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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.
According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.
Without a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s
work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.
Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.
For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.
Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.
Spring in Northern California is well underway. The daffodils have another week or so of blooming and then we will be planting our summer annuals. Our greenhouse is bursting with plants ready to be planted outside.
Many old fashioned annuals are easy to start from seed.
We have had great success with pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), and Zinnia elegans.
One of my volunteers started blue columbine (Aquilegia) and they are doing fantastic. Often gardeners find that columbine prefers to re-seed itself in cracks in sidewalks, but is fussy when given the perfect potting medium. Just like former residents, my volunteer collected seed from her beloved garden in Philadelphia and brought them with her to her new home in San Francisco.
Last spring we collected seed from the survivor grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) just to see if we could get some to germinate. The seed heads were dried and then crushed to release the seeds. We researched the best methods to grow the plants from seed and found recommendations that the seeds be soaked in water first. We collected enough seed that we decided to do an experiment – soaking seeds and not soaking the seeds. We found that the soaked seeds did produce more seedlings; but we also had the dry seeds sprout. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for these new seedlings to flower.
We are also trying to propagate Fuchsia paniculata, but these are proving to be a challenge. So far, we have done 30 cuttings and only two are showing promise.
Our token tomato plant is doing well, going into its second year. We have one historic photo from the 1950s of tomatoes being grown in Officers’ Row. We have tried growing tomatoes again in the garden but in the chilly summer fog, the plants are not happy. I only wish we could find photos of lettuce and cool season veggies; so that we could historically grow them as well. But, residents primarily chose to grow flowers to brighten up their landscape and to have cut flowers in their homes.
The gardens are delighting visitors again this year, especially the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. Be sure not to miss them when you visit!
Gardening on Alcatraz has many challenges – limited fresh water, harsh winds, chilly fog, and transporting supplies to the island; but one challenge came as a surprise only after we had started planting in 2005 -the Western Gull. Actually 2000 of them. Victoria Seher, National Park Service wildlife biologist monitors their numbers: there were 740 nesting pairs in 2011, up from 722 pairs in 2010, but down from 1061 pairs in 2008. Each nesting pair usually lays three eggs, adding to the population substantially.
The first two years of the project, from 2003 to 2005, was intensely focused on removing overgrown vegetation built up from the 40 years of neglect. By 2005, the trough planter along the main roadway leading to the top of the island had been repaired and was ready to be planted. This was a significant event – the first planting in over 40 years! Staff and volunteers eagerly turned out that day to help plant the 330 feet of trough with ivy leaf geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, that had originally filled the trough in the 1940s. Heirloom pelargoniums were sourced from Geraniaceae in nearby Ross, California and everyone pitched in for a fun day of planting. Standing back proudly at the end of the day, the accomplished work was admired. However, returning the next day, the plants were gone! Unwittingly, 330 feet of prime nesting material had nicely been laid out for the western gull.
Learning from our mistake, new plants are now caged – almost like being imprisoned themselves. We have become experts at building cages out of chicken wire. We have also learned to optimize the time the gulls are away from the island to give the plants the longest time possible to develop their own roots to help anchor themselves in the ground. Seabird nesting season is from February to September, so by October, we are ready for planting and the winter rains.
Like other gardeners that square off against deer, I have noticed that certain plants seem to attract sea gull vandalism, while other plants go unnoticed by our feathered friends. Strap-like leaves beckon to gulls; I guess this material is easy to harvest and to shape into a nest. Beds planted with Bearded Iris, daffodils (Narcissus) and cottage pink (Dianthus plumarius) in the Officers’ Row gardens have been replanted with more hardy plants that can stand up better against the gulls. This year, the gulls have taken a liking (or dislike) to the beautiful daylily, Hemerocallis ‘Kwanso’. This is a triploid flowering daylily with tangerine colored blossoms. The gulls have nipped down the plants to the bases which will make flowering unlikely this year. However, the gulls that nest
on the west side of the island leave the cottage pinks and bearded iris alone and choose to peck the succulents instead. Tough aloes and aeoniums are shredded instead.
I have also learned a few interesting facts about the Western gull – they mate for life and that they come back to the same spot to nest year after year (up to 20 years is typical for a gull). Waging a 20 year battle against a bird seems a bit ridiculous so it is far easier to accept the gulls. When I started as the gardener in 2006, I took a strong dislike to the gulls, but now, they have really grown on me and I’ve actually gotten to know some of the gulls. There is a one-legged male in Officers’ Row that I try not to disturb so he doesn’t have to stand up. There’s also a whole gauntlet of gulls nesting along the road that leads to the rose terrace. A few years ago, anyone walking down this road was taking a great chance at being marked, but now the gulls barely glance at me when I walk by. However, anyone they don’t recognize gets the full squawking treatment. There’s also a pair that nests in a huge clump of ivy in the Inmate Gardens on the west side. Their young usually wander around the gardens and drink from our hose during the summer.
Come out and see the gardens and gulls this spring! Nowhere else will you be able to experience a major seabird nesting colony, historic gardens, and a former prison on an island so close to a major city. I’ll bet you will admire the gulls in a way you never did before – what took me 6 years to realize, will only take you an afternoon.
Aculops fuchsiae, better known as fuchsia gall mite, has caused irreparable damage to fuchsias growing on the west coast of the United States, especially California, where the mites thrive in our cool summers and mild winters. This little mite, invisible to the naked eye, has the ability to disfigure an entire bush, and once the plant has been affected, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. For such a tiny creature, they make their presence known.
The mite was introduced from Brazil and was first noticed in northern California in the early 1980s, the mite was likely an accidental introduction. How do you know if you have the mite? If your plants are affected, you will notice leafs, stems and/or the flowers becoming swollen and fused together. New growth is deformed and is covered by small hairs. Aphids can also cause some of these problems, but aphids can easily be seen.
The mites love to travel; after all, they came all the way from Brazil! They easily hitch a ride with birds, hummingbirds are a prime carrier, spread with the wind, but more often, they wait for the faithful gardener to come along. Gardeners can easily spread the mites simply by touching the affected area with their hands or pruners and then moving on to other fuchsias. Typically, the best way to control mites is to remove the plant entirely. On Alcatraz, however, removing historic plants is not an option.
I am not a fan of chemical sprays, but would rather use frequent and consistent applications of Neem oil to control the outbreaks. I also opt for removing affected growths, raking fallen leaves and flowers and keeping plants as healthy as possible with organic fertilizers supplemented with deep waterings during the summer.
We have three kinds of Fuchsia on the island that are afflicted with the mite – Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, Fuchsia magellanica, and Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’. The ‘Rose of Castile’ is growing in a few places around the island, with the oldest and best specimen growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. This bush is thought to be at least 50 years old! Visitors are always amazed to see the thickness of the trunk and find it hard to believe that a fuchsia, which they usually associate with being a hanging basket flower, could grow into a full sized shrub. In addition to the mite, this fuchsia is also susceptible to rust.
There is another survivor Fuchsia along the main road that visitors walk by. Located right off the dock, this Fuchsia has grown into a small tree over the years. When the Garden Conservancy first scoped out the gardens in 2003, a photo was taken of this poor tree. The plant was holding its own against the mite while being choked by overgrowth. The tree, believed to have Fuchsia magellanica as a parent, looks good for maybe 2 weeks out of the year. Each year, I hope for it to do well, but this year, was not a good year for it. Heartbreakingly, I gave it a hard cutback this past Monday. I anxiously awaited new growth, and thank goodness, the leaf buds are swelling! The bed has been cleaned up underneath and we will begin again.
In choosing plants for the historic gardens, the Garden Conservancy is aiming to give the ‘look and feel’ of the past gardens. We are able to substitute similar plants and can choose disease and insect resistant plants. We have been successfully growing mite resistant fuchsias and now have a small collection on the island. Plants have been sourced from the local SF Botanical Garden and Berkeley Horticulture. We are now growing Fuchsia campo molina, F. thilco, F. paniculata and F. ‘Grand Harfare’. We also have been growing the very profuse bloomer Fuchsia ‘Angel’s Earrings’, but I have noticed that these have been affected with the mite where they are growing near the affected plants. Alcatraz even has one survivor fuchsia that is mite resistant – Fuchsia denticulata.
This past Friday the Garden Conservancy hosted a meeting for the Bay Area Gardens Network (Bagnet). Bagnet is represented by all the major public gardens in the Bay Area. Gardens from UC Botanical Gardens, Cornerstone in Sonoma, Filoli, Mendocino Botanical Gardens, Presidio Trust, and Merritt Lake in Oakland, just to name a few, attended. Looking around the room, it was impressive to see the wealth of knowledge that was gathered. We started the meeting by introducing ourselves by stating 1) where we worked, 2) what we liked most about our work, and 3) what we least liked about our work. Going around the room, the common answers were for most liked – seeing visitors enjoying the gardens; while the least liked typically involved budget cuts and wearing multiple hats to get the job done.
The idea of a Bay Area garden group started in 1996 and was the idea of Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Turner saw a need for Bay Area gardens, of all sizes and types, to keep in touch with each other and discuss various issues that everyone faces among gardens; as well as providing an excellent network for staff of all the gardens. With many unique gardens around the Bay Area, it is worth promoting and helping each other, instead of feeling the need to compete for visitors and resources.
The day’s agenda had a few topics of great interest; one being creating a more comprehensive website that lists all the Bay Area gardens and activities scheduled. Currently, a website does exist, www.bayareagardens.org, led by Pacific Horticulture. Updates are being planned for this website so stay tuned!
I had the pleasure to update the group on the progress of the Gardens of Alcatraz for the past five years – in 10 minutes! I had a lot to cover but I managed to fit in the highlights – accomplishing five garden area rehabilitations, logging 40 000 volunteer hours to date, noting our sustainability achievements of the water catchment and composting sites; and describing our outreach efforts – 8 new waysides around the island, the self-guided brochure, free docent tours twice a week and the ‘Ask the Gardener’ open garden on Wednesdays; as well as providing our garden t-shirt for purchase in the bookstore and receiving a royalty on each one sold, and our ever-improving website, including this blog! Whew! A lot has been done.
Chatting with members afterwards, many people commented on some aspect of my presentation that they had experienced themselves or were considering undertaking. In the afternoon, the group was toured through the Presidio by Michael Boland. We were fortunate to have him for the afternoon as he showed us the natural areas that had been rehabilitated, the community involvement taking place, as well as the infrastructure of the Doyle Drive bridge construction project, going through the historic Presidio.
Through the course of the afternoon, I realized that Alcatraz is not really an island. Michael’s history of the military in the Presidio linked Alcatraz to that key time period when the military landscaped their bases, when much of Alcatraz was planted. Island residents were focused on gardening and improving their home. Even today, Alcatraz is connected by being part of the garden network in the Bay Area. This of course, made me realize that even though I work on an island, I’m not isolated in my challenges, and that any success achieved benefits all the area gardens with the sharing of knowledge.
No matter what time of year it is, there is always something in bloom on Alcatraz. Oddly, what is the middle of winter is the prime time to see the succulents display their vibrant blooms. Right now, the inmate gardens on the west side of the island are putting on a stunning show, and this is only the beginning of a two month long display.
Green leafed Cotyledon orbiculata with orange bell-like flowers are among the first to bloom. Adjacent to these are yellow blooming Sedum praealtum. An island survivor, the bright yellow flowers accent the yellow bloom of the purple leafed Aeonium arboreum, another survivor. At the foreground is the velvet soft Echeveria pulvinata with its soft orange blooms on a long spike. Weaved throughout this tapestry of textures and colors is Chasmanthe floribunda; a South African bulb that has bright orange blooms that begin the end of January and continues into March.
Across the staircase grows a patch of purple leafed Lampranthus with bright magenta flowers. A scarce island survivor, this patch was grown from cuttings from one of two existing plants. The propagated patch is contrasted with the purple leaved Aeonium and higher on the slope, the green leafed Aeonium. Sprinkled amongst the plantings are Lobularia maritima, sweet alyssum, a hardy island survivor that shows up where it pleases.
The gardened slopes on the west side
of the island consist of a sandy/rocky breakdown of the island’s natural bedrock – grey wackle sandstone. This creates a well-drained soil where the succulents can thrive. Also contributing to the success of these plantings is the amount of sunshine the slope receives. The succulent slope faces due west, receiving all the afternoon sun, but also tolerates the harsh Pacific winds. The unusually dry and warm winter has likely caused the blooming to be a bit earlier than usual, but they seem unaffected by the dry conditions.
The plants thriving on the slope is a clever mix of 40 years of untended growth (survival of the fittest) and the guiding hand of the gardeners – all with the cellhouse providing a somber contrast to the vivid colors.
The Rock is many things to many different people. For some visitors, it is a trip of a lifetime, something that they must see. For past residents, it can be a place of happy memories or of sad times (depending on which side of the bars you were on). For Bay Area residents, perhaps it is just a landmark in the middle of the Bay, a tourist trap that is best avoided. For others – volunteers and staff, the island holds a special place that we look forward to being each day.
For me, this week held a strange combination of people from all those categories.
On Tuesday, I was able to show the gardens to a couple from New Jersey whose daughter had raved about the gardens. The couple had put the gardens on the top of their list of things to see while they were in San Francisco.
My volunteers trooped onto the island on Wednesday and as always, enjoyed their morning. Late in the afternoon, as the last boat pulled away, I was left on the island with an interesting group of people:
A film crew from the Travel Channel that were highlighting secret places to visit,
Four guys who had backpacks,
Bob Luke, a past inmate, and his lovely wife,
A National Park Service ranger.
I could figure out how everyone related to the island, except for the guys with the backpacks. As it turned out, one of the guys, Jim Vetter, had entered the lottery system for an overnight on Alcatraz and had blogged about his stay. The volunteer group had waited five years before winning the chance to participate in volunteer work and then sleep overnight on the island. The Travel Channel picked up on his blog and contacted them to re-enact their night.
The Travel Channel was also able to
arrange an interview with Bob Luke, a former inmate sentenced for robbery. I had the chance to chat with Bob and his wife and never would I guess that he had a past on Alcatraz.
The gardens naturally fit with being a secret part of Alcatraz, one that catches people by surprise with the flourishing blooms.
As the week continued, on Thursday I hosted a group from the National Parks Conservation Association that were interested in seeing the gardens. An honor to have this group on the island, they work hard to educate decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks.
And finally, Friday arrived; and a new volunteer joined our crew. As an introduction to the island, she joined a group of 30 visitors for the free docent led walk through the gardens to learn about the history. Ending the week with the volunteers and the docent tour really brings home why we are here on the island – to engage the community and to share the stories of gardens with visitors. As I reflect on my week, I realize that everyone has their own reasons for visiting National Parks, and Alcatraz especially, has something to offer to everyone.
J.J. Abrams new hit series ‘Alcatraz’ premiered January 16 and has viewers sitting on the edge of their chairs. The show also has visitors creeping over ‘Area Closed’ signs on the island, trying to get a glimpse of the secret tunnels and passageways shown on the television show.
In one episode, lead characters step over
a chain and onto a gravel roadway. However, instead of leading to the underground high-tech research lab, in reality, the path leads to another secret – the gardens.
The thriving gardens are seemingly out of place on an island that was focused on punishment, containment and defense. Today, the plant life contrasts sharply against the weather worn concrete and iron bars. To fully appreciate the gardens, you have to be prepared to look over
retaining walls and not follow
I wonder if the television show will feature any of the inmate gardeners? Our newest webpage, Inmate Gardeners, profiles three inmates who were lucky enough to be assigned garden duties. One of the inmates, Elliot Michener, even worked in the Warden’s House, tending to household chores, serving meals and actually became friends with the Johnson family.
Now is the time to plan a trip to see the gardens in their spring beauty. Join us for free garden walks and we’ll take you into the secret closed areas; and show you our Alcatraz, the one that softens the Rock and looks beautiful in the sunshine and the mysterious fog. Be sure to book a ticket with Alcatraz Cruises for the 9:10 sailing on Fridays or Sundays.
Around the nation today, thousands of people joined together in volunteering to mark Martin Luther King, Junior Day. This federal holiday was first observed in 1986 to mark Dr. Martin Luther King’s, birthday. In 1994, in honor of Martin Luther King, Congress designated the third Monday in January as a Day of Service; it is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off.” As described by the Martin Luther King, Jr. website, “the MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”
Once again, people in the Bay Area fully supported their Golden Gate National Recreation Area by quickly filling up the volunteer opportunities. Park-wide, 587 volunteers registered!
On Alcatraz, I had the pleasure of working with a variety of community members. A family with two daughters learned all about composting from our own Worm Man of Alcatraz, Dick Miner.
While the other group of volunteers was made up of 10 youth from BuildOn, a non-profit that builds schools in third world countries, and four park enthusiasts, who have volunteered for the Park before. For many of the volunteers, this was their first time to Alcatraz.
Working together, the groups accomplished clearing an overgrown pathway and sifting a yard of compost that will be used in the gardens.
Thank you for supporting MLK Day and your Park!
We have been busy the past two weeks cutting back perennials and pruning the roses. This is the ideal time of year in Northern California to clean up perennials before new growth starts. The perennials in Officers’ Row have been tidied up and the bare bones of the garden are taking prominent stage at this time of the year.
Fast growing Beard Tongue, Penstemon,
Valerian, Centranthus ruber, Fuchsia, and yellow bush daisy, Euryops pectinatus, were all cut back hard this year to encourage denser new growth. The sprawling beard tongue tends to overtake its neighbors if not kept in check. The fuchsia and yellow bush daisy is fairly low maintenance and only needs to be cut back every other year. The growth of the yellow bush daisy tends to become very heavy and weighs on the branches, eventually cracking and breaking the stems. Pruning is not essential it helps to keep the plants more compact otherwise the plants will become ‘leggy’, having very few leaves at their base, if left on their own.
As well, boxwood and spirea bushes were given a light haircut, adding shape to their formal appearance.
Karolina Park, our Garden Conservancy gardener since February 2009, looks forward to pruning the roses back each year. Removing any damaged and older canes from the point of origin, she selects four or five newer canes that are angled outwards. This will direct new growth outwards and will encourage light to enter the center of the bush when growth resumes in the spring. Each cane is cut back to about one foot high, with strong, healthy buds pointing outwards at the top. Again, this will direct new growth outwards.
Fallen leaves and debris are brushed away from the crown of the plant to prevent insects and disease from overwintering. Basins are then formed around the drip line of each bush, to hold irrigation water.
By the end of the day there is a huge pile of trimmings for the compost; and the garden feels refreshed and ready for another growing year.