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Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz
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.
As visitors arrive on Alcatraz, they are greeted by a Park Service ranger who gives them an orientation to the island. The ranger needs to keep the crowd entertained until the entire boat is empty before they can dispense the vital information of where to get the audio tour and a few words of safety.
Each ranger shares different snippets of the island’s history, little teasers to keep people occupied. Having listened to the ‘dock talks’ for more than 6 years now, I’ve heard most of them and to be honest, it’s where I’ve learned most of the more interesting pieces of Alcatraz history.
One of my favorite talks is a true or false quiz. The ranger makes a statement, and then gets people to raise their hands if they think it is true or not. One of the questions is ‘True or False – Alcatraz hosts plants from every continent except Antarctica’. There is usually a split amongst the crowd of those that believe it is true, and those that doubt the statement. But, the answer is TRUE!
Even before we began to introduce plants
to restore the gardens, the plant survey done in 2005 found that there were more than 200 species of plants still surviving on Alcatraz from the gardening days of the military and the federal prison.
The range in plants from the different continents is quite surprising – how could plants that are from drastically different parts of the world all survive on a tiny 22 acre island?
This is one of the aspects of the story of gardens that I love – these surviving plants, introduced years ago, could survive on their own because they each found the right microclimate on Alcatraz to make it.
Here is a partial list of the surviving plants by continents:
North America – Monterrey cypress, Agave americana, Douglas iris, various ferns
South America – Nasturtium, Fuchsia
Asia – bearded iris, Fig tree,
Europe – Bear’s breeches, perennial sweet pea, periwinkle, ivy
Australia – Australian tea tree, New Zealand Christmas tree, Eucalyptus, Cordyline
Africa – Lily of the Nile, Chasmanthe, Pelargonium, Crocosmia
Not only do we have plants from around the world, but we also have visitors from around the world. Again, with the exception of Antarctica.
The government shutdown that closed all National Parks, and disrupted many other services lasted from October 1 through October 17. Not only was the closure interruptive to lives and normal routines, but the gardens of Alcatraz were also affected. During the shutdown, non-government employees were allowed on the island only a few days during the 16 day closure. Being Garden Conservancy staff, the two gardeners were in a race to water and care for the 4.5 acres of gardens before the only return boat at 4pm.
On the whole, the gardens fared well, but we still had a few casualties. New plantings were shriveling; leaves from the eucalyptus were piling up on roadways, and the original wooden
doors of the garden ‘closet’ in the basement of the 1940s garden decided to fall down in our absence. With only two weeks of neglect, it is easy to imagine how the neglect of 40+ years after the prison closed in 1963 was nearly the end of these wonderful gardens.
Our drought tolerant gardens were designed to cope with the limited fresh water on the island, not the absence of gardeners to tend them. However, the plants were chosen well and most perked up again after being watered. The gardens on the west side were needed the most attention. During the shutdown, the beautiful weather dried out the soil and the plants were
getting very crispy. The hebe shrub began to wilt and the asters were completed desiccated. The hebe has recovered while the asters were cut back to the ground to come back next year.
The human reaction to not being allowed in the gardens was more surprising. For the first week, having the island just to staff was actually nice (sorry to say). Cell house staff who never venture outside to the gardens were assigned to sweeping roadways and finally saw the gardens that are off the beaten path to the cell house audio tour. After a day or two of this, the visitors were missed, and for the garden staff, not having visitors to share the gardens with was tough.
Garden volunteers, many of whom are retired, suddenly found themselves without anywhere to go. Gardening on Alcatraz is largely a social outing for many people – the team of volunteers are a close knit bunch, who look forward to not only the gardening but to catch up with each other. In total we lost five volunteer days and two scheduled work groups.
Sadly for the many thousands of would-be visitors, they missed out altogether on an Alcatraz experience. The island receives roughly 5000 visitors a day, many of whom are from other parts of the world. A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete unless they see Alcatraz and the other Golden Gate National Recreational Area sites that make the Bay Area so wonderful to visit.
Unfortunately, the appreciation reception for the florilegium exhibit was to be held for 100 guests the evening of October 1. Needless to say, this fundraiser for the gardens had to be cancelled. This was particularly disappointing after so much work had gone into planning both the exhibit and the reception. As well, a visiting group of conference attendees that had been organized by the National Tropical Botanical Garden to visit the gardens on October 5 had to be cancelled.
As the shutdown continued, access to the island for staff slowed down and then halted. As we finished this work week, we are all caught up with sweeping, tidying and watering the gardens. All the volunteers and staff were in a joyous spirit!
Alcatraz garden volunteers have faithfully been monitoring selected native plants on the island since February as part of the California Phenology Project.
The native plants have been scrutinized at least twice a week for growth of leaves, flower buds, open flowers, pollen release, fruits, ripe fruits and seed/fruit drop. For each of these observations, a quantitative estimate is given. Among the native plants that have been closely watched is Coyote brush, Baccharis pilularis.
Plants are fascinating to grow for whatever reasons the gardener finds rewarding – the promise of food, the enjoyment of the flowers, providing habitat, or just for the fun of it. For the phenology watchers, learning each plant secrets has its own rewards that only come after months of observing. The four coyote brush on the island have finally revealed the secret of their sex to us! Alcatraz has two males and two female plants.
Everyone knows that (most) plants have flowers, but many people may not realize that the flowers have male and female parts, and in some cases, that the male and female flowers are on separate plants.
The coyote brush is one of the plants that have the male and female flowers on separate plants. This is known as being dioecious, meaning to have two houses in Greek. The opposite is to have the reproductive parts on one plant, or in one house, being monoecious. What is the difference between the male and female flowers? The male flowers contain the pollen, held on the anthers, while the female flowers open to reveal the stigma and
style. Bees or other insects will take pollen from the male and will brush the pollen on the female flowers in their effort to gather nectar. The female flowers are oblong with a narrow opening at the top. Inside, the pollen will land on the stigma and ‘travel’ down the style to the reach the ovary where the seeds will ripen. Once the seeds are ripe, the seeds will be dispersed by the wind carrying the fluffy tufts away. On Alcatraz, there is a lot of wind, so the seeds are dispersed quickly.
The first male plant began to flower on July 17 and finished flowering September 25.The females flowered next, while the second male plant began to flower September 25 and is still flowering. It is interesting to note that the
male plants are growing on different sides of the island, and have different flowering times. Maybe after a few years of observations, we can draw more conclusions about why this is. By flowering at different times, the cottony female ‘seeds’ are released and float on the wind to be carried away to reach a distant male. This helps to increase the genetic variation amongst a plant population – a cool evolution trick.
Can you think of other plants that have male and female flowers on separate plants?
Here are a few – holly, gingko, kiwi vines and mulberries. Knowing which plants have separate male and female flowers will help gardeners plan their garden. For instance, if you wish for bright red holly berries, you must plant a female bush, but you will also need a male to fertilize it. Or, you should also take into consideration garden maintenance – a messy female gingko tree will drop the fruit or even the female coyote brush may be too messy for some people’s liking.
At any rate, plants can continue to amaze, just take the time to notice them.
Way back in April, our gladiolus corms arrived in the mail from Old House Gardens. We tucked the little corms into the raised bed in front of the greenhouse and have been waiting expectantly for the heirloom flowers to appear.
Over the past two weeks, the flower stalks have emerged from the center of the fan shaped leaves, revealing their bright blossoms a little bit each day. Even though they were all planted the same day, at the same depth, they are not all blooming at the same time, perhaps some are in more rush than others, while the others prefer to take their time.
It would be hard to pick a favorite flower, they are all very pretty, and I can see why this old fashioned flower continues to be popular.
‘Carolina Primrose’, introduced to
the plant trade in 1908 is a small and graceful gladiolus that multiplies each year without much care. According to the growers at Old House Gardens, the corms survive in zone 5! Like many heirloom plants, this corm was collected at an old home site and lucky for us it was found, as it was named ‘Bulb of the Year’ in Spring 2008.
‘Dauntless’ is every bit its name – pink with a dramatic splash of ruby in the throat. This corm is one of the oldest traditional gladiolus offered by Old House Gardens.
‘Bibi’ was offered to the plant trade in 1954. Described
on the Old House Gardens’ website as ‘exotically patterned in a style that dates back to Victorian days, this small-flowered, vibrant pink cutie is randomly flecked with deep rose’. The flower easily blends in with a Victorian garden of the military years or with the hippy flair of the 1960s.
The frosty pink Gladiolus ‘Friendship’ is listed as a ‘landmark pink that has won every prize there is for glads’. In fact, “60-some years after it first bloomed for the legendary Carl Fischer it’s still considered world-class”.
The flower of ‘Melodie’ was a pleasant
surprise, even though I had seen the photo of it before I ordered it. I always wonder if the flower color is enhanced in the plant catalogues, but the photos were right! It is a true pink with a dark scarlet center that is edged in yellow.
‘Contentment’ is a rare corm from the 1957, and despite being once the world’s most popular lavender gladiolus, it has almost stopped being grown by gardeners.
The cute flower of ‘Boone’ will just
leave you wanting to grow more of them. This little guy was rescued from an abandoned homestead in the Appalachians near Boone, North Carolina. It has graceful blooms of soft apricot and it is hardy through zone 6 and perhaps 5 according to Old House Gardens reports.
The Abyssinian gladiolus was documented in the 1996 book Gardens of Alcatraz as growing on the island. The plant had long disappeared when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003, so it was finally time to bring this graceful glad back to the island. Introduced in 1888, perhaps it was grown by some of the military wives in cutting gardens. Collected from the mountains of Ethiopia in 1844, it reached America by
1888 when it was featured as brand new in Garden and Forest magazine. Formerly Acidanthera, it is now called Gladiolus callianthus ‘Murielae’. We ordered 100 of the little corms, most are planted in one raised bed in front of the rose terrace greenhouse, it will be a great site when they are all in bloom.
Our rarest purchase was the
‘Lilac & Chartreuse’ gladiolus. Introduced in, 1960, it is a shame that it is not grown more. The flower is pretty eccentric, just like the 1960s themselves – ruffled and lavender with the chartreuse thrown in.
I hope to add more heirloom gladiolus every year and build up our collection of these wonderful old favorites, and hopefully entice visitors to grow them too.
Winter is the usual time for us to do big garden renovations; with the winter rains, the absence of birds and fewer visitors, it is the ideal time to make changes in the garden beds. However, we had one garden area that just could not wait another couple of months.
Our little ‘chapel bed’ along the main roadway desperately needed some TLC. In the spring, this garden looks fantastic and is often the first bed where visitors stop and say ‘wow’ at the size of the Aeoniums. Most visitors are accustomed to seeing these ‘hens and chicks’ plants the size of a tennis ball, not basketballs, the size they easily grow to on the island.
The plantings in this bed were actually rescued plants from construction staging sites before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began, way back in 2000. But after thirteen years, many of the plants were crowded, the rhizomes of the bearded iris were choking each other and the Aeoniums were getting very leggy (garden talk meaning, too high with the growth only at the tips of bare stems). The Aeoniums, both purple and green, do not look their best at this time of year – in response to the dry conditions in our Mediterranean climate, they drop their lower leaves and the remaining leaves shrivel in to hold onto any moisture they can.
The soil itself needed amending too. Each year, we have added soil to the perimeter of the bed, but could only apply topdressing, not incorporate our rich compost into the soil.
In a bold move, we decided it was time to clear out all the plants, saving the existing Solanum marginatum, Drosanthemum and the shrubby Hebe. Karolina and a few volunteers dug out all the plants, taking cuttings of the succulents and selecting the healthiest iris rhizomes to replant. In preparation, we had been taken cuttings of the Aeonium and were growing them in the greenhouse.
The new plants were set out in roughly the same arrangement as before. We also added in tall Verbena bonariensis to give some height and some billowy color through the summer and fall. We also removed some non-historic Gazania rigens along the front edge that always required water and planted legacy Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and heirloom Pelargonium ‘Apricot’ that has done very well for us in west side Prisoner Gardens.
We will need to water the new plants until the winter rains begin but, this drought tolerant selections should be just fine with weekly watering until they are established.
Nurturing plants to soften the starkness of the prison island has its challenges. The island’s past residents certainly must have realized this, but they were determined to coax blooms from the Rock.
We are following in the footsteps of those early gardens and I find myself often wondering ‘how did they do it’, and being impressed with their dedication to creating beauty in this forbiding environment.
The military landscaped the main road that leads from the dock to the top of island, where the Citadel, the military fortification, once stood. They created pocket beds and even used cannon balls to line a parapet wall in front of the commanders’ homes, known as Officers’ Row. When the military left the island in 1933, these homes would later be turned into gardens in 1942. To move away from the military look, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, removed the cannon balls and built a trough planter along the entire wall – 330 feet in length! The maximum security surely must have been taken with the gardens left behind by the military to go to these lengths.
In 2005, the trough planter was the first garden area to be restored and it was replanted with ivy leaf geraniums that would have been available to gardeners back in the 1940s. We quickly learned the challenges of gardening on the Rock, when the resident gulls pulled each plant out!
We have gotten smarter since then, and now have heavy guage wires to protect our precious plants. But the challenges did not stop there.
Luckily, the trough is located on the leeward side of the island, so wind does not dry out the plants. However, the trough, being made of brick and only one foot in depth and tends to dry out quickly in the hot summer sun. A drip irrigation line had been installed for weekly waterings, but then we were also reminded that water will find the easiest path to drain to – the water tended to run down the inside of the trough, before finding a drainage hole and seep away – doing little more than just wetting the sides of the trough, and not soaking the roots of the plants at all. We now alternate hand water and the drip irrigation to ensure that the plants are getting enough water. When we do use the drip irrigation, we also turn the water on for 10 minutes, then off for 20 minutes, then on again for 10 minutes to allow the water to soak into the soil instead of just running out any cracks. As a plus though, the dripping trough supports ferns, hydrangea shrubs and fuschias that are growing below the trough.
Feeding the pelargoniums is a must. We enrich the trough soil every year with our compost, however, regular fertilizing with kelp emulsion keeps the flowers blooming and the leaves green all summer.
The steady maintenance of deadheading the spent blooms is enough to keep a crew of volunteers busy. Aside from this expected maintenance, our gull friends insist of sitting on top of the wire cages (I guess this gives the best lookout). We usually have a few broken stems each week that need to be pruned off.
Despite all this work, the gardening is a labor of love with rich rewards.
Our upcoming Florilegium of watercolor paintings of island plants will also be showcasing written poetry about the gardens. The poems are a collection of ‘Compare and Compose’ Poetry that was put together by a National Park Service intern in 1992. Mary Schumacher organized an interpretive program where visitors to the island spent a couple of hours walking the island and gaining inspiration from the landscape.
The poems have had little mention since they were written over two decades ago, but Mary has held onto the treasured poems. The gardens have changed dramatically since inspiring the writings, but the spirit of the gardens still remain – cherished plants brought to a desolate island to provide beauty, the neglect of the gardens, the determination of the plants to hold onto the life they had.
With the poems being presented alongside the art, at long last, they will be read and provoke thought once again about the importance of plants and beauty in our every day lives.
Now the ice plant
lives on the cliffs
of another age.
In the purple light
are also purple.
When the rock it hangs on
begins to crumble
piece by piece
breaking to new form…
the plant cannot
remember another age.
Where men denied the privileges
Once more the priviledges of nature
were denied as well
It did not work
As well as men cannot be made
Control of nature is not within men’s
Alcatraz – where “destruction” has
not become the final word
Alcatraz – where nature survived and
gave rise to new beauty
-Lars Pohlmeier, Bremen, Germany; September 24, 1992
Beauty within the Beast
How can there be so much life
surrounding so much that is
Mother Nature will prevail
-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992