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Category Archives: Weather
Other than rain and fog drip, Alcatraz has no fresh water.
And yet, walk through the gardens at any time of the year, especially in spring and summer, and you’ll see beautiful flowers in bloom. How do we do it?
Alcatraz gets its freshwater in two ways: shipped in from the city, and collected from the rain. The city water is shipped in on a daily basis and is used to supply the entire island: the water you drink, the water you use to wash your hands, the water we clean with, all shipped in. This can be a problem for the gardens as the humans get priority. If the water is running low, our irrigation systems will be shut off.
So, we needed to come up with a way to get water without competing with thirsty guests. This is where the rainwater comes in. The first garden to test out a rainwater catchment system was the West Side Gardens. The large tanks at the back of the lawn collect rainwater from the cellhouse and stores it to be used throughout the summer, and fall. With a maze of hoses, we’re able to connect this system to the entire West Side and water it for most of the dry season. This allows us to be more environmentally friendly with our gardening practices, and also saves the park money.
This catchment system was a success, which meant it was time to turn to other gardens. There is a cistern behind the water tower that was thought to provide fresh water to the laundry building during the Federal Penitentiary. Upon removing the covering, we discovered there was over 70,000 gallons of water still in the cistern, enough to water all of the gardens for 10 years! Now there was the question of how to use it, and how to refill it. With a specially designed water pump from WaterSprout, we use a solar panel behind the greenhouse in the Rose Terrace to pump water from the cistern and to the Rose Terrace. From there, the hose is attached to our irrigation system and waters the Rose Terrace. To refill the cistern, we are testing out a method in which we take water from the roof of the Laundry Building and pump it to the cistern. This is still in a trial and error phase, but hopefully we can get it down to an art during the rainy season.
The next development for our water catchment system is to refill the rainwater tanks behind the upper restroom. Currently we have 3000 gallons of water being collected. This supply runs out by early summer and then we revert back to using water barged in from the city. We aim to refill these tanks with the cistern water and keep off imported city water year-round. There may be no natural freshwater on Alcatraz, but with patience and ingenuity, we can make our gardens beautiful with the rain water freely given.
Over the years, gardeners have developed ways to keep the plants alive and beautiful. From prisoners with garden hoses to Shelagh Fritz and the water catchment system, the gardeners have worked with San Francisco’s climate to create beautiful flowers.
However, things are starting to change. Climate change is having an impact on the plants around Alcatraz. San Francisco used to have predictable and stable weather. It would rain from about November to January. It would be dry and foggy in the summer. And generally, the temperatures would stay between 50- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit year round, with a few days in August raising above. This predictable weather pattern is great for gardeners as it allows for planning. You can collect rainwater in the winter and then use what you collected throughout the summer to keep the gardens thriving. The lack of frost meant that plants could bloom longer and grow larger, something all gardeners want. While it’s true non-native plants can have a harder time with the climate, with proper care, they can thrive.
One of the first major signs of climate change affecting the plants on Alcatraz was the California drought. The drought from 2011 to 2017 was one of the worst in California’s history. 2011 to 2014 was the driest period in California history since record keeping began. In 2001, the annual precipitation was 25.03 inches. In 2011, the annual precipitation was 15.64 inches, nearly ten inches less than ten years previously (Data from Golden Gate Weather Services: https://www.ggweather.com/sf/monthly.html). Because of the drought, there wasn’t water available during the summer from the water catchment system. Even on areas where the island was not watered regularly suffered. The Persian carpet used to look very vibrant and pink on the cellhouse slope. Even after nearly three years of steady rainfall, it has yet to recover.
The average yearly temperature has also increased (see graph). The average temperature for the year has not been 55 degrees Fahrenheit since 1975. Two years in a row (1996 and 1997) the average temperature has been above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And while an increase of about one or two degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, it can wreak havoc on the plants.
Frost is starting to appear on Alcatraz, which as any gardener knows, can cause plants to hibernate and in some cases die. Summers are experiencing less fog and winters less rain with the rain coming in short downpours that just runoff. Gardens and gardeners can adapt over time. However, what can be said for wild landscapes?
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!
Help save the soil you wonder? Are we not in drought? Should we not be saving water instead?
I wondered these same questions until I listened to Dr. Stephen Andrews, a soil scientist and professor at U.C. Berkeley. Stating the fact that California is now the driest since 1580 was enough to scare everyone in the room. California depends on water from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada that slowly melts over the summer months. The snowpack gets replenished during the winter. Without a reliable winter to bring moisture, there is more at stake than just a lack of water.
Another fact – Just 1 teaspoon of forest soil can contain 10 billion bacteria! Wow! And of the 10 billion, we hardly know anything about them.
Another fact – California has 15.5% of rare soil types and 104 of endangered soils in the USA.
The loss of a soil series is a bigger problem than losing an endangered animal. As Dr. Andrews explained – when you lose a soil, you lose the entire community of organisms supported by it. There is so much we do not know about the ground beneath our feet, that we are not even aware of what we are losing. To further open our minds, Dr. Andrews pointed out the Clean Air Act protects the air, the Clean Water Act protects the water, but there is no Clean Soil Act – very astonishing considering the soil is what we depend on for our food.
So what can the average person do?
1. Lose the Lawn
Ask yourself ‘What is your lawn doing for you?’ There are plenty of low-water lawns to choose from now, check out ‘No Mow Fescue’ or a Delta bluegrass blend.
2. Water Deeply
Two-thirds of a plant’s biomass is underground so getting water to the roots is vital. A deep watering accommodates plants as they grow over time. Water emitters need to be moved as the plant grows to encourage proper root development. If you have a tiny emitter right at the base of tree and never move it, the roots will have no reason to grow further and anchor the tree.
3. Upgrade your Irrigation System
New systems have many programs that you can set, including ‘wet weather sensors’. Be sure to group plants with similar water needs.
4. Capture Every Drop
Keep every drop in your yard, make it your goal to not send any runoff to the street. Capture, re-use and filter your water. Create a water garden, install a water catchment or consider using your grey water to water landscape plants. Be sure to use bio-degradable soap and alternate the landscape plants you are watering. On average 14 000 gallons of water falls onto a rooftop during the rainy season – this stored water could be a source of water during a fire or for an earthquake. The water tanks alongside a house can help moderate the temperature of the home as well – keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer during the winter.
5. Plant Water Wise Plants
The Bay Friendly Coalition provides a list of recommended plants for the Bay Area. Most nurseries will be able to help you choose wisely. Another tip – purchase smaller sized container plants – 1 gallon instead of 5 gallons, 4″ pot instead of 1 gallon. The smaller sized plants will require less water to get established and be under less stress.
6. Skip the Fertilizing
Fertilizing encourages plants to grow – but this new growth needs water. Feed your plants with compost. The nutrients will become available as the compost breaks down naturally.
7. Compost, compost, compost!
Use compost instead of fertilizer. Fertilizer contains salt, which is harmful to soil bacteria and burns plant’s roots. When the soil bacteria is stressed, disease has a chance to settle in. Compost is natural and will decompose over time.
Mulch is a permanent cover over the soil and can be done in layers to conserve moisture in the soil. The mulch controls weeds and moderates the soil temperatures so the plants’ roots and the soil bacteria have a happier home.
Below is a diagram of what a mulch layer looks like. The larger particles in the top layers will decompose as a new layer is added each year, thereby becoming the layering underneath.
California has traditionally gone through cycles of drought and it was an important factor when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003. Restoring an island full of plants did not make much sense if there was no fresh water to care for the rehabilitated gardens.
From the early days of the preservation, there were many common sense things that were done. The simple actions of designing drought tolerant gardens and timing the planting for the winter rains were easy enough to work with. There is such a wide variety of plants that can tolerate and even thrive with little water, that this was never a hindrance to the revival of the gardens. In fact, with now over ten years of first-hand experience on the island, we have built up a list of ‘Alcatraz tested’ plants that we provide on our website.
With rain collection being a known historic occurrence on the island, obtaining approval to once again collect rain water was straightforward enough – again, this had been always been in the garden work plan. However, despite filling the 12 000 gallon catchment to capacity each year, the shortage of rainfall is not saturating the soil. This means that the gardens begin the dry season already thirsty. For the past three years, we have begun to use our stored water in the early spring, instead of months later in the summer.
We have officially entered our fourth year of drought and we wanted to be pro-active and conserve where we can. This year we installed drip irrigation to save water by watering directly to the plants, avoiding overhead hand watering. So far, the rose terrace, Officers’ Row, and two sections of the Prisoner Gardens are on a drip line. We also installed a drip line to establish the native sedge lawn in front of the cellhouse. Once the historic lawn is established, two inches of water are required each summer month – a huge saving from the needed one inch per week for the typical turf grass. The irrigation in each garden area is divided into zones, so we can water sunny areas more, and the shaded corners less often. We have also attached inexpensive water meters to each of the hose pipes to keep track of how many gallons are being used on each garden area.
This year we also are using fine wood mulch to conserve soil moisture. Mulch was not used historically, but cultivated soil was the historic look. Now, we opt for a more permaculture ‘no-till’ approach with fine ¼” mulch on top. The no-till improves the health of the soil, and the mulch will conserve moisture in the soil. The wood chips will eventually decompose, adding to the organic matter in the soil.
Another water saving tip is to use perennials and not annuals. The majority of the garden plants are perennials. Perennials are better suited with typically deeper roots that can withstand dry conditions. Aside from the recent lawn planting, our last major planting was back in 2010. The perennials are now established and can tolerate drier soil. If you ever try to pull out a native California plant versus a non-native weed, the native will put up a fight while the non-native will easily pull right out.
As the summer continues, we may opt to not plant some of the beds which typically would be planted with annuals. For example, the raised beds in front of the greenhouse have been planted with spring and summer bulbs like cape tulip, Dutch iris and gladiolus followed by summer annuals. This year, we will likely omit planting the annuals and leave the raised beds fallow instead.
As our drought continues, I am seeing more lawns being ripped out and replaced with drought tolerant options, even artificial turf. A trip to see our gardens is well worth it to get ideas for your own backyard.
California is entering what is typically a dry time of year, and with the severe drought, this year is especially tough. On Alcatraz, we have cut back on watering in the gardens and have altered our watering schedule to water less frequently but longer so the water can soak deeper into the soil.
The plants are coping with reduced water and it is interesting to see how different plants are responding. The survivor plants – the plants that were able to cling to life after the Federal prison shut down in 1963 – are demonstrating their true strength.
For example, the plantings of Pelargonium on the Rose Terrace are all heirloom cultivars but are either survivor plants from the island or are ones that we purchased and introduced. We even have three Pelargonium that were propagated from the Presidio pet cemetery where they receive no water or care.
The island survivors are coping well and are blooming away after a short dormant period. They include plants with the names of ‘Prince Bismarck’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘San Antonio’, Pelargonium quercifolium, and ‘Alphonse Ricard’. In our gardens, some of these slow down with the blooming in July and do have rust spots on the leaves and tend to drop the lower leaves but by the end of August, they are rebounding and are back in full bloom.
A treasured find were the pelargoniums from
the Pet Cemetery. I’ve only been able to positively identify one with a name as being Pelargonium ‘Apricot’. This one has scented leaves that are very lobed and crinkly with rose/pink flowers with a white center. This is a non-stop bloomer from spring through to the beginning of winter for us. We have another two that are Martha Washington varieties in two different shades of pink.
Contrasted to our survivors, the purchased pelargonium have really slowed down with blooming and with overall growth. For most of them, they have finer leaves and are more delicate. We do give them more water than the survivors, but without the extra love, I’m sure they would not make it. Even though they may not be much to look at right now, they are still impressive for their ability to cope through the summer and once spring arrives they will be blooming fearlessly.
I confess, I’m always on the lookout for plants growing in the toughest and unlikely places. Just last night, while attending a Park Academy class at the Fort Scott Community Garden in the Presidio, I noticed some pelargonium with wooden stems spilling out of wine barrels. I caught site of another fuzzy leaved one growing alongside a potting shed. Another scented leaved one was spotted growing in the herb garden! Very exciting to find these tough guys that were obviously heirlooms. With permission, I took cuttings of each and hope to find names for them and see how they do with our Alcatraz collection.
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.
Most gardeners have a winter pastime of pouring over plant order catalogues, examining each plant and adding it to a wish list. Here in San Francisco, while we do not quite receive the same snowstorms as elsewhere, we do have long nights and look forward to spring.
I placed an order for heirloom Gladiolus from Old House Bulbs this past fall and they arrived this week! With their bright pink labels, they looked like bags of candy. I ordered a selection of bulbs that would have been available to gardeners before 1963. The federal prison closed in 1963, and so when choosing heirloom plants, we try to be as authentic as possible.
Gladiolus flowers were identified in a few historic
photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, in one photo an inmate is actually holding a whole armful of apricot sprays of flowers. Often, these bouquets were taken to the chapel to decorate the altar, or placed on the dock for resident families to come and take for their own homes.
Another photograph shows the blooms standing at the back of a bed in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island. Maybe the inmates were able to order from a catalogue too? Or maybe a guard brought them back to the island to be planted. Not knowing how plants arrived on the island is part of the mystery of gardening on the Rock. At any rate, a great deal of effort was put into obtaining plants to provide beauty.
The gladiolus that I ordered have fun names – Friendship, Carolina Primrose, Dauntless, Bibi, Melodie, Contentment (probably not the best name for being on Alcatraz), Abyssinian (which appears in the Gardens of Alcatraz book), and Boone. These glads will be planted this coming week in the Rose Terrace in the raised bed in front of the greenhouse, where the photo of the inmate holding the cut gladiolus was taken.
Last year, our gladiolus had significant rust, so this year we will experiment with treating them with a fungicide and lifting them at the end of the growing season to store them for the winter.
Autumn in North America is automatically associated with vibrant leaf color. Autumn in the Bay Area may not be as dramatic as on the East Coast, but the plants here are also anticipating the changing of the season.
Aside from an unusual sprinkle of rain in July, our landscape has only received fog drip since the last significant rainfall in May. Needless to say, the plants on Alcatraz that do not receive additional irrigation can hardly wait for the first rainfall.
Succulents are well suited to our Mediterranean- like climate; they are just now beginning to show signs of dryness. Many of the signs are actually adaptations to the lack of water. All of the succulents are able to store water in their highly evolved stems, leaves, and/or roots. In fact, when water becomes scarce, some succulents will shed their lower leaves to conserve water. As soon as water becomes available again, the plant begins to store water again in the existing leaves and will grow new leaves as well.
Another response is a change in leaf color. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green that we see in plants; but there are other pigments in plants that give red, blue, orange and yellow colors. It is thought that in response to stress, plants will show pigments that would otherwise be hidden. Anthocyanin and betalain are pigments that give a red hue.
Several succulents on Alcatraz are
now showing their true colors. Crassula ovata, the common Jade plant, normally has a leaf edge ringed in red, but now has the entire leaf deepened in a shade of red and while the red edge is very brilliant.
Aeonium arboreum normally displays a rosette of green leaves; but now each leaf is edged in red, plus the lower leaves have been dropped to conserve moisture. Another succulent, Aeonium cuneatum has also adds to the display of color. This succulent normally is grayish green but has taken on more rosy gray leaves.
Regardless of the cause, the gardener can appreciate the changing seasons and design with the red hues in mind.