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Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz
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.
Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.
Generally, we aim to divide our iris
every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.
The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!
The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.
One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens
Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.
A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.
The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.
For snow bound East Coasters,
probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.
Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.
The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.
Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.
All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.
As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.
Our winter renovation projects are moving right along even though we are still waiting for rain.
The toolshed terraces have never really
been overhauled in the years of the garden restoration project, other than the removal of forty years of overgrowth to allow the survivor plants some breathing room.
The terraces were built by the inmates of the Federal prison in the early 1940s and was tended up until 1963 when the prison closed. The Mediterranean plants, such as Chasmanthe, Echium, Aeonium, artichokes and Sedum praealtum have thrived, plus the tough Rose ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ is still holding its own. The majority of these plants put on a great spring show but by July, the garden is looking like the ugly duckling with no hint of really how pretty it is.
Other than needing plants to bloom throughout the year that will tolerate the dry, windy slope, we needed two main ingredients – better soil and an irrigation system.
Normally, bringing in supplies to the island is a chore, but luckily, our compost pile provides rich compost. We did purchase chicken manure that was brought out on the monthly barge. We installed drip line irrigation so we will not have to wrangle the hose up and down the fragile terraces. Even though all of our chosen plants are drought tolerant, the plants will do better with weekly deep watering.
The succulents growing across the road provided inspiration for the corner of the terraces. We had Dudleya, Echeveria and Aeonium cuneatum on the island already from a planting project this past spring. The seagulls took a liking to the plants and we ended up rescuing the plants and placing them in the greenhouse to nurse them back to life. Let’s hope the seagulls leave them alone in this garden! A few larger Agave attenuata were planted as well to tie in with the established Agave.
We had taken cuttings of the Crassula ovata and these propagations were planted on lower terraces to carryon the block of plantings.
We also added Fremontodendron californicum (flannel bush) to this garden. And an interesting fact – this is the last plant that we needed back on the island from the plant lists that were mentioned in the 1996 book The Gardens of Alcatraz.
The Leonotis leonurus, lion’s tail, that was planted in the lawn borders have been receiving a hugs amount of attention, and so we added in more on the terraces to give a punch of orange throughout the summer and fall. Purple Limonium perezii were added in as well, as they are great for seaside conditions.
We wanted to add a bit more red and purple so we introduced Asclepias curassavica and purple trailing Lantana to the mix.
One thing that needs to be finished yet it to divide the surviving bearded iris! They don’t ever seem to slow down.
With the fence removed, visitors are now strolling past this garden to get a better look I can’t wait to see how the garden will only get better.
As the end of December approaches and we get into the depths of winter (California winter, of course), we are busy with our planting projects in the gardens.
High on the ‘to-do’ list was to replant a terraced garden in Officers’ Row, the eastern facing gardens. These gardens were first rehabilitated in 2006 and looked fantastic for the first 8 years, but had noticeably declined this past summer. This garden is open every Wednesday for our casual garden viewing with a gardener present so it was vital that our showcase garden impressed our visitors.
The gardens were designed by the late Carola Ashford, the first project manager, to resemble the cutting flower gardens created by the wives of the federal penitentiary during the 1940s and 1950s. She selected perennials and bulbs that would give year-round color based on a few key photographs.
In the photos, reds and yellows are predominant, so Gaillardia ‘Burgandy’ and ‘Goblin’ were selected to give the cheerful look. Yellow Aurinia saxatilis, gold basket, was chosen to edge the pathway mixed in with blue Muscari, grape hyacinth, for a spring mix. Heirloom daffodils were planted in rows to bloom successively through the spring months. As the garden matured, many of the neat planting rows were beginning to meander, and the perennials were not blooming as fiercely as they once had.
While we could have gone back to Carola’s original planting plan and done the same, this was an opportunity to introduce a few new plants to Alcatraz that provided the look we were after.
The first step was to supplement the soil with rich compost from our own pile and chicken manure that we had purchased. The sparrows had a field day scurrying around after insects.
The burgundy gaillardia was replaced with Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ that has a brilliant mix of red and yellow on each flower. This is a very forgiving perennial that also makes a great cut flower, plus it is also an heirloom plant, first introduced in 1885. We did keep the Gaillardia ‘Goblin’ but needed to transplant a few of the plants to keep the orderly lines of cut flowers.
We have become big fans of Coreopsis!
We also introduced Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunburst’. This is a great bloomer with golden flowers. The coreopsis does perform better when regularly deadheaded but this garden task is very meditative.
We had also noted that the garden was lacking in fall blooms – we would always make an emergency trip to the local nursery for some fall plants to fill in the blanks when the iris and dahlias had died back. This past fall we purchased Rudbeckia, black eyed Susan, to give us the extra color we needed, and they were very happy on the island. So happy that they spread! Not a lot, but they were wandering. We never had the heart to weed out the strays, and the neat lines of a cutting garden were beginning to be lost.
The bearded iris also needed rethinking. This was a difficult one, as they are legacy plants to the gardens. Mostly blooming in spring, the large section of iris would remain barren and become a chore to nip the brown leaf tips throughout the rest of the year. We dug up the entire patch (and hopefully got rid of some nasty grass with long rhizomes as well) and tucked a single row of iris between the gaillardia and the coreopsis. The iris blooms should rise above its neighbors and then we can cut the foliage back to be hidden by the other perennials.
We also added in a few missing plants – a couple of Limonium perezii (statice), penstemon (beard tongue), and centranthus (Jupiter’s Beard). With Centranthus being a notable naturalizer, I refused to buy one. Ironically, we had to hunt around for a seedling of a red centranthus, the gardeners do a great job of removing them.
The daffodils remain to be tackled though. This will need to be done in the spring when we can identify each flower. The dahlias and the daffodils are inter-planted as they bloom at different times of the year. Unfortunately, with constant digging in this bed, the neat rows of heirloom daffodils have become interspersed with each other. The daffodils will need dividing anyway, as they have formed big clumps that are forcing themselves out of the ground.
All in all, it was a great week to be in the gardens. Now we just need some rain.
Two similar plants that often get confused are mallow (Lavatera) and hollyhock (Alcea). A quick glance at these two and it is easy to see how they can be mistaken for each other.
Both plants belong to the same family of Malvaceae, and so they do share many common characteristics. The flower is the most obvious similarity. Resembling a hibiscus flower, the lavatera is very showy in shades of
pink, red and white. The flower of the hollyhock is also very pretty and in similar shades. Both plants can be annuals, biennials or perennials, although the Lavatera is more often seen as a shrub in gardens while the hollyhock is typically a biennial with a stalk of flowers during its second year.
The hollyhock, with its 60 species, is native to Asia and Europe while the Lavatera, with 25 species, is more of a world traveler. Its range is in the Mediterranean region, central and eastern Asia, Australia and from California to Mexico. Looking at the adaptability of the Lavatera, its no surprise that it can tolerate a wide range of soil to grow in. It actually prefers sandy, rocky or even clay soil in coastal regions (perfect for Alcatraz!). The hollyhock is a bit more fussy preferring rich, well drained garden soil.
On Alcatraz, we have introduced the mallow,
Lavatera assurgentiflora. Native to the Channel Islands, it has naturalized to the coastal areas of Southern California. We have had it in our Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island for over a year now and it is doing extremely well. The shrubs have grown to 4 feet tall and wide, and have been consistently blooming for most of the summer and is still going strong.
Most of our hollyhocks have set seed already and we will have to replant them again next spring.
Both hollyhocks and mallows are good for hummingbird and butterflies.
We often tell visitors the common name of the Lavatera is mallow, which then leads to them asking if this is where marshmallows come from? The answer is ‘no’, marshmallows were originally derived from the plant Althaea officinalis, native to Egypt, but it is a member of the Malvaceae family.
Both Lavatera and hollyhock fit nicely with the cottage garden style of the Prisoner gardens with our mid1940s time period and we are already looking at seed catalogues for next year to add more to our gardens.