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Category Archives: Volunteers
Written by Josefina Pacheco
Before volunteering at Alcatraz, I worked at a summer camp in Maine that emphasized teaching ecology and sustainability to elementary and middle school aged students. After ten weeks of running around in the sun and eating lobster every Thursday I found myself asking the question that many college students find themselves asking after graduation, “So, now what?”. I began searching for jobs in the Bay Area and soon discovered that I needed more experience. A friend of mine suggested to look for an internship using volunteer.org; this is where I found the post about volunteering on Alcatraz. I thought to myself I could help with gardening (one of my favorite activities), volunteer (this means experience), and look for jobs at the same time. It seemed like a win-win situation.
I contacted Shelagh about volunteering in September 2016. In early October, I was given the unique opportunity to apply for the intern position at Alcatraz. After a cover letter, resume, and interview I became Alcatraz’s newest intern. As an intern I now get to go on the ferry five days of the week (yay!). Twice a week I work with the volunteers which usually starts off with answering the question “So, what are we doing today?”. I then quickly take attendance and work alongside the volunteers for the day’s project for the remainder of the morning. On the other days of the week, I work one-on-one with Shelagh. The day’s schedule varies day by day but some of the more notable ‘behind the scenes’ projects include: learning to prune roses, learning to transfer seedlings to planting pots, propagating succulents, assist with leading volunteer groups, and taking pictures of the watercolor paintings from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to the actual flowers from Alcatraz. Additionally as an intern, I’m learning in greater depth about gardening and plant maintenance in general, along with gardening specifically on Alcatraz and its history.
What many people don’t know is that as an intern one gets a stipend and housing at (one of the most breathtaking places) the Marin Headlands. At the Headlands, other interns from other parts of the Park live there as well. To help meet even more interns, specifically those in the Presidio, there are monthly intern swaps. At a swap, interns get to go to another park site and volunteer there for a day (so far I’ve only participated in the Milagra Ridge intern swap where I planted native grasses). To further enhance your knowledge there are Park Academy Classes held a couple times a month. The topics range from botany to fire management to leadership training. Being able to meet new people, volunteer at different parks, and learn more about whatever topic you want to learn more about makes this an incredible experience.
At first I was a little nervous about the transition from volunteer to intern but everyone (staff and volunteers) have been really helpful and supportive, so thank you and I’m looking forward to seeing the gardens through the seasons!
Alcatraz these days is a bustling place of projects. The big project of repairing the west side wall of the cellblock is very apparent but visitors can’t see the work being done as the scaffolding is wrapped in white plastic.
The other significant project that was just completed at the end of December was in full sight of visitors and left a dramatic difference to the island. The Eucalyptus grove at the south end of the island (just off the dock), was removed. The project had been two years in the planning and finally had enough urgency and funding to make it possible. The trees, originally planted by the military in the early 1920s, had reached maturity and were a safety risk of falling.
Marin County Arborists were trusted with the tree removal. The company had previously worked on tree removals on the island and was familiar with barging equipment over and working around visitors.
Sixteen blue gum eucalyptus trees and two non-historic Monterey cypress trees were removed and chipped over three weeks.
The chips were hauled to the Parade Ground to be stored until the National Park Service’s archeologist had a chance to examine the bare slope for evidence of military construction. We received the ‘all clear’ within a day of the trees being removed and we set to work!
First, chips from 18 trees is a heck of a lot more than I could envision! The recommendation from consulting arborist was to put the chips back on the slope to a depth of 4”, place jute netting over top and anchor wattles horizontally across the slope to stabilize the slope. The slope had been eroding badly for years, so this would be the perfect opportunity to stop the erosion.
Volunteer groups were enlisted to manually place the chips on the slope. With bucket brigades and teamwork, the slope was covered over a month. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Stewardship Team (of which the Alcatraz Gardens is a division within the company’s organization) were set to take a day off from their normal sites and lend a hand. To sweeten the deal, an overnight was planned (and what better way to say thank you than a night in solitary?).
The effort was a huge success with people filling
buckets, people carrying the full buckets to the bottom of the slope, to the chain of people to send the full buckets up the slope, and empty bucket retrievers! Maria Durana captured the well-oiled machine of the bucket brigade:
Once the chips were in place, the jute netting could be placed on top. The rolls were heavy and we soon figured that cutting them first was best.
Aside from the Stewardship Team, four corporate groups and the regular drop-in garden volunteers pitched in to help spread the mulch. In total 900 yards of jute netting was placed and 750′ of wattles were installed.
The slope will be replanted with Eucalyptus cinerea ‘Pendula’ in September 2017 in keeping with the historic look of the island.
On another note of discovery, the perimeter wall of the Parade ground was further revealed along with the basement of one of the former cottages. And a new fern was found growing! With more years of planning to come, hopefully this neglected garden are will be the next focus of garden preservation.
Melissa Harris (2)
Not only do the kids go back to school, it’s the perfect time of year to propagate your favorite roses from cuttings!
Tapping into the wealth of knowledge from other volunteers on Alcatraz, we found out that a bird docent has a skilled hand at propagating heirloom roses by cuttings. Karen Vandergrift willingly offered to demonstrate her knack.
To start, after the rose has bloomed and before the rose hip has started to form, a cutting should be taken down to the fourth leaflet, and cut the stem ½” above the bud.
Next, pull off the leaves from the lower two buds and trim off any buds or blooms still remaining on the cutting.
Then, with sharp pruners, cut the top half of the leaves off. This will reduce the surface area that will draw moisture out of the plant.
After that is done, lightly scrape off the layer of stem down to expose the cambium that is on bottom 2” of the stem. Dip the cutting in root hormone.
Using a clean one-gallon pot, stick the cuttings in moist soil, we used our Alcatraz compost, but a potting soil mix would be fine. We put three cuttings in one pot, so hopefully one of them would take. Karen explained that she likes using a 1-gallon pot so the cutting has ample room to grow and does not need to be disturbed by repotting if it were to be started in a sleeve. She also explained that the 1-gallon pot will not dry out as fast as smaller pots.
Create a mini-greenhouse by placing skewers in the 1-gallon pot and putting a plastic bag over the skewers. The plastic bag and cutting the leaves stops evapo-transpiration that dries out the soil and the tissue of the cutting. Be sure that the leaves of the cuttings are not touching the sides of the bag as this would cause the leaves to rot. The pots are in our greenhouse, out of direct light.
We should have rooted cuttings in 6 weeks. We were instructed to water a little bit in one week – and mostly lift up the pots to see if they are light, then they need water.
If no growth is obvious in 3 months, then we’ll try again!
At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.
This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.
During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!
It was inevitable that the lawn failed.
The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.
Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:
- we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
- a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
- a grass that would tolerate being mowed
- a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
- a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold
Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!
Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms. Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.
Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!
After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).
Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).
Installing the irrigation drip lines took
about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.
We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.
We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,
as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).
So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.
Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.
Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.
Generally, we aim to divide our iris
every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.
The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!
The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.
One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens
Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.
Spring is no doubt one of the busiest times of the year in any garden. For us, the winter rains seem to be tapering off and the weeding (hopefully) will slow down. Visitors often comment that they hardly see any weeds in our gardens. This is, in large part, thanks to the crew of dedicated volunteers that come out each week. Many of the volunteers steward a favorite garden area and take great pride in keeping their area looking the best at all times.
In fact, stewarding garden areas has worked out so well, that we are encouraging other volunteers to pick an area. It’s not just weeding that needs to be done – there is a job for everyone, and besides, what other job lets you pick what you want to do?
The pocket gardens left by the military along the main roadway all have someone to tend them. One volunteer loves to pick out oxalis from a granite wall and encourages lichens and ferns to grow. It’s also a prime spot to talk with visitors. You can almost tell her height by the line of oxalis that is just out of grasp.
The compost pile draws its own characters of tough volunteers who faithfully turn the 4’x 4’ x 4’ piles each week and keep on top of the new vegetation debris constantly being added.
The rose terrace has another volunteer who focusses on watering by hand each of the roses and the greenhouse, while another volunteer loves to deadhead the roses to keep them blooming for months.
Other volunteers have found niches for themselves by pruning ivy off of railings, removing yellow leaves, dead flowers and broken stems from the ivy leaf pelargoniums in the 330’ long planter trough, or sweeping roadways.
Stewarding can also be seasonal – for example, as the oxalis finishes growing on the cell house slope, removing dead flowers (deadheading) from geraniums is just starting in other garden areas.
For parents trying to encourage kids to get hooked on gardening, giving the kids one plant that is ‘theirs’ might just be the way to give them not only the responsibility of keeping something alive, but they also get to experience the joy of seeing something that is flourishing because of them.
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!
As the seabird nesting season is about to get underway, beginning February 1st, there are a few landscape areas that we do one final weeding and tending to the plants, as the gardeners won’t be allowed back in these areas until September.
One area the volunteers weeded last week was a section of survivor plants on the west side of the island. The survivor plants include Agave americana, Pelargonium ‘Alphonse Ricard’, Chasmanthe floribunda, and Aloe arborescens. All of these plants are quite happy on their own but a little weeding never hurts!
The aloe, commonly referred to tree aloe, candelabra plant or Krantz aloe, is a plant that we have been giving some extra attention the past few years. The bush aloe was once a full stand, approximately 20 feet across. But, the weight of all its beauty caused the aloe to collapse in 2006. We had repotted some of the smaller plants and grew them in the greenhouse, transplanting them back when they filled a one-gallon pot.
While we cleared away oxalis and weedy mallow, the original aloe ‘trunk’ could be seen. The trunk had fallen over and was sprouting new plants, just like a nurse log in a forest. A nurse log is very common in woodlands, where an older tree has fallen and as it begins to decompose, seedlings take root.
With the aloe listed in Pam Peirce’s ‘Wildly Successful Plants’, this must be a tough plant, especially to survive on Alcatraz. Native to the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, the aloe was used as plantings on top of earth embankments, creating corrals for livestock. The plant travelled to Europe in the early 1700s with explorers and later arrived in California with the early Spanish settlers. How the plant arrived on Alcatraz is a mystery, but it certainly is a good plant choice. The aloe is thriving in poor, well-drained soil, receives full sun and tolerates the cool coastal summers. The plant also happens to be deer resistant (not that we have that problem), but we do protect it against seagulls!
A few of the propagated plants were established along the road that takes visitors through the Prisoner Gardens. We also have a yellow blooming aloe, donated from the Ruth Bancroft Garden that is blooming right now. All of the aloes are great for attracting and feeding hummingbirds.
There are a number of garden volunteers that have been involved pretty much since the garden restoration project began. Many of these volunteers come to the island twice a week to help out, and have adopted gardens to tend. There is another set of volunteers, also involved pretty much right from the beginning, but only make the trip once or twice a year to the island. It’s not because they don’t love the work, but because they live across the country.
Over the holidays, people return to the Bay Area to visit friends or family and have also made volunteering on Alcatraz their own tradition.
Garden volunteer, Dan Klein is one of them. For the past 8 years, Dan looks forward to coming to the island, checking in with anticipation a month ahead to make sure the volunteer days have not changed. From Ithaca, New York, Dan first heard about the Gardens of Alcatraz through volunteering with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days programs, a national program that enables visitors into privately owned gardens.
Dan remembers his first volunteer trip in 2005 – it was the day when the 300’ trough planter was being planted. This planting project was literally the first planting on the island in over 40 years. Dan recalls “feeling very lucky” to have been there that day. His timing for the second trip was pretty lucky too – he picked the second anniversary of the project when all the volunteers were taken on a behind the scenes tour into the dungeon!
Coming from the East Coast during the middle of winter, California is a gardener’s getaway. The succulent slope on the west side is his favorite, as he can’t grow most of the plants in Ithaca. There are also plenty of other plants in flower now whereas at home everything is covered with snow. Soaking up the sunshine as we hacked away at the overgrowth on the west lawn (our project for this winter) Dan described the gardens as “not just background landscape, it’s a stop and look at me” type of landscape.
We are pretty lucky to have Dan working with us too. Not only is he a volunteer willing to travel but he comes with a background in horticulture. Dan manages the Beautification Program for Ithaca and also works with volunteers himself. To some, to go on vacation only to work (especially at your own trade) may seem a little bizarre. Aside from Alcatraz being super cool and something he brags to his friends about, Dan has some other reasons for volunteering.
As part of his own job, he works with and coordinates volunteers; so by being a part of our project he sees what it is like to be a volunteer himself. Dan is impressed with the Alcatraz volunteers, and catches up with the ones he has made friends with. Dick Miner, our own Worm Man of Alcatraz, stands out. Every single time Dan has stopped in, Dick has been there. Dick is a role model volunteer who has immersed himself in the project.
We hope Dan times his next trip with our big 10 year anniversary coming up this October!