Monthly Archives: July 2013

Tough Gardening, Part 2

Nurturing plants to soften the starkness of the prison island has its challenges. The island’s past residents certainly must have realized this, but they were determined to coax blooms from the Rock.

We are following in the footsteps of those early gardens and I find myself often wondering ‘how did they do it’, and being impressed with their dedication to creating beauty in this forbiding environment.

The military landscaped the main road that leads from the dock to the top of island, where the Citadel, the military fortification, once stood. They created pocket beds and even used cannon balls to line a parapet wall in front of the commanders’ homes, known as Officers’ Row. When the military left the island in 1933, these homes would later be turned into gardens in 1942. To move away from the military look, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, removed the cannon balls and built a trough planter along the entire wall – 330 feet in length! The maximum security surely must have been taken with the gardens left behind by the military to go to these lengths.

Officers' Row homes in 1893. Photo courtesy of NARA archives

Officers’ Row homes in 1893. Photo courtesy of NARA archives

In 2005, the trough planter was the first garden area to be restored and it was replanted with ivy leaf geraniums that would have been available to gardeners back in the 1940s. We quickly learned the challenges of gardening on the Rock, when the resident gulls pulled each plant out!

The historic trough planter being repaired in 2005.

The historic trough planter being repaired in 2005.

We have gotten smarter since then, and now have heavy guage wires to protect our precious plants. But the challenges did not stop there.

Luckily, the trough is located on the leeward side of the island, so wind does not dry out the plants. However, the trough, being made of brick and only one foot in depth and tends to dry out quickly in the hot summer sun. A drip irrigation line had been installed for weekly waterings, but then we were also reminded that water will find the easiest path to drain to – the water tended to run down the inside of the trough, before finding a drainage hole and seep away – doing little more than just wetting the sides of the trough, and not soaking the roots of the plants at all. We now alternate hand water and the drip irrigation to ensure that the plants are getting enough water. When we do use the drip irrigation, we also turn the water on for 10 minutes, then off for 20 minutes, then on again for 10 minutes to allow the water to soak into the soil instead of just running out any cracks. As a plus though, the dripping trough supports ferns, hydrangea shrubs and fuschias that are growing below the trough.

Feeding the pelargoniums is a must. We enrich the trough soil every year with our compost, however, regular fertilizing with kelp emulsion keeps the flowers blooming and the leaves green all summer.

The steady maintenance of deadheading the spent blooms is enough to keep a crew of volunteers busy. Aside from this expected maintenance, our gull friends insist of sitting on top of the wire cages (I guess this gives the best lookout).  We usually have a few broken stems each week that need to be pruned off.

Despite all this work, the gardening is a labor of love with rich rewards.

The trough planter in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

The trough planter in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Plants, Rehabilitation, Weather | Comments Off on Tough Gardening, Part 2

Words from the Rock – a collection of poems

Our upcoming Florilegium of watercolor paintings of island plants will also be showcasing written poetry about the gardens. The poems are a collection of ‘Compare and Compose’ Poetry that was put together by a National Park Service intern in 1992. Mary Schumacher organized  an interpretive program where visitors to the island spent a couple of hours walking the island and gaining inspiration from the landscape.

The poems have had little mention since they were written over two decades ago, but Mary has held onto the treasured poems. The gardens have changed dramatically since inspiring the writings, but the spirit of the gardens still remain – cherished plants brought to a desolate island to provide beauty, the neglect of the gardens, the determination of the  plants to hold onto the life they had.

With the poems being presented alongside the art, at long last, they will be read and provoke thought once again about the importance of plants and beauty in our every day lives.

 

 

Now the ice plant

lives on the cliffs

of another age.

In the purple light

of dawn

the flowers

are also purple.

When the rock it hangs on

begins to crumble

piece by piece

breaking to new form…

the plant cannot

remember another age.

-Mary Schumacher

 

Alcatraz II

Alcatraz

Where men denied the privileges

    of men

Once more the priviledges of nature

Centranthus ruber with the ever watchful guardtower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Centranthus ruber with the ever watchful guardtower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

    were denied as well

It did not work

As well as men cannot be made

    numbers

Control of nature is not within men’s

    power

Alcatraz – where “destruction” has

    not become the final word

Alcatraz – where nature survived and

    gave rise to new beauty

          -Lars Pohlmeier, Bremen, Germany; September 24, 1992

 

 

 

Beauty within the Beast

How can there be so much life

surrounding so much that is

dead?

Mother Nature will prevail

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Chasmanthe softening the harshness of the recreation yard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992

   

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Plants | Comments Off on Words from the Rock – a collection of poems

Tough Gardening

Sometimes it is not easy to uphold our garden goal of having every visitor amazed by the beauty of the gardens and to experience high horticultural standards. We wish that each of the 1.3 million visitors to Alcatraz a year (5000 per day) be able to appreciate the gardens regardless of the time of year -– whether they see them in the lushness of spring, or the dry and windy autumn.

 

The garden restoration is now in its tenth year, and we have really come to know the difficult areas of the gardens. The obvious is the windy west side, but even this side, through trial and error (much how the inmates learned), is for the most part flourishing at all times of the year.

 

One challenging garden area remains though – the series of terraces built by the inmates in the 1940s. Facing the Golden Gate Bridge, this area is a haven for hummingbirds and sparrows in the spring with the overflowing terraces of Echium and Chasmanthe, the complementary blue and orange colors standing out against the backdrop of the cell house.

 

Orange Chasmanthe and blue Echium blooming in spring. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Orange Chasmanthe and blue Echium blooming in spring. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The sandy soil has received annual topdressings of our rich compost for the past 3 years, but the soil still tends to dry out and become compacted mid-summer, despite hardly anyone walking on these beds.

 

The terraced gardens in July when many of the survivor plants go dormant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The terraced gardens in July when many of the survivor plants go dormant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

These terraces do hold many of the survivor plants on the island – Echium, Chasmanthe, Aeonium, Artichoke, spuria Iris, Acanthus mollis and even Rose ‘Russeliana’ – so we know that plants can grow and thrive in these soils. The trick will be to find plants that add to the existing palette to have a garden to show off all year round, instead of the plants going dormant mid-July.

 

The terraces were rehabilitated in 2009

The terraces with Gladiolus tended by the Inmates in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson.

The terraces with Gladiolus tended by the Inmates in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson.

as part of the West Side Treatment Plan. At the time, we examined historic photos to identify plants that the inmates may have been growing. The photos clearly show gladiolus neatly staked and plenty of unidentifiable low growing mounds. We replanted the top terrace that runs along the parapet wall with Pelargonium ‘Brilliant’, an island survivor. The plantings did well up until last year, when sections started to die out and we eventually removed them all. This year, we are experimenting with a purchase from Annie’s Annuals – Dicliptera suberecta ‘Uraguayan Firecracker Plant’. With deep weekly waterings, the 4” potted perennials are off to a good start.

 

Bill Noble, Director of Preservation for the Garden Conservancy, visited the gardens last month and this area was examined. Bill visits each of the preservation projects several times each year and lends his expertise and guidance to the gardens. Bill’s perspective is a valuable resource, as often, gardeners need some ‘outside’ advice. Bill suggested tying in the established plantings of succulents on the slopes above the roadway. The succulents would be an ideal choice to give a garden that has year round interest and that is drought and wind tolerant.

 

Gladiolus will likely not be making a come-back in this garden bed – we can only be impressed with the skills of the inmates to grow such beauties in this tough spot.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Inmate Gardeners, Plants, Rehabilitation, Weather | Comments Off on Tough Gardening

Best Backyard Compost!

Compost guru Dick Miner has been cultivating our island compost for five years. In his retirement, he found a way to apply his career skills working in a lab for AIDS research with his hobby of gardening. In doing so, Dick has developed a deep passion turning our island green ‘waste’ back into soil.

 

Proudly, Dick’s Alcatraz compost was awarded the blue ribbon in the Marin County Fair’s ‘Best Backyard Compost’ competition this past holiday weekend.

 

Awarded the Blue Ribbon for the best Compost!

Awarded the Blue Ribbon for the best Compost!

Dick began to work on this winning batch of compost back in February. Actually, he began to think about this year’s competition the day after he won first place last year. Dick wanted to add food scraps into this year’s batch to increase the organic matter content. We had been experimenting with collecting vegetable and fruit scraps from the island’s staff lunches, but, after collecting the scraps for several months, we found that we were not obtaining desirable contents in the bins. So, Dick enlisted fellow garden volunteers to bring their scraps from home.

 

The batch was cultivated with care – being turned once a week to aerate and watering weekly to maintain the moisture content to a moist, but not wet feel. Our soil thermometer registered temperatures from the center of the 4’x4’ pile between 120F and 150F. These temperatures were maintained for two months.

 

How did Dick know when the compost was done? Dick’s biggest pointer on knowing when you can use the compost is when you can’t tell what you had started with.

 

Dick taking examining the compost. Photo by Diana La.

Dick taking examining the compost. Photo by Diana La.

A natural teacher, Dick shared his love for his work with a microbiology class from San Francisco University High School this past May. The class is a survey class in microbiology that had been learning about bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The visit was an opportunity for the students to learn about microbiology as applied to decomposition. After a short lecture about the many organisms and processes involved in compost production, the class worked together to turn the compost piles. Turning the pile of compost, they could see first-hand the workings of a healthy compost pile that was teaming with microbes and earthworms—and even feel the heat from the decomposing vegetation. I’m sure the kids were appreciative that they were learning from a compost master.

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Plants, Sustainability | Comments Off on Best Backyard Compost!