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

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