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In part 3 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we look at the Roaring Twenties. A time period known for its glittering excess and the start of the gangster era, this was a period of transition for Alcatraz. Alcatraz the Military Prison was ending, but there were still families on Alcatraz, and they were determined to make their gardens beautiful.
From the blues and purples of the Victorian Era, to the pinks of the 1900s and 1910s, these gardens were all about colorful flowers. This changed in the 1920s as the reigning trend became all about the green. There were still flowers, but the lawns became a fixture for many homeowners.
Likewise, they also had a desire to celebrate and welcome nature. Unlike the Victorians, however, their gardens weren’t allowed to grow wild. Instead, they started attracting wildlife. Bird houses, bird baths, fish ponds, and rock gardens were all the rage for the 1920s gardener. They also planted trees and bushes with bird attracting berries, such as holly and crabapples, in hopes of being a paradise for bird watchers.
The 1920s also marked a shift in landscaping focus. Before, backyard gardens were all the rage. It was a private space for entertaining and for showing off your beautiful collections of flowers. However, with more and more people owning homes in the suburbs, the front yard as a public space became the focal point. You couldn’t have your neighbors walk by and see your front lawn in a deplorable state. So, this space received the most attention with gardening and landscaping. Walkways and driveways were lined with perennials, such as irises, foxgloves, hollyhocks, California poppies, and bachelor’s buttons. Shrubs such as boxwood and holly provided the natural, bird attracting green that was so popular. And the lack of fences reinforced the idea that the front yard was public, and not private.
Alcatraz follows many of these trends. While most families lived in the apartment building, meaning no front yards, houses on the parade ground did have front yards. We also have many of the hallmarks associated with the 1920a.boxwood in Officers’s Row and along the Sally port provide some subtle barriers between walkways and garden space. Likewise, one can see California poppies dotting every garden on Alcatraz.
What is perhaps the most striking feature that relates to the 1920s garden aesthetic is the birdbath in the birdbath garden on the west side. The birdbath was originally designed by inmate Elliot Michener. It was sadly destroyed when the gardens were no longer cared for. Thanks to our handy and multi-talented volunteers, we were able to reconstruct the birdbath that is a pleasant surprise in the Bird Bath Garden. Thanks to our work in the gardens, we have many birds for the bird watchers among us. From the snowy egrets to the variety of songbirds, Alcatraz does attract wildlife.
The Roaring Twenties peaks through in many areas of the Alcatraz gardens. Look around the next time you’re out there and see if you can spot any of the historical elements.
The second in this “Historic Gardening Trends” series, we are now moving out of the 1800s and into the 1900s. The 1900s through the 1910s had their own gardening trends; building from what was popular during the Victorian era but rejecting and changing what new gardeners did not like about the style. Alcatraz itself was going through a change. The Civil War had brought a rapid amount of development and change in the structures, trickling down to the gardens. The construction of the main concrete cell block began in 1909 and, once again, the wives of the soldiers sought a way to bring life and civilization to the Rock via gardens.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a trend to return to formal gardening. There was no longer a desire to have a “garden growing wild” aesthetic. The plants were often carefully pruned and nurtured to be contained. Furthermore, there was more of an effort to use architecture in gardening. With building projects being wider-spread, people sought to show off their house and its features, using the garden to direct the eye. Similarly, using concrete terraces, paths, and steps provided a bit more structure and more of an architectural feel. The Victorian tradition of using gardens as an outside room continued and would continue to be a hallmark of modern gardening practices. Gardens were places to gather with family and friends, not just a place to grow food. Water was another major feature in the early 1900s gardens. Fountains, pods, and waterfalls were popular.
The plants themselves were almost an afterthought to the garden. Gardeners used geometric lines and an enclosed feeling to make the outside feel more like the inside. Furthermore, the Victorian fascination with wild, sprawling exotics was replaced with neat, boxed hedged beds. The actual flowers and shrubs were kept off verdant laws and bowling greens. It was no use having people over to your garden if they could not walk around without stepping on flowers.
Inside these neat and tidy beds were a variety of peonies, irises, lavender, erigeron, and foxgloves. The colors were muted but more diverse than the Victorian era’s use of mainly greens, pinks, and purples. Roses were common as well. However, instead of ramblers and creepers allowed to sprawl and climb, they were contained into neat, round bushes.
The modern gardens of Alcatraz have these early 1900s touches hidden throughout. The water features are easy to spot since this is an island and the ocean serves that purpose nicely. The foxgloves can be found most commonly in the Rose Garden. While there are creepers and ramblers all over, other rose bushes, such as those in Foundation 8 of Officers’ Row, are kept rounded and contained. Lavender can be spotted peaking through in Foundation 9. The Toolshed Terraces gardens bring forth a more architectural element to these gardens, a subtle call back to the terraces commonly used during this time period.
What is perhaps most in line with the gardening style of the early 1900s is the fact that the gardens serve as a backdrop to the architecture, the prison. Instead of the garden being a separate entity, it is tied to, and often overshadowed by, the main cellhouse. The beds along the pathway are contained and wind around following the road; they are not allowed to grow wild and eclipse the cell house. As gardeners, we sometimes forget people come to Alcatraz not for the gardens, but for the prison. In the 1900s, the gardens were also there as a second thought; meant to enhance life and beauty on the island. It moves away from the “natural” and into the backdrop. These gardens have their own beauty and serve another purpose. But the combination of styles from such a long period of time is what allows the Gardens of Alcatraz to be diverse and beautiful, to represent a time and provide a look back as to what life would have been like for the families living on the island, and not just the prisoners and guards.
Melissa Harris (2)
The island’s first purpose as a military prison introduced the construction of the Sally port and this is where all visitors first walk by today on their way up to the cell house. Before entering the Sally port, they are greeted with the island’s first garden and home to some survivor plants thought to be planted in the 1920s. Among this bed are two historic Cordyline that are very old and are showing signs of decline. The Cordyline australis planted in the Sally port gardens is an old variety and have been very hard to find in the nursery trade. The Cultural Landscape report suggests that these be replaced, but not until we have the same plant with the same genetic makeup of the replacements.
In efforts to replace these declining historic Cordyline, we have tried several propagation methods to ensure they remain as part of the gardens for years to come. All of the methods were done in mid-March and we recently have had some promising results. Below are detailed descriptions of the propagation techniques trialed.
Methods of Propagation
We first tried just a cutting of one of the canes and potted it up in a pot of our compost. We removed some of the foliage and trimmed some of the fronds back to reduce that amount of energy going into the foliage and instead put it into the formation of roots. At first, it seemed as though this method might work, but after about a month, the fronds were almost all dead. The cane itself had become soft and the inside had become rotten. I think this method would work using a thinner cane or a smaller one with less foliage.
For this method, we took three pieces of cane, about 6 inches long each and laid them horizontally, half way deep, in a tray of sphagnum peat moss mixed with our compost. I had thought this method would work best, and we actually did have roots start to form alongside the canes, but I think they ended up getting over watered and the canes started to rot. Unfortunately, all three were unsuccessful. I think if we were to try this method again, we would use a different media composition and not allow the soil to get too wet.
The air layering method turned out to be the most successful of the three that we tried. This method is actually done on the mother plant itself. We started by soaking sphagnum peat moss for a few hours. This is crucial to keep the stem moisturized to allow roots to form. On one of the canes, we cut an inch wide ring through the cambium layer and removed the bark around the cane. Next, we took the soaked peat moss and wrapped it around the cut tightly and then wrapped it with plastic wrap and tied string around it to hold it in place. We did this twice more on separate canes. We recently cut the three successful air layered canes from the mother plant because roots had formed and they were ready to be potted up. We first soaked them before potting them to allow the peat moss to rehydrate. We put the new plants in five gallon containers and they are happily living in our greenhouse until they reach a more mature state with more developed roots to replace the ones at the Sally port.
The air layering method can be used for other woody shrubs and works well for some trees. This method does take a while to see some roots form, but once they do and it is cut from the mother plant, you already have a bigger plant than you would if you propagated it by seed or a cutting.
To replace the survivors, it is important that they are replanted with the same species of the current Cordyline. By propagating them by the methods we tried, it ensures that the replacements have the same genetic makeup of the current plants. We are very excited to have successful clones to replace the current failing Cordyline.
The term ‘invasive’ is often misused to label plants or anything that is intrusive in the natural environment. It is something I have only recently began to question. What actually validates a plant being invasive? (I’m going to stick to just talking about plants… I am a gardener after all!) My experience with talking to the public when removing invasive or unwanted plants has been pretty limited, but this past week as I was weeding the lawn, a guest on the island asked me, “Are you weeding invasive grasses?” Without really thinking about the question, I said, “Yeah.” The grasses we were removing from the lawn were crabgrass, annual bluegrass, and rattail six weeks grass. After he walked away I was left thinking, “Are those really considered ‘invasive’?” This led me to a bit of research in pursuit of an answer…
Plants that are invasive are actually scientifically categorized as so. It seems like scientists also have trouble labeling whether or not a plant is invasive or how plants can eventually become invasive over a long period of time. Plants that aren’t native to an area aren’t considered to be an invasive species until they have a negative impact in disrupting a native area. The displacement of native species and the ability for a non-native to cause economic and human harm are the two attributes for a plant becoming an invasive species. The Environmental Detection Distribution and Mapping System (EDDMS) have a simple list of characteristics showing the differences between an invasive and an ornamental plant:
The three grasses we were removing from the lawn are actually not on the invasive list for California. They are weeds, unwanted in our native sedge lawn, but aren’t labeled as invasive. Plants can however become invasive over a period of time. Because of this, it’s important to monitor non-natives and their growth in native areas.
This graph is a good representation of how plants begin to become a threat to natives and the actions that should take place to keep it under control.
During the lag phase and early recognition is when it is less costly and easier to eradicate. To prevent plants from reaching levels of higher efforts to control, it is crucial to catch them and be aware of the plant’s potential threat to a native area.
So, with all that being said, let’s see if we can clear up some misunderstanding on a few plants that call Alcatraz home. I think my favorite example, is the Echium candicans or commonly known as Pride of Madeira. It is a plant native to the island of Madeira, but has been introduced to the coast of California and thrives very well here. Many think that this plant is invasive because it is found among the hillsides and coastal bluffs mixed with native plants. Although it does spread fairly easily, it has shown no threat to native plants and is listed on the California Invasive Plant Council, (Cal-IPC), as a limited threat. It is a well admired plant on the island and copes well with the high winds and little rainfall. It is an island survivor plant that has naturalized itself and is a great pollinator for bees.
On the other hand, English ivy, (Hedera canariensis), is a plant that is considered to be a high threat on the Cal- IPC list. It is found all over the island and was one of the more prevalent plants contributing to the overgrowth in the gardens and is still a plant that we are consistently working on cutting back to keep it at bay from the garden beds. In other overgrown areas though, the ivy plays a vital role during water bird nesting season. They use the ivy overgrowth as a nesting site to lay their eggs and raise their young. Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus), is another plant found on the island that is listed as a high threat and we eradicate it from the garden beds, but leave it be in overgrowth areas because the birds also use it for nesting.
Jupiter’s beard (Centranthus ruber), and Mimosa tree (Albizia distachya), are examples of plants on the island that are commonly mistaken as invasive. They both are island survivors and spread fairly easily, but neither is listed on Cal-IPC as invasive. We like to use the term ‘aggressive’ and we monitor them and remove any unwanted seedlings. The mimosa tree is a nesting site for Anna’s hummingbirds and Jupiter’s beard adds a seasonal burst of color throughout the gardens.
I hope this clears up some confusion about what invasive actually signifies. Just because a plant isn’t native doesn’t make it invasive. The invasive plants on the island are kept in check and tell the story of the islands past gardeners. For today’s gardeners, you should check local plant lists for invasive species before purchasing.
I hate to complain about our winter temperatures while other parts of the United States hunker inside from cold weather warnings BUT, it was rather chilly for our succulents and tender plants on the island last week. Seldom do we receive a frost in San Francisco, let alone on Alcatraz, but the low temperatures and wind did cause minor damage to our Aeonium arboreum, Zantedeshia aethiopica (calla lily), and Tropaeolum (nasturtium).
It is difficult to have an exact temperature that the damage occurred on these plants, but Aeonium can tolerate freezing for a half a day to a day before the plant would actually die. Our plants look like they are all nodding their heads and will make a strong recovery.
As for the calla lilies, the leaves are mottled green and are turning mushy, resembling spinach that has been frozen in the back drawer of a refrigerator. The tough rhizomes will send up new leaves, and might just have a later bloom than normal. The nasturtiums we ended up removing as the leaves looked very tattered and were turning yellow. There are enough seeds dormant in the soil from years of these annuals setting seed, so they will replace themselves soon enough.
An interesting fact about cold winter temperatures is that in 1933, the California Horticulture Society began because of an “in the winter of 1933 an unusually frigid air mass withered gardens in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. A small group of concerned gardeners met to compare plant survival information, and they became the nucleus of the present Society.” – Which also happens to be the oldest plant association in California!
It’s always interesting to compare notes with other neighbour gardeners to see how their garden fared a cold snap – you may even pick up a few new hardy plants.
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.
We finally had some rain this week! The light spring showers and fog have really helped the gardens. The gardens were beginning to dry out earlier than usual, even the ferns and moss were beginning to think spring was over.
Hearing the fog horn from the bridge, the buoy bell marking ‘little Alcatraz’, and all the seabirds this morning made it just a great day to be working in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island. We also had our faithful crew of volunteers, and joining us this morning was a team from the San Francisco Recreation and Parks. We all worked together to cut back Chasmanthe floribunda on the terraces and admired the view. We cut back Chasmanthe while it is still green to make it easier to break down in our compost.
After the group had left, I had a chance to do a little more weeding and a few plants just caught my eye – especially this combination of the Heliotrope arborescens (cherry pie) with Osteospermum (African daisy). The purple centers of the osteospermum match the purple flowers of the heliotrope perfectly.
Last week we cut back
the native sword ferns, Polystichum munitum and the new fronds are just coming up now. Seeing the new fronds unfurl is pretty cool and it is like an abstract garden art with their fuzzy coils, even each leaflet is curled up.
Finishing the day in the rose terrace, the sun was shining and the all the Homeria collina also known as Moraea collina (cape tulip) were in full bloom with the dutch bulb iris ‘Blue Sapphire’.
The island is already beginning to be sold out a week in advance so I hope the lucky visitors who do have tickets for this weekend come along on our garden tours or at least walk through the gardens to see how pretty this prison island is.
Loosely translated, Alcatraz means ‘strange looking seabird’ in Spanish. Even today, the island is a bird haven. This time of year, the cacophony of the Western gulls has left and the background noises of the island become heard. The cheerful chirping of songbirds is apparent, especially along the west road that takes visitors through the inmate gardens. Anna’s hummingbirds are zipping around while black Phoebes can be seen perched on branch shrubs.
Speaking with the National Park Service wildlife biologist, Victoria Seher, she updated me on the latest songbird activity: “For many years the Natural Resource office did a monthly Alcatraz Bird Census of the island during the winter months, however, it hadn’t been done for several years. This year we decided to resurrect the count, modifying the protocols a bit. The island bird walks are conducted 2 – 3 times per month from October through January. Waterbird docents from the previous season are helping with the counts, but we are accepting new volunteers as well. The counts start at 9am on the dock and follow the Agave Trail up the stairs to the Parade Ground, around the rubble piles, behind Building 64 and up the path to the cell house, down the west road, through the Laundry Building and down the north road back to the dock. The counts have been about 2.5 – 3 hours long and we travel about 1 mile. All birds are counted (even the ones we see in the water or flying overhead).”
Victoria and her keen observers counted 26 different species of birds last week, a surprise count even for themselves.
Reading through the suspect list, I mean, bird list, I couldn’t help but wonder; which one of these guys is eating my marigolds and chrysanthemums? The marigold nibbling started innocently enough – first just the orange flowers, but next it was the orange flowers, then all the leaves disappeared. The chrysanthemums also proved to be a tasty treat – all the flower buds were gone in a few days.
The gardens are providing much more than just enjoyment and beauty for visitors, the gardens also provide food and shelter to the birds. The benefit of the gardens to the birds is, in a strange parallel, very similar to what the Federal Bureau of Prisons provided for the inmates. Regulation Number 5 stated “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.” The gardens stop short of providing clothing for the birds but with Victoria with her team of volunteers and interns keeping watch over the birds, they do receive medical attention if needed.
Be sure to visit the island in the next month to witness these special jail birds.
The world of gardening and art often overlap; I often find gardeners who also like drawing, photography, or who partake in other crafty pastimes. One of my long-time volunteers, Margaret Zbikowski, is no exception. Margaret began volunteering in February 2006, just as the winter rains were hitting. She recalls “it was February and knee deep in mud; the blackberries were the target and I began to wonder if I was able to do this hillside gardening”.
Aside from tugging at the stubborn blackberries, Margaret applied her librarian skills to organize the island’s staff library; but her childhood love of drawing plants found her a special niche on the island.
Raised in rural Michigan, Margaret’s mother would name plants to her when she was very small. The large lot next to their home was planted as a Victory garden and was a haven for the three-year-old Margaret, where she would sit and watch the plants. Impressively, as a three-year-old, Margaret remembers smelling her neighbors mint bush, “This all was a marvelous world to me”.
At age ten, she would roam on the family’s ‘back 40’, drawing trees,
plants, mosses and leaves. “No-one in my family said anything about my drawing, so I continued happily. At school it was harder, as someone told I could draw and everyone wanted a portrait right there, right now. I always gave these drawings to the fools. That’s why I prefer PLANTS.”
Margaret has never had any formal training, other than taking lessons at the local town Museum of Art for the summer months, which was considered ‘appropriate’ for all young ladies. Apparently, only students seemed to notice who had talent. Margaret did ask to be sent to an art school in Chicago, but sadly, the answer was ‘No’.
But, natural talent can never be discouraged and Margaret continued to draw, and expanded into designing and making knit sweaters. Her San Francisco apartment is a treasure trove of her passions – books, paintings, orchids, and her drawing notebooks of Alcatraz plants.
Leafing through her notebooks, many of the drawings catch my eye. I wonder how she can capture the essence of the plants with such few pencils and with such simple looking drawings? On average, Margaret takes about 20 minutes to do a drawing, but has worked on one a lot more when she is not quite satisfied.
Amazingly, penitentiary inmates were privileged to be allowed ‘landscape drawing’ and must have spent hours gazing at the plants, not to mention the City and freedom, lying just beyond.
One inmate, George Hecht, was sentenced on kidnapping charges and was sent to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas and was later transferred to Alcatraz for an escape attempt. Hecht spent 1944 to 1952 on Alcatraz and his work detail was for the inside garden by the incinerator on the West Side. An article in the Washington Post dated July 1949 tells of a local San Francisco artist who went to teach evening classes on Alcatraz to help with the creative program. George must have benefitted from this program as he produced many paintings during his time on the Rock. In fact, five paintings from Alcatraz were exhibited in Paris, France in May 1951. Amazingly, after George passed away, his children found in his attic his paintings from his time on Alcatraz. His years on Alcatraz were not his happiest and yet he held onto his art that he had created during his time there.
I do wish more visitors would come armed with paper, pencils and an extra 20 minutes to sit in the gardens, take in the moment and sketch a few plants.