Spending the Night

Staying the night in a prison is probably one thing that most people would rather do without. But when the prison is Alcatraz, suddenly, the opportunity is much more appealing. The garden volunteers spent the night on the Rock as an appreciation for all their hard work. The group was treated to an evening BBQ on the dock, live music in the hospital, a chance to see a foggy sunset and breakfast the next morning with a view of the city. Not bad for a prison experience.


Music in the hospital. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Volunteers and their guests arrived on afternoon boats and showed their guest around the gardens they help care for. The group was also treated to a performance in the hospital wing while dinner was being prepared by garden volunteer, Beth.


Gathering on the dock for dinner, some arriving visitors for the night program assumed the BBQ was for them as well and joined the line of hungry volunteers. The interlopers were quickly weeded out and sent on their way up the hill to Prison.


Fine dining on the Rock. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

The fog crept in and swallowed up any chance of seeing a sunset. No one seemed to mind though, as the night tours offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy night program were fascinating. Island visitors were escorted off the island around 9pm, leaving the island to the gardeners and a ranger.


The race was on to find the best cell to

Volunteers in D-block. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

sleep in. Most people chose the tiers of D-Block in the isolation wing, while others preferred the larger cells of the hospital. A couple brave volunteers thought the operation room was ideal.

Settling into the Operating Room for the night. Photy courtesy of Lynne Buckner.


Corny finding a cell. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Aside from a few noisy seagulls, everyone slept pretty well. The beds were oddly comfortable and the cells were snug and cozy. There was no sleeping in as we had to be out of the cells before the first boat of visitors arrived the next morning. I’m sure visitors would have been surprised to see people fast asleep!


The fog lifted enough for a lighthouse tour to offer a 360 degree view of the island while breakfast was enjoyed outside of the Administration Offices.


A sad farewell was said to one of volunteers and docents, Kristen, as she was embarking on

The lighthouse on a foggy night. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

new adventures by moving across the country. As a token, we gave her a pen that was engraved with Alcatraz Prison Regulation #41-Correspondence: “Inmates may correspond only with the approved correspondents. You will refrain from discussing other inmates or institutional affairs. Violent or abusive letters will not be mailed.” Hopefully she knows that everyone on the island is on her approved list.


Thanks to all of the garden volunteers for a fun night and for fantastic gardens!

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Apple trees on Alcatraz

Abandoned and overgrown orchards are pretty common to see in the country side, left for the birds and wildlife to enjoy the harvest.  Of all the survivor plants on Alcatraz, perhaps some of the most unexpected are the apple trees. Not exactly an orchard, the two trees were planted years ago in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island and they are still producing bright red gems with a yellow blush every autumn.


Ripening island apples. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The trees are believed to have been started by an inmate gardener, who likely had apples for a snack and saved the seeds to grow. I’m sure any gardener today has thought about saving their apple seeds and starting their own trees; but few have the patience to wait years for the tree to mature, not to mention having a safe place where the seedling can be nurtured.


However, Alcatraz inmate gardeners had that time.


Twig cuttings of the trees were taken last December and were couriered to the National Plant Germplasm Repository for Apples, a department of the United States Department of Agriculture for Plant Genetic Research in Cornell, New York, with the hopes of identifying the apples with a cultivar name.


So far, researchers at the Repository have not been able to find a correct id for the trees. As the Alcatraz trees lack a graft union, where the scion (the top half of the tree) is joined to the trunk (the rootstock), we can reason that the trees were started from seed. Starting plants from seed increases the genetic variation and the difficulty of positively identifying the trees. If the trees had been started from vegetative cuttings, then the genetics would be the exact same as the parent plant and would most likely be from a known apple tree which would already be in the database.


While we do not have a name, we can still preserve the trees by keeping them growing. Keith Park, Horticulturist for the National Park Service at the John Muir House in Martinez, California was consulted. Park is the caretaker of Muir’s fruit trees and has also worked as the horticulturist at the well- known Filoli Gardens in Woodside, California and looked after their heirloom fruit trees.


Dormant twig cuttings of the Alcatraz apples were taken during the winter and Park grafted them onto a suitable rootstock. Park chose the rootstock MM.111 EMLA. Rootstocks are used to give the mature tree qualities the desired tree lacks, mostly to control the tree height and to give disease resistance. The scion still determines the kind of fruit produced. What does the MM.111 EMLA stand for? Much of the initial apple research began in England in the early 1900s. The ‘M’ refers to the East Malling Research Station in England; the ‘MM’ prefix refers to Malling-Merton when hybrid trees of the Malling series were crossed with ‘Northern Spy’ apples in Merton, England in the 1920s. The ‘EMLA’ suffix stands for ‘East Malling /Long Ashton’ when rootstocks were bred to be virus free in the 1960s. (Click here to read more about rootstocks).


The MM.111 EMLA rootstock is recommended for dry sandy soils in low rainfall areas (perfect for Alcatraz), has good anchoring capacity, rarely produces root suckers and has good resistance to woolly apple aphids.


Park had rootstock that was already a few years old, and so the diameter of the rootstock was slightly larger than the scion. Typically same size diameters would be used, but for us, it would work. Park described his handiwork:


Grafting technique.

“When I have scion and rootstock material of different sizes I usually do a cleft graft, which involves splitting the rootstock down the middle with a knife about 3/4 of an inch, then shaving the bottom end of the scion to a long, even wedge (like a flat-blade screwdriver) and inserting it into the cleft in the rootstock. The most critical part is aligning the cambium of each piece. If the pieces are not exactly the same diameter (as is often the case) then I insert the scion to one side of the cleft and match up the cambium on one just one side.”


“The next step is to seal and secure the scion to its rootstock so it doesn’t dry out or fall out. I discovered a product called Parafilm, which is a wax impregnated cellophane tape that works great.”


“After the graft has taken the only real maintenance is to periodically rub off any adventitious growth from the rootstock. I’ve heard you should also prune off any flower buds if they appear on newly grafted trees, since it just consumes plant energy at a time when you don’t want fruit anyway.”


The grafted apple trees were grown outside in Woodside and we now have a few of the new apple trees back on the island. One of the trees, planted in the Electric Shop, barely lasted a week, as the wind snapped the tree in half. Luckily, we had a replacement and we can reuse the rootstock. Gardening on the Rock is a challenge but one with many rewards.

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The Unknown Alcatraz

Having local Bay Area residents visit Alcatraz is a pretty rare occurrence, and when it does happen, it is usually when they have out-of-town visitors in tow. Very seldom do locals take the 10-minute ferry ride out on the Bay to see their closest National Park.


But this is changing.


Obscura Society, hosts ‘unusual adventures for curious minds’, specializes in tours with unusual access, secret places and unknown history. The Gardens of Alcatraz definitely matches all of these criteria.


Annetta, from the Obscura Society, and her group came out this past Sunday for a tour of the gardens and then pitched in for a couple hours of volunteering.

The group was excited to work clearing the historic lawn, when they learned of the long-term plan of making it into a meadow.


The energetic group met me at Pier 33 and it was easy to tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. The group, many of whom were meeting for the first time, all had shared interests of history, plants and doing something different.


Beginning the tour at the dock, the group was asked the question “What do you think of when you hear the word Alcatraz”? The group spoke up with descriptive words of ‘prison’, ‘island’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘cold’; but no one said ‘gardens’, the very reason that they were there.


The hour and a half walking tour led the group through all areas of the gardens, including two closed areas, and finished on the west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. As we walked through the gardens, a group member really understood the importance of passing along family stories from one generation to the next, sharing with me how she asked her grandfather to tell her about his past before he sadly passed away. This sharing of history is part of what we are doing on the island – passing along stories.


Timely, the island’s Alumni Day is this coming Saturday, August 11; when past residents of the island come back and share with visitors their experiences and what life was really like on the Rock.


If you cannot make it to the island this Saturday, plan on checking out what you can learn about your own neighborhood, or even better, ask your grandparents to tell you a story.



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A Meadow on Alcatraz

Meeting people that are passionate about their work is always exciting. Not only do you learn something new but it is hard to walk away and not feel inspired to delve into your own specialty of some sort. On Thursday, John Greenlee's book on creating meadow gardens.we were treated to a visit from John Greenlee and Neil Diboll. John is the grass guru from Greenlea & Associates and specializes in grass ecology and designs meadows for private residences, as well as notable sites such as the San Diego Zoo and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. He’s also author of The American Meadow Garden, a fantastic guide to creating natural alternatives to the traditional lawn. John’s passion for his work was evident as soon as we showed him our neglected historic lawn.


Not many people can look at a dead patch of grass less than 1500 square feet in size for half an hour and talk about the many possibilities for it. In fact, not many people would see a possibility at all. During the penitentiary days, the west lawn was kept watered, manicured and was green all year. Actually, an inmate gardener was warned about using too much water for the lawn. The lawn, made up of non-native annual grasses, is lush and green during the winter and spring but then quickly turns into brown grass showing dusty bare ground during the summer months. This dead lawn serves as the backdrop to our now restored borders along the west road. No matter how beautiful the borders look, the eye can’t help but be drawn to the huge eyesore of the former lawn.  

The lawn as seen from the former guard tower. The flower borders still grace the roadway. Photo courtesy of GOGA archives.


John has some interesting facts about lawns in the United States:

-Lawns are the fourth largest ‘crop’ in the States. Corn, soybeans and wheat are the first  three crops.

-30% of water on the East Coast is used to water lawns; compared to a staggering 60% of  water used to care for lawns on the west coast.


Obviously, lawns in dry California do not make sense. Neil coined a new term to describe this phenomenon: dis-ecological. Re-creating a lawn on an island without any fresh water would certainly be ‘dis-ecological’.

John described how using four or five types of native grasses could be used to create a meadow. Naming a few – Stipa pulchra, Elymus trachycaulis, Muhlenbergia species and Carex pansa, he explained that “grasses are framework that everything else hangs on”. Another component of planting a meadow would be to plant bulbs as “flowers are there for the sizzle”. South African bulbs, as well as native California bulbs would do well in our Mediterranean climate. Tritonia, Fritillaria, Tritelia, Dichelostemma capitatum (blue dicks), and Calochortus nuttallii (Sego lily) would be perfect.

Neil Diboll (left) and John Greenlee (right) pose on the neglected historic lawn. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

John also gave us pointers for turning a plan on paper into an actual meadow. The first step would be to try to reduce the seed bank in the soil. Forty years of weed seeds have accumulated since this lawn was last cared for and those annual seeds is what have been providing the ‘green lawn’. Other than using roundup, John suggested watering the ground now to germinate as many of the seeds as possible. The germinated weed seeds can then be killed off using an acetic acid solution (vinegar). He advised against tilling the soil or amending it, as this would only bring more weed seeds to the surface. Plants need to survive in the existing soil, or they will never be happy. John described that plants should be thanking you for giving them dry, sandy, nutrient deficient soil. John commented that we only have annual grasses to contend with, so we are one step ahead already. Planting by plugs would speed up the establishment of the meadow by a full year, instead of taking two years with grass seed. We could potentially see a beautiful meadow this time next year! Once the plugs are in, the area would need to be kept weeded and watered until established. John explains as a general guideline “design what we can afford to water”; with our rainwater catchment sitting right next to this lawn, we will have sufficient water. Mulching around the plugs will help to prevent further germination of weed seeds and Neil recommended using corn gluten as an organic pre-emergent.

Once established, the meadow would have very little maintenance with cutting once a year. John said the goal of a meadow is “it has to say it’s a meadow; not ‘when are they going to mow that lawn’”.

After John and Neil left, the volunteers and I talked excitedly about our meadow-to-be; and actually, we were still talking about it this morning too. Seeing the possibilities through the neglect is a real skill; a skill that John, Neil, the Garden Conservancy team all share.

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How does ‘stuff’ get to the island?

 Curious visitors sometime ask ‘How does stuff get to the island?’ While picking up a truckload of chicken manure from a nearby store, I thought “Maybe I’ll do a blog about following the manure from the store to the island”.


I completed my purchase and then proceeded to Pier 50, home of WestStar, the barge company that runs the monthly supply run out to the island. The bags of manure were unloaded by hand into wooden boxes and then stacked with the rest of the Alcatraz supplies in the warehouse. Supplies can be dropped off and stored in the warehouse a few weeks prior to the barge run.


Storing supplies in the Pier 50 warehouse. Shelagh Fritz photo


I arrived bright and early this past Tuesday

Early morning coffee and donuts. Shelagh Fritz photo

morning at Fort Mason at 3:30am to carpool with other Alcatraz staff back to Pier 50 to board the tug that tows the barge (after a mandatory stop for coffee and donuts). Donning life jackets, we hopped from the dock onto the barge and then climbed down a ladder to get onto the tug. Once aboard, we tucked into the donuts for the 30 minute trip to Alcatraz. I was hoping for a view, but the only view was out the bathroom window porthole, which someone had creatively drawn a few fish.


Forklift being unloaded. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pulling up to the Alcatraz dock, the barge was secured and we climbed onto the Alcatraz dock. According to Patrick McAllister, Director of Alcatraz Operations for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, this month’s barge supply was fairly small compared to others. A typical barge brings over bottled water, merchandise for the island’s three bookstores, empty dumpsters, and various construction equipment and building materials. The uploading of the barge is orchestrated to be finished by the time the staff boat docks at 9:00am.

The two big safety lessons were 1) watch the hook from the crane and 2) make sure your feet are clear of the palette when it is set down.

Two forklifts were unloaded first, and started to shuttle supplies to where they needed to be on the island. McAllister developed a rough system to avoid the supplies from piling up in the vincinty of the dock. As palettes were lifted one by one by the barge crane onto the Alcatraz dock, the forklifts kept up a relay back and forth. WestStar workers hooked each palette to the crane while Parks Conservancy staff waited on the dock to unhook the ropes that held the palettes.


Palettes being lifted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Soon, the barge was empty; and then materials that were being shipped back to the city were loaded. Empty water bottles, full dumpsters and a generator along with stacks of empty palettes were being shipped back. The most interesting was seeing the generator being roped onto the hook and then lifted onto the barge.


In the beginning of the garden restoration, all the supplies for the gardens were imported this way – countless bags of gravel for the rose terrace, concrete mix for the new railings, the greenhouse kit, even plants if they were dropped off the day before at Pier 50. It is an amazing amount of effort that it takes to keep the island going. Today, it is relatively simple, the barge itself has only been postponed a few times due to bad weather. I can only imagine what an undertaking getting building materials to the island when it was a military fortress in the late 1800s, before the convienance of tugs and forklifts.

The manure made it! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Celebrating the 4th of July

Working on Alcatraz, either as a staff member or as a volunteer has many perks. Obviously, one of the best perks is being on the island for special events; and what better event could there be then to watch the 4th of July fireworks from the city’s best vantage point?


On the fourth, staff and volunteers, along with friends and family were invited to celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States. We arrived on the island as the day visitors were departing. Just to be on the island with a fraction of the normal visitor numbers was a treat; there is typically 5000 visitors a day.


The afternoon fog held off despite strong winds pushing the marine layer over the Marin Headlands. People speculated if we would be able to even see the fireworks, as in years past, we’ve only been able to hear booms from the fireworks. Gathered on the dock, everyone enjoyed their ‘bring your own picnic’ before heading off on various ranger led tours of the island. I finally had the opportunity to tag along on Ranger Al’s talk about Escape Attempts. Working in the gardens along the main road, I have caught portions of his talk since I started working on the island in 2006, but I had never heard the whole presentation. Al did not disappoint the crowd and he had all of us pondering the meaning of Escape. Did an inmate technically escape if he managed to get to the water? What about off the island if only to be recaptured? Or what if the escape ended in death?  Likely not the cheeriest topic to celebrate a National holiday, but it made me understand a bit more the release the gardens provided to the inmate gardeners.


Ranger Al had us pondering the meaning of ‘escape’. Shelagh Fritz photo.

We had a chance to tour the island and show off the gardens to our friends. In a way, it was a bit like being in grade school and having your parents come to your classroom to see your drawings. All of the visitors could see why Alcatraz is special to us.


As we gathered by the lighthouse, boats began to anchor in the Bay and we could hear the music coming from Fisherman’s Wharf. Again, I was reminded of Ranger Al’s talk – the real punishment of Alcatraz was having the city so close but yet out of reach. Hearing the laughter and music of people celebrating must have reached the ears of the inmates locked up in their cells.


The best view in the city to watch the fireworks. Photo by Beth Lichter.

The fireworks were spectacular and we could see both sets of fireworks in unison. There were even heart-shaped and smiley face fireworks.


San Francisco is truly an amazing city, and the volunteers and staff that are dedicated to our parks are even more amazing.

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Deadheading Keeps Flowers Blooming all Summer

As we settle into our summer garden maintenance routine, there are a few garden tasks that we do weekly. This time of year we are kept busy watering plants and deadheading the spent flowers. Many first-time volunteers are unfamiliar with the term ‘deadheading’ and I have the opportunity to show them something new.

So, what exactly is deadheading? Simply, Pelargonium 'Brilliant' that needs deadheading. Photo by Shelagh Fritzit is the removal of dead flowers. By removing the dead flowers, the plant is tricked into producing more flowers; all the plant really wants to do is produce seeds to ensure the next generation of its kind. When we remove the flowers right before the plant begins to put energy into producing seeds, the plant instead puts energy into making more flowers for us to enjoy all summer long. As well, removing dead flowers keeps the plant looking tidier.


Deadheading does take a certain type of person though. As you can imagine, removing tiny flowers one-by-one from 4.5 acres of gardens is time consuming and having patience, an eye for details, and a strong back helps.

Removing the flower stalk and the dead flower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Most plants are deadheaded in the same basic way – cutting the flower back to the next live leaf is a good general rule. However, for pelargoniums, they do look better when done a certain way. For these plants, the entire flower plus the flower stalk must be removed. If only the flower is removed, the stalk will eventually die-back leaving an unsightly stick. And while it may only be one stick, over an entire section of planting of pelargoniums, these little ‘sticks’ will prominently catch a person’s eye. Removing the flower and stalk is easy enough – simply firmly hold the base of the stalk in one hand and then bend down the flower stalk. Pelargoniums also tend to have yellowing leaves underneath that will shrivel and fall to the ground. A good practice to help prevent disease and buildup of insects is to regularly clean these leaves up and compost them.


Seed of Pelargonium starting to form. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Other island plants that benefit from deadheading are Osteospermum, Arctotis, Penstemon, snapdragons, rose, Zinnia, Limonium, Calendula, Centranthus.


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This past Monday marked the 50th anniversary of the famous escape of the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris, as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the movie Escape from Alcatraz. Cleverly arranging to be in cells next to each other, four men planned the elaborate escape. Back in 1962, seating at meal times was arranged by cell location – meaning that the foursome sat at their own table and had every meal to plan and update each other on their progress. Planning likely took a year and a half before beginning a six month dig out through the back concrete wall surrounding the air vents of their cells. Their route would take them up to the roof through the utility corridor. Unfortunately, all that planning could not have predicted that when Allen West dug through the back of his cell, he encountered a pipe that would let him go no further. The three remaining inmates fled to the water where they used homemade rafts to brave the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.


Mug shots of the wanted.

Family of the Anglin brothers was on the island along with many members of the media to speculate if the trio made it or not. With the three still officially wanted by the FBI, the search continues.


There are a number of other escapees; however they get much less press coverage – the plants.


After the closure of the prison in 1963, Nasturtiums escaping their boundaries. Photo by Shelagh Fritzthe gardens were abandoned, leaving the plants on their own to either perish without the constant care of gardeners; or to thrive. These garden escapees chose to thrive and are well suited to dry windy summers, poor rocky soil and near constant wind. If a plant can cope with these conditions, it almost deserves its freedom by growing where it pleases.


High on the wanted list (or unwanted list as the case may be) are the usual suspects – ivy, blackberry, and honey suckle. A few other plants are more recognized as ‘garden plants’ – calla lily, Chasmanthe floribunda, sweet pea and Acanthus mollis. Nasturtiums try to sneak into most garden areas – sending their long tendrils cautiously at first, and then before you know it, the vine is 10 feet long and clambering over its neighbors. The most dramatic escape, almost comparable to the Great Escape of 1962, is Elliot Michener’s fig tree. In the forty years of the gardens being neglected, the fig was happy to spread out and take over a portion of the west lawn. This escape has a happy ending, as now the overgrown vegetation provides habitat for snowy egrets, which are back on the island, right now in fact, raising their chicks amongst the ripening figs.

 Acanthus, succulents and pelargoniums now grow where the guard tower once stood. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The escapees give a glimpse of what introduced plants will do on an abandoned plot of land, and what other creatures will find opportunity with a new habitat created.

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Worm Farming on Alcatraz

As part of our commitment to being as sustainable as possible, we have a worm bin on the island. One of my volunteers, Dick Miner, started it two years ago and has since become nicknamed the Worm Man of Alcatraz.

Dick outlines in a few easy steps how you can make your own worm bin.

To start a worm farm one needs a simple container. We use a Tupperware container in which small holes have been drilled for air exchange. Fill the bottom half with bedding, we use coconut coir, this is the fibrous material of the coconut. The bedding should be moist but not wet. Coconut coir can be purchased in many good nurseries.  In Marin, it’s the nurseries the specialize  in native plants that carry coir and red wigglers.  


Sturdy container for the bin with small holes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Next, ordering the worms. One should start with maybe a 1/2 pound of red wigglers. The worms can be ordered through worm farming websites, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm which is in Pennsylvania is where we ordered ours from.  Another web site that is good is Worm’s Wrangler in the Northwest.  

The worms will eat most kitchen scraps, just not meat or dairy products.  They love coffee grounds, melons, and salad greens. They are picky eaters when it comes to onions, garlic, or peppers. The worms on Alcatraz are fed once a week. Dick buries the veggies in one corner of the box; and next week the next corner and so on. The worms will migrate to wherever the food is. It is vital not to let the box dry out or they will try to leave, making a very slow getaway.


Food scraps (dinner for the worms). Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The bedding should be changed when the box gets too wet.  Harvesting castings is a bit tedious.  Dick dumps out the bedding on a tarp and separates the worms from the coir one at a time.  The worms then go into new bedding.  The castings are used in our compost tea, which is sprayed on our roses.

Worm Poop. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The worm bin stays in the greenhouse under a bench and does not get too hot, the worms can stay outside but they do need to be brought inside for chilly winter evenings.

Visitors on the free docent tour are shown into the greenhouse and get a chance to see the worm bin and if they are lucky, will have Dick as their guide.


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Seeing Pink

I’ve written a few times about

Millions of pink flowers! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the Cellhouse Slope that faces San Francisco – the hours spent weeding oxalis in the rain and wind on the steep slope; but I can’t resist writing about it again.

I am very pleased to report that the Slope, as all the gardeners call it, is looking fantastic this year!  The bright pink is easily visible from the city, even as far as Fort Point, the military fort on the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge! Amazing enough, but there’s more – this is the first year since we started rehabilitating this area that we never had to weed oxalis on the section of the slope that was begun in 2007! Both of these achievements are something that all the volunteers and garden staff are very proud of.

The pink slope is easily seen as you approach on the ferry. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We got ambitious and decided to go beyond our original plan and restore the entire slope to its original planting plan of having the ENTIRE slope planted with the ice plant, as is recommended in the Cultural Landscape Report. We began snipping cuttings last summer and grew the plugs in 4” pots in our greenhouse. We were able to weed the slope of germinating grasses, wild radish and mallow weeds and were able to stay ahead of the lush growth that came with the rains this past fall and winter. We weeded and planted simultaneously, clearing an area and then planting it right away. We have now covered the second half of the slope, and the new plants have even started to flower. I guarantee that next May, this slope will be truly incredible (and I may just have to write about it again).

New plantings of Persian carpet on the slope. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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