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Tag Archives: Alcatraz
Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.
Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.
First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.
Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.
First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.
One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium
illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.
David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.
Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.
Tips from David made perfect sense:
-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.
-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.
-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.
-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.
-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.
David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.
Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.
Past garden manager, Carola, is quoted in Alcatraz’s Discovery film as saying the gardening is like ‘garden archeology’. Her words perfectly described the work of clearing vegetation and finding artifacts and landscape features that had lay hidden underneath ivy and blackberries for decades.
Her words are still very true today. The garden crew has been in over their heads clearing ivy from trees and uncovering terrace walls.
Using the Cultural Landscape Report for Alcatraz Island as a guide, permission was granted by the Park Service to clear overgrowth from known garden areas that no one had worked in since the prison closed in 1963. As part of the approval, garden volunteers and staff attended a lecture by National Park Service Archeologists, Leo and Peter.
With broad reaching strokes, Leo and Peter described their work across the park. San Francisco has a rich history with native settlements, missions, military history. Every time significant ground disturbance is done in the Park, this duo is on the scene. Some finds are accidents whereas others are known sites of interest. Leo described what to do in case items were found –
-take a photo with a point of reference in the background, not to zoom in on the object but give an easy way to find where the object had been found.
-fill out the paperwork that marks on a map where the object was found, and describe the item and the circumstances under which it was found
A key point was to distinguish between a single item found and a ‘feature’. A feature, as we now know, is considered a group of artifacts. In the case of finding a feature, the objects should be left in place and give Leo a call.
All of the objects found are taken to the Presidio archives where they are cleaned, recorded, and added to the collection. For garden artifacts, Leo has been marking the locations of the items on an overall map. Overtime, the pinpoint locations of objects give a big picture of significant areas, slow archeology in a sense.
Most people think of Alcatraz as only a federal prison, but the island has layers of history that equals the city of San Francisco, where the story of the gardens is woven throughout. Seeing the island through Leo’s eyes was really, well, eye-opening. Landscape features that we always walk by, were given an explanation, or at least a theory that made us all think – ah, that makes sense. For example, many parts of the island had a whitewash over the bricks, stone and concrete. The whitewash façade has fallen away in many areas, but the anchor holes of the façade remain.
Today, the holes look like planting pockets. We had always wondered about the evenly spaced shallow holes. They obviously weren’t big enough for a large plant with roots, or even to hold moisture during the dry summer. With Leo giving his theory of the holes being the anchor points, the holes suddenly made sense. By chance, the cliff below the Warden’s house is being stabilized with the addition of fake rock being anchored with long bolts – just like was done long ago.
One of the coolest objects found was an arrowhead several years ago, and another arrowhead showed up a few months ago. Leo explained that the arrowheads can be dated by using the fact that glass absorbs water at a specific rate for locations.
Other features of the island, are fun to speculate over – the bluestone found on the island is only found in a few locations around the Bay Area, Angel Island and Corte Madera. Not only did significant labour went into gathering the bluestone and hauling it to Alcatraz, but seeing it used for building reflects a known time period and a recycling of building material as well. Leo’s passion was evident as he said ‘some we will never learn but there is meaning in it all’.
Our take away lesson from Leo’s talk was to “overly thoughtful and nerdy about everything you find”.
Not only do the kids go back to school, it’s the perfect time of year to propagate your favorite roses from cuttings!
Tapping into the wealth of knowledge from other volunteers on Alcatraz, we found out that a bird docent has a skilled hand at propagating heirloom roses by cuttings. Karen Vandergrift willingly offered to demonstrate her knack.
To start, after the rose has bloomed and before the rose hip has started to form, a cutting should be taken down to the fourth leaflet, and cut the stem ½” above the bud.
Next, pull off the leaves from the lower two buds and trim off any buds or blooms still remaining on the cutting.
Then, with sharp pruners, cut the top half of the leaves off. This will reduce the surface area that will draw moisture out of the plant.
After that is done, lightly scrape off the layer of stem down to expose the cambium that is on bottom 2” of the stem. Dip the cutting in root hormone.
Using a clean one-gallon pot, stick the cuttings in moist soil, we used our Alcatraz compost, but a potting soil mix would be fine. We put three cuttings in one pot, so hopefully one of them would take. Karen explained that she likes using a 1-gallon pot so the cutting has ample room to grow and does not need to be disturbed by repotting if it were to be started in a sleeve. She also explained that the 1-gallon pot will not dry out as fast as smaller pots.
Create a mini-greenhouse by placing skewers in the 1-gallon pot and putting a plastic bag over the skewers. The plastic bag and cutting the leaves stops evapo-transpiration that dries out the soil and the tissue of the cutting. Be sure that the leaves of the cuttings are not touching the sides of the bag as this would cause the leaves to rot. The pots are in our greenhouse, out of direct light.
We should have rooted cuttings in 6 weeks. We were instructed to water a little bit in one week – and mostly lift up the pots to see if they are light, then they need water.
If no growth is obvious in 3 months, then we’ll try again!
Late winter and early spring are ideal times to divide perennials on Alcatraz. As we do not (typically) receive frost, plants never go fully dormant as in northern climates, but herbaceous plants do slow their growing of new leaves. This window is perfect for dividing bearded iris. The plants have not yet put valuable stored energy into producing new leaves, and instead can expend energy into forming new feeder roots once it has been replanted. Once established, new leaves are produced. We have found that mature clumps of iris will still flower the same year that they were transplanted, but smaller pieces of an iris rhizome may take up to two years to flower.
Generally, we aim to divide our iris
every three years, just like the Ruth Bancroft Garden does with Ruth’s heirloom collection of iris. Happy iris become overgrown and the thick rhizomes start to crowd each other, growing over top of one another. Overgrown iris can lead to several problems – poor air circulation which increases rust on the leaves, the roots competing for nutrients in the soil, and the centers of the iris clump will become bare of leaves and not produce any flowers at all. It’s easy to tell when you should take on the project of dividing your own iris if you look for these signs.
The garden volunteers divided the tall scented bearded iris in the Prisoner’s gardens this week. Four separate patches of iris were divided, and we ended up with not only the beds replanted, but with five bins of extra iris!
The iris bloomed really well last year, but as we add fresh compost to enrich the soil, the rhizomes were becoming buried. Iris likes to be planted very shallow, with the backs of the rhizome sitting above the soil.
One of the volunteers showed me an interesting feature about the rhizomes that I didn’t know before. Looking at the underside where the roots grow from, holes are visible. These were where the roots had grown from. The rhizome grows from one end, and the older end becomes a storage unit for energy (much like a potato). When dividing iris, the older sections are broken away and only the piece with the roots are kept. We are curious to see if the older section will sprout roots, so we placed a few in a pot in our greenhouse to see what happens
Now we are busy trying to find new homes for the divided extras, these are my favorites and I can’t bear to compost them.
A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.
The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.
For snow bound East Coasters,
probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.
Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.
The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.
Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.
All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.
As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.
The February blues on Alcatraz are anything but blah. The range of bluish purple flowers in the gardens is very rich and complements many of the orange and yellow blooming plants.
Just on our small island, there are a number of plants in bloom right now in the same shades.
Echium candicans, pride of Madeira,
has been blooming for over a month now, mainly on the west side of the island where they are loved by hummingbirds. A survivor garden plant, one seed landed by chance in the rose terrace, right alongside another survivor, Muscari
armeniacum, grape hyacinth. Seeing the same shade of purple blue but in drastically different plants adds to the richness of the garden. The seedpods Muscari can be left to stand to add more interest to the garden, plus they also multiply themselves.
Vinca major, periwinkle, is another survivor in bloom now. This common groundcover is often forgotten as it is pretty common to see, and can even spread itself into places you rather it not go. When photographed against yellow lichen on a concrete wall, it really does catch your eye.
Our dutch iris, ones that grow from a bulb instead of a rhizome, are just beginning to flower on the rose terrace. A few original bulbs were found growing in this garden so we planted more of ‘Sapphire Beauty’ in a raised bed in front of the greenhouse. The yellow flame looks great with California poppy and yellow Calendula or daffodils.
A new plant for Alcatraz is the native California lilac, Ceanothus. This shrub has many cultivars and we chose ‘Julia Phelps’, that will hopefully reach its full size of 7′ tall and 9′ wide. The flowers are a dark indigo color and this cultivar is suppose to be one of the best bloomers. We planted it at the top of the cellhouse slope and even with the sparse rain this winter, it is already blooming. Perhaps one negative for this plant is that we are also noticing seagull feathers collecting on the leaves. But, the dark blue flowers will look great with the pink persian carpet.
The Federal Prison on Alcatraz was meant for the ‘worst of the worst’. Inmates only got sent to Alcatraz because they were behaving badly at another prison; in a way, they had to earn their way to Alcatraz.
But what if you are a plant? And you are misbehaving? And you are already on Alcatraz?
This seems to be the case with our Agaves.
While the island was operating as a military fortress to protect the Bay, and later as a military prison, Agave americana were brought to the island in the early 1920s in attempts to landscape the island. The plant proved to be ideal for growing in the dry, rocky soil with little water or care. But this plant has a defense mechanism of its own. Perhaps it is not commonly known, but Agaves can cause skin irritations when the sap comes into contact with people’s skin.
While not everyone is afflicted, a few of my volunteers have had reactions to being poked by the thorns or have developed a skin reaction with itching and blistering because of the sap. The sap contains calcium oxalate crystals, acrid oils, saponins, and other compounds, but it seems the calcium oxalate is responsible for the irritation.
A quick search on Wikipedia found that – “The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect. If the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 6–7 cm across appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks.”
There are three types of Agaves on the
island – Agave americana, which has established itself on hillsides and needs minimal care, while in the gardens, we have introduced Agave attenuata and Agave parryi. The Agave attenuata is my favorite! Not surprisingly, it has smooth leaves and no thorns. The Agave parryi, has a different story. This low growing blue leaved succulent has black spines along the margins of the leaves and the tip – very nice to look at, but not nice to weed around.
Like a bad sibling, this plant has been cursed at more often than any other plant on the island, and is one step away from the compost pile after pricking the volunteer that stewards the succulent slope. Instead of being sent to ‘D’ Block aka, the compost pile, Agave parryi will be isolated on a slope outside of the rec yard, far away from any well-meaning hands. With a view of the Golden Gate and city, Agave parryi, can think long and hard about what it has done! Or perhaps, it will think ‘alone at last, now I can enjoy the view’.
This week the Garden Conservancy celebrated ten years of our West Coast Council programs. We also gathered to honor Antonia Adezio, our President, who is stepping down in December.
We reflected on our goal of having a bigger impact on West Coast gardeners. Looking around the room Wednesday evening at the close-knit community of gardeners, the Garden Conservancy has certainly excelled at this. In a way, it reminded me of what Freddie Riechel, the first secretary to the Warden challenged himself with when he took on caring for the gardens on Alcatraz back in 1933. Riechel reached out to expert horticulturists to keep the tradition of gardening on the Rock going. The Garden Conservancy has done the same, seeking advice from the West Coast Council and professionals to create educational programs to connect experts to local gardeners and to further develop preservation project gardens.
Antonia joined the newly founded Garden Conservancy in 1989 at the request of Frank Cabot. With the organization firmly established on the East Coast, the board of directors determined that in 202, the organization was ready to have a regional office based in San Francisco. Shortly after, the Garden Conservancy was enticed by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to form a partnership to restore the Gardens of Alcatraz. The neglected historic gardens quickly became a passion for Antonia. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, I had the honor to present a brief history of our work on the island and to highlight our accomplishments with bringing the gardens back to life.
Antonia’s leadership throughout her time with the Conservancy has shaped the success , especially with Alcatraz, and her vision will be continued as we carry on. I like to think that every garden holds onto some characteristic of their caretakers, even as the caretakers move on. I see this especially in the old gardens on Alcatraz – the surviving apple trees that still bear fruit, the inmate built terraces, and perhaps the greatest mark left – the decision by the Garden Conservancy get involved to restore the gardens for the future enjoyment for all.