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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
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.
Working on Alcatraz, either as a staff member or as a volunteer has many perks. Obviously, one of the best perks is being on the island for special events; and what better event could there be then to watch the 4th of July fireworks from the city’s best vantage point?
On the fourth, staff and volunteers, along with friends and family were invited to celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States. We arrived on the island as the day visitors were departing. Just to be on the island with a fraction of the normal visitor numbers was a treat; there is typically 5000 visitors a day.
The afternoon fog held off despite strong winds pushing the marine layer over the Marin Headlands. People speculated if we would be able to even see the fireworks, as in years past, we’ve only been able to hear booms from the fireworks. Gathered on the dock, everyone enjoyed their ‘bring your own picnic’ before heading off on various ranger led tours of the island. I finally had the opportunity to tag along on Ranger Al’s talk about Escape Attempts. Working in the gardens along the main road, I have caught portions of his talk since I started working on the island in 2006, but I had never heard the whole presentation. Al did not disappoint the crowd and he had all of us pondering the meaning of Escape. Did an inmate technically escape if he managed to get to the water? What about off the island if only to be recaptured? Or what if the escape ended in death? Likely not the cheeriest topic to celebrate a National holiday, but it made me understand a bit more the release the gardens provided to the inmate gardeners.
We had a chance to tour the island and show off the gardens to our friends. In a way, it was a bit like being in grade school and having your parents come to your classroom to see your drawings. All of the visitors could see why Alcatraz is special to us.
As we gathered by the lighthouse, boats began to anchor in the Bay and we could hear the music coming from Fisherman’s Wharf. Again, I was reminded of Ranger Al’s talk – the real punishment of Alcatraz was having the city so close but yet out of reach. Hearing the laughter and music of people celebrating must have reached the ears of the inmates locked up in their cells.
The fireworks were spectacular and we could see both sets of fireworks in unison. There were even heart-shaped and smiley face fireworks.
San Francisco is truly an amazing city, and the volunteers and staff that are dedicated to our parks are even more amazing.
As we settle into our summer garden maintenance routine, there are a few garden tasks that we do weekly. This time of year we are kept busy watering plants and deadheading the spent flowers. Many first-time volunteers are unfamiliar with the term ‘deadheading’ and I have the opportunity to show them something new.
So, what exactly is deadheading? Simply, it is the removal of dead flowers. By removing the dead flowers, the plant is tricked into producing more flowers; all the plant really wants to do is produce seeds to ensure the next generation of its kind. When we remove the flowers right before the plant begins to put energy into producing seeds, the plant instead puts energy into making more flowers for us to enjoy all summer long. As well, removing dead flowers keeps the plant looking tidier.
Deadheading does take a certain type of person though. As you can imagine, removing tiny flowers one-by-one from 4.5 acres of gardens is time consuming and having patience, an eye for details, and a strong back helps.
Most plants are deadheaded in the same basic way – cutting the flower back to the next live leaf is a good general rule. However, for pelargoniums, they do look better when done a certain way. For these plants, the entire flower plus the flower stalk must be removed. If only the flower is removed, the stalk will eventually die-back leaving an unsightly stick. And while it may only be one stick, over an entire section of planting of pelargoniums, these little ‘sticks’ will prominently catch a person’s eye. Removing the flower and stalk is easy enough – simply firmly hold the base of the stalk in one hand and then bend down the flower stalk. Pelargoniums also tend to have yellowing leaves underneath that will shrivel and fall to the ground. A good practice to help prevent disease and buildup of insects is to regularly clean these leaves up and compost them.
Other island plants that benefit from deadheading are Osteospermum, Arctotis, Penstemon, snapdragons, rose, Zinnia, Limonium, Calendula, Centranthus.
This past Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous escape of the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Cleverly arranging to be in cells next to each other, four men planned the elaborate escape. Back in 1962, seating at meal times was arranged by cell location – meaning that the foursome sat at their own table and had every meal to plan and update each other on their progress. Planning likely took a year and a half before beginning a six month dig out through the back concrete wall surrounding the air vents of their cells. Their route would take them up to the roof through the utility corridor. Unfortunately, all that planning could not have predicted that when Allen West dug through the back of his cell, he encountered a pipe that would let him go no further. The three remaining inmates fled to the water where they used homemade rafts to brave the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.
Family of the Anglin brothers was on the island along with many members of the media to speculate if the trio made it or not. With the three still officially wanted by the FBI, the search continues.
There are a number of other escapees; however they get much less press coverage – the plants.
After the closure of the prison in 1963, the gardens were abandoned, leaving the plants on their own to either perish without the constant care of gardeners; or to thrive. These garden escapees chose to thrive and are well suited to dry windy summers, poor rocky soil and near constant wind. If a plant can cope with these conditions, it almost deserves its freedom by growing where it pleases.
High on the wanted list (or unwanted list as the case may be) are the usual suspects – ivy, blackberry, and honey suckle. A few other plants are more recognized as ‘garden plants’ – calla lily, Chasmanthe floribunda, sweet pea and Acanthus mollis. Nasturtiums try to sneak into most garden areas – sending their long tendrils cautiously at first, and then before you know it, the vine is 10 feet long and clambering over its neighbors. The most dramatic escape, almost comparable to the Great Escape of 1962, is Elliot Michener’s fig tree. In the forty years of the gardens being neglected, the fig was happy to spread out and take over a portion of the west lawn. This escape has a happy ending, as now the overgrown vegetation provides habitat for snowy egrets, which are back on the island, right now in fact, raising their chicks amongst the ripening figs.
The escapees give a glimpse of what introduced plants will do on an abandoned plot of land, and what other creatures will find opportunity with a new habitat created.
As part of our commitment to being as sustainable as possible, we have a worm bin on the island. One of my volunteers, Dick Miner, started it two years ago and has since become nicknamed the Worm Man of Alcatraz.
Dick outlines in a few easy steps how you can make your own worm bin.
To start a worm farm one needs a simple container. We use a Tupperware container in which small holes have been drilled for air exchange. Fill the bottom half with bedding, we use coconut coir, this is the fibrous material of the coconut. The bedding should be moist but not wet. Coconut coir can be purchased in many good nurseries. In Marin, it’s the nurseries the specialize in native plants that carry coir and red wigglers.
Next, ordering the worms. One should start with maybe a 1/2 pound of red wigglers. The worms can be ordered through worm farming websites, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm which is in Pennsylvania is where we ordered ours from. Another web site that is good is Worm’s Wrangler in the Northwest.
The worms will eat most kitchen scraps, just not meat or dairy products. They love coffee grounds, melons, and salad greens. They are picky eaters when it comes to onions, garlic, or peppers. The worms on Alcatraz are fed once a week. Dick buries the veggies in one corner of the box; and next week the next corner and so on. The worms will migrate to wherever the food is. It is vital not to let the box dry out or they will try to leave, making a very slow getaway.
The bedding should be changed when the box gets too wet. Harvesting castings is a bit tedious. Dick dumps out the bedding on a tarp and separates the worms from the coir one at a time. The worms then go into new bedding. The castings are used in our compost tea, which is sprayed on our roses.
The worm bin stays in the greenhouse under a bench and does not get too hot, the worms can stay outside but they do need to be brought inside for chilly winter evenings.
Visitors on the free docent tour are shown into the greenhouse and get a chance to see the worm bin and if they are lucky, will have Dick as their guide.
I’ve written a few times about
the Cellhouse Slope that faces San Francisco – the hours spent weeding oxalis in the rain and wind on the steep slope; but I can’t resist writing about it again.
I am very pleased to report that the Slope, as all the gardeners call it, is looking fantastic this year! The bright pink is easily visible from the city, even as far as Fort Point, the military fort on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge! Amazing enough, but there’s more – this is the first year since we started rehabilitating this area that we never had to weed oxalis on the section of the slope that was begun in 2007! Both of these achievements are something that all the volunteers and garden staff are very proud of.
We got ambitious and decided to go beyond our original plan and restore the entire slope to its original planting plan of having the ENTIRE slope planted with the ice plant, as is recommended in the Cultural Landscape Report. We began snipping cuttings last summer and grew the plugs in 4” pots in our greenhouse. We were able to weed the slope of germinating grasses, wild radish and mallow weeds and were able to stay ahead of the lush growth that came with the rains this past fall and winter. We weeded and planted simultaneously, clearing an area and then planting it right away. We have now covered the second half of the slope, and the new plants have even started to flower. I guarantee that next May, this slope will be truly incredible (and I may just have to write about it again).
This past Friday, I had the pleasure of showing Russ Beatty the restored gardens. Beatty was one of the authors of the Gardens of Alcatraz book that was published in 1996, long before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began in 2003.
Beatty is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. His interest in historical landscapes is initially what got him interested in the Gardens of Alcatraz. In 1995, he was asked by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to write a chapter for an upcoming book (Gardens of Alcatraz) that the Parks Conservancy hoped would draw attention to the withering gardens on the island.
Beatty delved into researching the gardens – combing through National Park Service archives for letters and photos that would provide a glimpse of the people who created and tended the gardens. He also set about trying to find people to interview that could give a first-hand account of gardening on the Rock. The National Park Service hosts an annual Alumni Day on Alcatraz where past residents (guards and their families and inmates) come back to the Rock and share their stories. Ever hopeful, Beatty sent a questionnaire to the Alumni visiting the island that August day in 1995. Amazingly, he had one response – from Elliot Michener, inmate number AZ 578, who was there and sent Beatty a long letter after he returned to his home. The letter detailed his experiences gardening on the island. Many of his quotes are in the book as well as on interpretive signs in the gardens and are used throughout our website.
At the time, Elliot lived in Sierra Madre and Beatty travelled twice to his home to interview him. Beatty had a difficult time drawing Elliot out of himself but recalls that his home, a rented basement flat in a cottage, was sparsely decorated. He photographed Michener, age 89, under a bougainvillea growing outside in the yard. Elliot recounted one incident on the island shortly
after he started working as the houseboy for Warden Swope and his wife. It seemed that the previous inmate houseboy had built a still to make moonshine in the Warden’s attic. Fearing of being blamed for the still if it was discovered, and no doubt losing his new earned position and the perks it came with, he quickly disassembled the still and buried the pieces in the garden. The Warden’s garden is one of the remaining historic gardens on the island that has not been restored yet, perhaps if we do, we will turn up pieces of copper – at least we will have an explanation ready for the finds.
A year after the book was published, Beatty found himself along on a Garden Conservancy Fellows Tour of Napa Valley. Antonia Adezio, President of the Garden Conservancy, was also there. Beatty excitedly shared a copy of the book with her – planting the seed for the partnership project that would eventually save the gardens.
Beatty is now gathering research for an article for Site Lines, a journal of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and he was on the island to interview myself and take a look at what has become of the gardens. After Beatty had asked all of his questions, I had a chance to ask him some of my own, after all, here is a gentleman who has actually spoken with Elliot Michener, the inmate that is talked about quite a lot on our docent led tours and whom we credit the development of the inmate gardens largely to.
Do you see any specialness in the story of the Gardens of Alcatraz?
The story ties together a great deal of California and US history — the fortress built as a result of the Civil War to protect the Bay; the reshaping of the land as a fort, but also recognizing the innate human need for beautification through gardens and gardening; the solace and relief gardeners from the military prison as well as the Federal penitentiary found in their creativity and work in making and tending gardens – – early unintentional horticultural therapy; the changes that these efforts made in the lives of hardened criminals; the gardens as expressions of beauty by both families and inmates in an effort to live in such an inhospitable environment, and the story the gardens bring to the visiting public whose main interest is rather macabre about the Federal period criminals such as Al Capone (the softer side of the story). Also the fact that such a rich palette of plants has been able to survive through long neglect in such a hostile place — a created ecology.
If you could interview Elliot Michener again, what three questions would you ask him?
• How were you treated by your fellow inmates when told of your gardening experiences?
• Tell me more about Capt. Weinhold; how else did he help you other than giving you gloves and seeds?
• What brought you to Los Angeles; tell me more about your lady friend and the gardening you did for her.
Perhaps one day, Beatty will be able to write another book about our chapter in history and how these once neglected historic gardens have found new life. Beatty sent me a quote from J.B Jackson that ‘there is a necessity of ruins. Places need to decay before they are well understood and their importance gives rise to discovery and restoration’. This quote really is the essence of the Gardens of Alcatraz. For so long they had been abandoned, but they are now revitalized and telling the softer side of Alcatraz’s history.
This week was a turning point in spring with the Chasmanthe floribunda being cut back on the west road terraces. After blooming in February, the leaves of this South African bulb is left is photosynthesize to store energy in the bulb to bloom next spring. Like other bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, the leaves should be left until they die back completely; however, on the west road terraces, the chasmanthe is cut back just as the tips are starting to turn yellow.
Why do we cut the foliage when they are still green?
The leaf stalks are cut to the ground and which are then cut into 4” pieces by volunteer crews. The pieces will be composted and break down much faster if they are cut when they are still green. The moisture content in the leaves helps them break down much quicker than if they were brown and dry. We have experimented in past years with letting the foliage die back completely, then cutting it back and feeding it through our chipper. Not only were the dried leaves hard to cut with hand pruners; but the dried leaves wrapped around the chipper blades; which then lead to hours taking the chipper apart and sharpening the blades.
This week, method – a company that is dedicated to producing earth and people friendly cleaning products – volunteered in the gardens and helped with this yearly task. A fun bunch, the group enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge while they worked.
One lucky employee, Jonathan McCarren even found a very rusty trowel with the wooden handle rotted away. Jonathan’s find will be passed onto the National Park Service archives and his name will become part of the records. The group speculated what the inmate who last touched it had being doing and why the trowel had been left behind?
Fitting for a cleaning company, they swept the roadway after they were done and left the gardens pristine.
Keeping our heirloom roses in top condition is a high priority as the bushes are about to be at their prime flowering in the coming weeks. The most common problems we have with the roses are black spot, powdery mildew and rose caterpillar.
We are able to keep all of these menaces under control using a compost tea recipe from Filoli, the stately gardens south of San Francisco. Follow the easy steps below to make your own tea get your garden even greener by eliminating harmful chemicals.
Aquarium pump with clear tubing and air bubbler, available from any pet store
5-gal clean bucket
Clean old pillowcase
Stick or piece of wood
Compost Tea Ingredients:
5 gallons non-chlorinated water
1 cup aerobic compost
1 cup worm castings
Handful alfalfa meal
1 Tbsp feather-meal
1 Tbsp fishmeal
1 Tbsp kelp
2 cups fish hydrolzate
1 capful ancient humate
How to prepare the compost tea:
It takes about 3 days from the set up to the application of compost tea
Step 1 – day 1
Set up water in 5-gallon bucket and let it air, using air pump for at least 24 hours, to remove the chlorine.
Step 2 – day 2
Combine all dry ingredients into
the clean pillowcase. Close the pillowcase and tie with a string. Tie the pillowcase onto the stick and suspend over the air bubbler in the water.
Make sure that the bottom of the pillowcase does not touch the bottom of the bucket. There needs to be a gap for air to bubble through the suspended tea bag.
Let it steep for 24 hours with the air pump on.
Step 3 – day 3
Transfer compost tea to the sprayer and apply it over the plant’s leaves and soil.
After finishing make sure to carefully clean the pillowcase, bucket, and sprayer, especially all of the taps and nozzles. This will prevent bad bacteria from developing (and smelling).