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Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Did you know the Dahlia is the official flower of San Francisco?
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 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.
California has traditionally gone through cycles of drought and it was an important factor when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003. Restoring an island full of plants did not make much sense if there was no fresh water to care for the rehabilitated gardens.
From the early days of the preservation, there were many common sense things that were done. The simple actions of designing drought tolerant gardens and timing the planting for the winter rains were easy enough to work with. There is such a wide variety of plants that can tolerate and even thrive with little water, that this was never a hindrance to the revival of the gardens. In fact, with now over ten years of first-hand experience on the island, we have built up a list of ‘Alcatraz tested’ plants that we provide on our website.
With rain collection being a known historic occurrence on the island, obtaining approval to once again collect rain water was straightforward enough – again, this had been always been in the garden work plan. However, despite filling the 12 000 gallon catchment to capacity each year, the shortage of rainfall is not saturating the soil. This means that the gardens begin the dry season already thirsty. For the past three years, we have begun to use our stored water in the early spring, instead of months later in the summer.
We have officially entered our fourth year of drought and we wanted to be pro-active and conserve where we can. This year we installed drip irrigation to save water by watering directly to the plants, avoiding overhead hand watering. So far, the rose terrace, Officers’ Row, and two sections of the Prisoner Gardens are on a drip line. We also installed a drip line to establish the native sedge lawn in front of the cellhouse. Once the historic lawn is established, two inches of water are required each summer month – a huge saving from the needed one inch per week for the typical turf grass. The irrigation in each garden area is divided into zones, so we can water sunny areas more, and the shaded corners less often. We have also attached inexpensive water meters to each of the hose pipes to keep track of how many gallons are being used on each garden area.
This year we also are using fine wood mulch to conserve soil moisture. Mulch was not used historically, but cultivated soil was the historic look. Now, we opt for a more permaculture ‘no-till’ approach with fine ¼” mulch on top. The no-till improves the health of the soil, and the mulch will conserve moisture in the soil. The wood chips will eventually decompose, adding to the organic matter in the soil.
Another water saving tip is to use perennials and not annuals. The majority of the garden plants are perennials. Perennials are better suited with typically deeper roots that can withstand dry conditions. Aside from the recent lawn planting, our last major planting was back in 2010. The perennials are now established and can tolerate drier soil. If you ever try to pull out a native California plant versus a non-native weed, the native will put up a fight while the non-native will easily pull right out.
As the summer continues, we may opt to not plant some of the beds which typically would be planted with annuals. For example, the raised beds in front of the greenhouse have been planted with spring and summer bulbs like cape tulip, Dutch iris and gladiolus followed by summer annuals. This year, we will likely omit planting the annuals and leave the raised beds fallow instead.
As our drought continues, I am seeing more lawns being ripped out and replaced with drought tolerant options, even artificial turf. A trip to see our gardens is well worth it to get ideas for your own backyard.
Seabird nesting season is in full force on Alcatraz. This wonderful time of the year is a rare chance to see many of the Bay Area’s seabirds nesting and raising their young. In numbers (and in volume) are the Western gulls. Last year they counted in at around 2000 pairs.
However, their arrival always comes with a bit of apprehension. The gulls of course need material to make nests and must also claim territory. Both of these tasks mean that plants are torn up and shredded, and all too often these are garden plants!
We have come to expect a bit of damage but with the native grass, Carex praegracilis, lawn that was planted with plugs we were a bit nervous if the plugs would take root and be strong enough to withstanding the tugging by gulls.
The plugs were planted at the beginning of November when the rains would hopefully start. While we had some showers we had to supplement with hand watering too from our rainwater catchment. About 1/3 of the lawn was planted and now 5 months along, the plugs have started to send out stolons and are spreading.
On a recent sunny morning, while checking the gardens over, I noticed a puzzling crime scene – the grasses were being shorn off close to their bases.
Guilty by past behavior, I immediately suspected the gulls. But, the telltale sign of shredded vegetation was not present. In fact, the missing tops of the grasses were actually gone! What could this be? We don’t have deer or rabbits and yet the grass looked ‘nibbled’.
Examining the scene closer, I spied the ‘evidence’ left behind – droppings. Sure enough Canada geese had found our lawn. There are maybe 3 pairs of geese on the island and they were making our lawn their morning buffet.
For all of our planning and thinking of possible ‘what could go wrong scenarios’, we had overlooked the population of geese and their liking of grass.
Luckily, few plugs have been pulled out, the geese are proving to be more grazers, and hopefully the plugs will continue to grow. Mowing actually helps grasses get thicker and encourages them to send out more stolons.
The lawn is slowly being ‘mown’ from left to right, but at least the plugs are being fertilized too.
With the mandated 25% cut in water usage in California, I’m so relieved we choose to have a native sedge replicate the look of a lawn. Our ‘lawn’ will be low maintenance and will only require 2” of water per month to stay relatively green throughout the summer months.
As Alcatraz is a destination, I’m hoping that visitors will take notice of our drought tolerant lawn and ask questions. The lawn will also be a topic on our garden tours and offered as an alternative.
With Northern California experiencing the most rain we have had in 3 to 5 years (depending on who you ask), it seems a bit ironic that this post is about our new irrigation system that we installed this week.
We are VERY happy for the rain, even if it meant the island was closed today. With three years of drought, the winter rains we had been receiving was never adequate to fully saturate the dry soil, and while water catchment would be filled, there was a deficit of moisture in the ground each year.
All of the gardens are hand watered except for the pelargonium trough, the new lighthouse lawn and the toolshed terraces. The trough line was installed when the pelargoniums were planted in 2005, and we recognized the need to water the dry toolshed terraces last winter to keep the plants healthy and thriving.
This past summer, staff and volunteers spent the majority of working days hand watering the remaining gardens, and often, our efforts were still not quite enough. The plants got by on rationing our supply and when our tanks went dry we were lucky enough to still have access to the barged in fresh water.
We wanted to be proactive this year, and not only save ourselves time watering but use the water more efficiently by installing water emitters directly to the plants.
The rose terrace is supplied by one tap that is gravity fed from the holding tank at the summit of the island. The rose terrace itself is flat but there is enough pressure to meet our needs. Staff member, Karolina, designed the rose terrace to have 4 irrigation zones. Each zone, running by its self has enough water pressure to fully cover all of the plants in each zone.
For each zone, we have a 1” pipe that will connect to our garden hose. Using shut off valves, we can select which zone we will water. Connected to the large pipe are the ¼” spaghetti tubing connecting a bubble emitter at the base of each plant. We can even adjust for future plantings by adding a spaghetti tube or by plugging a hole and removing the tube.
A pretty simple system for the do it yourself home gardener that will undoubtedly save time.
Santa will not likely be coming to Alcatraz any time soon, but we made a wish list of new plants anyway.
With the winter rains, comes planting season; and it is our best opportunity to take a close look at the gardens and order new plants. Last week, garden staff walked through all of the gardens, scrutinizing each flowerbed. With 5000 visitors each day to looking at the gardens, we are fairly critical of the plantings, as we want the visitors to see the gardens at their best all through the year.
There are a number of reasons why we change plants – the plant was too high, didn’t bloom, was a target for the seagulls, or it simply didn’t do well enough or the plant did really well and we would like more (yay!). And of course, there is the ‘cause of death unknown’ reason (which even happens to people with green thumbs).
Two plants on the wish list that did really well and we would like more of are Penstemon heterophyllus ‘Blue Springs’. This pretty blue native with a pink tinge looks amazing with yellow Coreopsis and red Gaillardia. Another new favorite is Echium gentianoides ‘Tajinaste’. This is a blue flowered Echium that we planted on the Toolshed Terraces last year. The low height gave a great display behind white roses and did not grow too high to block the terraces behind it. This Echium also blooms the first year it is planted.
A new plant that we are going to try this year is Teucrium chamaedrys, a germander. We have a tough garden spot along a walkway that has two very narrow beds that are shallow. Spring bulbs do well in these beds, but for the summer, it is difficult to start any annuals as the gulls take their toll on the new plantings. Establishing 4” pots of this germander during the gull’s absence may be the trick. The spring bulbs will still come up through this perennial.
I highly recommend a garden walkthrough with critical eyes at the end of every season. Quite often, when you are working in the garden and you notice that you wish to make changes of particular plants, you get distracted and forget about your brilliant idea. Having your garden task being solely to examine your garden should be a part of your season’s end cleanup. Be sure to take your smart phone to take photos and a note pad.
On June 30, 2014 a milestone in the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz project was reached – the Garden Conservancy graduated its preservation project of the Alcatraz gardens to its ‘completed’ list and handed the rehabilitated gardens over to the Stewardship department of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit partner of the National Parks Service.
The rehabilitation of the historic gardens began in 2003 with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy enlisting the expertise of the Garden Conservancy to lead the effort to restore the gardens and to interpret the significance of the gardens to the public.
The project was ambitious – removing 40 years of overgrowth to restore 5 key garden areas, gather historic documentation and keep detailed records of work performed, develop a volunteer garden program to help care for the gardens, and to promote the gardens with free guided walks, free self-guided brochures, a website and social media. Not to mention the biggest hurdle – fundraising. A big order to say the least!
It was all accomplished.
The ultimate goal of taking on a project like the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz is to eventually hand the completed project over to caretakers who will take on the responsibility of caring for and funding the gardens.
Each of the 15 preservation projects the Garden Conservancy is currently working on is different from each other, and with that, each has its own unique management for achieving the goal of financial sustainability. The Ruth Bancroft Garden, the Garden Conservancy’s very first project is a model for success. The garden began as a private garden of a homeowner and has now become a public garden with its own staff, board of directors and revenue generating events.
With its graduation, the Gardens of Alcatraz joins the ranks as a successfully completed project. However, the Alcatraz gardens could not be more different from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. As a National Park, the Alcatraz gardens could never easily obtain permission to host revenue generating events, such as issuing garden memberships, plant sales or hosting garden tours. A different solution was needed.
Fundraising for the initial scope of the project (the restoration) was easy (or as easy as any fundraising effort is). The economy was good and the Garden Conservancy had supporters who were happy to help with a noble cause. The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy had a yearly budget for the project, and with smaller donations and grants, the project always had sufficient funds.
With the economy crashing in 2008, fundraising became more difficult and repeatedly asking the same donor base for assistance was unlikely. As well, finding support for just maintaining the gardens was more not as exciting as actually restoring them. (As they say in the park – its easy to fund a new restroom but hard to find funding to clean it).
The solution was easy but came with a lot of paperwork. The gardens should be funded by the people enjoying them – the visitors. A portion of the ticket sales is directly funding the gardens.