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Category Archives: Weather
Spring in Northern California is well underway. The daffodils have another week or so of blooming and then we will be planting our summer annuals. Our greenhouse is bursting with plants ready to be planted outside.
Many old fashioned annuals are easy to start from seed.
We have had great success with pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis), snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus), Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), and Zinnia elegans.
One of my volunteers started blue columbine (Aquilegia) and they are doing fantastic. Often gardeners find that columbine prefers to re-seed itself in cracks in sidewalks, but is fussy when given the perfect potting medium. Just like former residents, my volunteer collected seed from her beloved garden in Philadelphia and brought them with her to her new home in San Francisco.
Last spring we collected seed from the survivor grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) just to see if we could get some to germinate. The seed heads were dried and then crushed to release the seeds. We researched the best methods to grow the plants from seed and found recommendations that the seeds be soaked in water first. We collected enough seed that we decided to do an experiment – soaking seeds and not soaking the seeds. We found that the soaked seeds did produce more seedlings; but we also had the dry seeds sprout. It will be interesting to see how long it will take for these new seedlings to flower.
We are also trying to propagate Fuchsia paniculata, but these are proving to be a challenge. So far, we have done 30 cuttings and only two are showing promise.
Our token tomato plant is doing well, going into its second year. We have one historic photo from the 1950s of tomatoes being grown in Officers’ Row. We have tried growing tomatoes again in the garden but in the chilly summer fog, the plants are not happy. I only wish we could find photos of lettuce and cool season veggies; so that we could historically grow them as well. But, residents primarily chose to grow flowers to brighten up their landscape and to have cut flowers in their homes.
The gardens are delighting visitors again this year, especially the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. Be sure not to miss them when you visit!
The sky around the San Francisco Bay Area has been very active this week – from storm clouds to Fleet Week’s Blue Angels practice runs. Dramatic clouds and sudden rainfalls, while unexpected for this time of year, were
refreshing and washed the island clean after the end of bird nesting season. The plants soaked up this first substantial rainfall and were sparked back to life after the dry summer.
Surprisingly, spring bulbs have been emerging in Officers’ Row. Daffodil leaf tips are poking through the soil and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) have shot up over the last couple of days. Other bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia have been nudged into growing and their bright green leaves are a refreshing sight. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) leaves are unfolding as well, each leaf being an exquisite living art unfurling from a knarled exposed root.
All of these plants have origins in other mediterranean climates similar to that of the Bay Area. They are adapted to dry summers; being baked in well drain soils and with the slightest moisture can be triggered into growing. Examining the survivor plant list for the island, it is no surprise that many on the list are from climates similar to ours.
Elsewhere on the island, the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) continue to self-sow where
they please. The nasturtiums were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort by the military. Whether you consider them invasive or successful, they are a part of the island’s rich horticultural history. Seeing them sprout now is reassuring that another generation will continue to decorate the slopes with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.
While some visitors plan their vacations to not be in rain, a visit to the island during a storm is exciting and the island feels more alive with the elements. Watching a storm approach through the Golden Gate and sweep toward you is a vacation memory that you cannot put in a photo album.
Summer is slowly showing itself on the island and the change of seasons can be seen in the blooming gardens.
A section of the main road, as visitors walk from the dock to the cell house is affectionately called the ‘fern wall’, even though in summer there is no evidence of ferns anywhere. The granite blocks that form this retaining wall was built in the early military days and was softened by moss and ferns that came to the island likely as spores in the imported soil.
As the winter rains cease, the native fern, Polypodium californicum turns a golden brown and then go dormant. The fern wall undergoes a dramatic change from lush green to vivid pinks as the Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, bursts into the season. At the base of the wall is a collection of Pelargonium that are survivors from the prison days – ‘Brilliant’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and P. quercifolium that add to the hue of pinks.
To be accurate with historic photos of this wall, last year, we planted plugs of Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum in the cracks of the granite blocks that will eventually cascade down the wall. With living walls being the current trend in gardening, this wall on Alcatraz was way ahead of its time.
When the fog rolls in, the intent of the original gardeners to create cheerfulness on a barren island must have been no easy undertaking. I also cannot help but wonder if the inmate gardeners marked the passage of time with the changing blossoms.
On the west side of the island, tucked under the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is the historic tool shed, originally built by inmates in the 1950s. The tool shed has a million dollar view towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Without a doubt, this view was a constant reminder of a world beyond the reach of the inmates that worked in these gardens.
The tool shed, like the gardens, was abandoned in 1963, and could not escape the weathering effects of Pacific storms and the relentless summer winds and salt air. The tool shed was repaired by the National Park Service in the late 1970s and again by garden volunteers in the spring of 2010 with help from the National Park Service maintenance team. The tool shed was in a bad state of repair with the roof falling in and most of the wood structure rotting away. The cement block base walls were still in fair condition and only needed minor patches. Just like the inmates had used scrap lumber on the island in the original construction, we scouted re-use stores to find a door, suitable windows, and flashing for the roof. This past month, garden volunteers applied primer and a fresh coat of ‘Presidio White’ paint to finish up the restoration.
Water is a precious resource around the world and especially in California where we receive our year’s supply between November and April. This past week was especially rainy and residents of the Bay Area are probably ready for a few sunny days.
This year year to date, downtown San Francisco has received 18.11 inches of rain, just above our normal for the entire year! With another month of winter rains to come, our reservoirs will be full to capacity for the dry summer months.
The rainwater catchment system on Alcatraz is nearing capacity with its current levels at 80% full. This is the second year the catchment has been in use and supplies enough water to meet the irrigation needs of the gardens for one year. Even though we choose drought tolerant plants, everything appreciates a drink to perk themselves up.
I ventured out to the west side of the island during one of the downpours this past week to see the system at work: water catchment. Seeing the rain water flowing easily from the downspout into our basins was very satisfying, knowing that each drop will be used by the thirsty plants to get through the summer months.
Even though the rain can be cold and unpleasant, the dramatic skies provide countless photo opportunities – so grab your camera and get outside.
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.
The chilly weather this week has many Californians bundled up inside. The temperature on Alcatraz is moderated by the San Francisco Bay and we are very fortunate to be frost free; but the dampness, wind, and fog can still make any time of the year feel cold. San Francisco is in United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Hardiness zone 10 and zone 17 to residents of western U.S.A. who refer to the Sunset climate zones.
The USDA revised the plant hardiness zone map in 1965 and again in 1990. The 11 zones aim to show the lowest temperatures that can be expected. Plants are rated for which minimum zone they can survive in.
Sunset Magazine created a 24 zone climate map for the thirteen Western states. These zones are much more detailed and precise as “they factor in not only winter minimum temperatures, but also summer highs, lengths of growing seasons, humidity, and rainfall patterns to provide a more accurate picture of what will grow there.”(www.sunset.com)
Micro climates exist even on a small island like Alcatraz. This week, with the wind coming from the north, there are a few gardens that volunteers and staff gravitate towards on chilly days. The southwest facing inmate gardens that usually get the brunt of the summer winds and fog are the perfect gardens to bask in during the winter sunshine. The low winter sun casts a chilly shadow on the east side of the island for most of the day.