Tag Archives: Plants

Plant Shopping in the Best Shopping

The gardens were fortunate this summer to have two youth interns through the Parks Conservancy youth program. As they wrap up their 140 hours working in the gardens, there was still another skill they needed to know – how to select plants from a nursery.

We headed down to Pacific Nurseries, a wholesale nursery in Colma to do our shopping. Our mission was to find plants that would fill in areas on the windy west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. Sections of this garden are always struggling to cope with the extremes of heat and fog, wind and the curiosity of gulls, even after the gardens were restored in 2009, they still aren’t quite right.

Upon pulling into the parking area, my eyes always light up with seeing the plants laid out in groupings of perennials, shrubs, roses, succulents, annuals and shade lovers. Sometimes, I place an order and can go and have everything ready, but often, I just see what is available and chose from the vast selection.

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Starting out with an empty cart amid the rows of perennials. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

For the Prisoner gardens we were on the hunt for perennials, mostly Salvias as the ones we already have are thriving.

We started with 1 gallon pots of Salvia clevelandii. The first thing to notice was the health of the leaves and checking that the stems are not broken. Salvia clevelandii tends to be brittle anyway so extra care needs to be taken while handling them.

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Snails that could hitch hike a ride to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Turning the pots around, it’s is essential that we are not taking any hitchhikers to Alcatraz – namely snails and slugs and weeds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Explaining what a ‘root bound’ plant

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Roots growing through the bottom of a pot, not ideal. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

looks like is a lot easier when standing in a nursery. While Pacific Nurseries have excellent plants to choose from, sometimes roots get circling the inside of their container and can even root into the ground through the drainage holes. Plants like this tend not to adapt well once wrestled out of their stricken home and in bad cases, there may be hardly any soil left in the pot, leaving the plant suffering from drought as well.

With plants we choose, we have to go through quite an effort to haul them to the boat to get them to the island. Checking that the plants are well watered helps the plants with the trip. The interns could feel the weight difference in pots that were dry versus heavier pots that were well watered. Of course, the growing median makes a difference too (but we’ll save this lesson for another day).

We soon had our carts full and packed the van!

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Full carts! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

While we checked out with our purchases, the interns had 15 minutes to run around and look at all the types of plants. I’m sure their Instagram accounts are full of selfies with the plants. Pulling off the freeway to come back along the Embarcadero, the van was noticeably quieter – a look into the back showed both interns had fallen asleep. Definitely a sign of a great shopping day!

 

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Drought conditions and what the Gardens of Alcatraz is Doing

California has traditionally gone through cycles of drought and it was an important factor when the Alcatraz Historic Gardens project began in 2003. Restoring an island full of plants did not make much sense if there was no fresh water to care for the rehabilitated gardens.

From the early days of the preservation, there were many common sense things that were done. The simple actions of designing drought tolerant gardens and timing the planting for the winter rains were easy enough to work with. There is such a wide variety of plants that can tolerate and even thrive with little water, that this was never a hindrance to the revival of the gardens. In fact, with now over ten years of first-hand experience on the island, we have built up a list of ‘Alcatraz tested’ plants that we provide on our website.

With rain collection being a known historic occurrence on the island, obtaining approval to once again collect rain water was straightforward enough – again, this had been always been in the garden work plan. However, despite filling the 12 000 gallon catchment to capacity each year, the shortage of rainfall is not saturating the soil. This means that the gardens begin the dry season already thirsty. For the past three years, we have begun to use our stored water in the early spring, instead of months later in the summer.

We have officially entered our fourth year of drought and we wanted to be pro-active and conserve where we can. This year we installed drip irrigation to save water by watering directly to the plants, avoiding overhead hand watering. So far, the rose terrace, Officers’ Row, and two sections of the Prisoner Gardens are on a drip line. We also installed a drip line to establish the native sedge lawn in front of the cellhouse. Once the historic lawn is established, two inches of water are required each summer month – a huge saving from the needed one inch per week for the typical turf grass. The irrigation in each garden area is divided into zones, so we can water sunny areas more, and the shaded corners less often. We have also attached inexpensive water meters to each of the hose pipes to keep track of how many gallons are being used on each garden area.

New irrigation with drip emitters in the Rose Terrace. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

New irrigation with drip emitters in the Rose Terrace. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This year we also are using fine wood mulch to conserve soil moisture. Mulch was not used historically, but cultivated soil was the historic look. Now, we opt for a more permaculture ‘no-till’ approach with fine ¼” mulch on top. The no-till improves the health of the soil, and the mulch will conserve moisture in the soil. The wood chips will eventually decompose, adding to the organic matter in the soil.

Officers' Row mulched with fine wood chips. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Officers’ Row mulched with fine wood chips. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another water saving tip is to use perennials and not annuals. The majority of the garden plants are perennials. Perennials are better suited with typically deeper roots that can withstand dry conditions. Aside from the recent lawn planting, our last major planting was back in 2010. The perennials are now established and can tolerate drier soil. If you ever try to pull out a native California plant versus a non-native weed, the native will put up a fight while the non-native will easily pull right out.

As the summer continues, we may opt to not plant some of the beds which typically would be planted with annuals. For example, the raised beds in front of the greenhouse have been planted with spring and summer bulbs like cape tulip, Dutch iris and gladiolus followed by summer annuals. This year, we will likely omit planting the annuals and leave the raised beds fallow instead.

Raised beds that may be left furloughed for the summer months. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Raised beds that may be left furloughed for the summer months. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

As our drought continues, I am seeing more lawns being ripped out and replaced with drought tolerant options, even artificial turf. A trip to see our gardens is well worth it to get ideas for your own backyard.

 

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Garden Update

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,

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

 

The Echium was started in a 4" pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium was started in a 4″ pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium is on its way to being 10 feet tall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

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