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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
Way back in April, our gladiolus corms arrived in the mail from Old House Gardens. We tucked the little corms into the raised bed in front of the greenhouse and have been waiting expectantly for the heirloom flowers to appear.
Over the past two weeks, the flower stalks have emerged from the center of the fan shaped leaves, revealing their bright blossoms a little bit each day. Even though they were all planted the same day, at the same depth, they are not all blooming at the same time, perhaps some are in more rush than others, while the others prefer to take their time.
It would be hard to pick a favorite flower, they are all very pretty, and I can see why this old fashioned flower continues to be popular.
‘Carolina Primrose’, introduced to
the plant trade in 1908 is a small and graceful gladiolus that multiplies each year without much care. According to the growers at Old House Gardens, the corms survive in zone 5! Like many heirloom plants, this corm was collected at an old home site and lucky for us it was found, as it was named ‘Bulb of the Year’ in Spring 2008.
‘Dauntless’ is every bit its name – pink with a dramatic splash of ruby in the throat. This corm is one of the oldest traditional gladiolus offered by Old House Gardens.
‘Bibi’ was offered to the plant trade in 1954. Described
on the Old House Gardens’ website as ‘exotically patterned in a style that dates back to Victorian days, this small-flowered, vibrant pink cutie is randomly flecked with deep rose’. The flower easily blends in with a Victorian garden of the military years or with the hippy flair of the 1960s.
The frosty pink Gladiolus ‘Friendship’ is listed as a ‘landmark pink that has won every prize there is for glads’. In fact, “60-some years after it first bloomed for the legendary Carl Fischer it’s still considered world-class”.
The flower of ‘Melodie’ was a pleasant
surprise, even though I had seen the photo of it before I ordered it. I always wonder if the flower color is enhanced in the plant catalogues, but the photos were right! It is a true pink with a dark scarlet center that is edged in yellow.
‘Contentment’ is a rare corm from the 1957, and despite being once the world’s most popular lavender gladiolus, it has almost stopped being grown by gardeners.
The cute flower of ‘Boone’ will just
leave you wanting to grow more of them. This little guy was rescued from an abandoned homestead in the Appalachians near Boone, North Carolina. It has graceful blooms of soft apricot and it is hardy through zone 6 and perhaps 5 according to Old House Gardens reports.
The Abyssinian gladiolus was documented in the 1996 book Gardens of Alcatraz as growing on the island. The plant had long disappeared when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003, so it was finally time to bring this graceful glad back to the island. Introduced in 1888, perhaps it was grown by some of the military wives in cutting gardens. Collected from the mountains of Ethiopia in 1844, it reached America by
1888 when it was featured as brand new in Garden and Forest magazine. Formerly Acidanthera, it is now called Gladiolus callianthus ‘Murielae’. We ordered 100 of the little corms, most are planted in one raised bed in front of the rose terrace greenhouse, it will be a great site when they are all in bloom.
Our rarest purchase was the
‘Lilac & Chartreuse’ gladiolus. Introduced in, 1960, it is a shame that it is not grown more. The flower is pretty eccentric, just like the 1960s themselves – ruffled and lavender with the chartreuse thrown in.
I hope to add more heirloom gladiolus every year and build up our collection of these wonderful old favorites, and hopefully entice visitors to grow them too.
Winter is the usual time for us to do big garden renovations; with the winter rains, the absence of birds and fewer visitors, it is the ideal time to make changes in the garden beds. However, we had one garden area that just could not wait another couple of months.
Our little ‘chapel bed’ along the main roadway desperately needed some TLC. In the spring, this garden looks fantastic and is often the first bed where visitors stop and say ‘wow’ at the size of the Aeoniums. Most visitors are accustomed to seeing these ‘hens and chicks’ plants the size of a tennis ball, not basketballs, the size they easily grow to on the island.
The plantings in this bed were actually rescued plants from construction staging sites before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began, way back in 2000. But after thirteen years, many of the plants were crowded, the rhizomes of the bearded iris were choking each other and the Aeoniums were getting very leggy (garden talk meaning, too high with the growth only at the tips of bare stems). The Aeoniums, both purple and green, do not look their best at this time of year – in response to the dry conditions in our Mediterranean climate, they drop their lower leaves and the remaining leaves shrivel in to hold onto any moisture they can.
The soil itself needed amending too. Each year, we have added soil to the perimeter of the bed, but could only apply topdressing, not incorporate our rich compost into the soil.
In a bold move, we decided it was time to clear out all the plants, saving the existing Solanum marginatum, Drosanthemum and the shrubby Hebe. Karolina and a few volunteers dug out all the plants, taking cuttings of the succulents and selecting the healthiest iris rhizomes to replant. In preparation, we had been taken cuttings of the Aeonium and were growing them in the greenhouse.
The new plants were set out in roughly the same arrangement as before. We also added in tall Verbena bonariensis to give some height and some billowy color through the summer and fall. We also removed some non-historic Gazania rigens along the front edge that always required water and planted legacy Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and heirloom Pelargonium ‘Apricot’ that has done very well for us in west side Prisoner Gardens.
We will need to water the new plants until the winter rains begin but, this drought tolerant selections should be just fine with weekly watering until they are established.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
Where men denied the privileges
Once more the priviledges of nature
were denied as well
It did not work
As well as men cannot be made
Control of nature is not within men’s
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
Mother Nature will prevail
-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
When the Garden Conservancy started work to bring the Gardens of Alcatraz back to life after forty years of neglect, one of the fascinating aspects of the project was the plant life still surviving on the island. In 2005, an island wide survey was done and we found just over 200 different species of plants!
As most gardeners are also ‘list makers’, and like keeping track of new plantings and when the plants bloom, we started to keep track of the flowering times.
Beginning in 2009, we made simple lists by the season of what was in bloom. Our spreadsheets have gotten a bit more elaborate since then. We still list each species of plant, but also record which garden it is blooming in, if the blooming is just starting, in full bloom, or is fading.
Comparing the same months and the same gardens over the years tells us some interesting facts.
The most obvious is that we have WAY more plants blooming on the island now that we did in 2009! We do try to be consistent when we take our observations – so we aim for the same week each month. In 2009, we reached our peak number of plants in bloom in the spring with 80 different plants blooming. This year, in May, we reached 156 different plants blooming – almost double from only four years ago!
The gardens are pretty much all over the island, creating microclimates of sun versus shade, leeward versus windward, and watered plants versus ‘on your own’ plants. The survivor plants are great for looking at how these microclimates affect the blooming times under these conditions.
Persian carpet is a historic island plant that can be found in most of the restored gardens around the island. The Persian carpet on the south facing slopes began to bloom in February this year but in December 2010, we had a scattering of blooms in all the different gardens. The Persian carpet finished
blooming on the south facing slopes last month but is still going strong on the East facing slopes. Planting the same plant with different sun exposures not only lengthens the blooming time, but it also allows more visitors to the island see this wonderful historic plant in bloom.
Another garden survivor that has had some subtle changes to its blooming time is Centranthus ruber, Jupiter’s Beard. In 2010, it started to bloom in the spring as it normally does and then finished in late September. Comparing the bloom times of 2012, the centranthus bloomed every month of the year!
We will also have to now start tracking the weather conditions and the amount of rain and fog to really get a better picture of why the plants are blooming at such different times.
On our shopping trip to Annie’s Annuals this past December we picked up a number of plants that would give the gardens plenty of blooms during the dry months of summer and into the fall. Scanning Annie’s website before we ventured out, we made our shopping list for plants that had the look of the 1940s and 1950s but that would also tolerate dry conditions and not be fussy about the soil.
We happened upon Tanacetum niveum ‘White Bouquet Tansy’. I think gardeners are, by nature, hopeful people – who else trusts that burying tiny seeds in the ground will bring forth in a few months times, overflowing beds of color? That is exactly what happened with our little 4” pot of Tanacetum. An unassuming clump of green leaves is now a two foot mound of daisy flowers.
The daisy flowers echo the historic photo we have of the Prisoner Gardens along the roadway. We had tried Shasta daisy and white coneflower, but neither of these plants did very well. The Tanacetum is proving to be a winner!
The yellow centers complement the yellow marigolds and coreopsis growing next to them.
Annie describes this hardy perennial from Central South-Eastern Europe as indestructible, deer resistant, requires average to low water, self-sowing and needs full sun. We can also add ‘seagull proof’ and tolerates coastal conditions. After blooming is finished, it is recommended to cut the plant back to 3” for a second bloom. The Tanacetum is at home from USDA zones 4 to 10 – a very wide range!
I’m curious to see just how tough this plant is to not only see how long it will bloom for, but how the Bay’s wind and fog treat it during the summer months.
It’s hard to resist adding new succulents to the dry slopes on the west side of the island. With so many new plant introductions from nurseries, it’s hard to stick to plants that are in keeping with the correct time period that we try to convey in the Prisoner Gardens – the 1940s and 1950s.
With help from Brian Kemble of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, we are adding five new species of Aloes and Agaves this year. Brian recommended this selection based not only on our historical time period, when these plants would have been available to gardeners back then, but also on our climatic conditions.
These new plants will have to cope with dry summers, wet winters, wind, and poor sandy soils. Welcome to Alcatraz! Unlike new inmates, these plants are accustomed to these conditions and should feel right at home.
Our first aloe is the blue aloe, Aloe glauca. The work ‘glauca’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bluish-gray’ referring to the color of the large thick leaves and to the powdery bloom on their surfaces. It is an essentially stem-less aloe with rosettes of up to 18″ in diameter. Each rosette can produce up to three cone-shaped inflorescences of pink to pale orange flowers. The leaf surfaces are smooth and the margins are armed with reddish-brown teeth. Blue aloe is restricted to the drier rocky hills and mountain slopes of the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa, blooming August to October. It readily propagates by pupping. This aloe even prefers dry winters, but I’m sure on our well-draining slopes, the winter rains will not be a problem.
Our second aloe is Aloe plicatilis,
or commonly known as fan aloe. This succulent has a fan-like arrangement of its leaves and will grow into a large multi-stemmed shrub. This species is endemic to a few mountains in the Western Cape in South Africa; and is only one of five species of tree aloes. Again, this aloe prefers well drained, sandy soil that is slightly acidic.
Our last aloe is the Spiny Aloe, Aloe africana and is from the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In its native habitat, this plant is commonly found growing on hills and flat areas with other aloes. This aloe is able to adapt to a wider range of climatic conditions, and can even grow in hot and humid areas during the summer time in Africa. The Spiny Aloe is another small tree that can grow up to 6 feet in height. The leaves are considered graceful with their 2 foot long arch and sharp red teeth along the margins.
This aloe would have been available to gardeners back during the 1940s as it was first described in 1768 by the Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who was also the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was grown in Europe prior to when many other aloes were described and before Linnaeus establishing the binominal classification system we currently use. The specific epithet that Miller gave it is simply in reference its African origins
Brian also recommended two species
of Agaves. The first one, Agave colorata is native to the coastal region of northwestern Sonora, Mexico. The blue-gray textured leaves are undulating and have teeth along the margins with a white pattern along the face of the leaf. The leaves will form a rosette and is fairly slow growing. This plant would have been perfect for inmate gardeners serving a long sentence – it takes the plant 15 years to bloom.
The last plant to join our ranks is Agave victoriae-reginae, also called Queen Victoria agave or royal agave. This is a very striking succulent with its white streaks on very geometrical leaves. The rosette is very compact, only reaching 3 feet high when fully grown. The plant takes a good 20 to 30 years to flower, so patience is a virtue; but the leaves of this plant are really why you would grow this plant.
When new plants are introduced to the gardens, our plant inventory list is updated. The plants are listed alphabetically in an Excel spreadsheet and notes are made on where the plant was purchased from, the price, the size of the pot, where the plant was planted on Alcatraz and a column for any special notes (mostly why the plant died or why it is being planted). The list is pretty basic but it serves our purpose – to leave a record for future gardeners.
Spring is by far the best time of year to see the gardens, the island is brilliant with color and most visitors are surprised by this unexpected beauty.
Right now we have four
kinds of poppies profusely blooming. The state flower, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, seem to spread every year, and the bright orange almost glows on a foggy day.
It is thought that the original seeds came in with imported soil with the military in the mid-1850s. A few of the poppies in the Rose Terrace garden are a soft buttercup yellow.
The Shirley poppies, Papaver rhoeas, are looking great again this year. We grow these from seed every year and always end up with a wide variation in pinks and reds. The Shirley poppies were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort. In the early 1920s, it seems that the town of San Francisco
was not too happy with the appearance of the military prison in the middle of their beautiful Bay. Military inmates were enlisted to plant the slopes in an effort to create a cheerful face for the town.
This year, we planted a few Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. These are the bright orange and yellow flowers that are typically seen in early spring.
An annual poppy that we tried this year is Papaver ‘Danebrog’. The results so far are quite impressive! A brilliant red with white splotches on the outside of the petals, the plant has reached a height of 4’ so far.
Our last poppy is another ‘stop and notice me’ plant. The fried egg looking blossoms of the Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, look like they are made from tissue paper. The delicate looking blooms sit at the end of thorny stems of a rather tall shrub. This California native was tough to get started but it is now fully established and is loving its location in the Prisoner Gardens.