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Category Archives: Rehabilitation
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.
Sometimes it is not easy to uphold our garden goal of having every visitor amazed by the beauty of the gardens and to experience high horticultural standards. We wish that each of the 1.3 million visitors to Alcatraz a year (5000 per day) be able to appreciate the gardens regardless of the time of year -– whether they see them in the lushness of spring, or the dry and windy autumn.
The garden restoration is now in its tenth year, and we have really come to know the difficult areas of the gardens. The obvious is the windy west side, but even this side, through trial and error (much how the inmates learned), is for the most part flourishing at all times of the year.
One challenging garden area remains though – the series of terraces built by the inmates in the 1940s. Facing the Golden Gate Bridge, this area is a haven for hummingbirds and sparrows in the spring with the overflowing terraces of Echium and Chasmanthe, the complementary blue and orange colors standing out against the backdrop of the cell house.
The sandy soil has received annual topdressings of our rich compost for the past 3 years, but the soil still tends to dry out and become compacted mid-summer, despite hardly anyone walking on these beds.
These terraces do hold many of the survivor plants on the island – Echium, Chasmanthe, Aeonium, Artichoke, spuria Iris, Acanthus mollis and even Rose ‘Russeliana’ – so we know that plants can grow and thrive in these soils. The trick will be to find plants that add to the existing palette to have a garden to show off all year round, instead of the plants going dormant mid-July.
The terraces were rehabilitated in 2009
as part of the West Side Treatment Plan. At the time, we examined historic photos to identify plants that the inmates may have been growing. The photos clearly show gladiolus neatly staked and plenty of unidentifiable low growing mounds. We replanted the top terrace that runs along the parapet wall with Pelargonium ‘Brilliant’, an island survivor. The plantings did well up until last year, when sections started to die out and we eventually removed them all. This year, we are experimenting with a purchase from Annie’s Annuals – Dicliptera suberecta ‘Uraguayan Firecracker Plant’. With deep weekly waterings, the 4” potted perennials are off to a good start.
Bill Noble, Director of Preservation for the Garden Conservancy, visited the gardens last month and this area was examined. Bill visits each of the preservation projects several times each year and lends his expertise and guidance to the gardens. Bill’s perspective is a valuable resource, as often, gardeners need some ‘outside’ advice. Bill suggested tying in the established plantings of succulents on the slopes above the roadway. The succulents would be an ideal choice to give a garden that has year round interest and that is drought and wind tolerant.
Gladiolus will likely not be making a come-back in this garden bed – we can only be impressed with the skills of the inmates to grow such beauties in this tough spot.
It’s a fun time to be a volunteer in the gardens with working on the big projects for this winter. Many of the volunteers got hooked on gardening on the Rock because of the initial uncovering and ‘discovering’ of the forgotten gardens. For people that loves getting dirty and feeling like you are making a difference – this is the time to get involved!
The lawn, which is being prepared to be planted in the Fall of 2013 with native grasses, has become neglected and the ‘green’ of the lawn is all from non-native grasses and oxalis. But even this green vegetation died during the dry summer, leaving a barren looking backdrop to the manicured gardens.
To prepare the area, the first layer of mulch layering has been laid down, and to my dismay, birds have pecked their way through the compost and the cardboard to reach the soil, allowing light to the oxalis that we are trying to suffocate. Those darn birds! I’m hoping to place another layer of cardboard and mulch in the coming week.
In the meantime, the volunteer crew is working away at clearing the forty plus years of overgrowth on the north end of the historic lawn. The overgrowth is being tackled from all sides, and today we finally made it to the base of the large Albizia tree that is in the middle. Another few hours were spent digging up ivy roots and before we knew it, it was 2pm already! As we worked, one of the volunteers wondered out loud if the author of Jack in the Bean Stock was a gardener that had pulled ivy. Some of the ivy shoots were easily 20 feet long!
Clearing ivy is pretty addictive – the work is slow but methodical.
Gardens are all about change – hopefully for the better, but they are never still. With any change, it can almost be expected to face challenges; and this is especially true when you are gardening on Alcatraz.
This week, the gardens saw the installation of a new pipe railing, albeit a pipe rail that was historically there, but had long ago disappeared. The Officers’ Row gardens, opened to the visitors on mid-day Wednesdays suddenly had the new addition seemingly overnight. The approval and installation of the pipe rail was the easy part; getting the pipe rail to the island proved to be the real challenge.
The pipe rail is evident in several photos from the Federal Penitentiary days, and with the obvious hazard, it was approved by the National Park Service review board fairly quickly.
The metal pipe rail was assembled off-site by Heavy Metal Iron and was planned to be brought to the island on an early morning boat. However, at the last moment, the 14’section was denied passage and another plan had to be drawn up. A second attempt was made. This time, the railing was scheduled to be on the early morning barge; but was hampered by the landing at Pier 33 being repaved. The third attempt took advantage of the monthly barge that sails out of Pier 50 and the railing was delivered safe and sound. Success!
Once the railing was on the island, it still had to be hauled up the switchbacks to the gardens. The guys had planned ahead and had brought a dolly to support the railing as they walked up the hill, and the exercise proved to be a good workout.
Installing the railing was pretty simple – coring the concrete to sink the posts, double checking that the railing was sitting level, filing the metal to have a snug fit and then a quick set mortar was used to hold the railing posts in place.
The railing looks like it has always been there and I’m sure the seagulls will be happy to christen it when they return in February.
Instead of being asked gardening
questions, a common question visitors and locals alike have been asking is ‘What is that white covered tower on the island?’ The tower in question is the water tower that has been wrapped in protective plastic while repair work has been done.
The water tower was first built in 1940–41 primarily to hold fresh water that would be used for laundry services. The Federal penitentiary provided laundry service for the Army and inmates were put to work doing laundry. The sea air and wind have been punishing the tower ever since.
For the past year, workers have been busy removing rust, safely removing lead paint, repairing the iron work, and painting the structure with a coat of primer (Macropoxy 646) and two coats of finish paint (Sher-Cryl), the same paint that is used for painting the Golden Gate Bridge, except the water tower is not done in ‘International Orange’.
The work began with the construction of the scaffolding last October 24, 2011 and it was amazing to just watch the ant-like workers build up the scaffolding. The scaffolding was then wrapped in a heavy duty white plastic tarp for a few reasons – reduce disturbance of nearby nesting seabirds, safety of the workers and lead abatement. In a funny way, locals that have gazed at the outline of the island for years suddenly forgot what was there before it was wrapped.
This past week, I was invited for a trip up to the top of the water tower, somewhere I had never been before on the island! Walking into the tent at the bottom, I had to smile seeing a clump of Chasmanthe emerging; ever resilient, this island survivor never gives up.
On a windless day, walking up the levels of scaffolding was easy and the plastic wrapping hid just how far off the ground I was. Apparently, on a windy day, the whole structure hums.
Kyle Winn, project superintendent for MTM Builders Inc. explained the more fascinating parts of the repair work.
How many workers on the crew? 11 to erect the scaffolding, 5 to do the steel repairs and 3 to paint the structure.
How much original metal is left on the structure? Approximately 85% of the steel is original.
Where did the new steel come from? Kentucky.
How many gallons of paint were used? 350 gallons.
How long did it take to paint? 2 months.
How much did the repairs cost? $1.541 million.
The catwalk around the top of the tower is still original and Kyle was impressed with the quality of steel used when the tower was first constructed. The walking platform is about ½ inch in thickness and solid, not showing any signs of rust. Kyle pointed out the name of the company where the original steel was made – Tennessee. New construction consisted of a new roof along with the supporting top one foot of the water tank itself.
The repaired tower will not hold any water,
but its reconstruction was important as the water tower contributes to the National Historic Landmark that Alcatraz is. The Native American graffiti is also an important part of the island’s history and has been repainted.
The scaffolding is already coming down and the new water tower will be unveiled!
Meeting people that are passionate about their work is always exciting. Not only do you learn something new but it is hard to walk away and not feel inspired to delve into your own specialty of some sort. On Thursday, we were treated to a visit from John Greenlee and Neil Diboll. John is the grass guru from Greenlea & Associates and specializes in grass ecology and designs meadows for private residences, as well as notable sites such as the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He’s also author of The American Meadow Garden, a fantastic guide to creating natural alternatives to the traditional lawn. John’s passion for his work was evident as soon as we showed him our neglected historic lawn.
Not many people can look at a dead patch of grass less than 1500 square feet in size for half an hour and talk about the many possibilities for it. In fact, not many people would see a possibility at all. During the penitentiary days, the west lawn was kept watered, manicured and was green all year. Actually, an inmate gardener was warned about using too much water for the lawn. The lawn, made up of non-native annual grasses, is lush and green during the winter and spring but then quickly turns into brown grass showing dusty bare ground during the summer months. This dead lawn serves as the backdrop to our now restored borders along the west road. No matter how beautiful the borders look, the eye can’t help but be drawn to the huge eyesore of the former lawn.
John has some interesting facts about lawns in the United States:
-Lawns are the fourth largest ‘crop’ in the States. Corn, soybeans and wheat are the first three crops.
-30% of water on the East Coast is used to water lawns; compared to a staggering 60% of water used to care for lawns on the west coast.
Obviously, lawns in dry California do not make sense. Neil coined a new term to describe this phenomenon: dis-ecological. Re-creating a lawn on an island without any fresh water would certainly be ‘dis-ecological’.
John described how using four or five types of native grasses could be used to create a meadow. Naming a few – Stipa pulchra, Elymus trachycaulis, Muhlenbergia species and Carex pansa, he explained that “grasses are framework that everything else hangs on”. Another component of planting a meadow would be to plant bulbs as “flowers are there for the sizzle”. South African bulbs, as well as native California bulbs would do well in our Mediterranean climate. Tritonia, Fritillaria, Tritelia, Dichelostemma capitatum (blue dicks), and Calochortus nuttallii (Sego lily) would be perfect.
John also gave us pointers for turning a plan on paper into an actual meadow. The first step would be to try to reduce the seed bank in the soil. Forty years of weed seeds have accumulated since this lawn was last cared for and those annual seeds is what have been providing the ‘green lawn’. Other than using roundup, John suggested watering the ground now to germinate as many of the seeds as possible. The germinated weed seeds can then be killed off using an acetic acid solution (vinegar). He advised against tilling the soil or amending it, as this would only bring more weed seeds to the surface. Plants need to survive in the existing soil, or they will never be happy. John described that plants should be thanking you for giving them dry, sandy, nutrient deficient soil. John commented that we only have annual grasses to contend with, so we are one step ahead already. Planting by plugs would speed up the establishment of the meadow by a full year, instead of taking two years with grass seed. We could potentially see a beautiful meadow this time next year! Once the plugs are in, the area would need to be kept weeded and watered until established. John explains as a general guideline “design what we can afford to water”; with our rainwater catchment sitting right next to this lawn, we will have sufficient water. Mulching around the plugs will help to prevent further germination of weed seeds and Neil recommended using corn gluten as an organic pre-emergent.
Once established, the meadow would have very little maintenance with cutting once a year. John said the goal of a meadow is “it has to say it’s a meadow; not ‘when are they going to mow that lawn’”.
After John and Neil left, the volunteers and I talked excitedly about our meadow-to-be; and actually, we were still talking about it this morning too. Seeing the possibilities through the neglect is a real skill; a skill that John, Neil, the Garden Conservancy team all share.
I’ve written a few times about
the Cellhouse Slope that faces San Francisco – the hours spent weeding oxalis in the rain and wind on the steep slope; but I can’t resist writing about it again.
I am very pleased to report that the Slope, as all the gardeners call it, is looking fantastic this year! The bright pink is easily visible from the city, even as far as Fort Point, the military fort on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge! Amazing enough, but there’s more – this is the first year since we started rehabilitating this area that we never had to weed oxalis on the section of the slope that was begun in 2007! Both of these achievements are something that all the volunteers and garden staff are very proud of.
We got ambitious and decided to go beyond our original plan and restore the entire slope to its original planting plan of having the ENTIRE slope planted with the ice plant, as is recommended in the Cultural Landscape Report. We began snipping cuttings last summer and grew the plugs in 4” pots in our greenhouse. We were able to weed the slope of germinating grasses, wild radish and mallow weeds and were able to stay ahead of the lush growth that came with the rains this past fall and winter. We weeded and planted simultaneously, clearing an area and then planting it right away. We have now covered the second half of the slope, and the new plants have even started to flower. I guarantee that next May, this slope will be truly incredible (and I may just have to write about it again).
Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.
Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect
and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.
These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February. A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.
Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.
Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.
Last week I travelled to Miami, Florida to participate in a conference hosted by the American Public Gardens Association. The theme of the discussions was ‘On the Ground: Putting Preservation into Practice’. Listening to people from gardens all over the country
speak the language of historic preservation – Cultural Landscape Inventories, Cultural Landscape Report, As-Built Drawings and Maintaining Design Intent – was very informative, especially as each of us could relate to the lessons learned through hindsight.
I was invited to speak about lessons learned with the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project. Our project began in the later part of 2003, and now, at the end of 2011, while the project has been extremely successful in accomplishing our mission of rehabilitating five garden areas and interpreting their significance to the public, there are a few practices that could have been carried out slightly differently.
Starting out, there were limited funds topurchase a chipper a garden vehicle. Both pieces of equipment would have helped out immensely with the early gardening work of clearing 40 years of overgrowth. The accumulated biomass amounted to huge piles that was then hauled away mostly by wheelbarrow to decompose on the island’s Parade Ground. Today, we have our own chipper, a garden vehicle and most importantly, a designated compost site where 99% of our biomass is composted to be recycled back into the gardens.
Documenting changes and progress to the landscape is vital, especially when working with a historic site. The National Park Service holds an amazing collection of historic photographs that show the gardens and the landscape in the military and penitentiary eras. The photographs from the late penitentiary, 1940s to the 1960s, were used to design the gardens that visitors experience today. Taking pictures of the overgrowth from the same vantage point of the historic photographs was done for some garden areas but unfortunately, not all. Having a complete series of photographs of the historic, before, and after rehabilitation, and then continuing the series each year afterwards at different times of the year illustrates the work accomplished. A photo really does say a thousand words. We have used our before and after photos to apply for grants and on our website as well.
Lastly, funding for our project has been provided through many grants and donations -large and small. A federally supported grant, Save America’s Treasures, was awarded in 2006. Matching funds were required to be raised, which the Garden Conservancy was able to do. The combined $500 000 provided the funds for the rehabilitation work through to 2009. However, since 2009, the project has largely relied on donations. Long-term sustainable funding for these reclaimed historic gardens will require creative solutions.
One could wonder what gardens in Miami have in common with the Gardens of Alcatraz? We had the opportunity to tour the gardens of Vizcaya, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Montgomery Botanical Center and the Kampong. The plant material in these gardens could not be more different than
Alcatraz. But, the horticulture history with each of these gardens is rich. Each of these gardens continue to carry out their owners’ original intent, as we do on Alcatraz. Botanic gardens provide vital homes for historically significant plants that are often rare and threatened in the wild. When possible, seeds are collected and distributed to botanic gardens around the world to help insure their survival. On Alcatraz, we not only preserve heirloom plants that were introduced long ago, but we also preserve the past by telling the stories of the island’s residents that worked and cared for the gardens. Preservation of historic gardens – whether it be a home garden, large estate, or a National Park, protects history.