her – planting the seed for the partnership project that would eventually save the gardens.
Beatty is now gathering research for an article for Site Lines, a journal of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and he was on the island to interview myself and take a look at what has become of the gardens. After Beatty had asked all of his questions, I had a chance to ask him some of my own, after all, here is a gentleman who has actually spoken with Elliot Michener, the inmate that is talked about quite a lot on our docent led tours and whom we credit the development of the inmate gardens largely to.
Do you see any specialness in the story of the Gardens of Alcatraz?
The story ties together a great deal of California and US history — the fortress built as a result of the Civil War to protect the Bay; the reshaping of the land as a fort, but also recognizing the innate human need for beautification through gardens and gardening; the solace and relief gardeners from the military prison as well as the Federal penitentiary found in their creativity and work in making and tending gardens – – early unintentional horticultural therapy; the changes that these efforts made in the lives of hardened criminals; the gardens as expressions of beauty by both families and inmates in an effort to live in such an inhospitable environment, and the story the gardens bring to the visiting public whose main interest is rather macabre about the Federal period criminals such as Al Capone (the softer side of the story). Also the fact that such a rich palette of plants has been able to survive through long neglect in such a hostile place — a created ecology.
If you could interview Elliot Michener again, what three questions would you ask him?
• How were you treated by your fellow inmates when told of your gardening experiences?
• Tell me more about Capt. Weinhold; how else did he help you other than giving you gloves and seeds?
• What brought you to Los Angeles; tell me more about your lady friend and the gardening you did for her.
Perhaps one day, Beatty will be able to write another book about our chapter in history and how these once neglected historic gardens have found new life. Beatty sent me a quote from J.B Jackson that ‘there is a necessity of ruins. Places need to decay before they are well understood and their importance gives rise to discovery and restoration’. This quote really is the essence of the Gardens of Alcatraz. For so long they had been abandoned, but they are now revitalized and telling the softer side of Alcatraz’s history.
This week was a turning point in spring with the Chasmanthe floribunda being cut back on the west road terraces. After blooming in February, the leaves of this South African bulb is left is photosynthesize to store energy in the bulb to bloom next spring. Like other bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, the leaves should be left until they die back completely; however, on the west road terraces, the chasmanthe is cut back just as the tips are starting to turn yellow.
Why do we cut the foliage when they are still green?
The leaf stalks are cut to the ground and which are then cut into 4” pieces by volunteer crews. The pieces will be composted and break down much faster if they are cut when they are still green. The moisture content in the leaves helps them break down much quicker than if they were brown and dry. We have experimented in past years with letting the foliage die back completely, then cutting it back and feeding it through our chipper. Not only were the dried leaves hard to cut with hand pruners; but the dried leaves wrapped around the chipper blades; which then lead to hours taking the chipper apart and sharpening the blades.
This week, method – a company that is dedicated to producing earth and people friendly cleaning products – volunteered in the gardens and helped with this yearly task. A fun bunch, the group enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge while they worked.
One lucky employee, Jonathan McCarren even found a very rusty trowel with the wooden handle rotted away. Jonathan’s find will be passed onto the National Park Service archives and his name will become part of the records. The group speculated what the inmate who last touched it had being doing and why the trowel had been left behind?
Fitting for a cleaning company, they swept the roadway after they were done and left the gardens pristine.
Keeping our heirloom roses in top condition is a high priority as the bushes are about to be at their prime flowering in the coming weeks. The most common problems we have with the roses are black spot, powdery mildew and rose caterpillar.
We are able to keep all of these menaces under control using a compost tea recipe from Filoli, the stately gardens south of San Francisco. Follow the easy steps below to make your own tea get your garden even greener by eliminating harmful chemicals.
Aquarium pump with clear tubing and air bubbler, available from any pet store
5-gal clean bucket
Clean old pillowcase
Stick or piece of wood
Compost Tea Ingredients:
5 gallons non-chlorinated water
1 cup aerobic compost
1 cup worm castings
Handful alfalfa meal
1 Tbsp feather-meal
1 Tbsp fishmeal
1 Tbsp kelp
2 cups fish hydrolzate
1 capful ancient humate
How to prepare the compost tea:
It takes about 3 days from the set up to the application of compost tea
Step 1 – day 1
Set up water in 5-gallon bucket and let it air, using air pump for at least 24 hours, to remove the chlorine.
Step 2 – day 2
Combine all dry ingredients into
the clean pillowcase. Close the pillowcase and tie with a string. Tie the pillowcase onto the stick and suspend over the air bubbler in the water.
Make sure that the bottom of the pillowcase does not touch the bottom of the bucket. There needs to be a gap for air to bubble through the suspended tea bag.
Let it steep for 24 hours with the air pump on.
Step 3 – day 3
Transfer compost tea to the sprayer and apply it over the plant’s leaves and soil.
After finishing make sure to carefully clean the pillowcase, bucket, and sprayer, especially all of the taps and nozzles. This will prevent bad bacteria from developing (and smelling).