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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
Did you know the Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco?
On October 4, 1926, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took a vote and animously decided that the Dahlia best represented their city.
From the San Francisco Dahlia Society website, the proclamation reads:
“WHEREAS, the Dahlia has reached its highest perfection in and about San Francisco, and because Dahlias originated in San Francisco are grown in gardens all over the world; and
WHEREAS, the Dahlia partakes essentially of the character of our beloved city, in birth, breeding and habit, for it was originally Mexican, carried thence to Spain, to France and England in turn, being changed in the process from a simple daisy-like wild flower to a cosmopolitan beauty. It has come back to San Francisco like the sophisticated world traveler it is, to find its favorite home here, where it thrives in the cool summers and the moist air of our fog-swept, sandy gardens by the sea;
WHEREAS, it is a robust flower, generous and able to thrive in any reasonable soil, so long as it is not too dry, and has the primitive strength of our pioneer ancestors, together with the gayety and color that no other city nor flower can hope to equal, going, like our artists and poets, to carry color and beauty into far climes, but blooming best in our own gardens out of doors in our cool even climates;
WHEREAS, in its versatility, its beauty, its infinite variety of color and form, it is the very symbol of San Francisco life and of the spirit of her people; therefore, be it
RESOLVED, That the Dahlia be and it is here designated the official flower of San Francisco.”
The reasons the Dahlia was chosen in 1926 still hold true today – San Francisco is still a world-class city – still innovating, has spirit and still has foggy, cool summers.
Since the 1920’s, dahlias have had a dedicated plot near the Conservatory of Flowers and are an attraction for locals and visitors throughout the summer. With dahlias being so popular, perhaps this is why the residents of Alcatraz began to grow them. Our small collection consists of heirlooms from the 1880’s through the 1940s. The flowers are just beginning to bloom – time to take in this history within history on a tiny island.
California has traditionally gone through cycles of drought and it was an important factor when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003. Restoring an island full of plants did not make much sense if there was no fresh water to care for the rehabilitated gardens.
From the early days of the preservation, there were many common sense things that were done. The simple actions of designing drought tolerant gardens and timing the planting for the winter rains were easy enough to work with. There is such a wide variety of plants that can tolerate and even thrive with little water, that this was never a hindrance to the revival of the gardens. In fact, with now over ten years of first-hand experience on the island, we have built up a list of ‘Alcatraz tested’ plants that we provide on our website.
With rain collection being a known historic occurrence on the island, obtaining approval to once again collect rain water was straightforward enough – again, this had been always been in the garden work plan. However, despite filling the 12 000 gallon catchment to capacity each year, the shortage of rainfall is not saturating the soil. This means that the gardens begin the dry season already thirsty. For the past three years, we have begun to use our stored water in the early spring, instead of months later in the summer.
We have officially entered our fourth year of drought and we wanted to be pro-active and conserve where we can. This year we installed drip irrigation to save water by watering directly to the plants, avoiding overhead hand watering. So far, the rose terrace, Officers’ Row, and two sections of the Prisoner Gardens are on a drip line. We also installed a drip line to establish the native sedge lawn in front of the cellhouse. Once the historic lawn is established, two inches of water are required each summer month – a huge saving from the needed one inch per week for the typical turf grass. The irrigation in each garden area is divided into zones, so we can water sunny areas more, and the shaded corners less often. We have also attached inexpensive water meters to each of the hose pipes to keep track of how many gallons are being used on each garden area.
This year we also are using fine wood mulch to conserve soil moisture. Mulch was not used historically, but cultivated soil was the historic look. Now, we opt for a more permaculture ‘no-till’ approach with fine ¼” mulch on top. The no-till improves the health of the soil, and the mulch will conserve moisture in the soil. The wood chips will eventually decompose, adding to the organic matter in the soil.
Another water saving tip is to use perennials and not annuals. The majority of the garden plants are perennials. Perennials are better suited with typically deeper roots that can withstand dry conditions. Aside from the recent lawn planting, our last major planting was back in 2010. The perennials are now established and can tolerate drier soil. If you ever try to pull out a native California plant versus a non-native weed, the native will put up a fight while the non-native will easily pull right out.
As the summer continues, we may opt to not plant some of the beds which typically would be planted with annuals. For example, the raised beds in front of the greenhouse have been planted with spring and summer bulbs like cape tulip, Dutch iris and gladiolus followed by summer annuals. This year, we will likely omit planting the annuals and leave the raised beds fallow instead.
As our drought continues, I am seeing more lawns being ripped out and replaced with drought tolerant options, even artificial turf. A trip to see our gardens is well worth it to get ideas for your own backyard.
Seabird nesting season is in full force on Alcatraz. This wonderful time of the year is a rare chance to see many of the Bay Area’s seabirds nesting and raising their young. In numbers (and in volume) are the Western gulls. Last year they counted in at around 2000 pairs.
However, their arrival always comes with a bit of apprehension. The gulls of course need material to make nests and must also claim territory. Both of these tasks mean that plants are torn up and shredded, and all too often these are garden plants!
We have come to expect a bit of damage but with the native grass, Carex praegracilis, lawn that was planted with plugs we were a bit nervous if the plugs would take root and be strong enough to withstanding the tugging by gulls.
The plugs were planted at the beginning of November when the rains would hopefully start. While we had some showers we had to supplement with hand watering too from our rainwater catchment. About 1/3 of the lawn was planted and now 5 months along, the plugs have started to send out stolons and are spreading.
On a recent sunny morning, while checking the gardens over, I noticed a puzzling crime scene – the grasses were being shorn off close to their bases.
Guilty by past behavior, I immediately suspected the gulls. But, the telltale sign of shredded vegetation was not present. In fact, the missing tops of the grasses were actually gone! What could this be? We don’t have deer or rabbits and yet the grass looked ‘nibbled’.
Examining the scene closer, I spied the ‘evidence’ left behind – droppings. Sure enough Canada geese had found our lawn. There are maybe 3 pairs of geese on the island and they were making our lawn their morning buffet.
For all of our planning and thinking of possible ‘what could go wrong scenarios’, we had overlooked the population of geese and their liking of grass.
Luckily, few plugs have been pulled out, the geese are proving to be more grazers, and hopefully the plugs will continue to grow. Mowing actually helps grasses get thicker and encourages them to send out more stolons.
The lawn is slowly being ‘mown’ from left to right, but at least the plugs are being fertilized too.
With the mandated 25% cut in water usage in California, I’m so relieved we choose to have a native sedge replicate the look of a lawn. Our ‘lawn’ will be low maintenance and will only require 2” of water per month to stay relatively green throughout the summer months.
As Alcatraz is a destination, I’m hoping that visitors will take notice of our drought tolerant lawn and ask questions. The lawn will also be a topic on our garden tours and offered as an alternative.
Technically this past Monday was a workday but instead of being on our beloved island, we had planned to go to the Dr. Herman Schwartz garden – Bolinas Botanical Garden – to take cuttings of succulents to add to our own Alcatraz garden. The trip hardly seemed like ‘work’.
The Marin-Bolinas Botanical garden was started by Dr. Herman Schwartz and contains over 2000 species. A YouTube video of an interview captures him well as he sits in one of his greenhouse. An early interest in plants and animals started him on his lifelong passion for plants. Although Dr. Schwartz passed away in January 2008, his passion lives on.
The trip was a privilege, arranged by a common friend of Dr. Schwartz’s son, David. I had only been once before in 2010 with Brian Kemble, curator for the gardens. Just like then, I was astounded by the rich variety of succulents and euphorbias. The garden is similar to Alcatraz’s gardens in a way – both are very unexpected in an unlikely place. Both have plants gathered from all over the world, in Dr. Schwartz’s interview, he says “I don’t have to travel anymore because I can transport myself to where I found them”.
As we stepped from the car, many succulents were in full bloom, and the sheer size of the garden hit us. Like kids in a candy store, we almost didn’t know where to start first! We could barely walk 5 feet without stopping and spotting a new plant, we soon had our bag full and we realized we didn’t bring enough bags. Memories of trick or treating came back – a full bag and still more stops to go. Luckily the car was nearby.
It was fun to point out the plants that I had collected back in 2010 to the staff gardener and intern. All of the plants are thriving on the island – Cotyledon orbiculata (gray and green forms), Echeveria pulvinata, and Aeonium cuneatum to name a few.
We did find new Kalanchoe, a new red blooming Orbiculata, a blue Senecio, Dudleya, Agave victoria-reginae, of which there was only one so we did not select it but we will soon be sourcing it. Without Brian on this visit, I will soon be in touch with him for the correct names of the cuttings we took. When these are added to the Alcatraz gardens, we will also update our plant collection database and will proudly note where the cuttings came from.
Walking in this garden was an honour, and just like our own Alcatraz gardens, the presence of past gardeners was felt. With respect, we took our cuttings, and I hope our joy of finding new treasures and our delight at spending time in this garden could be seen by Dr. Schwartz.
I hate to complain about our winter temperatures while other parts of the United States hunker inside from cold weather warnings BUT, it was rather chilly for our succulents and tender plants on the island last week. Seldom do we receive a frost in San Francisco, let alone on Alcatraz, but the low temperatures and wind did cause minor damage to our Aeonium arboreum, Zantedeshia aethiopica (calla lily), and Tropaeolum (nasturtium).
It is difficult to have an exact temperature that the damage occurred on these plants, but Aeonium can tolerate freezing for a half a day to a day before the plant would actually die. Our plants look like they are all nodding their heads and will make a strong recovery.
As for the calla lilies, the leaves are mottled green and are turning mushy, resembling spinach that has been frozen in the back drawer of a refrigerator. The tough rhizomes will send up new leaves, and might just have a later bloom than normal. The nasturtiums we ended up removing as the leaves looked very tattered and were turning yellow. There are enough seeds dormant in the soil from years of these annuals setting seed, so they will replace themselves soon enough.
An interesting fact about cold winter temperatures is that in 1933, the California Horticulture Society began because of an “in the winter of 1933 an unusually frigid air mass withered gardens in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. A small group of concerned gardeners met to compare plant survival information, and they became the nucleus of the present Society.” – Which also happens to be the oldest plant association in California!
It’s always interesting to compare notes with other neighbour gardeners to see how their garden fared a cold snap – you may even pick up a few new hardy plants.
With Northern California experiencing the most rain we have had in 3 to 5 years (depending on who you ask), it seems a bit ironic that this post is about our new irrigation system that we installed this week.
We are VERY happy for the rain, even if it meant the island was closed today. With three years of drought, the winter rains we had been receiving was never adequate to fully saturate the dry soil, and while water catchment would be filled, there was a deficit of moisture in the ground each year.
All of the gardens are hand watered except for the pelargonium trough, the new lighthouse lawn and the toolshed terraces. The trough line was installed when the pelargoniums were planted in 2005, and we recognized the need to water the dry toolshed terraces last winter to keep the plants healthy and thriving.
This past summer, staff and volunteers spent the majority of working days hand watering the remaining gardens, and often, our efforts were still not quite enough. The plants got by on rationing our supply and when our tanks went dry we were lucky enough to still have access to the barged in fresh water.
We wanted to be proactive this year, and not only save ourselves time watering but use the water more efficiently by installing water emitters directly to the plants.
The rose terrace is supplied by one tap that is gravity fed from the holding tank at the summit of the island. The rose terrace itself is flat but there is enough pressure to meet our needs. Staff member, Karolina, designed the rose terrace to have 4 irrigation zones. Each zone, running by its self has enough water pressure to fully cover all of the plants in each zone.
For each zone, we have a 1” pipe that will connect to our garden hose. Using shut off valves, we can select which zone we will water. Connected to the large pipe are the ¼” spaghetti tubing connecting a bubble emitter at the base of each plant. We can even adjust for future plantings by adding a spaghetti tube or by plugging a hole and removing the tube.
A pretty simple system for the do it yourself home gardener that will undoubtedly save time.
Santa will not likely be coming to Alcatraz any time soon, but we made a wish list of new plants anyway.
With the winter rains, comes planting season; and it is our best opportunity to take a close look at the gardens and order new plants. Last week, garden staff walked through all of the gardens, scrutinizing each flowerbed. With 5000 visitors each day to looking at the gardens, we are fairly critical of the plantings, as we want the visitors to see the gardens at their best all through the year.
There are a number of reasons why we change plants – the plant was too high, didn’t bloom, was a target for the seagulls, or it simply didn’t do well enough or the plant did really well and we would like more (yay!). And of course, there is the ‘cause of death unknown’ reason (which even happens to people with green thumbs).
Two plants on the wish list that did really well and we would like more of are Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’. This pretty blue native with a pink tinge looks amazing with yellow Coreopsis and red Gaillardia. Another new favorite is Echium gentianoides ‘Tajinaste’. This is a blue flowered Echium that we planted on the Toolshed Terraces last year. The low height gave a great display behind white roses and did not grow too high to block the terraces behind it. This Echium also blooms the first year it is planted.
A new plant that we are going to try this year is Teucrium chamaedrys, a germander. We have a tough garden spot along a walkway that has two very narrow beds that are shallow. Spring bulbs do well in these beds, but for the summer, it is difficult to start any annuals as the gulls take their toll on the new plantings. Establishing 4” pots of this germander during the gull’s absence may be the trick. The spring bulbs will still come up through this perennial.
I highly recommend a garden walkthrough with critical eyes at the end of every season. Quite often, when you are working in the garden and you notice that you wish to make changes of particular plants, you get distracted and forget about your brilliant idea. Having your garden task being solely to examine your garden should be a part of your season’s end cleanup. Be sure to take your smart phone to take photos and a note pad.
California is entering what is typically a dry time of year, and with the severe drought, this year is especially tough. On Alcatraz, we have cut back on watering in the gardens and have altered our watering schedule to water less frequently but longer so the water can soak deeper into the soil.
The plants are coping with reduced water and it is interesting to see how different plants are responding. The survivor plants – the plants that were able to cling to life after the Federal prison shut down in 1963 – are demonstrating their true strength.
For example, the plantings of Pelargonium on the Rose Terrace are all heirloom cultivars but are either survivor plants from the island or are ones that we purchased and introduced. We even have three Pelargonium that were propagated from the Presidio pet cemetery where they receive no water or care.
The island survivors are coping well and are blooming away after a short dormant period. They include plants with the names of ‘Prince Bismarck’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘San Antonio’, Pelargonium quercifolium, and ‘Alphonse Ricard’. In our gardens, some of these slow down with the blooming in July and do have rust spots on the leaves and tend to drop the lower leaves but by the end of August, they are rebounding and are back in full bloom.
A treasured find were the pelargoniums from
the Pet Cemetery. I’ve only been able to positively identify one with a name as being Pelargonium ‘Apricot’. This one has scented leaves that are very lobed and crinkly with rose/pink flowers with a white center. This is a non-stop bloomer from spring through to the beginning of winter for us. We have another two that are Martha Washington varieties in two different shades of pink.
Contrasted to our survivors, the purchased pelargonium have really slowed down with blooming and with overall growth. For most of them, they have finer leaves and are more delicate. We do give them more water than the survivors, but without the extra love, I’m sure they would not make it. Even though they may not be much to look at right now, they are still impressive for their ability to cope through the summer and once spring arrives they will be blooming fearlessly.
I confess, I’m always on the lookout for plants growing in the toughest and unlikely places. Just last night, while attending a Park Academy class at the Fort Scott Community Garden in the Presidio, I noticed some pelargonium with wooden stems spilling out of wine barrels. I caught site of another fuzzy leaved one growing alongside a potting shed. Another scented leaved one was spotted growing in the herb garden! Very exciting to find these tough guys that were obviously heirlooms. With permission, I took cuttings of each and hope to find names for them and see how they do with our Alcatraz collection.
On June 30, 2014 a milestone in the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz project was reached – the Garden Conservancy graduated its preservation project of the Alcatraz gardens to its ‘completed’ list and handed the rehabilitated gardens over to the Stewardship department of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit partner of the National Parks Service.
The rehabilitation of the historic gardens began in 2003 with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy enlisting the expertise of the Garden Conservancy to lead the effort to restore the gardens and to interpret the significance of the gardens to the public.
The project was ambitious – removing 40 years of overgrowth to restore 5 key garden areas, gather historic documentation and keep detailed records of work performed, develop a volunteer garden program to help care for the gardens, and to promote the gardens with free guided walks, free self-guided brochures, a website and social media. Not to mention the biggest hurdle – fundraising. A big order to say the least!
It was all accomplished.
The ultimate goal of taking on a project like the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz is to eventually hand the completed project over to caretakers who will take on the responsibility of caring for and funding the gardens.
Each of the 15 preservation projects the Garden Conservancy is currently working on is different from each other, and with that, each has its own unique management for achieving the goal of financial sustainability. The Ruth Bancroft Garden, the Garden Conservancy’s very first project is a model for success. The garden began as a private garden of a homeowner and has now become a public garden with its own staff, board of directors and revenue generating events.
With its graduation, the Gardens of Alcatraz joins the ranks as a successfully completed project. However, the Alcatraz gardens could not be more different from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. As a National Park, the Alcatraz gardens could never easily obtain permission to host revenue generating events, such as issuing garden memberships, plant sales or hosting garden tours. A different solution was needed.
Fundraising for the initial scope of the project (the restoration) was easy (or as easy as any fundraising effort is). The economy was good and the Garden Conservancy had supporters who were happy to help with a noble cause. The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy had a yearly budget for the project, and with smaller donations and grants, the project always had sufficient funds.
With the economy crashing in 2008, fundraising became more difficult and repeatedly asking the same donor base for assistance was unlikely. As well, finding support for just maintaining the gardens was more not as exciting as actually restoring them. (As they say in the park – its easy to fund a new restroom but hard to find funding to clean it).
The solution was easy but came with a lot of paperwork. The gardens should be funded by the people enjoying them – the visitors. A portion of the ticket sales is directly funding the gardens.
At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.
This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.
During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!
It was inevitable that the lawn failed.
The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.
Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:
- we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
- a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
- a grass that would tolerate being mowed
- a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
- a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold
Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!
Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms. Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.
Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!
After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).
Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).
Installing the irrigation drip lines took
about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.
We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.
We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,
as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).
So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.
Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.