Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz

From Volunteer to Intern

Written by Josefina Pacheco

Before volunteering at Alcatraz, I worked at a summer camp in Maine that emphasized teaching ecology and sustainability to elementary and middle school aged students. After ten weeks of running around in the sun and eating lobster every Thursday I found myself asking the question that many college students find themselves asking after graduation, “So, now what?”. I began searching for jobs in the Bay Area and soon discovered that I needed more experience. A friend of mine suggested to look for an internship using volunteer.org; this is where I found the post about volunteering on Alcatraz. I thought to myself I could help with gardening (one of my favorite activities), volunteer (this means experience), and look for jobs at the same time. It seemed like a win-win situation.

One of the first sights of the Golden Gate Bridge after a rainy day while volunteering on Alcatraz. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

 

I contacted Shelagh about volunteering in September 2016. In early October, I was given the unique opportunity to apply for the intern position at Alcatraz. After a cover letter, resume, and interview I became Alcatraz’s newest intern. As an intern I now get to go on the ferry five days of the week (yay!). Twice a week I work with the volunteers which usually starts off with answering the question “So, what are we doing today?”. I then quickly take attendance and work alongside the volunteers for the day’s project for the remainder of the morning. On the other days of the week, I work one-on-one with Shelagh. The day’s schedule varies day by day but some of the more notable ‘behind the scenes’ projects include: learning to prune roses, learning to transfer seedlings to planting pots, propagating succulents, assist with leading volunteer groups, and taking pictures of the watercolor paintings from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to the actual flowers from Alcatraz. Additionally as an intern, I’m learning in greater depth about gardening and plant maintenance in general, along with gardening specifically on Alcatraz and its history.

A watercolor painting of a chasmanthe from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to a chasmanthe near the West Side Lawn. (The notable Gardens of Alcatraz burgundy sweatshirt can be seen attempting to blend in with the background). Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

 

 

To help learn the names of the plants of Alcatraz I take pictures of them and then add their names to the image. For example here is an image of muscari which is often called grape hyacinth in Officers’ Row. Photo taken and edited by Josefina Pacheco.

 

What many people don’t know is that as an intern one gets a stipend and housing at (one of the most breathtaking places) the Marin Headlands. At the Headlands, other interns from other parts of the Park live there as well. To help meet even more interns, specifically those in the Presidio, there are monthly intern swaps. At a swap, interns get to go to another park site and volunteer there for a day (so far I’ve only participated in the Milagra Ridge intern swap where I planted native grasses). To further enhance your knowledge there are Park Academy Classes held a couple times a month. The topics range from botany to fire management to leadership training. Being able to meet new people, volunteer at different parks, and learn more about whatever topic you want to learn more about makes this an incredible experience.

A stunning sunrise at the Marin Headlands on February 1. Photo by Josefina Pacheco.

At first I was a little nervous about the transition from volunteer to intern but everyone (staff and volunteers) have been really helpful and supportive, so thank you and I’m looking forward to seeing the gardens through the seasons!

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Rejuvenation of the Eucalyptus Slope

Alcatraz these days is a bustling place of projects. The big project of repairing the west side wall of the cellblock is very apparent but visitors can’t see the work being done as the scaffolding is wrapped in white plastic.

The other significant project that was just completed at the end of December was in full sight of visitors and left a dramatic difference to the island. The Eucalyptus grove at the south end of the island (just off the dock), was removed. The project had been two years in the planning and finally had enough urgency and funding to make it possible. The trees, originally planted by the military in the early 1920s, had reached maturity and were a safety risk of falling.

Marin County Arborists were trusted with the tree removal. The company had previously worked on tree removals on the island and was familiar with barging equipment over and working around visitors.

Arborists tackling removing 18 trees. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Sixteen blue gum eucalyptus trees and two non-historic Monterey cypress trees were removed and chipped over three weeks.

The chips were hauled to the Parade Ground to be stored until the National Park Service’s archeologist had a chance to examine the bare slope for evidence of military construction. We received the ‘all clear’ within a day of the trees being removed and we set to work!

The chip pile growing to the size of a house on the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

First, chips from 18 trees is a heck of a lot more than I could envision!  The recommendation from consulting arborist was to put the chips back on the slope to a depth of 4”, place jute netting over top and anchor wattles horizontally across the slope to stabilize the slope. The slope had been eroding badly for years, so this would be the perfect opportunity to stop the erosion.

Volunteer groups were enlisted to manually place the chips on the slope. With bucket brigades and teamwork, the slope was covered over a month. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Stewardship Team (of which the Alcatraz Gardens is a division within the company’s organization) were set to take a day off from their normal sites and lend a hand. To sweeten the deal, an overnight was planned (and what better way to say thank you than a night in solitary?).

Biodegradable wattles were placed across the slope to control erosion. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The effort was a huge success with people filling

Bucket brigade in action! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

buckets, people carrying the full buckets to the bottom of the slope, to the chain of people to send the full buckets up the slope, and empty bucket retrievers! Maria Durana captured the well-oiled machine of the bucket brigade:

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Once the chips were in place, the jute netting could be placed on top. The rolls were heavy and we soon figured that cutting them first was best.

Rolling the jute rolls from the top. We soon realized, cutting the netting was much better. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

Two volunteers pretending to be Kate Middleton and Pippa carrying her train. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aside from the Stewardship Team, four corporate groups and the regular drop-in garden volunteers pitched in to help spread the mulch. In total 900 yards of jute netting was placed and 750′ of wattles were installed.

The slope almost halfway done. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The slope will be replanted with Eucalyptus cinerea ‘Pendula’ in September 2017 in keeping with the historic look of the island.

On another note of discovery, the perimeter wall of the Parade ground was further revealed along with the basement of one of the former cottages. And a new fern was found growing! With more years of planning to come, hopefully this neglected garden are will be the next focus of garden preservation.

 

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We Have Roots!

The island’s first purpose as a military prison introduced the construction of the Sally port and this is where all visitors first walk by today on their way up to the cell house. Before entering the Sally port, they are greeted with the island’s first garden and home to some survivor plants thought to be planted in the 1920s. Among this bed are two historic Cordyline that are very old and are showing signs of decline. The Cordyline australis planted in the Sally port gardens is an old variety and have been very hard to find in the nursery trade.  The Cultural Landscape report suggests that these be replaced, but not until we have the same plant with the same genetic makeup of the replacements.

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Sally port in 1920s. Young Cordyline pictured on right side. Photo courtesy of GOGA archives

In efforts to replace these declining historic Cordyline, we have tried several propagation methods to ensure they remain as part of the gardens for years to come. All of the methods were done in mid-March and we recently have had some promising results. Below are detailed descriptions of the propagation techniques trialed.

Sally Port today with declining Cordyline pictured. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Sally Port today with declining Cordyline pictured. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Methods of Propagation

Cutting of Cordyline (Photo Cred: Caity Chander)

Cutting of Cordyline. Photo by Caity Chander

Cutting:

We first tried just a cutting of one of the canes and potted it up in a pot of our compost. We removed some of the foliage and trimmed some of the fronds back to reduce that amount of energy going into the foliage and instead put it into the formation of roots. At first, it seemed as though this method might work, but after about a month, the fronds were almost all dead. The cane itself had become soft and the inside had become rotten. I think this method would work using a thinner cane or a smaller one with less foliage.

 

 

 

Layered:

For this method, we took three pieces of cane, about 6 inches long each and laid them horizontally, half way deep, in a tray of sphagnum peat moss mixed with our compost. I had thought this method would work best, and we actually did have roots start to form alongside the canes, but I think they ended up getting over watered and the canes started to rot. Unfortunately, all three were unsuccessful. I think if we were to try this method again, we would use a different media composition and not allow the soil to get too wet.

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Top left: Bark removed around cane. Top right: Cane wrapped with soaked peat moss and plastic. Bottom left: Plant removed from mother plant. Bottom right: Roots shown after unwrapping the plastic.

Air layering:

The air layering method turned out to be the most successful of the three that we tried. This method is actually done on the mother plant itself. We started by soaking sphagnum peat moss for a few hours. This is crucial to keep the stem moisturized to allow roots to form.  On one of the canes, we cut an inch wide ring through the cambium layer and removed the bark around the cane. Next, we took the soaked peat moss and wrapped it around the cut tightly and then wrapped it with plastic wrap and tied string around it to hold it in place. We did this twice more on separate canes. We recently cut the three successful air layered canes from the mother plant because roots had formed and they were ready to be potted up. We first soaked them before potting them to allow the peat moss to rehydrate. We put the new plants in five gallon containers and they are happily living in our greenhouse until they reach a more mature state with more developed roots to replace the ones at the Sally port.

 

 

The air layering method can be used for other woody shrubs and works well for some trees. This method does take a while to see some roots form, but once they do and it is cut from the mother plant, you already have a bigger plant than you would if you propagated it by seed or a cutting.

To replace the survivors, it is important that they are replanted with the same species of the current Cordyline. By propagating them by the methods we tried, it ensures that the replacements have the same genetic makeup of the current plants. We are very excited to have successful clones to replace the current failing Cordyline.

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Caity with successful air layered cordyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

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Plant Shopping in the Best Shopping

The gardens were fortunate this summer to have two youth interns through the Parks Conservancy youth program. As they wrap up their 140 hours working in the gardens, there was still another skill they needed to know – how to select plants from a nursery.

We headed down to Pacific Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Colma to do our shopping. Our mission was to find plants that would fill in areas on the windy west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. Sections of this garden are always struggling to cope with the extremes of heat and fog, wind and the curiosity of gulls, even after the gardens were restored in 2009, they still aren’t quite right.

Upon pulling into the parking area, my eyes always light up with seeing the plants laid out in groupings of perennials, shrubs, roses, succulents, annuals and shade lovers. Sometimes, I place an order and can go and have everything ready, but often, I just see what is available and chose from the vast selection.

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

For the Prisoner gardens we were on the hunt for perennials, mostly Salvias as the ones we already have are thriving.

We started with 1 gallon pots of Salvia clevelandii. The first thing to notice was the health of the leaves and checking that the stems are not broken. Salvia clevelandii tends to be brittle anyway so extra care needs to be taken while handling them.

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Turning the pots around, it’s is essential that we are not taking any hitchhikers to Alcatraz – namely snails and slugs and weeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explaining what a ‘root bound’ plant

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

looks like is a lot easier when standing in a nursery. While Pacific Nurseries have excellent plants to choose from, sometimes roots get circling the inside of their container and can even root into the ground through the drainage holes. Plants like this tend not to adapt well once wrestled out of their stricken home and in bad cases, there may be hardly any soil left in the pot, leaving the plant suffering from drought as well.

With plants we choose, we have to go through quite an effort to haul them to the boat to get them to the island. Checking that the plants are well watered helps the plants with the trip. The interns could feel the weight difference in pots that were dry versus heavier pots that were well watered. Of course, the growing median makes a difference too (but we’ll save this lesson for another day).

We soon had our carts full and packed the van!

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

While we checked out with our purchases, the interns had 15 minutes to run around and look at all the types of plants. I’m sure their Instagram accounts are full of selfies with the plants. Pulling off the freeway to come back along the Embarcadero, the van was noticeably quieter – a look into the back showed both interns had fallen asleep. Definitely a sign of a great shopping day!

 

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Creating a Photo Florilegium

Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.

 

Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.

The Alcatraz Florilegium captures the collection of plants on Alcatraz.

The Alcatraz Florilegium captures the collection of plants on Alcatraz.

First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.

 

Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.

Ribes sanguineum, California Currant, flowering native shrub by Saxon Holt

Ribes sanguineum, California Currant, flowering native shrub by Saxon Holt

First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.

 

One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium

Iris 'King's Ransom' illustrated by Catherine Dellor shows the plant as it grows in the gardens with the fading leaves.

Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ illustrated by Catherine Dellor shows the plant as it grows in the gardens with the fading leaves.

illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.

 

David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.

 

Mug shot of Pelargonoium 'Prince Bismark' provides a close-up but tells nothing about plant other than it is bright pink. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Mug shot of Pelargonoium ‘Prince Bismark’ provides a close-up but tells nothing about plant other than it is bright pink. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.

 

 

 

 

Tips from David made perfect sense:

-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.

-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.

-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.

-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.

-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.

 

David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.

 

Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.

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You are Forever Responsible for what you Tame

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz, as a Historic National Landmark, has a pretty constant look, even the silhouette view of the island from the city is considered historical. However, over the past two weeks, the look of the island has changed dramatically. Unlike earthquakes that suddenly jolt the landscape into a different look, tree maintenance can (and should be) planned for.

Like all changes to the landscape, approval from the National Park Service was essential, especially when two one-hundred year old trees are being questioned. As a starting point, the Cultural Landscape Report that was adopted in 2010, had made the recommendation for tree work on the island’s historic and non-historic tree. The difference between historic and non-historic is any tree growing on the island between 1854 and 1963 is considered historic – any tree outside of that time frame is non-historic.

Tree maintenance, and especially tree removals, are quite expensive. With limited funds, we realized we could not do all of the recommended work at once, but would need to spread it over a few years. To help us decide what work should be done right away, tree consultants were brought in. The consultants evaluated each of the historic trees on health and safety. Non-historic trees were not examined as they will be removed anyway and were not posing any safety hazards.

The consultant’s report made a few recommendations that went against the recommendations in the Cultural Landscape Report. With experts advising us, we decided to go with the consultant’s report.

To obtain the National Park Service’s final permission, a detailed description of all the work to be performed needed to be entered into the Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC). A well written summary answers the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and the 1 H (how). Maps and diagrams may be attached and often help to explain to the people who review the projects who are not familiar with project sites. For the tree work, an administration approval was granted, however, sometimes a presentation must be made to a committee.

The consultant’s gave safety priority ranking and trees along the main roadway that leads to the cell house were ranked highest. The consequences of a tree falling along the main roadway would have frightening implications for visitors and staff, not to mention close down the only road that leads to the cell house.

Loud disruptive work must be completed before the annual bird nesting season begins on February 1, so a push was on to get the work done.

Sounding like an opening scene for a scary novel, the arborists boarded a ferry on a dark and stormy morning out of San Francisco with their chainsaws in hand.

Starting work on probably the rainiest day was just bad luck. Nevertheless, lines got strung up in the trees, equipment moved to where it needed to be and the next morning work started promptly at 6am with the ferry ride.

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The arborists made steady work pruning the large Eucalyptus and moved onto various cypress along the roadway. The arborists were more like trapeze artists up in the trees. The crews skillfully tying limbs to be lowered to the ground instead of just letting them drop. Visitors actually cheered them on when large limbs were cut.

The amount of light and the feeling of airiness was apparent to us immediately. Often you don’t notice how overgrown a plant has become.

While it is sad that trees were cut down, it is important to remember that trees have lifespans as well. One of the trees will be replanted with another cypress and in another 100 years, we will likely cut it down again and replant. Even looking at historic photos from the military, there are many trees in the photos that are no longer there. Plus, for an island that originally had no trees, we should keep Antoine De Saint-Exupery quote from The Little Prince in mind ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

The in-progress image - the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The in-progress image – the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Historic photo of the cypress along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

Historic photo of the cypress and eucalptus along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

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Garden archeology

Past garden manager, Carola, is quoted in Alcatraz’s Discovery film as saying the gardening is like ‘garden archeology’. Her words perfectly described the work of clearing vegetation and finding artifacts and landscape features that had lay hidden underneath ivy and blackberries for decades.

Her words are still very true today. The garden crew has been in over their heads clearing ivy from trees and uncovering terrace walls.

Volunteers clearing ivy from terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Volunteers clearing ivy from terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Using the Cultural Landscape Report for Alcatraz Island as a guide, permission was granted by the Park Service to clear overgrowth from known garden areas that no one had worked in since the prison closed in 1963. As part of the approval, garden volunteers and staff attended a lecture by National Park Service Archeologists, Leo and Peter.

Leo giving his presentation to garden volunteers. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Leo giving his presentation to garden volunteers. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With broad reaching strokes, Leo and Peter described their work across the park. San Francisco has a rich history with native settlements, missions, military history. Every time significant ground disturbance is done in the Park, this duo is on the scene. Some finds are accidents whereas others are known sites of interest. Leo described what to do in case items were found –

-take a photo with a point of reference in the background, not to zoom in on the object but give an easy way to find where the object had been found.

-fill out the paperwork that marks on a map where the object was found, and describe the item and the circumstances under which it was found

A key point was to distinguish between a single item found and a ‘feature’. A feature, as we now know, is considered a group of artifacts. In the case of finding a feature, the objects should be left in place and give Leo a call.

Barbara finding an intact bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Barbara finding an intact bottle and spoon. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All of the objects found are taken to the Presidio archives where they are cleaned, recorded, and added to the collection. For garden artifacts, Leo has been marking the locations of the items on an overall map. Overtime, the pinpoint locations of objects give a big picture of significant areas, slow archeology in a sense.

Most people think of Alcatraz as only a federal prison, but the island has layers of history that equals the city of San Francisco, where the story of the gardens is woven throughout. Seeing the island through Leo’s eyes was really, well, eye-opening. Landscape features that we always walk by, were given an explanation, or at least a theory that made us all think – ah, that makes sense. For example, many parts of the island had a whitewash over the bricks, stone and concrete. The whitewash façade has fallen away in many areas, but the anchor holes of the façade remain.

Bolts holding whitewash facade in place along the Main Roadway. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bolts holding whitewash facade in place along the Main Roadway. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Today, the holes look like planting pockets. We had always wondered about the evenly spaced shallow holes. They obviously weren’t big enough for a large plant with roots, or even to hold moisture during the dry summer. With Leo giving his theory of the holes being the anchor points, the holes suddenly made sense. By chance, the cliff below the Warden’s house is being stabilized with the addition of fake rock being anchored with long bolts – just like was done long ago.

Holes left behind by anchor posts for whitewash? Perhaps... Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Holes left behind by anchor posts for whitewash? Perhaps… Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

One of the coolest objects found was an arrowhead several years ago, and another arrowhead showed up a few months ago. Leo explained that the arrowheads can be dated by using the fact that glass absorbs water at a specific rate for locations.

 

Other features of the island, are fun to speculate over – the bluestone found on the island is only found in a few locations around the Bay Area, Angel Island and Corte Madera. Not only did significant labour went into gathering the bluestone and hauling it to Alcatraz, but seeing it used for building reflects a known time period and a recycling of building material as well. Leo’s passion was evident as he said ‘some we will never learn but there is meaning in it all’.

 

Our take away lesson from Leo’s talk was to “overly thoughtful and nerdy about everything you find”.

Bluestone and bricks used to create a wall below the main roadway in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bluestone and bricks used to create a wall below the main roadway in Officers’ Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Not only do the kids go back to school, it’s the perfect time of year to propagate your favorite roses from cuttings!

 

Tapping into the wealth of knowledge from other volunteers on Alcatraz, we found out that a bird docent has a skilled hand at propagating heirloom roses by cuttings. Karen Vandergrift willingly offered to demonstrate her knack.

Karen taking a cutting from 'Bardou Job', our famous Alcatraz rose. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Karen taking a cutting from ‘Bardou Job’, our famous Alcatraz rose. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

To start, after the rose has bloomed and before the rose hip has started to form, a cutting should be taken down to the fourth leaflet, and cut the stem ½” above the bud.

 

A rose hip beginning to form under the faded rose bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A rose hip beginning to form under the faded rose bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Next, pull off the leaves from the lower two buds and trim off any buds or blooms still remaining on the cutting.

 

Then, with sharp pruners, cut the top half of the leaves off. This will reduce the surface area that will draw moisture out of the plant.

 

After that is done, lightly scrape off the layer of stem down to expose the cambium that is on bottom 2” of the stem. Dip the cutting in root hormone.

 

Using a clean one-gallon pot, stick the cuttings in moist soil, we used our Alcatraz compost, but a potting soil mix would be fine. We put three cuttings in one pot, so hopefully one of them would take. Karen explained that she likes using a 1-gallon pot so the cutting has ample room to grow and does not need to be disturbed by repotting if it were to be started in a sleeve. She also explained that the 1-gallon pot will not dry out as fast as smaller pots.

Karen pressing the cutting into the soil. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Karen pressing the cutting into the soil. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Create a mini-greenhouse by placing skewers in the 1-gallon pot and putting a plastic bag over the skewers. The plastic bag and cutting the leaves stops evapo-transpiration that dries out the soil and the tissue of the cutting. Be sure that the leaves of the cuttings are not touching the sides of the bag as this would cause the leaves to rot. The pots are in our greenhouse, out of direct light.

Creating a mini greenhouse  to reduce evapo-transpiration. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Creating a mini greenhouse to reduce evapo-transpiration. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We should have rooted cuttings in 6 weeks. We were instructed to water a little bit in one week – and mostly lift up the pots to see if they are light, then they need water.

 

If no growth is obvious in 3 months, then we’ll try again!

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Eight Actions You Can Take to help Save the Soil

Help save the soil you wonder? Are we not in drought? Should we not be saving water instead?

I wondered these same questions until I listened to Dr. Stephen Andrews, a soil scientist and professor at U.C. Berkeley. Stating the fact that California is now the driest since 1580 was enough to scare everyone in the room. California depends on water from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada that slowly melts over the summer months. The snowpack gets replenished during the winter. Without a reliable winter to bring moisture, there is more at stake than just a lack of water.

Another fact –  Just 1 teaspoon of forest soil can contain 10 billion bacteria! Wow! And of the 10 billion, we hardly know anything about them.

Another fact – California has 15.5% of rare soil types and 104 of endangered soils in the USA.

The loss of a soil series is a bigger problem than losing an endangered animal. As Dr. Andrews explained – when you lose a soil, you lose the entire community of organisms supported by it. There is so much we do not know about the ground beneath our feet, that we are not even aware of what we are losing. To further open our minds, Dr. Andrews pointed out the Clean Air Act protects the air, the Clean Water Act protects the water, but there is no Clean Soil Act – very astonishing considering the soil is what we depend on for our food.

So what can the average person do?

1. Lose the Lawn

Ask yourself ‘What is your lawn doing for you?’ There are plenty of low-water lawns to choose from now, check out ‘No Mow Fescue’ or a Delta bluegrass blend.

2. Water Deeply

Two-thirds of a plant’s biomass is underground so getting water to the roots is vital. A deep watering accommodates plants as they grow over time. Water emitters need to be moved as the plant grows to encourage proper root development. If you have a tiny emitter right at the base of tree and never move it, the roots will have no reason to grow further and anchor the tree.

Move emitters further from the plant as it grows to encourage root growth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Move emitters further from the plant as it grows to encourage root growth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

3. Upgrade your Irrigation System

New systems have many programs that you can set, including ‘wet weather sensors’. Be sure to group plants with similar water needs.

4. Capture Every Drop

Keep every drop in your yard, make it your goal to not send any runoff to the street. Capture, re-use and filter your water. Create a water garden, install a water catchment or consider using your grey water to water landscape plants. Be sure to use bio-degradable soap and alternate the landscape plants you are watering. On average 14 000 gallons of water falls onto a rooftop during the rainy season – this stored water could be a source of water during a fire or for an earthquake. The water tanks alongside a house can help moderate the temperature of the home as well – keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer during the winter.

5. Plant Water Wise Plants

The Bay Friendly Coalition provides a list of recommended plants for the Bay Area. Most nurseries will be able to help you choose wisely. Another tip – purchase smaller sized container plants – 1 gallon instead of 5 gallons, 4″ pot instead of 1 gallon. The smaller sized plants will require less water to get established and be under less stress.

6. Skip the Fertilizing

Fertilizing encourages plants to grow – but this new growth needs water. Feed your plants with compost. The nutrients will become available as the compost breaks down naturally.

7. Compost, compost, compost!

Use compost instead of fertilizer. Fertilizer contains salt, which is harmful to soil bacteria and burns plant’s roots. When the soil bacteria is stressed, disease has a chance to settle in. Compost is natural and will decompose over time.

8. Mulch

Mulch is a permanent cover over the soil and can be done in layers to conserve moisture in the soil. The mulch controls weeds and moderates the soil temperatures so the plants’ roots and the soil bacteria have a happier home.

Below is a diagram of what a mulch layer looks like. The larger particles in the top layers will decompose as a new layer is added each year, thereby becoming the layering underneath.

Mulch layer to conserve soil moisture and to moderate soil temperatures.

Mulch layer to conserve soil moisture and to moderate soil temperatures.

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Plants, Sustainability, Weather | Comments Off on Eight Actions You Can Take to help Save the Soil

The Official Flower of San Francisco

Did you know the Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco?

Dahlia 'Kaiser Wilhelm'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dahlia ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

On October 4, 1926, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors took a vote and animously decided that the Dahlia best represented their city.

 

From the San Francisco Dahlia Society website, the proclamation reads:

 

“WHEREAS, the Dahlia has reached its highest perfection in and about San Francisco, and because Dahlias originated in San Francisco are grown in gardens all over the world; and

 

WHEREAS, the Dahlia partakes essentially of the character of our beloved city, in birth, breeding and habit, for it was originally Mexican, carried thence to Spain, to France and England in turn, being changed in the process from a simple daisy-like wild flower to a cosmopolitan beauty. It has come back to San Francisco like the sophisticated world traveler it is, to find its favorite home here, where it thrives in the cool summers and the moist air of our fog-swept, sandy gardens by the sea;

 

WHEREAS, it is a robust flower, generous and able to thrive in any reasonable soil, so long as it is not too dry, and has the primitive strength of our pioneer ancestors, together with the gayety and color that no other city nor flower can hope to equal, going, like our artists and poets, to carry color and beauty into far climes, but blooming best in our own gardens out of doors in our cool even climates;

 

WHEREAS, in its versatility, its beauty, its infinite variety of color and form, it is the very symbol of San Francisco life and of the spirit of her people; therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the Dahlia be and it is here designated the official flower of San Francisco.”

 

The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers' Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers’ Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

The reasons the Dahlia was chosen in 1926 still hold true today – San Francisco is still a world-class city – still innovating, has spirit and still has foggy, cool summers.

 

Since the 1920’s, dahlias have had a dedicated plot near the Conservatory of Flowers and are an attraction for locals and visitors throughout the summer. With dahlias being so popular, perhaps this is why the residents of Alcatraz began to grow them. Our small collection consists of heirlooms from the 1880’s through the 1940s. The flowers are just beginning to bloom – time to take in this history within history on a tiny island.

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Plants | Comments Off on The Official Flower of San Francisco