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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
Once again, San Francisco amazed visitors from around the country and the world this past weekend with a plethora of activities going on throughout the city. Fleet Week, America’s Cup races and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival were just a few of the events that were on offer.
With so many activities for visitors
to choose from, it was a special opportunity to have the United States Marine Corps and Navy personnel volunteer throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Many of the personnel were on ships coming from Los Angeles, and for many, this was a first time visit to San Francisco.
A group of Marines joined the garden volunteers to clear overgrowth from a series of terraces. We had been saving this ‘once a year’ project for a tough volunteer group and who could work harder than the Marines? After a quick lesson on how to work safely on the historic terraces built by inmates in the 1940s, and shown the difference in the types of plants that we were cutting back, the Marines set to work.
In no time at all, the terraces were cleared and we made several trips to our compost pile, which is now a compost mountain.
The volunteer coordinators from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy were instrumental in organizing the activities. For the second year in a row, Marines and Navy have volunteered throughout the park. This year, there were 154 personnel volunteering at 5 park sites. Together, they contributed 462 hours, or the equivalent of 3 months of work for one full time staff!
Thank you to all of the volunteers who helped in the gardens, we hope to see you back next year!
Of all the plants on the island, the ones that get the most attention are the agaves. Agave americana covers the southern slope of the island and greets visitors as they approach the island on the ferry. Originally planted by the military in the 1920s, these natives to the southwest and Mexico are excellent in coastal conditions and stabilizing slopes. They also have a sharp needle at the tip of each leaf that perhaps was useful in keeping inmates out of areas.
With the common name of the century plant, Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to the Warden in 1934, called the agaves the ‘inaccurate timekeepers’. The basal rosette of leaves takes between 10 and 15 years to send up a flower; but for impatient gardeners, it would seem like a century.
The flower spike is quite dramatic, and often visitors mistake it for a tree. The spike can rise up to 26 feet in height (8 meters). Once the plant has flowered, it will then die; but in the meantime, the plant has sent out new adventitious shoots (pups), that will take the place of the parent plant.
While this is not the plant that tequila comes from, the plant does have many other uses. The fibers in the leaves were used by natives to make rope, sew, or to make rough cloth. The seed pods are edible and a sweet liquid can be harvested from the flower stalks before the flowers open.
This past summer, the stand of agaves by the Warden’s house had one plant that was ready to flower. Being a gardener on the island certainly has its perks, and I was able to watch the flower spike reach for the sky and take a photo every week to see how fast it would grow. I first noticed the spike rising above the leaves mid-May and finished reaching the full height with the seed pods expanded mid-September.
The flower spike has now taken its place alongside the other centuries. Now that the flowering is finished, I can start watching the new pups grow.
Autumn in North America is automatically associated with vibrant leaf color. Autumn in the Bay Area may not be as dramatic as on the East Coast, but the plants here are also anticipating the changing of the season.
Aside from an unusual sprinkle of rain in July, our landscape has only received fog drip since the last significant rainfall in May. Needless to say, the plants on Alcatraz that do not receive additional irrigation can hardly wait for the first rainfall.
Succulents are well suited to our Mediterranean- like climate; they are just now beginning to show signs of dryness. Many of the signs are actually adaptations to the lack of water. All of the succulents are able to store water in their highly evolved stems, leaves, and/or roots. In fact, when water becomes scarce, some succulents will shed their lower leaves to conserve water. As soon as water becomes available again, the plant begins to store water again in the existing leaves and will grow new leaves as well.
Another response is a change in leaf color. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green that we see in plants; but there are other pigments in plants that give red, blue, orange and yellow colors. It is thought that in response to stress, plants will show pigments that would otherwise be hidden. Anthocyanin and betalain are pigments that give a red hue.
Several succulents on Alcatraz are
now showing their true colors. Crassula ovata, the common Jade plant, normally has a leaf edge ringed in red, but now has the entire leaf deepened in a shade of red and while the red edge is very brilliant.
Aeonium arboreum normally displays a rosette of green leaves; but now each leaf is edged in red, plus the lower leaves have been dropped to conserve moisture. Another succulent, Aeonium cuneatum has also adds to the display of color. This succulent normally is grayish green but has taken on more rosy gray leaves.
Regardless of the cause, the gardener can appreciate the changing seasons and design with the red hues in mind.
The garden volunteers are easy to spot on the island with our maroon colored t-shirts and sweatshirts. Proudly worn, our dark maroon uniform with the purple iris cannot be purchased but must be earned by volunteering five times in the gardens. Another source of pride is how faded the t-shirts become –the more faded the clothing becomes indicates a longer tenure, even the holes caused by names tags is something volunteers point out to each other.
But how did our t-shirt come to be? Why was an iris chosen to represent the volunteer gardeners and the restoration work?
I spoke with Bill Prochnow and Vivian Young, graphic designers for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to learn more.
The logo was developed in 2004 after the restoration project began in November 2003. In keeping with the existing park logos created by Michael Schwab, the iris graphic was designed to be fairly simple with bold colors and a strong black border. The Douglas iris drawing had already been designed by Vivian in 2004 for another project within the park, but had not been used. With iris being one of the survivor plants on the island, the decision to use the iris to represent Alcatraz was logical. Coincidentally, Douglas iris had been planted on the island by a group of BoyScouts in the early years of the island becoming a National Park, but had perished over the years. Amazing, a new clump of Douglas iris found its way to the island along the Main roadway and has flowered for the past two years.
Superimposing the iris image on the outline of the island’s silhouette tailored the graphic to represent the gardens. Reading into the images, the creation of the final graphic is perfect for the Gardens of Alcatraz – the harsh prison is softened by using yellow and the iris (the plants) dominate. A contrast to what visitors to the island expect to see.
The maroon color of our t-shirts was chosen by the late Carola Ashford, the gardens first Project Manager, simply because it was her favorite color. With a gift for color combination, she chose well as the maroon blended perfectly with the yellow and purple.
The start of the project was focused on removing vegetation to restore the gardens; so the wording on the shirts was worded ‘Alcatraz Garden Restoration’. The wording has since changed to ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ to reflect that now there are gardens again to see and enjoy.
While our volunteer t-shirts still must be earned, we now offer a light lavender color version of our t-shirt for purchase in the island’s bookstores and online. The sale of our t-shirt helps to support our preservation work on the island.
The late Carola Ashford, the garden’s first Project Manager, described gardening on Alcatraz as ‘garden archeology’. Peeling back the layers of overgrowth from years of neglect would always reveal artifacts – forgotten items from the prison days. As we approach our tenth year, we are still finding items. But not all of our findings are artifacts from long ago.
This past week, while weeding
around the metal detector at the base of the recreation yard steps, Barbara, discovered a message in a bottle!
The crew of volunteers and I all gathered around, we all wondered what could be inside.
Prying open the Boylan Bottle Works Root Beer bottle (luckily one of the gardeners travels with a bottle opener), we teased out some moist papers. We speculated it was a time capsule or perhaps a million dollars left to care for the gardens. We were a bit off with our guesses; but the contents of the bottle did make us smile.
Dated April 26th, 2011 -the bottle held the message ‘I love you. Let’s find this and laugh’. The note also had a big imprint of lipstick lips. We all did laugh at the find and it was fun to think that a visitor had left this behind for someone to find one day.
The bottle also contained a BART ticket, a business card from Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and napkins from Extreme Pizza. Perhaps the bottle held the best memories from the person’s trip to San Francisco?
Whatever the reason for leaving the bottle, it was exciting to find.
Staying the night in a prison is probably one thing that most people would rather do without. But when the prison is Alcatraz, suddenly, the opportunity is much more appealing. The garden volunteers spent the night on the Rock as an appreciation for all their hard work. The group was treated to an evening BBQ on the dock, live music in the hospital, a chance to see a foggy sunset and breakfast the next morning with a view of the city. Not bad for a prison experience.
Volunteers and their guests arrived on afternoon boats and showed their guest around the gardens they help care for. The group was also treated to a performance in the hospital wing while dinner was being prepared by garden volunteer, Beth.
Gathering on the dock for dinner, some arriving visitors for the night program assumed the BBQ was for them as well and joined the line of hungry volunteers. The interlopers were quickly weeded out and sent on their way up the hill to Prison.
The fog crept in and swallowed up any chance of seeing a sunset. No one seemed to mind though, as the night tours offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy night program were fascinating. Island visitors were escorted off the island around 9pm, leaving the island to the gardeners and a ranger.
The race was on to find the best cell to
sleep in. Most people chose the tiers of D-Block in the isolation wing, while others preferred the larger cells of the hospital. A couple brave volunteers thought the operation room was ideal.
Aside from a few noisy seagulls, everyone slept pretty well. The beds were oddly comfortable and the cells were snug and cozy. There was no sleeping in as we had to be out of the cells before the first boat of visitors arrived the next morning. I’m sure visitors would have been surprised to see people fast asleep!
The fog lifted enough for a lighthouse tour to offer a 360 degree view of the island while breakfast was enjoyed outside of the Administration Offices.
A sad farewell was said to one of volunteers and docents, Kristen, as she was embarking on
new adventures by moving across the country. As a token, we gave her a pen that was engraved with Alcatraz Prison Regulation #41-Correspondence: “Inmates may correspond only with the approved correspondents. You will refrain from discussing other inmates or institutional affairs. Violent or abusive letters will not be mailed.” Hopefully she knows that everyone on the island is on her approved list.
Thanks to all of the garden volunteers for a fun night and for fantastic gardens!
Abandoned and overgrown orchards are pretty common to see in the country side, left for the birds and wildlife to enjoy the harvest. Of all the survivor plants on Alcatraz, perhaps some of the most unexpected are the apple trees. Not exactly an orchard, the two trees were planted years ago in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island and they are still producing bright red gems with a yellow blush every autumn.
The trees are believed to have been started by an inmate gardener, who likely had apples for a snack and saved the seeds to grow. I’m sure any gardener today has thought about saving their apple seeds and starting their own trees; but few have the patience to wait years for the tree to mature, not to mention having a safe place where the seedling can be nurtured.
However, Alcatraz inmate gardeners had that time.
Twig cuttings of the trees were taken last December and were couriered to the National Plant Germplasm Repository for Apples, a department of the United States Department of Agriculture for Plant Genetic Research in Cornell, New York, with the hopes of identifying the apples with a cultivar name.
So far, researchers at the Repository have not been able to find a correct id for the trees. As the Alcatraz trees lack a graft union, where the scion (the top half of the tree) is joined to the trunk (the rootstock), we can reason that the trees were started from seed. Starting plants from seed increases the genetic variation and the difficulty of positively identifying the trees. If the trees had been started from vegetative cuttings, then the genetics would be the exact same as the parent plant and would most likely be from a known apple tree which would already be in the database.
While we do not have a name, we can still preserve the trees by keeping them growing. Keith Park, Horticulturist for the National Park Service at the John Muir House in Martinez, California was consulted. Park is the caretaker of Muir’s fruit trees and has also worked as the horticulturist at the well- known Filoli Gardens in Woodside, California and looked after their heirloom fruit trees.
Dormant twig cuttings of the Alcatraz apples were taken during the winter and Park grafted them onto a suitable rootstock. Park chose the rootstock MM.111 EMLA. Rootstocks are used to give the mature tree qualities the desired tree lacks, mostly to control the tree height and to give disease resistance. The scion still determines the kind of fruit produced. What does the MM.111 EMLA stand for? Much of the initial apple research began in England in the early 1900s. The ‘M’ refers to the East Malling Research Station in England; the ‘MM’ prefix refers to Malling-Merton when hybrid trees of the Malling series were crossed with ‘Northern Spy’ apples in Merton, England in the 1920s. The ‘EMLA’ suffix stands for ‘East Malling /Long Ashton’ when rootstocks were bred to be virus free in the 1960s. (Click here to read more about rootstocks).
The MM.111 EMLA rootstock is recommended for dry sandy soils in low rainfall areas (perfect for Alcatraz), has good anchoring capacity, rarely produces root suckers and has good resistance to woolly apple aphids.
Park had rootstock that was already a few years old, and so the diameter of the rootstock was slightly larger than the scion. Typically same size diameters would be used, but for us, it would work. Park described his handiwork:
“When I have scion and rootstock material of different sizes I usually do a cleft graft, which involves splitting the rootstock down the middle with a knife about 3/4 of an inch, then shaving the bottom end of the scion to a long, even wedge (like a flat-blade screwdriver) and inserting it into the cleft in the rootstock. The most critical part is aligning the cambium of each piece. If the pieces are not exactly the same diameter (as is often the case) then I insert the scion to one side of the cleft and match up the cambium on one just one side.”
“The next step is to seal and secure the scion to its rootstock so it doesn’t dry out or fall out. I discovered a product called Parafilm, which is a wax impregnated cellophane tape that works great.”
“After the graft has taken the only real maintenance is to periodically rub off any adventitious growth from the rootstock. I’ve heard you should also prune off any flower buds if they appear on newly grafted trees, since it just consumes plant energy at a time when you don’t want fruit anyway.”
The grafted apple trees were grown outside in Woodside and we now have a few of the new apple trees back on the island. One of the trees, planted in the Electric Shop, barely lasted a week, as the wind snapped the tree in half. Luckily, we had a replacement and we can reuse the rootstock. Gardening on the Rock is a challenge but one with many rewards.
Having local Bay Area residents visit Alcatraz is a pretty rare occurrence, and when it does happen, it is usually when they have out-of-town visitors in tow. Very seldom do locals take the 10-minute ferry ride out on the Bay to see their closest National Park.
But this is changing.
Obscura Society, hosts ‘unusual adventures for curious minds’, specializes in tours with unusual access, secret places and unknown history. The Gardens of Alcatraz definitely matches all of these criteria.
Annetta, from the Obscura Society, and her group came out this past Sunday for a tour of the gardens and then pitched in for a couple hours of volunteering.
The energetic group met me at Pier 33 and it was easy to tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. The group, many of whom were meeting for the first time, all had shared interests of history, plants and doing something different.
Beginning the tour at the dock, the group was asked the question “What do you think of when you hear the word Alcatraz”? The group spoke up with descriptive words of ‘prison’, ‘island’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘cold’; but no one said ‘gardens’, the very reason that they were there.
The hour and a half walking tour led the group through all areas of the gardens, including two closed areas, and finished on the west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. As we walked through the gardens, a group member really understood the importance of passing along family stories from one generation to the next, sharing with me how she asked her grandfather to tell her about his past before he sadly passed away. This sharing of history is part of what we are doing on the island – passing along stories.
Timely, the island’s Alumni Day is this coming Saturday, August 11; when past residents of the island come back and share with visitors their experiences and what life was really like on the Rock.
If you cannot make it to the island this Saturday, plan on checking out what you can learn about your own neighborhood, or even better, ask your grandparents to tell you a story.
Meeting people that are passionate about their work is always exciting. Not only do you learn something new but it is hard to walk away and not feel inspired to delve into your own specialty of some sort. On Thursday, we were treated to a visit from John Greenlee and Neil Diboll. John is the grass guru from Greenlea & Associates and specializes in grass ecology and designs meadows for private residences, as well as notable sites such as the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He’s also author of The American Meadow Garden, a fantastic guide to creating natural alternatives to the traditional lawn. John’s passion for his work was evident as soon as we showed him our neglected historic lawn.
Not many people can look at a dead patch of grass less than 1500 square feet in size for half an hour and talk about the many possibilities for it. In fact, not many people would see a possibility at all. During the penitentiary days, the west lawn was kept watered, manicured and was green all year. Actually, an inmate gardener was warned about using too much water for the lawn. The lawn, made up of non-native annual grasses, is lush and green during the winter and spring but then quickly turns into brown grass showing dusty bare ground during the summer months. This dead lawn serves as the backdrop to our now restored borders along the west road. No matter how beautiful the borders look, the eye can’t help but be drawn to the huge eyesore of the former lawn.
John has some interesting facts about lawns in the United States:
-Lawns are the fourth largest ‘crop’ in the States. Corn, soybeans and wheat are the first three crops.
-30% of water on the East Coast is used to water lawns; compared to a staggering 60% of water used to care for lawns on the west coast.
Obviously, lawns in dry California do not make sense. Neil coined a new term to describe this phenomenon: dis-ecological. Re-creating a lawn on an island without any fresh water would certainly be ‘dis-ecological’.
John described how using four or five types of native grasses could be used to create a meadow. Naming a few – Stipa pulchra, Elymus trachycaulis, Muhlenbergia species and Carex pansa, he explained that “grasses are framework that everything else hangs on”. Another component of planting a meadow would be to plant bulbs as “flowers are there for the sizzle”. South African bulbs, as well as native California bulbs would do well in our Mediterranean climate. Tritonia, Fritillaria, Tritelia, Dichelostemma capitatum (blue dicks), and Calochortus nuttallii (Sego lily) would be perfect.
John also gave us pointers for turning a plan on paper into an actual meadow. The first step would be to try to reduce the seed bank in the soil. Forty years of weed seeds have accumulated since this lawn was last cared for and those annual seeds is what have been providing the ‘green lawn’. Other than using roundup, John suggested watering the ground now to germinate as many of the seeds as possible. The germinated weed seeds can then be killed off using an acetic acid solution (vinegar). He advised against tilling the soil or amending it, as this would only bring more weed seeds to the surface. Plants need to survive in the existing soil, or they will never be happy. John described that plants should be thanking you for giving them dry, sandy, nutrient deficient soil. John commented that we only have annual grasses to contend with, so we are one step ahead already. Planting by plugs would speed up the establishment of the meadow by a full year, instead of taking two years with grass seed. We could potentially see a beautiful meadow this time next year! Once the plugs are in, the area would need to be kept weeded and watered until established. John explains as a general guideline “design what we can afford to water”; with our rainwater catchment sitting right next to this lawn, we will have sufficient water. Mulching around the plugs will help to prevent further germination of weed seeds and Neil recommended using corn gluten as an organic pre-emergent.
Once established, the meadow would have very little maintenance with cutting once a year. John said the goal of a meadow is “it has to say it’s a meadow; not ‘when are they going to mow that lawn’”.
After John and Neil left, the volunteers and I talked excitedly about our meadow-to-be; and actually, we were still talking about it this morning too. Seeing the possibilities through the neglect is a real skill; a skill that John, Neil, the Garden Conservancy team all share.
Curious visitors sometime ask ‘How does stuff get to the island?’ While picking up a truckload of chicken manure from a nearby store, I thought “Maybe I’ll do a blog about following the manure from the store to the island”.
I completed my purchase and then proceeded to Pier 50, home of WestStar, the barge company that runs the monthly supply run out to the island. The bags of manure were unloaded by hand into wooden boxes and then stacked with the rest of the Alcatraz supplies in the warehouse. Supplies can be dropped off and stored in the warehouse a few weeks prior to the barge run.
I arrived bright and early this past Tuesday
morning at Fort Mason at 3:30am to carpool with other Alcatraz staff back to Pier 50 to board the tug that tows the barge (after a mandatory stop for coffee and donuts). Donning life jackets, we hopped from the dock onto the barge and then climbed down a ladder to get onto the tug. Once aboard, we tucked into the donuts for the 30 minute trip to Alcatraz. I was hoping for a view, but the only view was out the bathroom window porthole, which someone had creatively drawn a few fish.
Pulling up to the Alcatraz dock, the barge was secured and we climbed onto the Alcatraz dock. According to Patrick McAllister, Director of Alcatraz Operations for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, this month’s barge supply was fairly small compared to others. A typical barge brings over bottled water, merchandise for the island’s three bookstores, empty dumpsters, and various construction equipment and building materials. The uploading of the barge is orchestrated to be finished by the time the staff boat docks at 9:00am.
The two big safety lessons were 1) watch the hook from the crane and 2) make sure your feet are clear of the palette when it is set down.
Two forklifts were unloaded first, and started to shuttle supplies to where they needed to be on the island. McAllister developed a rough system to avoid the supplies from piling up in the vincinty of the dock. As palettes were lifted one by one by the barge crane onto the Alcatraz dock, the forklifts kept up a relay back and forth. WestStar workers hooked each palette to the crane while Parks Conservancy staff waited on the dock to unhook the ropes that held the palettes.
Soon, the barge was empty; and then materials that were being shipped back to the city were loaded. Empty water bottles, full dumpsters and a generator along with stacks of empty palettes were being shipped back. The most interesting was seeing the generator being roped onto the hook and then lifted onto the barge.
In the beginning of the garden restoration, all the supplies for the gardens were imported this way – countless bags of gravel for the rose terrace, concrete mix for the new railings, the greenhouse kit, even plants if they were dropped off the day before at Pier 50. It is an amazing amount of effort that it takes to keep the island going. Today, it is relatively simple, the barge itself has only been postponed a few times due to bad weather. I can only imagine what an undertaking getting building materials to the island when it was a military fortress in the late 1800s, before the convienance of tugs and forklifts.