Category Archives: Plants

Compost Tea

Keeping our heirloom roses in top condition is a high priority as the bushes are about to be at their prime flowering in the coming weeks.  The most common problems we have with the roses are black spot, powdery mildew and rose caterpillar.

We are able to keep all of these menaces under control using a compost tea recipe from Filoli, the stately gardens south of San Francisco. Follow the easy steps below to make your own tea get your garden even greener by eliminating harmful chemicals.

Materials needed:

Aquarium pump with clear tubing and air bubbler, available from any pet store

5-gal clean bucket

Aerating chlorinated water using an aquarium pump. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Clean old pillowcase

String

Stick or piece of wood

Clean sprayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compost Tea Ingredients:

5 gallons non-chlorinated water

1 cup aerobic compost

Different textures and colors of the ingredients. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

1 cup worm castings

Handful oatmeal

Handful alfalfa meal

1 Tbsp feather-meal

1 Tbsp fishmeal

1 Tbsp kelp

2 cups fish hydrolzate

1 capful ancient humate

 

 

How to prepare the compost tea:

It takes about 3 days from the set up to the application of compost tea

Step 1 – day 1

Set up water in 5-gallon bucket and let it air, using air pump for at least 24 hours, to remove the chlorine.

Step 2 – day 2

Combine all dry ingredients into

Compost tea brewing. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the clean pillowcase. Close the pillowcase and tie with a string. Tie the pillowcase onto the stick and suspend over the air bubbler in the water. 

Make sure that the bottom of the pillowcase does not touch the bottom of the bucket. There needs to be a gap for air to bubble through the suspended tea bag. 

Let it steep for 24 hours with the air pump on.

Step 3 – day 3

Transfer compost tea to the sprayer and apply it over the plant’s leaves and soil.

After finishing make sure to carefully clean the pillowcase, bucket, and sprayer, especially all of the taps and nozzles. This will prevent bad bacteria from developing (and smelling).

 

 

 

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Plant Rusts

Even though the plants on Alcatraz are separated from the mainland, they can still be afflicted with disease. One of the plant diseases that affect our plants is rust mostly at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. The most noticeable plants are the heirloom Pelargoniums, commonly called geraniums. These plants are growing in masses along the main roadway, the rose terrace and in the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. There are many types of rust – the rust that affects pelargoniums is caused by the fungus Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis. This rust shows on the upper side of the leaf as dark ringed circles with a whitish center.

Rust on Pelargonium leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, “Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis produces only two types of spore and only one of these, the rusty brown urediniospores, appear to be involved in the disease cycle. The other spore type is rare and has not been observed to germinate. The urediniospores are capable of surviving for several weeks in leaf debris.” Furthermore, some types of rust require two different plant hosts to complete its life cycle, but pelargonium rust can complete its cycle on one plant, making it easier for it to develop spores for the next generation. In just two weeks, the next generation can begin infecting nearby plants.

On the island, we do not use any chemicals in the gardens. We rely on cultural control, a fancy way to say volunteers and staff pick off the infected leaves and rake out any plant material from underneath the plants. We are also careful when watering not to splash the leaves, as water helps to spread the spores. Temperature and humidity dictate when the rust is active; temperatures below freezing and above 85 degrees Fahrenheit along with low humidity will prevent rust from developing. As lucky as we are to garden in coastal California, we never receive a frost and very rarely do temperatures ever go above 75. So we will continue to hand pick our leaves!

Hollyhocks are another plant that

Rust on Hollyhock leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

does get infected with rust Puccinia malvacearum. This fungus has similar characteristics of the geranium rust with needing only one host and is prevented by careful watering and removing wild mallows that are a source for inoculation. On Alcatraz, we do have the weedy cheese weed mallow, Malva parviflora that is growing in non-restored areas and is a source for this fungus to thrive.

 

 

Heirloom gladiolus also suffers from rust, believed to be caused by the fungus Uromyces transversalis.Two different spore stages are found on the leaves. Urediniospores are produced all summer and are responsible for the

Rust on Gladiolus. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

orange lesions known as sori that erupt on both sides of the leaves. Gladiolus rust is relatively new to the United States, first being detected in Florida in 2006. The rust, as well as gladiolus, are from South Africa, and were likely brought to America through bulbs that were being introduced. Once in America, the rust can easily be spread through the cut flower industry. The rust on gladiolus leaves spreads across the veins, unlike other rusts that form along veins or forms circles (University of Illinois). In our gardens, we are quick to spot the gladiolus rust and remove dispose of the infected foliage.

Through dedicated and consistent maintenance, we are able to control many of the outbreaks from rust; again demonstrating that it is possible to garden without the use of chemicals.

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What’s growing in our greenhouse?

Spring in Northern California is well underway. The daffodils have another week or so of blooming and then we will be planting our summer annuals. Our greenhouse is bursting with plants ready to be planted outside.

Many old fashioned annuals are easy to start from seed.

Shirley poppy seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We have had great success with pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), and Zinnia elegans.

One of my volunteers started blue columbine (Aquilegia) and they are doing fantastic. Often gardeners find that columbine prefers to re-seed itself in cracks in sidewalks, but is fussy when given the perfect potting medium. Just like former residents, my volunteer collected seed from her beloved garden in Philadelphia and brought them with her to her new home in San Francisco.

Columbine seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Last spring we collected seed from the survivor grape hyacinth (Muscari  armeniacum) just to see if we could get some to germinate. The seed heads were dried and then crushed to release the seeds. We researched the best methods to grow the plants from seed and found recommendations that the seeds be soaked in water first. We collected enough seed that we decided to do an experiment – soaking seeds and not soaking the seeds. We found that the soaked seeds did produce more seedlings; but we also had the dry seeds sprout. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for these new seedlings to flower.

Muscari seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We are also trying to propagate Fuchsia paniculata, but these are proving to be a challenge. So far, we have done 30 cuttings and only two are showing promise.

Our token tomato plant is doing well, going into its second year. We have one historic photo from the 1950s of tomatoes being grown in Officers’ Row. We have tried growing tomatoes again in the garden but in the chilly summer fog, the plants are not happy. I only wish we could find photos of lettuce and cool season veggies; so that we could historically grow them as well. But, residents primarily chose to grow flowers to brighten up their landscape and to have cut flowers in their homes.

The gardens are delighting visitors again this year, especially the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. Be sure not to miss them when you visit!

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Gardening with Gulls

Gardening on Alcatraz has many challenges – limited fresh water, harsh winds, chilly fog, and transporting  supplies to the island; but one challenge came as a surprise only after we had started planting in 2005 -the Western Gull. Actually 2000 of them. Victoria Seher, National Park Service wildlife biologist monitors their numbers: there were 740 nesting pairs in 2011, up from 722 pairs in 2010, but down from 1061 pairs in 2008. Each nesting pair usually lays three eggs, adding to the population substantially.

The first two years of the project, from 2003 to 2005, was intensely focused on removing overgrown vegetation built up from the 40 years of neglect. By 2005, the trough planter along the main roadway leading to the top of the island had been repaired and was ready to be planted. This was a significant event – the first planting in over 40 years! Staff and volunteers eagerly turned out that day to help plant the 330 feet of trough with ivy leaf geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, that had originally filled the trough in the 1940s. Heirloom pelargoniums were sourced from Geraniaceae in nearby Ross, California and everyone pitched in for a fun day of planting. Standing back proudly at the end of the day, the accomplished work was admired. However, returning the next day, the plants were gone! Unwittingly, 330 feet of prime nesting material had nicely been laid out for the western gull.

Learning from our mistake, new plants are now caged – almost like being imprisoned themselves. We have become experts at building cages out of chicken wire. We have also learned to optimize the time the gulls are away from the island to give the plants the longest time possible to develop their own roots to help anchor themselves in the ground. Seabird nesting season is from February to September, so by October, we are ready for planting and the winter rains.

Cages protect succulents against the gulls. Shelagh Fritz photo

 

Seagull damage to daylilies. Photo by Marian Beard

Like other gardeners that square off against deer, I have noticed that certain plants seem to attract sea gull vandalism, while other plants go unnoticed by our feathered friends. Strap-like leaves beckon to gulls; I guess this material is easy to harvest and to shape into a nest. Beds planted with Bearded Iris, daffodils (Narcissus) and cottage pink (Dianthus plumarius) in the Officers’ Row gardens have been replanted with more hardy plants that can stand up better against the gulls. This year, the gulls have taken a liking (or dislike) to the beautiful daylily, Hemerocallis ‘Kwanso’. This is a triploid flowering daylily with tangerine colored blossoms. The gulls have nipped down the plants to the bases which will make flowering unlikely this year. However, the gulls that nest

An aloe completeley destroyed by gulls. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

on the west side of the island leave the cottage pinks and bearded iris alone and choose to peck the succulents instead. Tough aloes and aeoniums are shredded instead.

I have also learned a few interesting facts about the Western gull – they mate for life and that they come back to the same spot to nest year after year (up to 20 years is typical for a gull). Waging a 20 year battle against a bird seems a bit ridiculous so it is far easier to accept the gulls. When I started as the gardener in 2006, I took a strong dislike to the gulls, but now, they have really grown on me and I’ve actually gotten to know some of the gulls. There is a one-legged male in Officers’ Row that I try not to disturb so he doesn’t have to stand up. There’s also a whole gauntlet of gulls nesting along the road that leads to the rose terrace. A few years ago, anyone walking down this road was taking a great chance at being marked, but now the gulls barely glance at me when I walk by. However, anyone they don’t recognize gets the full squawking treatment. There’s also a pair that nests in a huge clump of ivy in the Inmate Gardens on the west side. Their young usually wander around the gardens and drink from our hose during the summer.

Come out and see the gardens and gulls this spring! Nowhere else will you be able to experience a major seabird nesting colony, historic gardens, and a former prison on an island so close to a major city. I’ll bet you will admire the gulls in a way you never did before – what took me 6 years to realize, will only take you an afternoon.

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Mighty Mites

Aculops fuchsiae, better known as fuchsia gall mite, has caused irreparable damage to fuchsias growing on the west coast of the United States, especially California, where the mites thrive in our cool summers and mild winters. This little mite, invisible to the naked eye, has the ability to disfigure an entire bush, and once the plant has been affected, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. For such a tiny creature, they make their presence known.

The mite was introduced from Brazil and Mite damage on a Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' leaf. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwas first noticed in northern California in the early 1980s, the mite was likely an accidental introduction. How do you know if you have the mite? If your plants are affected, you will notice leafs, stems and/or the flowers becoming swollen and fused together. New growth is deformed and is covered by small hairs. Aphids can also cause some of these problems, but aphids can easily be seen.

The mites love to travel; after all, they came all the way from Brazil! They easily hitch a ride with birds, hummingbirds are a prime carrier, spread with the wind, but more often, they wait for the faithful gardener to come along. Gardeners can easily spread the mites simply by touching the affected area with their hands or pruners and then moving on to other fuchsias. Typically, the best way to control mites is to remove the plant entirely. On Alcatraz, however, removing historic plants is not an option.

I am not a fan of chemical sprays, but would rather use frequent and consistent applications of Neem oil to control the outbreaks. I also opt for removing affected growths, raking fallen leaves and flowers and keeping plants as healthy as possible with organic fertilizers supplemented with deep waterings during the summer.

Visitors admiring the large Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We have three kinds of Fuchsia on the island that are afflicted with the mite – Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, Fuchsia magellanica, and Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’. The ‘Rose of Castile’ is growing in a few places around the island, with the oldest and best specimen growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. This bush is thought to be at least 50 years old! Visitors are always amazed to see the thickness of the trunk and find it hard to believe that a fuchsia, which they usually associate with being a hanging basket flower, could grow into a full sized shrub. In addition to the mite, this fuchsia is also susceptible to rust.

There is another survivor Fuchsia along Surviving Fuchsia along the main road in 2005. Photo by Diane Ochithe main road that visitors walk by. Located right off the dock, this Fuchsia has grown into a small tree over the years. When the Garden Conservancy first scoped out the gardens in 2003, a photo was taken of this poor tree. The plant was holding its own against the mite while being choked by overgrowth. The tree, believed to have Fuchsia magellanica as a parent, looks good for maybe 2 weeks out of the year. Each year, I hope for it to do well, but this year, was not a good year for it. Heartbreakingly, I gave it a hard cutback this past Monday. I anxiously awaited new growth, and thank goodness, the leaf buds are swelling! The bed has been cleaned up underneath and we will begin again.

Fuchsia thilco resembles survivor Fuchsia magellanica. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In choosing plants for the historic gardens, the Garden Conservancy is aiming to give the ‘look and feel’ of the past gardens. We are able to substitute similar plants and can choose disease and insect resistant plants. We have been successfully growing mite resistant fuchsias and now have a small collection on the island. Plants have been sourced from the local SF Botanical Garden and Berkeley Horticulture. We are now growing Fuchsia campo molina, F. thilco, F. paniculata and F. ‘Grand Harfare’. We also have been growing the very profuse bloomer Fuchsia ‘Angel’s Earrings’, but I have noticed that these have been affected with the mite where they are growing near the affected plants. Alcatraz even has one survivor fuchsia that is mite resistant – Fuchsia denticulata.

 

 

 

Mite resistant Fuchsia denticulata. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Superior Succulents

No matter what time of year it is, there is always something in bloom on Alcatraz. Oddly, what is the middle of winter is the prime time to see the succulents display their vibrant blooms. Right now, the inmate gardens on the west side of the island are putting on a stunning show, and this is only the beginning of a two month long display.

The entire succulent slope with the cellhouse providing a dramatic background. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Green leafed Cotyledon orbiculata with orange bell-like flowers are among the first to bloom. Adjacent to these are yellow blooming Sedum praealtum. An island survivor, the bright yellow flowers accent the yellow bloom of the purple leafed Aeonium arboreum, another survivor. At the foreground is the velvet soft Echeveria pulvinata with its soft orange blooms on a long spike. Weaved throughout this tapestry of textures and colors is Chasmanthe floribunda; a South African bulb that has bright orange blooms that begin the end of January and continues into March.

Succulent slope beginning to bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Across the staircase grows a patch of purple leafed Lampranthus with bright magenta flowers. A scarce island survivor, this patch was grown from cuttings from one of two existing plants. The propagated patch is contrasted with the purple leaved Aeonium and higher on the slope, the green leafed Aeonium. Sprinkled amongst the plantings are Lobularia maritima, sweet alyssum,  a hardy island survivor that shows up where it pleases.

The gardened slopes on the west side

Leaf textures and colors of purple leafed Aeonium, grey Cotyledon and greenish yellow Sedum. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

of the island consist of a sandy/rocky breakdown of the island’s natural bedrock – grey wackle sandstone.  This creates a well-drained soil where the succulents can thrive. Also contributing to the success of these plantings is the amount of sunshine the slope receives. The succulent slope faces due west, receiving all the afternoon sun, but also tolerates the harsh Pacific winds. The unusually dry and warm winter has likely caused the blooming to be a bit earlier than usual, but they seem unaffected by the dry conditions.

The plants thriving on the slope is a clever mix of 40 years of untended growth (survival of the fittest) and the guiding hand of the gardeners – all with the cellhouse providing a somber contrast to the vivid colors.

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Cutting Back

We have been busy the past two weeks cutting back perennials and pruning the roses. This is the ideal time of year in Northern California to clean up perennials before new growth starts. The perennials in Officers’ Row have been tidied up and the bare bones of the garden are taking prominent stage at this time of the year.

Fast growing Beard Tongue, Penstemon,

Penstemon that have been cut back to control the sprawling plants. Shelagh Fritz photo

Valerian, Centranthus ruber, Fuchsia, and yellow bush daisy, Euryops pectinatus, were all cut back hard this year to encourage denser new growth. The sprawling beard tongue tends to overtake its neighbors if not kept in check. The fuchsia and yellow bush daisy is fairly low maintenance and only needs to be cut back every other year. The growth of the yellow bush daisy tends to become very heavy and weighs on the branches, eventually cracking and breaking the stems. Pruning is not essential it helps to keep the plants more compact otherwise the plants will become ‘leggy’, having very few leaves at their base, if left on their own.

As well, boxwood and spirea bushes were given a light haircut, adding shape to their formal appearance.

 

Karolina Park, our Garden Conservancy gardener since February 2009, looks forward to pruning the roses back each year. Removing any damaged and older canes from the point of origin, she selects four or five newer canes that are angled outwards. This will direct new growth outwards and will encourage light to enter the center of the bush when growth resumes in the spring. Each cane is cut back to about one foot high, with strong, healthy buds pointing outwards at the top. Again, this will direct new growth outwards.

Karolina pruning the roses in Officers' Row. Shelagh Fritz photo

 

 

A pruned rose bush with a basin around its dripline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Fallen leaves and debris are brushed away from the crown of the plant to prevent insects and disease from overwintering. Basins are then formed around the drip line of each bush, to hold irrigation water.

By the end of the day there is a huge pile of trimmings for the compost; and the garden feels refreshed and ready for another growing year.

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Come Discover Alcatraz

We have just launched a new outreach program for island visitors called Discovery Table. The Discovery Table aims to engage visitors with interactive displays themed on the Gardens of Alcatraz. With the entire island to use as a resource, we want to share with visitors captivating information about the gardens that they otherwise would not learn about through our garden tours, brochure or website. We want to draw people’s attention to the details of the garden that might otherwise be missed.

The Discovery Table invites kids and adults to use their senses to experience the gardens in a different way. In only its second week, we have covered drastically different topics such as ‘Life on the Rock with Lichens and Moss’ and ‘Nose around Alcatraz: Scented Plants in the Gardens’. More topics to come will have visitors watching hummingbirds zip around the purple blossoms of pride of madeira, Echium candicans, getting your hands dirty with a demonstration of our worm farm and our award winning compost; as well as learning about how the succulents on the island survived without care for over 40 years.

Garden volunteers, Corny and Marney, hosted

Corny and Marney point out a banana slug to visitors. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the premier Discovery Table to introduce visitors to Life on the Rock, literally. Using a banana slug to draw people in, visitors were given a hand microscope to take a closer look at the sandstone that makes up the island. A surprise for many, lichens and moss have found their way into many niches on the rock and brick that make up Alcatraz. Just like the residents that called Alcatraz ‘home’, lichens and moss have to cope in the harsh marine environment to survive. As Corny and Marney found out, lichen and moss cope with chilly temperatures in the winter. Armed with hand microscopes, visitors could see the lichens were ‘flowering’ and could appreciate the variety of colors with the many species of lichen that are living side by side.

Lichen living on a military era brick wall. Photo by Corny Foster

 

The second Discovery Table was presented yesterday on a calm, sunny day; a perfect day to invite visitors to follow their nose around Alcatraz and learn more about the scented plants in the gardens. Many of the heirloom plants in the gardens – bearded Iris ‘King’s Ransom’, Rosa russeliana, daffodil Narcissus ‘Grand Soliel d’Or’ all have wonderful scents that remind visitors of their grandmother’s house. Old-fashioned garden plants such as cherry pie, Heliotropium arborescens and nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, and sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, along with recently introduced plants to the island such as pineapple sage, Salvia elegans were presented to visitors to sniff and were then asked what scent they detected. It was interesting to hear the responses: the expected answers such as vanilla, peppery, honey, and pineapple versus the surprise of hearing that cherry pie reminded one young visitor of play dough.

 

Scented plants awaiting island visitors. Photo by Karolina Park

A long-time garden volunteer commented ‘You can always tell what season it is by how a visitor asks “What’s that smell?”’ During the winter and spring, island gum trees, Eucalyptus globulus, delightfully fragrant the air. However, during late summer and fall, the island is home to over 3000 nesting seabirds and their guano permeates the air.

I like to think that the small pleasures in the gardens enticed the inmate gardeners to stay on their best behavior in order to keep the privilege of working outside. I hope these same pleasures will entice visitors to stop by our Discovery Table and learn more about the fascinating gardens.

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The Gardens in Review

Usually, the dead of winter is when gardeners haul out their stashes of seed catalogues and start planning for next year. On Alcatraz, we never receive any frost and are lucky to enjoy year round gardening, so we skip an obvious break and instead start planning for winter and early spring annuals during fall.

Planning for next year involves examining the past year;

Nasturtium with purple verbena. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

noting which plants did well, which ones need to be served their notice, and plant combinations that were striking. Some of the best plant combinations were ones that were created by chance. Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, was introduced to the island in 1924 and self-sows where it pleases. The whimsical seeding finds itself amongst contrasting plants – purple trailing verbena, magenta Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and bright pink Persian carpet (Drosanthemum floribundum) to mention a few.

 

Nasturtium growing amongst magenta Pelargonium 'Prince Bismarck'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The annuals in the Inmate Gardens on the west side of the island did very well this year, especially the calendula. The calendula were sown in the greenhouse last December, planted out at the end of January and bloomed continuously through the summer. We cut them back in late September and they are blooming again. The cheerful yellow blooms contrasted nicely with many of the other garden plants.

 

Calendula with California poppy and Rosa 'Golden Showers'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Expecting the calendulas to be replaced by summer annuals, we had sown many flats of snapdragons to be their replacements. But with the calendulas doing well, we had to find other homes for the snapdragons. Tucking them into pockets around perennials was easy. Interestingly, the snapdragons were slow to grow in the east side Officers’ Row gardens but flourished on the west side of the island.

 

Snapdragons with lantana. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A native, California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica, was planted last year and finally flowered this past summer. The plant has soft grey leaves and bright orange flowers that complement the other plants growing near – purple agapanthus, pink Salvia chiapensis, and the freely growing nasturtiums on the hillside above.

 

Zauschneria with Agapanthus, Salvia chiapensis and nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another combination that did well was the purple annual flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata growing with purple statice or sea lavender, Limonium perezii. The flowering tobacco self-seeds but not obnoxiously and the new plants are easy to transplant.

 

Nicotiana elata with Limonium perezii. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the new plants that was tried this year was butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. The plant flowered but did not gain much height. We hope that monarch butterflies that pass through the area will stop in the gardens. Another new introduction to the island was lion’s tail, Leonotis leonurus to the west side lawn borders. Being a member of the mint family from South Africa, the evergreen shrub should have done very well on the island; but the plant was likely missed during hand-watering the borders and it did not make it. However, it will be worth trying again this coming year. Once established, it is very drought tolerant and the masses of orange flowers attract butterflies.

 

A plant that has had its final year on the island is the common purple cone flower, Echinacea purpurea. A row of these were planted in Officers’ Row in 2007 and every year I hope they do better. They start out blooming well with healthy leaves but then they decide they are finished and refuse to grow. Luckily, we had plenty of snapdragons to fill in around them.

 

Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden from 1934 to 1939, wrote in a letter “I kept no records of my failures, for I had many – the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to those plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest”. These words are still true today, except that we keep better records of our successes and failures.

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Elliot’s Fig Tree

Harvest season is here and the chill in the air at night says winter is on its way. The fig tree, Ficus carica, growing in the inmate’s garden on the west side of the island has produced a bumper crop this year, at least for the songbirds who will benefit most from the abundance of fruit.

Elliot's fig tree with the Golden Gate Bridge in view. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The fig tree, believed to be a black Mission Fig, was planted by inmate gardener Elliot Michener in the early 1940s. In an oral history interview with Elliot conducted in the late 1990s, he visited the island and walked around his gardens once again, showing the interviewer where he had spent nine years of his life working in the gardens. He saw the fig tree still growing in its original spot; and in a proud gardener’s voice with a hint of tour guide points out “and here are my old fig trees.” Elliot clearly remembered the fig tree growing on both sides of the fence with the guard tower in the background. In the interview, Elliot remarks “Yes, they have lasted a long time, just all these years.”

The fig tree cleared of overgrowth and beginning of new plantings in November 2008. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The fig tree and restored gardens flourishing in May 2011. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Elliot obtained the fig tree is not known. Perhaps one of the guards that traded seeds for bouquets of inmate grown flowers was the source; or maybe the inmates were treated to figs for dessert and the inmates grew the tree from seeds? Nevertheless, the fig tree continues to prosper.

The fig has done so well, that in fact, during the 40 years of the gardens being neglected, the fig took on a life of its own and colonized the western lawn. The thicket of fig provides prime summer nesting habitat for approximately 80 pairs of nesting snowy egrets.

Ripe fig. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Elliot also comments in his interview “I’ve eaten figs off of this tree”. I too, have eaten a few ripened figs off of the same tree and have tasted what he has tasted. Working the same soil and tending the same plants as gardeners past, reinforces the importance of preserving historic horticulture and the stories of the people that tended these gardens.

For island visitors, many of them pause at the tree and wonder what kind it is. For me, not only is it a chance to show them their first fig tree but to also tell them about Elliot and what the gardens meant to him.

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