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Category Archives: Plants
Compost guru Dick Miner has been cultivating our island compost for five years. In his retirement, he found a way to apply his career skills working in a lab for AIDS research with his hobby of gardening. In doing so, Dick has developed a deep passion turning our island green ‘waste’ back into soil.
Proudly, Dick’s Alcatraz compost was awarded the blue ribbon in the Marin County Fair’s ‘Best Backyard Compost’ competition this past holiday weekend.
Dick began to work on this winning batch of compost back in February. Actually, he began to think about this year’s competition the day after he won first place last year. Dick wanted to add food scraps into this year’s batch to increase the organic matter content. We had been experimenting with collecting vegetable and fruit scraps from the island’s staff lunches, but, after collecting the scraps for several months, we found that we were not obtaining desirable contents in the bins. So, Dick enlisted fellow garden volunteers to bring their scraps from home.
The batch was cultivated with care – being turned once a week to aerate and watering weekly to maintain the moisture content to a moist, but not wet feel. Our soil thermometer registered temperatures from the center of the 4’x4’ pile between 120F and 150F. These temperatures were maintained for two months.
How did Dick know when the compost was done? Dick’s biggest pointer on knowing when you can use the compost is when you can’t tell what you had started with.
A natural teacher, Dick shared his love for his work with a microbiology class from San Francisco University High School this past May. The class is a survey class in microbiology that had been learning about bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The visit was an opportunity for the students to learn about microbiology as applied to decomposition. After a short lecture about the many organisms and processes involved in compost production, the class worked together to turn the compost piles. Turning the pile of compost, they could see first-hand the workings of a healthy compost pile that was teaming with microbes and earthworms—and even feel the heat from the decomposing vegetation. I’m sure the kids were appreciative that they were learning from a compost master.
When the Garden Conservancy started work to bring the Gardens of Alcatraz back to life after forty years of neglect, one of the fascinating aspects of the project was the plant life still surviving on the island. In 2005, an island wide survey was done and we found just over 200 different species of plants!
As most gardeners are also ‘list makers’, and like keeping track of new plantings and when the plants bloom, we started to keep track of the flowering times.
Beginning in 2009, we made simple lists by the season of what was in bloom. Our spreadsheets have gotten a bit more elaborate since then. We still list each species of plant, but also record which garden it is blooming in, if the blooming is just starting, in full bloom, or is fading.
Comparing the same months and the same gardens over the years tells us some interesting facts.
The most obvious is that we have WAY more plants blooming on the island now that we did in 2009! We do try to be consistent when we take our observations – so we aim for the same week each month. In 2009, we reached our peak number of plants in bloom in the spring with 80 different plants blooming. This year, in May, we reached 156 different plants blooming – almost double from only four years ago!
The gardens are pretty much all over the island, creating microclimates of sun versus shade, leeward versus windward, and watered plants versus ‘on your own’ plants. The survivor plants are great for looking at how these microclimates affect the blooming times under these conditions.
Persian carpet is a historic island plant that can be found in most of the restored gardens around the island. The Persian carpet on the south facing slopes began to bloom in February this year but in December 2010, we had a scattering of blooms in all the different gardens. The Persian carpet finished
blooming on the south facing slopes last month but is still going strong on the East facing slopes. Planting the same plant with different sun exposures not only lengthens the blooming time, but it also allows more visitors to the island see this wonderful historic plant in bloom.
Another garden survivor that has had some subtle changes to its blooming time is Centranthus ruber, Jupiter’s Beard. In 2010, it started to bloom in the spring as it normally does and then finished in late September. Comparing the bloom times of 2012, the centranthus bloomed every month of the year!
We will also have to now start tracking the weather conditions and the amount of rain and fog to really get a better picture of why the plants are blooming at such different times.
On our shopping trip to Annie’s Annuals this past December we picked up a number of plants that would give the gardens plenty of blooms during the dry months of summer and into the fall. Scanning Annie’s website before we ventured out, we made our shopping list for plants that had the look of the 1940s and 1950s but that would also tolerate dry conditions and not be fussy about the soil.
We happened upon Tanacetum niveum ‘White Bouquet Tansy’. I think gardeners are, by nature, hopeful people – who else trusts that burying tiny seeds in the ground will bring forth in a few months times, overflowing beds of color? That is exactly what happened with our little 4” pot of Tanacetum. An unassuming clump of green leaves is now a two foot mound of daisy flowers.
The daisy flowers echo the historic photo we have of the Prisoner Gardens along the roadway. We had tried Shasta daisy and white coneflower, but neither of these plants did very well. The Tanacetum is proving to be a winner!
The yellow centers complement the yellow marigolds and coreopsis growing next to them.
Annie describes this hardy perennial from Central South-Eastern Europe as indestructible, deer resistant, requires average to low water, self-sowing and needs full sun. We can also add ‘seagull proof’ and tolerates coastal conditions. After blooming is finished, it is recommended to cut the plant back to 3” for a second bloom. The Tanacetum is at home from USDA zones 4 to 10 – a very wide range!
I’m curious to see just how tough this plant is to not only see how long it will bloom for, but how the Bay’s wind and fog treat it during the summer months.
It’s hard to resist adding new succulents to the dry slopes on the west side of the island. With so many new plant introductions from nurseries, it’s hard to stick to plants that are in keeping with the correct time period that we try to convey in the Prisoner Gardens – the 1940s and 1950s.
With help from Brian Kemble of the Ruth Bancroft Garden, we are adding five new species of Aloes and Agaves this year. Brian recommended this selection based not only on our historical time period, when these plants would have been available to gardeners back then, but also on our climatic conditions.
These new plants will have to cope with dry summers, wet winters, wind, and poor sandy soils. Welcome to Alcatraz! Unlike new inmates, these plants are accustomed to these conditions and should feel right at home.
Our first aloe is the blue aloe, Aloe glauca. The work ‘glauca’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘bluish-gray’ referring to the color of the large thick leaves and to the powdery bloom on their surfaces. It is an essentially stem-less aloe with rosettes of up to 18″ in diameter. Each rosette can produce up to three cone-shaped inflorescences of pink to pale orange flowers. The leaf surfaces are smooth and the margins are armed with reddish-brown teeth. Blue aloe is restricted to the drier rocky hills and mountain slopes of the Western Cape and Northern Cape provinces of South Africa, blooming August to October. It readily propagates by pupping. This aloe even prefers dry winters, but I’m sure on our well-draining slopes, the winter rains will not be a problem.
Our second aloe is Aloe plicatilis,
or commonly known as fan aloe. This succulent has a fan-like arrangement of its leaves and will grow into a large multi-stemmed shrub. This species is endemic to a few mountains in the Western Cape in South Africa; and is only one of five species of tree aloes. Again, this aloe prefers well drained, sandy soil that is slightly acidic.
Our last aloe is the Spiny Aloe, Aloe africana and is from the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In its native habitat, this plant is commonly found growing on hills and flat areas with other aloes. This aloe is able to adapt to a wider range of climatic conditions, and can even grow in hot and humid areas during the summer time in Africa. The Spiny Aloe is another small tree that can grow up to 6 feet in height. The leaves are considered graceful with their 2 foot long arch and sharp red teeth along the margins.
This aloe would have been available to gardeners back during the 1940s as it was first described in 1768 by the Scottish botanist Philip Miller, who was also the chief gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was grown in Europe prior to when many other aloes were described and before Linnaeus establishing the binominal classification system we currently use. The specific epithet that Miller gave it is simply in reference its African origins
Brian also recommended two species
of Agaves. The first one, Agave colorata is native to the coastal region of northwestern Sonora, Mexico. The blue-gray textured leaves are undulating and have teeth along the margins with a white pattern along the face of the leaf. The leaves will form a rosette and is fairly slow growing. This plant would have been perfect for inmate gardeners serving a long sentence – it takes the plant 15 years to bloom.
The last plant to join our ranks is Agave victoriae-reginae, also called Queen Victoria agave or royal agave. This is a very striking succulent with its white streaks on very geometrical leaves. The rosette is very compact, only reaching 3 feet high when fully grown. The plant takes a good 20 to 30 years to flower, so patience is a virtue; but the leaves of this plant are really why you would grow this plant.
When new plants are introduced to the gardens, our plant inventory list is updated. The plants are listed alphabetically in an Excel spreadsheet and notes are made on where the plant was purchased from, the price, the size of the pot, where the plant was planted on Alcatraz and a column for any special notes (mostly why the plant died or why it is being planted). The list is pretty basic but it serves our purpose – to leave a record for future gardeners.
Spring is by far the best time of year to see the gardens, the island is brilliant with color and most visitors are surprised by this unexpected beauty.
Right now we have four
kinds of poppies profusely blooming. The state flower, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, seem to spread every year, and the bright orange almost glows on a foggy day.
It is thought that the original seeds came in with imported soil with the military in the mid-1850s. A few of the poppies in the Rose Terrace garden are a soft buttercup yellow.
The Shirley poppies, Papaver rhoeas, are looking great again this year. We grow these from seed every year and always end up with a wide variation in pinks and reds. The Shirley poppies were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort. In the early 1920s, it seems that the town of San Francisco
was not too happy with the appearance of the military prison in the middle of their beautiful Bay. Military inmates were enlisted to plant the slopes in an effort to create a cheerful face for the town.
This year, we planted a few Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. These are the bright orange and yellow flowers that are typically seen in early spring.
An annual poppy that we tried this year is Papaver ‘Danebrog’. The results so far are quite impressive! A brilliant red with white splotches on the outside of the petals, the plant has reached a height of 4’ so far.
Our last poppy is another ‘stop and notice me’ plant. The fried egg looking blossoms of the Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, look like they are made from tissue paper. The delicate looking blooms sit at the end of thorny stems of a rather tall shrub. This California native was tough to get started but it is now fully established and is loving its location in the Prisoner Gardens.
Earth Day typically involve activities that focus on native plants and restoring habitats, but the day was also an opportunity to demonstrate that gardeners can landscape with drought tolerant non-native plants that are not invasive. Hosting a garden table with Alcatraz Cruises’ Earth Day celebration last week was a chance to highlight plants growing on Alcatraz, that while not native, are extremely well suited to the climate they have been thriving in.
From over 200 species of plants that survived the closure of the prison five plants were chosen to be on display. Each of the five plants has different adaptions to coping with drought, wind, poor soil and sun exposure.
The first plant always receives a lot of attention – Aeonium arboreum, or hens and chicks as most people call it. This succulent is able to store water in its fleshy leaves, and will drop the lower leaves when water becomes scarce. Producing few seeds, the plant mainly propagates itself by the forming roots along its stem. The roots will grow downwards, seeking any soil to root into. The plant is able to thrive in poor soil; I have even seen a massive clump of aeonium growing out of 5 inches of debris that had accumulated on top of a tunnel entrance.
Another popular succulent is Persian carpet. This little beauty is coloring the hillsides of the island pink right now. As tiny as the leaves are, they store water and the slightly dimpled leaves reflect light. The ice plant is great for stabilizing poor soils. Although an ice plant, this little guy is not the common invasive ice plant that is often seen along freeways.
A common garden plant in the 1940s and 50s was Pelargoniums, commonly known as geraniums. Pelargoniums are from the Southern Hemisphere and are from the
Mediterranean regions of South Africa. Five different cultivars survived on the island. The rough leaves reflect light, as well as the plant will drop its lower leaves when stressed by drought. It is not known exactly how, but the scented leaves of pelargonium are thought to be a survival mechanism.
Another survivor is the common garden nasturtium. It is surprising that the fleshy green round leaves are able to cope with the strong winds and lack of water, but these annuals have been self-seeding since they were introduced in 1924. They are able to complete their life cycle by the time water is becoming scarce in the soil.
Many visitors are surprised to see Calla lilies
thriving in the gardens. The callas, growing from a rhizome, are able to grow with the rains and then store energy for next year’s growth. The arrow shaped leaves will even funnel water to the roots. As we don’t water our callas, they do go dormant, the green leaves fading to yellow.
Growing a garden with just native plants is a wonderful goal, but gardeners can also select suitable plants for their area that are not native. Taking a walk around Alcatraz this month really shows how dramatic creating garden on a bare rock with non-natives can be.
Most gardeners have a winter pastime of pouring over plant order catalogues, examining each plant and adding it to a wish list. Here in San Francisco, while we do not quite receive the same snowstorms as elsewhere, we do have long nights and look forward to spring.
I placed an order for heirloom Gladiolus from Old House Bulbs this past fall and they arrived this week! With their bright pink labels, they looked like bags of candy. I ordered a selection of bulbs that would have been available to gardeners before 1963. The federal prison closed in 1963, and so when choosing heirloom plants, we try to be as authentic as possible.
Gladiolus flowers were identified in a few historic
photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, in one photo an inmate is actually holding a whole armful of apricot sprays of flowers. Often, these bouquets were taken to the chapel to decorate the altar, or placed on the dock for resident families to come and take for their own homes.
Another photograph shows the blooms standing at the back of a bed in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island. Maybe the inmates were able to order from a catalogue too? Or maybe a guard brought them back to the island to be planted. Not knowing how plants arrived on the island is part of the mystery of gardening on the Rock. At any rate, a great deal of effort was put into obtaining plants to provide beauty.
The gladiolus that I ordered have fun names – Friendship, Carolina Primrose, Dauntless, Bibi, Melodie, Contentment (probably not the best name for being on Alcatraz), Abyssinian (which appears in the Gardens of Alcatraz book), and Boone. These glads will be planted this coming week in the Rose Terrace in the raised bed in front of the greenhouse, where the photo of the inmate holding the cut gladiolus was taken.
Last year, our gladiolus had significant rust, so this year we will experiment with treating them with a fungicide and lifting them at the end of the growing season to store them for the winter.
Chances are, you have seen fasciation on your own garden plants and maybe thought ‘how weird’ and did not think much more about it. Fasciation is a mutation in a plant’s growth habit, which causes the plant to grow flattened, elongated shoots and flower heads that look like many stems compressed together. I recently came across an Aeonium arboreum on Alcatraz that has a branch of flattened growth with many dwarf rosettes growing along the top of the flattened stem.
So why does this mutation happen? Geoff Stein submitted an article for the website, Dave’s Gardens, and describes various theories but the precise cause is unknown. A bacterial, fungal or viral infection may cause some genetic mutation and a phytoplasma (a mix of a bacteria and a virus) has been proven to cause the mutation in some species. Of course, chemical and physical trauma are possibilities, though usually that sort of trauma damages the meristem (growth center) in such a way that the plant simply begins to divide, resulting in ‘ordinary’ branching or multiple heads. Perhaps radiation from the sun is another possible mutation cause. Some plants seem more prone to this mutation at various seasons, so temperature, humidity or heat may have some influence. Some nutritional deficiencies have been known to lead to cresting mutations (e.g., Zinc deficiency) as well. Sometimes mutations can occur spontaneously, just a chromosomal malfunction.
These mutations are not passed along through seed, but, as Stein notes, there has to be some sort of genetic tendency for these mutations to occur as many species form fasciations fairly commonly while others have never been found to do so. Succulents and cacti tend to be fasciated quite often. For the number of succulents on the island though, this is the first time we have seen this growth.
Fasciated growth is not uncommon in other plants – forsythia being one of the more common. Recently, a Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy field staff noticed the mutation happening in poison oak!
Cuttings can be done of the mutated growth and a quick search on websites, show that these mutations can be highly desired. Perhaps we will start a fascinating fasciation garden?
Upon arriving to Alcatraz, many visitors are surprised at how, well, BEAUTIFUL, the island is. The gardens are a stark contrast to what they were expecting to find – a barren island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that has the world’s most famous prison. Test your knowledge about the gardens with these questions, I bet you learn something new.
1. In 2005, a plant inventory was done of the surviving vegetation on Alcatraz. How many species of plants were found?
A. Less than 50
B. Between 51 and 100
C. Between 101 and 200
D. Over 200
2. True or False – the island has no source of freshwater other than fog drip and rainfall.
3. True or False – all of the island’s soil was imported.
4. True or False – the gardens have plants from every continent except Antarctica.
5. True or False – inmate gardener, Elliot Michener,
was so attached to the gardens he created during his 9 year stay, that upon his transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he requested to come back to Alcatraz to finish his sentence.
6. True or False – today, the garden volunteers have a worm farm in the rose terrace greenhouse.
7. The nasturtiums seen growing on the island today were introduced:
A. 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society
B. A seagull dropped the seeds
C. 2003 when The Garden Conservancy began clearing overgrowth
8. Alcatraz Island is 22.5 acres in size. The gardens make up:
A. 500 ft2
B. 1 acre
C. 2 acres
D. 4.5 acres
9. True or False – During the island’s days as a military prison, there was a mule stable on the west lawn.
10. True or False – Penitentiary guards would sometimes fish from the Alcatraz dock. They would use the fish heads to fertilize the island’s roses.
11. True or False – Penitentiary inmates tended flower gardens and would leave buckets of flowers on the dock for guards’ families.
12. The garden restoration began in 2003 and relied heavily on volunteer gardens. As of January 2013, garden volunteers have logged:
A. 1000 hours
B. 10 000 hours
C. 30 000 hours
D. 40 000 hours
13. True or False – once you are on the island, the garden tour is free.
14. The military and penitentiary encouraged inmates to garden, mainly to give the inmates something to do. A number of greenhouses were constructed on the island to help grow plants. Today, there are 2
greenhouses on the island, but how many greenhouses once stood on the island?
15. Today, Alcatraz is a protected sanctuary for many kinds of water birds who return to the island every spring to nest and raise their families. A few of these birds began coming to the island during the 40 years when the gardens became overgrown. Which birds come to the island because the overgrowth provides ideal nesting sites?
A. Seagulls and Brandt’s cormorants
C. Snowy egrets and black crowned night herons
D. Pigeon guillemots and penguins
16. True or False – there are still more gardens to restore on the island.
17. True or False – the military had vocational training for inmates to become gardeners.
18. The slope in front of the cell house was planted in 1924 to give a friendly look to San Francisco. The slope was restored in 2007 and the Persian carpet iceplant is blooming bright pink once again. The slope can be seen as far away as:
A. As you approach on the ferry
B. Fisherman’s Wharf
C. Crissy Field
D. The Golden Gate Bridge
19. What is the secret ingredient in our award winning compost?
A. Bird guano
C. Anchor Steam hops
20. True or False – there is always something blooming in the gardens, regardless of the time of year.
1. d; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True; 6. True; 7. a; 8. d; 9. True; 10. True; 11. True; 12. d; 13. True; 14. c; 15. c; 16. True; 17. True; 18. d; 19. c; 20. c
How did you do?
15-20 correct answers – You should become a docent!
10-14 – Very good!
6-9 – Pretty good.
0-5 – Come join us on a tour!
The February blues on Alcatraz are anything but blah. The range of bluish purple flowers in the gardens is very rich and complements many of the orange and yellow blooming plants.
Just on our small island, there are a number of plants in bloom right now in the same shades.
Echium candicans, pride of Madeira,
has been blooming for over a month now, mainly on the west side of the island where they are loved by hummingbirds. A survivor garden plant, one seed landed by chance in the rose terrace, right alongside another survivor, Muscari
armeniacum, grape hyacinth. Seeing the same shade of purple blue but in drastically different plants adds to the richness of the garden. The seedpods Muscari can be left to stand to add more interest to the garden, plus they also multiply themselves.
Vinca major, periwinkle, is another survivor in bloom now. This common groundcover is often forgotten as it is pretty common to see, and can even spread itself into places you rather it not go. When photographed against yellow lichen on a concrete wall, it really does catch your eye.
Our dutch iris, ones that grow from a bulb instead of a rhizome, are just beginning to flower on the rose terrace. A few original bulbs were found growing in this garden so we planted more of ‘Sapphire Beauty’ in a raised bed in front of the greenhouse. The yellow flame looks great with California poppy and yellow Calendula or daffodils.
A new plant for Alcatraz is the native California lilac, Ceanothus. This shrub has many cultivars and we chose ‘Julia Phelps’, that will hopefully reach its full size of 7′ tall and 9′ wide. The flowers are a dark indigo color and this cultivar is suppose to be one of the best bloomers. We planted it at the top of the cellhouse slope and even with the sparse rain this winter, it is already blooming. Perhaps one negative for this plant is that we are also noticing seagull feathers collecting on the leaves. But, the dark blue flowers will look great with the pink persian carpet.