A chat with Russ Beatty

 

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of showing Russ Beatty the restored gardens. Beatty was one of the authors of the Gardens of Alcatraz book that was published in 1996, long before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began in 2003.

Gardens of Alcatraz book, published in 1996.

Beatty is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. His interest in historical landscapes is initially what got him interested in the Gardens of Alcatraz. In 1995, he was asked by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to write a chapter for an upcoming book (Gardens of Alcatraz) that the Parks Conservancy hoped would draw attention to the withering gardens on the island.

Beatty delved into researching the gardens – combing through National Park Service archives for letters and photos that would provide a glimpse of the people who created and tended the gardens. He also set about trying to find people to interview that could give a first-hand account of gardening on the Rock. The National Park Service hosts an annual Alumni Day on Alcatraz where past residents (guards and their families and inmates) come back to the Rock and share their stories. Ever hopeful, Beatty sent a questionnaire to the Alumni visiting the island that August day in 1995. Amazingly, he had one response – from Elliot Michener, inmate number AZ 578, who was there and sent Beatty a long letter after he returned to his home. The letter detailed his experiences gardening on the island. Many of his quotes are in the book as well as on interpretive signs in the gardens and are used throughout our website.

At the time, Elliot lived in Sierra Madre and Beatty travelled twice to his home to interview him. Beatty had a difficult time drawing Elliot out of himself but recalls that his home, a rented basement flat in a cottage, was sparsely decorated. He photographed Michener, age 89, under a bougainvillea growing outside in the yard. Elliot recounted one incident on the island shortly

Michener in the Warden's garden. Photo courtesy of GOGA archives.

after he started working as the houseboy for Warden Swope and his wife. It seemed that the previous inmate houseboy had built a still to make moonshine in the Warden’s attic. Fearing of being blamed for the still if it was discovered, and no doubt losing his new earned position and the perks it came with, he quickly disassembled the still and buried the pieces in the garden. The Warden’s garden is one of the remaining historic gardens on the island that has not been restored yet, perhaps if we do, we will turn up pieces of copper – at least we will have an explanation ready for the finds.

A year after the book was published, Beatty found himself along on a Garden Conservancy Fellows Tour of Napa Valley. Antonia Adezio, President of the Garden Conservancy, was also there. Beatty excitedly shared a copy of the book with her – planting the seed for the partnership project that would eventually save the gardens.

Beatty is now gathering research for an article for Site Lines, a journal of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and he was on the island to interview myself and take a look at what has become of the gardens. After Beatty had asked all of his questions, I had a chance to ask him some of my own, after all, here is a gentleman who has actually spoken with Elliot Michener, the inmate that is talked about quite a lot on our docent led tours and whom we credit the development of the inmate gardens largely to.

Do you see any specialness in the story of the Gardens of Alcatraz?

The story ties together a great deal of California and US history — the fortress built as a result of the Civil War to protect the Bay; the reshaping of the land as a fort, but also recognizing the innate human need for beautification through gardens and gardening; the solace and relief gardeners from the military prison as well as the Federal penitentiary found in their creativity and work in making and tending gardens – – early unintentional horticultural therapy; the changes that these efforts made in the lives of hardened criminals; the gardens as expressions of beauty by both families and inmates in an effort to live in such an inhospitable environment, and the story the gardens bring to the visiting public whose main interest is rather macabre about the Federal period criminals such as Al Capone (the softer side of the story). Also the fact that such a rich palette of plants has been able to survive through long neglect in such a hostile place — a created ecology. 

If you could interview Elliot Michener again, what three questions would you ask him?

• How were you treated by your fellow inmates when told of your gardening experiences?

• Tell me more about Capt. Weinhold; how else did he help you other than giving you gloves and    seeds?

• What brought you to Los Angeles; tell me more about your lady friend and the gardening you did for her.

 

The Warden's greenhouse built by Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of GOGA archives.

 

Perhaps one day, Beatty will be able to write another book about our chapter in history and how these once neglected historic gardens have found new life. Beatty sent me a quote from J.B Jackson that ‘there is a necessity of ruins. Places need to decay before they are well understood and their importance gives rise to discovery and restoration’. This quote really is the essence of the Gardens of Alcatraz. For so long they had been abandoned, but they are now revitalized and telling the softer side of Alcatraz’s history.

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method cleans up

 

This week was a turning point in spring Blooming Chasmanthe with the Golden Gate Bridge in view. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwith the Chasmanthe floribunda being cut back on the west road terraces. After blooming in February, the leaves of this South African bulb is left is photosynthesize to store energy in the bulb to bloom next spring. Like other bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, the leaves should be left until they die back completely; however, on the west road terraces, the chasmanthe is cut back just as the tips are starting to turn yellow.

Why do we cut the foliage when they are still green?

The leaf stalks are cut to the ground and which are then cut into 4” pieces by volunteer crews. The pieces will be composted and break down much faster if they are cut when they are still green. The moisture content in the leaves helps them break down much quicker than if they were brown and dry. We have experimented in past years with letting the foliage die back completely, then cutting it back and feeding it through our chipper. Not only were the dried leaves hard to cut with hand pruners; but the dried leaves wrapped around the chipper blades; which then lead to hours taking the chipper apart and sharpening the blades.

A load of cut chasmanthe ready for the compost pile. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This week, method – a company that is dedicated to producing earth and people friendly cleaning products – volunteered in the gardens and helped with this yearly task. A fun bunch, the group enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge while they worked.

One lucky employee, Jonathan McCarren even found a very rusty trowel with the wooden handle rotted away. Jonathan’s find will be passed onto the National Park Service archives and his name will become part of the records. The group speculated what the inmate who last touched it had being doing and why the trowel had been left behind?

Finding a rusty trowel in the gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fitting for a cleaning company, they swept the roadway after they were done and left the gardens pristine.

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Compost Tea

Keeping our heirloom roses in top condition is a high priority as the bushes are about to be at their prime flowering in the coming weeks.  The most common problems we have with the roses are black spot, powdery mildew and rose caterpillar.

We are able to keep all of these menaces under control using a compost tea recipe from Filoli, the stately gardens south of San Francisco. Follow the easy steps below to make your own tea get your garden even greener by eliminating harmful chemicals.

Materials needed:

Aquarium pump with clear tubing and air bubbler, available from any pet store

5-gal clean bucket

Aerating chlorinated water using an aquarium pump. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Clean old pillowcase

String

Stick or piece of wood

Clean sprayer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compost Tea Ingredients:

5 gallons non-chlorinated water

1 cup aerobic compost

Different textures and colors of the ingredients. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

1 cup worm castings

Handful oatmeal

Handful alfalfa meal

1 Tbsp feather-meal

1 Tbsp fishmeal

1 Tbsp kelp

2 cups fish hydrolzate

1 capful ancient humate

 

 

How to prepare the compost tea:

It takes about 3 days from the set up to the application of compost tea

Step 1 – day 1

Set up water in 5-gallon bucket and let it air, using air pump for at least 24 hours, to remove the chlorine.

Step 2 – day 2

Combine all dry ingredients into

Compost tea brewing. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the clean pillowcase. Close the pillowcase and tie with a string. Tie the pillowcase onto the stick and suspend over the air bubbler in the water. 

Make sure that the bottom of the pillowcase does not touch the bottom of the bucket. There needs to be a gap for air to bubble through the suspended tea bag. 

Let it steep for 24 hours with the air pump on.

Step 3 – day 3

Transfer compost tea to the sprayer and apply it over the plant’s leaves and soil.

After finishing make sure to carefully clean the pillowcase, bucket, and sprayer, especially all of the taps and nozzles. This will prevent bad bacteria from developing (and smelling).

 

 

 

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Plant Rusts

Even though the plants on Alcatraz are separated from the mainland, they can still be afflicted with disease. One of the plant diseases that affect our plants is rust mostly at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. The most noticeable plants are the heirloom Pelargoniums, commonly called geraniums. These plants are growing in masses along the main roadway, the rose terrace and in the inmate gardens on the west side of the island. There are many types of rust – the rust that affects pelargoniums is caused by the fungus Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis. This rust shows on the upper side of the leaf as dark ringed circles with a whitish center.

Rust on Pelargonium leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, “Puccinia pelargonii-zonalis produces only two types of spore and only one of these, the rusty brown urediniospores, appear to be involved in the disease cycle. The other spore type is rare and has not been observed to germinate. The urediniospores are capable of surviving for several weeks in leaf debris.” Furthermore, some types of rust require two different plant hosts to complete its life cycle, but pelargonium rust can complete its cycle on one plant, making it easier for it to develop spores for the next generation. In just two weeks, the next generation can begin infecting nearby plants.

On the island, we do not use any chemicals in the gardens. We rely on cultural control, a fancy way to say volunteers and staff pick off the infected leaves and rake out any plant material from underneath the plants. We are also careful when watering not to splash the leaves, as water helps to spread the spores. Temperature and humidity dictate when the rust is active; temperatures below freezing and above 85 degrees Fahrenheit along with low humidity will prevent rust from developing. As lucky as we are to garden in coastal California, we never receive a frost and very rarely do temperatures ever go above 75. So we will continue to hand pick our leaves!

Hollyhocks are another plant that

Rust on Hollyhock leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

does get infected with rust Puccinia malvacearum. This fungus has similar characteristics of the geranium rust with needing only one host and is prevented by careful watering and removing wild mallows that are a source for inoculation. On Alcatraz, we do have the weedy cheese weed mallow, Malva parviflora that is growing in non-restored areas and is a source for this fungus to thrive.

 

 

Heirloom gladiolus also suffers from rust, believed to be caused by the fungus Uromyces transversalis.Two different spore stages are found on the leaves. Urediniospores are produced all summer and are responsible for the

Rust on Gladiolus. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

orange lesions known as sori that erupt on both sides of the leaves. Gladiolus rust is relatively new to the United States, first being detected in Florida in 2006. The rust, as well as gladiolus, are from South Africa, and were likely brought to America through bulbs that were being introduced. Once in America, the rust can easily be spread through the cut flower industry. The rust on gladiolus leaves spreads across the veins, unlike other rusts that form along veins or forms circles (University of Illinois). In our gardens, we are quick to spot the gladiolus rust and remove dispose of the infected foliage.

Through dedicated and consistent maintenance, we are able to control many of the outbreaks from rust; again demonstrating that it is possible to garden without the use of chemicals.

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Gardening for Exercise

Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.

According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.

Pushing loaded wheelbarrows on the island keeps volunteers fit. Photo by Diana LaWithout a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s

Yoga stretches on the hillsides. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.

Turning the compost pile is the same as lifting weights. Photo by Fergal Moran

Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.

For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.

Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.

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What’s growing in our greenhouse?

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.

Shirley poppy seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Columbine seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Muscari seedlings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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!

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Gardening with Gulls

Gardening on Alcatraz has many challenges – limited fresh water, harsh winds, chilly fog, and transporting  supplies to the island; but one challenge came as a surprise only after we had started planting in 2005 -the Western Gull. Actually 2000 of them. Victoria Seher, National Park Service wildlife biologist monitors their numbers: there were 740 nesting pairs in 2011, up from 722 pairs in 2010, but down from 1061 pairs in 2008. Each nesting pair usually lays three eggs, adding to the population substantially.

The first two years of the project, from 2003 to 2005, was intensely focused on removing overgrown vegetation built up from the 40 years of neglect. By 2005, the trough planter along the main roadway leading to the top of the island had been repaired and was ready to be planted. This was a significant event – the first planting in over 40 years! Staff and volunteers eagerly turned out that day to help plant the 330 feet of trough with ivy leaf geraniums, Pelargonium peltatum, that had originally filled the trough in the 1940s. Heirloom pelargoniums were sourced from Geraniaceae in nearby Ross, California and everyone pitched in for a fun day of planting. Standing back proudly at the end of the day, the accomplished work was admired. However, returning the next day, the plants were gone! Unwittingly, 330 feet of prime nesting material had nicely been laid out for the western gull.

Learning from our mistake, new plants are now caged – almost like being imprisoned themselves. We have become experts at building cages out of chicken wire. We have also learned to optimize the time the gulls are away from the island to give the plants the longest time possible to develop their own roots to help anchor themselves in the ground. Seabird nesting season is from February to September, so by October, we are ready for planting and the winter rains.

Cages protect succulents against the gulls. Shelagh Fritz photo

 

Seagull damage to daylilies. Photo by Marian Beard

Like other gardeners that square off against deer, I have noticed that certain plants seem to attract sea gull vandalism, while other plants go unnoticed by our feathered friends. Strap-like leaves beckon to gulls; I guess this material is easy to harvest and to shape into a nest. Beds planted with Bearded Iris, daffodils (Narcissus) and cottage pink (Dianthus plumarius) in the Officers’ Row gardens have been replanted with more hardy plants that can stand up better against the gulls. This year, the gulls have taken a liking (or dislike) to the beautiful daylily, Hemerocallis ‘Kwanso’. This is a triploid flowering daylily with tangerine colored blossoms. The gulls have nipped down the plants to the bases which will make flowering unlikely this year. However, the gulls that nest

An aloe completeley destroyed by gulls. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

on the west side of the island leave the cottage pinks and bearded iris alone and choose to peck the succulents instead. Tough aloes and aeoniums are shredded instead.

I have also learned a few interesting facts about the Western gull – they mate for life and that they come back to the same spot to nest year after year (up to 20 years is typical for a gull). Waging a 20 year battle against a bird seems a bit ridiculous so it is far easier to accept the gulls. When I started as the gardener in 2006, I took a strong dislike to the gulls, but now, they have really grown on me and I’ve actually gotten to know some of the gulls. There is a one-legged male in Officers’ Row that I try not to disturb so he doesn’t have to stand up. There’s also a whole gauntlet of gulls nesting along the road that leads to the rose terrace. A few years ago, anyone walking down this road was taking a great chance at being marked, but now the gulls barely glance at me when I walk by. However, anyone they don’t recognize gets the full squawking treatment. There’s also a pair that nests in a huge clump of ivy in the Inmate Gardens on the west side. Their young usually wander around the gardens and drink from our hose during the summer.

Come out and see the gardens and gulls this spring! Nowhere else will you be able to experience a major seabird nesting colony, historic gardens, and a former prison on an island so close to a major city. I’ll bet you will admire the gulls in a way you never did before – what took me 6 years to realize, will only take you an afternoon.

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Mighty Mites

Aculops fuchsiae, better known as fuchsia gall mite, has caused irreparable damage to fuchsias growing on the west coast of the United States, especially California, where the mites thrive in our cool summers and mild winters. This little mite, invisible to the naked eye, has the ability to disfigure an entire bush, and once the plant has been affected, it is nearly impossible to get rid of. For such a tiny creature, they make their presence known.

The mite was introduced from Brazil and Mite damage on a Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' leaf. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwas first noticed in northern California in the early 1980s, the mite was likely an accidental introduction. How do you know if you have the mite? If your plants are affected, you will notice leafs, stems and/or the flowers becoming swollen and fused together. New growth is deformed and is covered by small hairs. Aphids can also cause some of these problems, but aphids can easily be seen.

The mites love to travel; after all, they came all the way from Brazil! They easily hitch a ride with birds, hummingbirds are a prime carrier, spread with the wind, but more often, they wait for the faithful gardener to come along. Gardeners can easily spread the mites simply by touching the affected area with their hands or pruners and then moving on to other fuchsias. Typically, the best way to control mites is to remove the plant entirely. On Alcatraz, however, removing historic plants is not an option.

I am not a fan of chemical sprays, but would rather use frequent and consistent applications of Neem oil to control the outbreaks. I also opt for removing affected growths, raking fallen leaves and flowers and keeping plants as healthy as possible with organic fertilizers supplemented with deep waterings during the summer.

Visitors admiring the large Fuchsia 'Rose of Castile' growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We have three kinds of Fuchsia on the island that are afflicted with the mite – Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, Fuchsia magellanica, and Fuchsia ‘Mrs. Lovell Swisher’. The ‘Rose of Castile’ is growing in a few places around the island, with the oldest and best specimen growing on the corner of the Electric Shop bed. This bush is thought to be at least 50 years old! Visitors are always amazed to see the thickness of the trunk and find it hard to believe that a fuchsia, which they usually associate with being a hanging basket flower, could grow into a full sized shrub. In addition to the mite, this fuchsia is also susceptible to rust.

There is another survivor Fuchsia along Surviving Fuchsia along the main road in 2005. Photo by Diane Ochithe main road that visitors walk by. Located right off the dock, this Fuchsia has grown into a small tree over the years. When the Garden Conservancy first scoped out the gardens in 2003, a photo was taken of this poor tree. The plant was holding its own against the mite while being choked by overgrowth. The tree, believed to have Fuchsia magellanica as a parent, looks good for maybe 2 weeks out of the year. Each year, I hope for it to do well, but this year, was not a good year for it. Heartbreakingly, I gave it a hard cutback this past Monday. I anxiously awaited new growth, and thank goodness, the leaf buds are swelling! The bed has been cleaned up underneath and we will begin again.

Fuchsia thilco resembles survivor Fuchsia magellanica. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In choosing plants for the historic gardens, the Garden Conservancy is aiming to give the ‘look and feel’ of the past gardens. We are able to substitute similar plants and can choose disease and insect resistant plants. We have been successfully growing mite resistant fuchsias and now have a small collection on the island. Plants have been sourced from the local SF Botanical Garden and Berkeley Horticulture. We are now growing Fuchsia campo molina, F. thilco, F. paniculata and F. ‘Grand Harfare’. We also have been growing the very profuse bloomer Fuchsia ‘Angel’s Earrings’, but I have noticed that these have been affected with the mite where they are growing near the affected plants. Alcatraz even has one survivor fuchsia that is mite resistant – Fuchsia denticulata.

 

 

 

Mite resistant Fuchsia denticulata. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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No Garden is an Island

This past Friday the Garden Conservancy hosted a meeting for the Bay Area Gardens Network (Bagnet). Bagnet is represented by all the major public gardens in the Bay Area. Gardens from UC Botanical Gardens, Cornerstone in Sonoma, Filoli, Mendocino Botanical Gardens, Presidio Trust, and Merritt Lake in Oakland, just to name a few, attended. Looking around the room, it was impressive to see the wealth of knowledge that was gathered. We started the meeting by introducing ourselves by stating 1) where we worked, 2) what we liked most about our work, and 3) what we least liked about our work. Going around the room, the common answers were for most liked – seeing visitors enjoying the gardens; while the least liked typically involved budget cuts and wearing multiple hats to get the job done.

The idea of a Bay Area garden group started in 1996 and was the idea of Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Turner saw a need for Bay Area gardens, of all sizes and types, to keep in touch with each other and discuss various issues that everyone faces among gardens; as well as providing an excellent network for staff of all the gardens. With many unique gardens around the Bay Area, it is worth promoting and helping each other, instead of feeling the need to compete for visitors and resources.

The day’s agenda had a few topics of great interest; one being creating a more comprehensive website that lists all the Bay Area gardens and activities scheduled. Currently, a website does exist, www.bayareagardens.org, led by Pacific Horticulture. Updates are being planned for this website so stay tuned!

I had the pleasure to update the group on the progress of the Gardens of Alcatraz for the past five years – in 10 minutes! I had a lot to cover but I managed to fit in the highlights – accomplishing five garden area rehabilitations, logging 40 000 volunteer hours to date, noting our sustainability achievements of the water catchment and composting sites; and describing our outreach efforts – 8 new waysides around the island, the self-guided brochure, free docent tours twice a week and the ‘Ask the Gardener’ open garden on Wednesdays; as well as providing our garden t-shirt for purchase in the bookstore and receiving a royalty on each one sold, and our ever-improving website, including this blog! Whew! A lot has been done.

Chatting with members afterwards, many people commented on some aspect of my presentation that they had experienced themselves or were considering undertaking. In the afternoon, the group was toured through the Presidio by Michael Boland. We were fortunate to have him for the afternoon as he showed us the natural areas that had been rehabilitated, the community involvement taking place, as well as the infrastructure of the Doyle Drive bridge construction project, going through the historic Presidio.

Golden Gate Bridge seen from the Presidio. Shelagh Fritz photo

Through the course of the afternoon, I realized that Alcatraz is not really an island. Michael’s history of the military in the Presidio linked Alcatraz to that key time period when the military landscaped their bases, when much of Alcatraz was planted. Island residents were focused on gardening and improving their home. Even today, Alcatraz is connected by being part of the garden network in the Bay Area. This of course, made me realize that even though I work on an island, I’m not isolated in my challenges, and that any success achieved benefits all the area gardens with the sharing of knowledge.

 

The sun setting over the Presidio, as seen from Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Superior Succulents

No matter what time of year it is, there is always something in bloom on Alcatraz. Oddly, what is the middle of winter is the prime time to see the succulents display their vibrant blooms. Right now, the inmate gardens on the west side of the island are putting on a stunning show, and this is only the beginning of a two month long display.

The entire succulent slope with the cellhouse providing a dramatic background. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Green leafed Cotyledon orbiculata with orange bell-like flowers are among the first to bloom. Adjacent to these are yellow blooming Sedum praealtum. An island survivor, the bright yellow flowers accent the yellow bloom of the purple leafed Aeonium arboreum, another survivor. At the foreground is the velvet soft Echeveria pulvinata with its soft orange blooms on a long spike. Weaved throughout this tapestry of textures and colors is Chasmanthe floribunda; a South African bulb that has bright orange blooms that begin the end of January and continues into March.

Succulent slope beginning to bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Across the staircase grows a patch of purple leafed Lampranthus with bright magenta flowers. A scarce island survivor, this patch was grown from cuttings from one of two existing plants. The propagated patch is contrasted with the purple leaved Aeonium and higher on the slope, the green leafed Aeonium. Sprinkled amongst the plantings are Lobularia maritima, sweet alyssum,  a hardy island survivor that shows up where it pleases.

The gardened slopes on the west side

Leaf textures and colors of purple leafed Aeonium, grey Cotyledon and greenish yellow Sedum. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

of the island consist of a sandy/rocky breakdown of the island’s natural bedrock – grey wackle sandstone.  This creates a well-drained soil where the succulents can thrive. Also contributing to the success of these plantings is the amount of sunshine the slope receives. The succulent slope faces due west, receiving all the afternoon sun, but also tolerates the harsh Pacific winds. The unusually dry and warm winter has likely caused the blooming to be a bit earlier than usual, but they seem unaffected by the dry conditions.

The plants thriving on the slope is a clever mix of 40 years of untended growth (survival of the fittest) and the guiding hand of the gardeners – all with the cellhouse providing a somber contrast to the vivid colors.

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