Monthly Archives: July 2012

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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