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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.
Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect
and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.
These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February. A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.
Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.
Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.
The world of gardening and art often overlap; I often find gardeners who also like drawing, photography, or who partake in other crafty pastimes. One of my long-time volunteers, Margaret Zbikowski, is no exception. Margaret began volunteering in February 2006, just as the winter rains were hitting. She recalls “it was February and knee deep in mud; the blackberries were the target and I began to wonder if I was able to do this hillside gardening”.
Aside from tugging at the stubborn blackberries, Margaret applied her librarian skills to organize the island’s staff library; but her childhood love of drawing plants found her a special niche on the island.
Raised in rural Michigan, Margaret’s mother would name plants to her when she was very small. The large lot next to their home was planted as a Victory garden and was a haven for the three-year-old Margaret, where she would sit and watch the plants. Impressively, as a three-year-old, Margaret remembers smelling her neighbors mint bush, “This all was a marvelous world to me”.
At age ten, she would roam on the family’s ‘back 40’, drawing trees,
plants, mosses and leaves. “No-one in my family said anything about my drawing, so I continued happily. At school it was harder, as someone told I could draw and everyone wanted a portrait right there, right now. I always gave these drawings to the fools. That’s why I prefer PLANTS.”
Margaret has never had any formal training, other than taking lessons at the local town Museum of Art for the summer months, which was considered ‘appropriate’ for all young ladies. Apparently, only students seemed to notice who had talent. Margaret did ask to be sent to an art school in Chicago, but sadly, the answer was ‘No’.
But, natural talent can never be discouraged and Margaret continued to draw, and expanded into designing and making knit sweaters. Her San Francisco apartment is a treasure trove of her passions – books, paintings, orchids, and her drawing notebooks of Alcatraz plants.
Leafing through her notebooks, many of the drawings catch my eye. I wonder how she can capture the essence of the plants with such few pencils and with such simple looking drawings? On average, Margaret takes about 20 minutes to do a drawing, but has worked on one a lot more when she is not quite satisfied.
Amazingly, penitentiary inmates were privileged to be allowed ‘landscape drawing’ and must have spent hours gazing at the plants, not to mention the City and freedom, lying just beyond.
One inmate, George Hecht, was sentenced on kidnapping charges and was sent to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas and was later transferred to Alcatraz for an escape attempt. Hecht spent 1944 to 1952 on Alcatraz and his work detail was for the inside garden by the incinerator on the West Side. An article in the Washington Post dated July 1949 tells of a local San Francisco artist who went to teach evening classes on Alcatraz to help with the creative program. George must have benefitted from this program as he produced many paintings during his time on the Rock. In fact, five paintings from Alcatraz were exhibited in Paris, France in May 1951. Amazingly, after George passed away, his children found in his attic his paintings from his time on Alcatraz. His years on Alcatraz were not his happiest and yet he held onto his art that he had created during his time there.
I do wish more visitors would come armed with paper, pencils and an extra 20 minutes to sit in the gardens, take in the moment and sketch a few plants.
We have just launched a new outreach program for island visitors called Discovery Table. The Discovery Table aims to engage visitors with interactive displays themed on the Gardens of Alcatraz. With the entire island to use as a resource, we want to share with visitors captivating information about the gardens that they otherwise would not learn about through our garden tours, brochure or website. We want to draw people’s attention to the details of the garden that might otherwise be missed.
The Discovery Table invites kids and adults to use their senses to experience the gardens in a different way. In only its second week, we have covered drastically different topics such as ‘Life on the Rock with Lichens and Moss’ and ‘Nose around Alcatraz: Scented Plants in the Gardens’. More topics to come will have visitors watching hummingbirds zip around the purple blossoms of pride of madeira, Echium candicans, getting your hands dirty with a demonstration of our worm farm and our award winning compost; as well as learning about how the succulents on the island survived without care for over 40 years.
Garden volunteers, Corny and Marney, hosted
the premier Discovery Table to introduce visitors to Life on the Rock, literally. Using a banana slug to draw people in, visitors were given a hand microscope to take a closer look at the sandstone that makes up the island. A surprise for many, lichens and moss have found their way into many niches on the rock and brick that make up Alcatraz. Just like the residents that called Alcatraz ‘home’, lichens and moss have to cope in the harsh marine environment to survive. As Corny and Marney found out, lichen and moss cope with chilly temperatures in the winter. Armed with hand microscopes, visitors could see the lichens were ‘flowering’ and could appreciate the variety of colors with the many species of lichen that are living side by side.
The second Discovery Table was presented yesterday on a calm, sunny day; a perfect day to invite visitors to follow their nose around Alcatraz and learn more about the scented plants in the gardens. Many of the heirloom plants in the gardens – bearded Iris ‘King’s Ransom’, Rosa russeliana, daffodil Narcissus ‘Grand Soliel d’Or’ all have wonderful scents that remind visitors of their grandmother’s house. Old-fashioned garden plants such as cherry pie, Heliotropium arborescens and nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, and sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, along with recently introduced plants to the island such as pineapple sage, Salvia elegans were presented to visitors to sniff and were then asked what scent they detected. It was interesting to hear the responses: the expected answers such as vanilla, peppery, honey, and pineapple versus the surprise of hearing that cherry pie reminded one young visitor of play dough.
A long-time garden volunteer commented ‘You can always tell what season it is by how a visitor asks “What’s that smell?”’ During the winter and spring, island gum trees, Eucalyptus globulus, delightfully fragrant the air. However, during late summer and fall, the island is home to over 3000 nesting seabirds and their guano permeates the air.
I like to think that the small pleasures in the gardens enticed the inmate gardeners to stay on their best behavior in order to keep the privilege of working outside. I hope these same pleasures will entice visitors to stop by our Discovery Table and learn more about the fascinating gardens.
Earlier this week, the Garden Conservancy lost its founder,
Frank Cabot. We mourn his passing and are thankful for his passion of horticulture that led him to begin the Garden Conservancy in 1989. We are very much in his debt for his vision and leadership. His accomplishments will continue to inspire us for years to come.
Following is the text of his official obituary, which he approved himself in advance.
CABOT, Francis Higginson of Loudon, New Hampshire, and La Malbaie, Quebec, died peacefully at home on November 19, 2011after a long illness. He was 86. Born in New York City on August 6, 1925, graduate of St. Bernard’s and Groton Schools and Harvard College class of 1949 where he was a founder of the Krokodiloes, he served in Europe and the Far East during World War II with the Signal Corps. He worked initially for Stone & Webster Inc. and subsequently as a venture capitalist in New York. His overriding interest in horticulture consumed his later years when he was active in the American Rock Garden Society, the Friends of Horticulture at Wave Hill, New York Botanical Garden, and the Garden Conservancy, which he founded in 1989. During these years, with his wife Anne, he created Stonecrop Gardens, a public garden for plant enthusiasts in Cold Spring, New York; founded the Aberglasney Restoration Trust to rescue and restore a sixteenth-century garden in Carmarthenshire, Wales; and enlarged his parents’ garden in La Malbaie, Quebec, into what has been described as the most aesthetically satisfying and horticulturally exciting landscape experience in North America. His book, The Greater Perfection, received the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries’ 2003 Literature Award, and was described as “one of the best books ever written about the making of a garden by its creator” by The Oxford Companion to the Garden (2006). He was the recipient of numerous awards from horticultural societies, including the Gold Veitch Memorial Award of the Royal Horticultural Society. He was also named a Chevalier of the Order of Quebec as well as a Member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his efforts, through his family’s Quatre Vents Foundation, to preserve the patrimony of Charlevoix County, Quebec. He is survived by his wife of over 62 years, Anne Perkins Cabot; by three children: Colin and wife Paula of Loudon, New Hampshire; Currie and husband Thomas A. Barron of Boulder, Colorado; and Marianne and husband James S. Welch of Prospect, Kentucky; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. A memorial celebration will be held in the garden of Les Quatre Vents for family and friends in 2012 at a date coinciding with the inception of spring and the peak of the primula moment. Contributions may be made to the Garden Conservancy, P.O. Box 219 or the Quatre Vents Foundation, P.O. Box 222, both at Cold Spring, NY 10516, or to the charity of your choice.
Usually, the dead of winter is when gardeners haul out their stashes of seed catalogues and start planning for next year. On Alcatraz, we never receive any frost and are lucky to enjoy year round gardening, so we skip an obvious break and instead start planning for winter and early spring annuals during fall.
Planning for next year involves examining the past year;
noting which plants did well, which ones need to be served their notice, and plant combinations that were striking. Some of the best plant combinations were ones that were created by chance. Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, was introduced to the island in 1924 and self-sows where it pleases. The whimsical seeding finds itself amongst contrasting plants – purple trailing verbena, magenta Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and bright pink Persian carpet (Drosanthemum floribundum) to mention a few.
The annuals in the Inmate Gardens on the west side of the island did very well this year, especially the calendula. The calendula were sown in the greenhouse last December, planted out at the end of January and bloomed continuously through the summer. We cut them back in late September and they are blooming again. The cheerful yellow blooms contrasted nicely with many of the other garden plants.
Expecting the calendulas to be replaced by summer annuals, we had sown many flats of snapdragons to be their replacements. But with the calendulas doing well, we had to find other homes for the snapdragons. Tucking them into pockets around perennials was easy. Interestingly, the snapdragons were slow to grow in the east side Officers’ Row gardens but flourished on the west side of the island.
A native, California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica, was planted last year and finally flowered this past summer. The plant has soft grey leaves and bright orange flowers that complement the other plants growing near – purple agapanthus, pink Salvia chiapensis, and the freely growing nasturtiums on the hillside above.
Another combination that did well was the purple annual flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata growing with purple statice or sea lavender, Limonium perezii. The flowering tobacco self-seeds but not obnoxiously and the new plants are easy to transplant.
One of the new plants that was tried this year was butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. The plant flowered but did not gain much height. We hope that monarch butterflies that pass through the area will stop in the gardens. Another new introduction to the island was lion’s tail, Leonotis leonurus to the west side lawn borders. Being a member of the mint family from South Africa, the evergreen shrub should have done very well on the island; but the plant was likely missed during hand-watering the borders and it did not make it. However, it will be worth trying again this coming year. Once established, it is very drought tolerant and the masses of orange flowers attract butterflies.
A plant that has had its final year on the island is the common purple cone flower, Echinacea purpurea. A row of these were planted in Officers’ Row in 2007 and every year I hope they do better. They start out blooming well with healthy leaves but then they decide they are finished and refuse to grow. Luckily, we had plenty of snapdragons to fill in around them.
Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden from 1934 to 1939, wrote in a letter “I kept no records of my failures, for I had many – the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to those plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest”. These words are still true today, except that we keep better records of our successes and failures.
Last week I travelled to Miami, Florida to participate in a conference hosted by the American Public Gardens Association. The theme of the discussions was ‘On the Ground: Putting Preservation into Practice’. Listening to people from gardens all over the country
speak the language of historic preservation – Cultural Landscape Inventories, Cultural Landscape Report, As-Built Drawings and Maintaining Design Intent – was very informative, especially as each of us could relate to the lessons learned through hindsight.
I was invited to speak about lessons learned with the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project. Our project began in the later part of 2003, and now, at the end of 2011, while the project has been extremely successful in accomplishing our mission of rehabilitating five garden areas and interpreting their significance to the public, there are a few practices that could have been carried out slightly differently.
Starting out, there were limited funds topurchase a chipper a garden vehicle. Both pieces of equipment would have helped out immensely with the early gardening work of clearing 40 years of overgrowth. The accumulated biomass amounted to huge piles that was then hauled away mostly by wheelbarrow to decompose on the island’s Parade Ground. Today, we have our own chipper, a garden vehicle and most importantly, a designated compost site where 99% of our biomass is composted to be recycled back into the gardens.
Documenting changes and progress to the landscape is vital, especially when working with a historic site. The National Park Service holds an amazing collection of historic photographs that show the gardens and the landscape in the military and penitentiary eras. The photographs from the late penitentiary, 1940s to the 1960s, were used to design the gardens that visitors experience today. Taking pictures of the overgrowth from the same vantage point of the historic photographs was done for some garden areas but unfortunately, not all. Having a complete series of photographs of the historic, before, and after rehabilitation, and then continuing the series each year afterwards at different times of the year illustrates the work accomplished. A photo really does say a thousand words. We have used our before and after photos to apply for grants and on our website as well.
Lastly, funding for our project has been provided through many grants and donations -large and small. A federally supported grant, Save America’s Treasures, was awarded in 2006. Matching funds were required to be raised, which the Garden Conservancy was able to do. The combined $500 000 provided the funds for the rehabilitation work through to 2009. However, since 2009, the project has largely relied on donations. Long-term sustainable funding for these reclaimed historic gardens will require creative solutions.
One could wonder what gardens in Miami have in common with the Gardens of Alcatraz? We had the opportunity to tour the gardens of Vizcaya, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Montgomery Botanical Center and the Kampong. The plant material in these gardens could not be more different than
Alcatraz. But, the horticulture history with each of these gardens is rich. Each of these gardens continue to carry out their owners’ original intent, as we do on Alcatraz. Botanic gardens provide vital homes for historically significant plants that are often rare and threatened in the wild. When possible, seeds are collected and distributed to botanic gardens around the world to help insure their survival. On Alcatraz, we not only preserve heirloom plants that were introduced long ago, but we also preserve the past by telling the stories of the island’s residents that worked and cared for the gardens. Preservation of historic gardens – whether it be a home garden, large estate, or a National Park, protects history.
Harvest season is here and the chill in the air at night says winter is on its way. The fig tree, Ficus carica, growing in the inmate’s garden on the west side of the island has produced a bumper crop this year, at least for the songbirds who will benefit most from the abundance of fruit.
The fig tree, believed to be a black Mission Fig, was planted by inmate gardener Elliot Michener in the early 1940s. In an oral history interview with Elliot conducted in the late 1990s, he visited the island and walked around his gardens once again, showing the interviewer where he had spent nine years of his life working in the gardens. He saw the fig tree still growing in its original spot; and in a proud gardener’s voice with a hint of tour guide points out “and here are my old fig trees.” Elliot clearly remembered the fig tree growing on both sides of the fence with the guard tower in the background. In the interview, Elliot remarks “Yes, they have lasted a long time, just all these years.”
Where Elliot obtained the fig tree is not known. Perhaps one of the guards that traded seeds for bouquets of inmate grown flowers was the source; or maybe the inmates were treated to figs for dessert and the inmates grew the tree from seeds? Nevertheless, the fig tree continues to prosper.
The fig has done so well, that in fact, during the 40 years of the gardens being neglected, the fig took on a life of its own and colonized the western lawn. The thicket of fig provides prime summer nesting habitat for approximately 80 pairs of nesting snowy egrets.
Elliot also comments in his interview “I’ve eaten figs off of this tree”. I too, have eaten a few ripened figs off of the same tree and have tasted what he has tasted. Working the same soil and tending the same plants as gardeners past, reinforces the importance of preserving historic horticulture and the stories of the people that tended these gardens.
For island visitors, many of them pause at the tree and wonder what kind it is. For me, not only is it a chance to show them their first fig tree but to also tell them about Elliot and what the gardens meant to him.
The sky around the San Francisco Bay Area has been very active this week – from storm clouds to Fleet Week’s Blue Angels practice runs. Dramatic clouds and sudden rainfalls, while unexpected for this time of year, were
refreshing and washed the island clean after the end of bird nesting season. The plants soaked up this first substantial rainfall and were sparked back to life after the dry summer.
Surprisingly, spring bulbs have been emerging in Officers’ Row. Daffodil leaf tips are poking through the soil and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) have shot up over the last couple of days. Other bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia have been nudged into growing and their bright green leaves are a refreshing sight. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) leaves are unfolding as well, each leaf being an exquisite living art unfurling from a knarled exposed root.
All of these plants have origins in other mediterranean climates similar to that of the Bay Area. They are adapted to dry summers; being baked in well drain soils and with the slightest moisture can be triggered into growing. Examining the survivor plant list for the island, it is no surprise that many on the list are from climates similar to ours.
Elsewhere on the island, the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) continue to self-sow where
they please. The nasturtiums were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort by the military. Whether you consider them invasive or successful, they are a part of the island’s rich horticultural history. Seeing them sprout now is reassuring that another generation will continue to decorate the slopes with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.
While some visitors plan their vacations to not be in rain, a visit to the island during a storm is exciting and the island feels more alive with the elements. Watching a storm approach through the Golden Gate and sweep toward you is a vacation memory that you cannot put in a photo album.
September has been a very productive month in the gardens with the annual cleaning up of dead vegetation in areas that have been off limits because of the nesting seabirds.
With the Garden Conservancy’s one full-time and one part-time gardener staffing the garden project, volunteers are a vital resource for tackling the large closed areas quickly. This month, seven corporate work groups got involved in garden work. Wells Fargo had five groups on the island and Government Services Association (GSA) and Zoomerang made up the other two work groups. For many of the participants, volunteering in the gardens is not only their first taste of gardening but also their first visit to Alcatraz.
The work groups are organized by team leaders within the companies and then employees can sign up to help out. Many organizations in the Bay Area strongly support community service and encourage giving back to the community through volunteerism. The United Way hosts a ‘Week of Caring’ mid-September that brings corporate groups and non-profit groups together. The coming together of these groups has great advantages. For the groups themselves, they have the opportunity to work in unique sites (you can’t get more unique than Alcatraz) and to develop their team skills by working with colleagues in an environment different from their office. The non-profits not only benefit from the additional labor but can raise general awareness of national treasures that need to be preserved.
Each group is provided free passage to the island and is given a quick history lesson upon arrival. How gardens came to be on a barren island is an intriguing story in itself and adds a layer of history to Alcatraz that most are not aware of.
The groups are then provided with tools and head up to the work sites. This month’s groups assisted with a range of garden projects: cutting back ivy, sifting compost, propagating Persian carpet ice plant, cutting back dormant chasmanthe
and removing invasive radish and grasses. The tasks are invigorating and varied enough to accommodate everyone’s physical abilities. A fair amount of planning does go into preparing for each group – thinking of work projects, setting up the tools at the work site, ensuring a safe work place and putting away the tools afterwards.
Thank you to everyone that supported the Gardens of Alcatraz this month. In total, 95 people from 5 groups contributed 285 volunteer hours!
To get involved, contact the volunteer coordinators to arrange a group work party.
Garden staff and volunteers have been busy this week cutting back plants that have entered their dormancy period. This time of year is much like the autumn for elsewhere in the country, except for crisp frosts that kill plants, our dormancy is brought on by our dry season. Many of our plants are from other Mediterranean climates and have adapted well to cope with our climate.
Still, it is easy to find beauty amongst the seemingly dead and dry plants. The seed heads left behind are sometimes more interesting to look at than the flowers.
One of the most common plant id questions I hear is ‘What are those trees by the Warden’s House?’ Resembling trees with their height, the Dr. Seuss looking trees are actually the flower spike of Agave americana. Silhouetted against the skyline of the city or the evening light, the spikes are so dramatic that even non-plant people wonder what they are. Commonly called the century plant for how long it takes to flower, the plant sends up one spike of flowers after 8 to 10 years; the plant puts all of its energy into sending up the flower spike that it actually dies. The next generation of plants have already begun at the base of the flowering succulent to repeat the show in a decade.
Aeonium arboreum planted en mass are another
succulent that provides a show with their flower stalk. The succulents planted long ago under the water tower all bloomed at once this year. Located in a closed area that is enjoyed by visitors on the garden tour, the view is impressive.
The west side inmate gardens are a host to surviving plants from the penitentiary. With the cell house as a backdrop, Acanthus mollis, bear’s breeches, 4 to 5 foot flowers standing tall above its once glossy green leaves. The leaves are fading and we will be leaving the flower stalks to provide interest for another month.
Many perennials in Officers’ Row are putting on a display of their own. Gaillardia, Agapanthus, Crocosmia, Foxgloves, Hebe and Artichokes are signifying the end of their growing season by setting seed. Many of these plants can be deadheaded to encourage the plant to keep blooming. The ‘deadheads’, as we call them, can make a curious dried bouquet. One of the best dried flowers on the island is Limonium perezii, sea lavender or statice, which holds the purple color well.
Elsewhere on the island, Shirley poppies and Crocosmia both have tiny seed pods that are appealing.
From the tall succulents to the more average size perennials, leaving flower stalks stand allows gardeners to enjoy their hard work longer into the year. Just like the gardens soften the harsh island, finding the surprising beauty in dead flowers will hopefully inspire people to appreciate all that surrounds them.