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Category Archives: Plants
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.
Technically this past Monday was a workday but instead of being on our beloved island, we had planned to go to the Dr. Herman Schwartz garden – Bolinas Botanical Garden – to take cuttings of succulents to add to our own Alcatraz garden. The trip hardly seemed like ‘work’.
The Marin-Bolinas Botanical garden was started by Dr. Herman Schwartz and contains over 2000 species. A YouTube video of an interview captures him well as he sits in one of his greenhouse. An early interest in plants and animals started him on his lifelong passion for plants. Although Dr. Schwartz passed away in January 2008, his passion lives on.
The trip was a privilege, arranged by a common friend of Dr. Schwartz’s son, David. I had only been once before in 2010 with Brian Kemble, curator for the gardens. Just like then, I was astounded by the rich variety of succulents and euphorbias. The garden is similar to Alcatraz’s gardens in a way – both are very unexpected in an unlikely place. Both have plants gathered from all over the world, in Dr. Schwartz’s interview, he says “I don’t have to travel anymore because I can transport myself to where I found them”.
As we stepped from the car, many succulents were in full bloom, and the sheer size of the garden hit us. Like kids in a candy store, we almost didn’t know where to start first! We could barely walk 5 feet without stopping and spotting a new plant, we soon had our bag full and we realized we didn’t bring enough bags. Memories of trick or treating came back – a full bag and still more stops to go. Luckily the car was nearby.
It was fun to point out the plants that I had collected back in 2010 to the staff gardener and intern. All of the plants are thriving on the island – Cotyledon orbiculata (gray and green forms), Echeveria pulvinata, and Aeonium cuneatum to name a few.
We did find new Kalanchoe, a new red blooming Orbiculata, a blue Senecio, Dudleya, Agave victoria-reginae, of which there was only one so we did not select it but we will soon be sourcing it. Without Brian on this visit, I will soon be in touch with him for the correct names of the cuttings we took. When these are added to the Alcatraz gardens, we will also update our plant collection database and will proudly note where the cuttings came from.
Walking in this garden was an honour, and just like our own Alcatraz gardens, the presence of past gardeners was felt. With respect, we took our cuttings, and I hope our joy of finding new treasures and our delight at spending time in this garden could be seen by Dr. Schwartz.
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.
California is entering what is typically a dry time of year, and with the severe drought, this year is especially tough. On Alcatraz, we have cut back on watering in the gardens and have altered our watering schedule to water less frequently but longer so the water can soak deeper into the soil.
The plants are coping with reduced water and it is interesting to see how different plants are responding. The survivor plants – the plants that were able to cling to life after the Federal prison shut down in 1963 – are demonstrating their true strength.
For example, the plantings of Pelargonium on the Rose Terrace are all heirloom cultivars but are either survivor plants from the island or are ones that we purchased and introduced. We even have three Pelargonium that were propagated from the Presidio pet cemetery where they receive no water or care.
The island survivors are coping well and are blooming away after a short dormant period. They include plants with the names of ‘Prince Bismarck’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘San Antonio’, Pelargonium quercifolium, and ‘Alphonse Ricard’. In our gardens, some of these slow down with the blooming in July and do have rust spots on the leaves and tend to drop the lower leaves but by the end of August, they are rebounding and are back in full bloom.
A treasured find were the pelargoniums from
the Pet Cemetery. I’ve only been able to positively identify one with a name as being Pelargonium ‘Apricot’. This one has scented leaves that are very lobed and crinkly with rose/pink flowers with a white center. This is a non-stop bloomer from spring through to the beginning of winter for us. We have another two that are Martha Washington varieties in two different shades of pink.
Contrasted to our survivors, the purchased pelargonium have really slowed down with blooming and with overall growth. For most of them, they have finer leaves and are more delicate. We do give them more water than the survivors, but without the extra love, I’m sure they would not make it. Even though they may not be much to look at right now, they are still impressive for their ability to cope through the summer and once spring arrives they will be blooming fearlessly.
I confess, I’m always on the lookout for plants growing in the toughest and unlikely places. Just last night, while attending a Park Academy class at the Fort Scott Community Garden in the Presidio, I noticed some pelargonium with wooden stems spilling out of wine barrels. I caught site of another fuzzy leaved one growing alongside a potting shed. Another scented leaved one was spotted growing in the herb garden! Very exciting to find these tough guys that were obviously heirlooms. With permission, I took cuttings of each and hope to find names for them and see how they do with our Alcatraz collection.
At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.
This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.
During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!
It was inevitable that the lawn failed.
The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.
Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:
- we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
- a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
- a grass that would tolerate being mowed
- a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
- a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold
Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!
Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms. Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.
Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!
After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).
Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).
Installing the irrigation drip lines took
about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.
We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.
We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,
as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).
So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.
Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.
This week Alcatraz staff and volunteers were invited to visit their neighbour, Angel Island for a tour. While we are very familiar with Alcatraz’s history, it was really fascinating to see the same history but from the perspective of Angel Island.
Angel Island is a State Park that is only 1 mile away from Alcatraz and is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Alcatraz, coastal natives, the Miwok, did live on Angel Island with its source of fresh water and a population of deer established when the island was still connected to the mainland.
Alcatraz is described as a ‘layered cake of history’ and our tour of Angel Island took us through many layers. Like Alcatraz, the military had a very strong presence to protect the Bay with the start of the Civil War. In 1863, artillery guns and batteries were constructed, houses were built and camps were set up. In the coming years, Angel Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants and troops returning from the Spanish-American war in 1899, a discharge station for troops coming and going to the Pacific, an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 and a prisoner of war facility for the second World War.
The island is best known for being the Ellis Island of the West – an immigration station. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed all of San Francisco’s City Hall’s records and this became an opportunity for established immigrants to invite family members to America. Officials became wise to the sudden influx of immigrants and soon changed the rules – now extensive interviews were required and family member’s answers must match each other in closed interviews. Angel Island became a holding facility while the interviews were being carried out. Stays could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 months. Today, the immigration station is open for visitors and it really is moving. Alcatraz was a place where inmates were imprisoned for behaving badly, whereas Angel Island’s detainees were imprisoned for wanting a better life. Poems were inscribed in the wooden walls, many are in Asian languages, to release the anger and frustration felt. Our ranger described how the officials filled in the carvings with
wood putty and painted over the repair to erase the ‘graffiti’, only to have more poems take their place. In their efforts to erase the poems, the wood putty actually preserved the writings! Many of the poems have been translated and a few of them speak of being surrounded by green fields. It turns out that the original paint had been a jade green. In Chinese culture, jade brings luck and good fortune, so it must have been especially cruel to be held in a green holding room uncertain of your future.
I was especially interested in the plant life on the island. Alcatraz’s topsoil actually had been imported from Angel Island and the ranger joked that we have their soil. Initially, the military chopped down all the trees on Angel Island to use for construction and then
realized that perhaps a few trees would look much better. Eucalyptus groves were planted, much like on Alcatraz and in the Presidio in San Francisco. As well, around Officers’ homes gardens were planted. Today, the gardens are suffering from neglect with lack of funding for garden staff to revitalize them. With deer constantly grazing, it will be a challenge to restore them (I’ll take my 2000 seagulls any day).
The gardens around the Bake House were very interesting. The pathways were set with brick edges with the stamp of the brick maker – I noted some C.H. (from city hall) and Carneige that we have on Alcatraz too. There were also a few plants in common with Alcatraz – chasmanthe, calla lilies, a few rambling roses, Echium, Agave and daffodils in bloom. One of the more interesting plantings was a row of Monterrey cypress trees planted by the hospital. The row had actually been maintained as a high hedge!
I hope Angel Island will someday have the good fortune that Alcatraz has had with the gardens being restored and the garden story being told. I really do think the gardens are the icing on the layered cake of history.
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.