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Category Archives: Volunteers
Gardening and composting go hand in hand. Aside from the obvious benefits of returning organic matter back into the soil, recycling the garden vegetation on the island is especially important as once materials come to the island, they very rarely leave.
With the gardens, our composting system has evolved as well. When the project began in 2003, there was no designated place to compost the 40 years of overgrowth. The removed vegetation was hauled to the Parade Ground and added to the ruins of the former apartment buildings that were already being taken over by vegetation. With the parade ground closing each bird nesting season from February to September, each winter there was a race to clear and deposit the vegetation, then during the summer months work would continue and a massive pile would soon accumulate, only to be hauled away at first chance in September.
In 2007, restoration of the rose terrace began. Situated half way up the east side of the island, this garden area was historically the center of gardening operations with a large greenhouse. Logically, our rehabilitation plans recommended this area to once again be used as a center of operations, including the site of our compost.
With use of a chipper, woody vegetation (ivy, blackberries, roses and other shrub clippings) are shredded. These materials provide the ‘browns’ that are high in carbon. Our ‘greens’ come from spent flower heads, weeds that have not gone to seed, and ivy leaves that provide nitrogen. Chasmanthe floribunda also provides an excellent supply of greens but these plants require the extra work of hand clipping into smaller pieces for a quicker breakdown.
One volunteer in particular, Dick Miner, is our chief composter. Using three 4’x4’x4′ compost bins constructed with the help of Job Corps of Treasure Island, Dick produces award winning compost.
Each batch takes roughly one month to mature. The bins are located in shade and we rely on high temperatures to break down the organic matter. Dick regularly brings hops from Anchor Steam Brewery and horse manure from Marin farms. With the addition of chicken manure and topsoil the temperature easily reaches between 140 – 160 F. The highest temperature achieved has been a steamy 170 F.
After the temperature cools, red wriggler worms do their magic and work their way up from the bottom of the bins. Ideally, the worms are left for another month to add to the organic matter.
Once the batch is ‘done’, volunteer groups, especially kids, have a chance to get their hands dirty by sifting out the larger fibrous pieces that have not broken down, sorting out the worms and putting them back in the bin. For kids that have never held a worm before, it is amazing to see squeamish kids going home to ask for pet worms for their kitchen scraps.
Dick has also successfully experimented with composting oxalis! Volunteer gardeners separate oxalis from other weeds and deposit the corms and green tops in a designated pile. A season’s worth of oxalis is constantly turned and manure is incorporated. With consistently high temperatures, the corms are exhausted. The oxalis compost is tested for weed seeds by placing flats of the compost in the greenhouse, labeled, watered and monitored for any growth. We have never had any oxalis return.
The weed seeds that do return are commonly wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, and American nightshade, Solanum americanum.
The docent tour does take a stroll by the compost bins and Dick is usually there to let you feel the rich soil. Otherwise, be sure to look over the rose terrace railing to see the compost, you can only detect it with your nose when the bins are turned.
Volunteers took advantage of the sunny weather this morning to weed wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, on the southern facing slope in front of the cell house. This annual weed, a member of the mustard family – Brassicaceae – has naturalized in North America from its native Eurasia.
This overgrown section of the slope was stabilized in 2007 with waddles and jute netting but has since become overgrown with radish, Lavatera and oxalis. This is the first year that we are attempting to control the radish. Our intent is to reduce the number the weed seeds so that in future years, this slope will be planted with the Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum that was historically planted on this slope during the 1920s.
The radish is just beginning to establish itself for the summer by sending its long taproot deep into the soil to find moisture. Volunteers took on the challenge of pulling the entire root, otherwise the plant will continue to grow. Either it was the hard work or the scent of fresh radish but like other radishes, these roots are edible and soon the volunteers were nibbling at the roots. The flowers are also edible and are easily identifiable with four petals ranging in color of pale yellow, apricot, pink and white. When considering consuming any plant from the wild, it is vital to be confident that you have positively identified the plant.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the Gardens of Alcatraz is to see the changes over the years. While continuously caring for a garden, it is easy to not notice the subtle differences as it matures. Sometimes it takes comparing photographs taken over a span of time to be able to stand back and think ‘Wow’!
Working on historic preservation of landscapes requires diligent photographic documentation of existing conditions, work in progress, and the final result. Ideally, photos should be taken from the same vantage point. An added bonus is to have historic photos as well.
This year, the west side of the island along the roadway is doing particularly well with many succulents coming into bloom right now. Many of these succulents were propagated from elsewhere on the island and to see them flourish is very satisfying. Plants include Aeonium arboretum, Aloe arborescens, Carpobrotus edulis, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, and Lampranthus aurantiacus. In March 2009, rocky bare soil and a thicket of Rosa wichuraiana spilled onto the roadway in this same area. A sprinkling of California poppy seeds, Eschscholzia californica, added a bit of color to the slope.
In September 2009, a volunteer group cleared the ramble of roses and the hillside was revealed. Over the next few months, succulents obtained from the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which happens to be the very first garden preserved by the Garden Conservancy, were added to the sunny slope to complement the other succulents up the road. The Ruth Bancroft Garden succulents, available to gardeners during the 1930s to 1960s, were choice plants for our Alcatraz gardens.
The difference in the before and after photos of this garden area is vivid. Like many things in life, gardens keep getting better with age.
With the chilly and rainy weather of winter, a cozy place to work is inside the island’s cedar greenhouse located in the Rose Terrace Garden below the water tower. The temperature of the greenhouse averages 50 F during the day, even though it is in shade for most of the day.
We are busy sowing seeds for winter annuals and bulb cover for the spring. Volunteers have helped sow flats of Calundula, Lobularia, and Shirley poppies (Papaver rhoeas). We have also started summer annuals of zinnias and hollyhocks.
A fun experiment was collecting and sowing seed from the survivor artichoke. Sarah Dominsky, an intern with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, harvested the thistle seed head from the garden affectionately called the Toolshed Terraces in November.
Out of more than 50 seeds sown, only one actually germinated! This one little plant is being fussed over and was potted up into a larger sized pot last week. To help preserve the genetic material of island survivor plants, we are able to collect seeds and take cuttings of plant material. With the completion and dedication of the greenhouse to Carola Ashford this past April, we have been able to grow our own annuals, propagate perennials and continue the tradition of propagation on the island.
With over 4.5 acres of tended landscape and just one and a half Garden Conservancy staff gardeners to care for them, the Gardens of Alcatraz depend on dedicated volunteers to keep the gardens looking their best for the 1.3 million visitors a year. This past year, volunteers were involved in building a greenhouse, composting, repairing masonry, propagating, weeding, watering, planting, and guiding visitors through the gardens.
In 2010, 739 volunteers donated an amazing 7725.5 hours of their time to care for the gardens.
These hours are from the 117 individual volunteers that came out to the island on the regular Wednesday and Friday morning work sessions. Many of these volunteers have been gardening on the Rock since the Alcatraz Historic Garden Project began back in 2003. The gardens are also fortunate to have a steady stream of new volunteers interested in learning more about gardening, new to the city, or are just looking for something different to donate their time to.
Contributing to the year’s total, 49 work groups from 42 different companies and organizations also came out to get involved in their community. Thanks to their efforts, overgrowth clearing takes a half day rather than a week of one person tackling the challenge.
Thank you to everyone who made 2010 a success!
The much anticipated winter rains that bring a lush green to the island mark another “season” in the gardens – the weeding season. The most prolific weed on the island is Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup. It is native to South Africa and highly invasive in California, especially along the coast.
How oxalis came to be on Alcatraz is not known. However, it is thought that the bright yellow winter flowers of oxalis were ideal to plant with the summer blooming pink Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum.
While this planning of sequential garden bloom is clever, past ornamental plant introductions often turn out to be problematic choices.
To maintain the Persian carpet and to keep it from being choked out, volunteer gardeners will be spending countless hours on the south facing cell house slope from now until April.
Weeding oxalis is no easy feat but not without rewards. Oxalis grows from a corm from a depth of one inch to over nine. Digging out the corm is the key to removing the weed once and for all, and the satisfaction of pulling out the entire corm is very rewarding. I often find myself holding up the offending corm and showing it off proudly to the volunteers, as usually it’s only other weeders who can fully appreciate the accomplishment. In addition to the sheer pleasure of weeding for hours, enjoying views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting with visitors who are also admiring the view, and occasionally eavesdropping on conversations cannot be beat.
While Alcatraz is a relatively small 22.5-acre island, a few historic gardens tended long ago remain hidden; they have yet to be cleared of overgrowth vegetation, documented, and perhaps one day restored.
This past weekend, volunteers from the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association worked to reclaim a set of terraces that lead from the dock to the parade ground. These terraces were first gardened by Freddie Reichel in the early 1940s. Mr. Reichel was the secretary to Alcatraz Warden Johnson. Impressed with the gardens left by the military, he worked in his spare time to maintain their beauty. He began to tend these terraces behind his home.
Prior to any removal of vegetation, we investigate the history of the area. There should be some documentation that the area was once a garden. Evidence of a past garden can be found in historic photos, oral history interviews, old maps of the island, and existing ornamental plants and hardscape features. In this case, old photos, surviving ornamental plants, and extensive terraces confirmed our belief that the area had once been gardened.
The Whaleboaters revealed dry-stacked terraces and cleared the staircase that was becoming covered with eucalyptus leaves. They made a few interesting discoveries – a pink radio, several rubber boots and surviving ornamental plants such as Euonymus japonica and an unidentified rose.
The Whaleboaters did a fantastic job revealing this hidden corner of the island. From the dock, visitors can see for themselves the newly revealed terraces and the staircase that once led to the parade ground.