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Category Archives: Sustainability
Other than rain and fog drip, Alcatraz has no fresh water.
And yet, walk through the gardens at any time of the year, especially in spring and summer, and you’ll see beautiful flowers in bloom. How do we do it?
Alcatraz gets its freshwater in two ways: shipped in from the city, and collected from the rain. The city water is shipped in on a daily basis and is used to supply the entire island: the water you drink, the water you use to wash your hands, the water we clean with, all shipped in. This can be a problem for the gardens as the humans get priority. If the water is running low, our irrigation systems will be shut off.
So, we needed to come up with a way to get water without competing with thirsty guests. This is where the rainwater comes in. The first garden to test out a rainwater catchment system was the West Side Gardens. The large tanks at the back of the lawn collect rainwater from the cellhouse and stores it to be used throughout the summer, and fall. With a maze of hoses, we’re able to connect this system to the entire West Side and water it for most of the dry season. This allows us to be more environmentally friendly with our gardening practices, and also saves the park money.
This catchment system was a success, which meant it was time to turn to other gardens. There is a cistern behind the water tower that was thought to provide fresh water to the laundry building during the Federal Penitentiary. Upon removing the covering, we discovered there was over 70,000 gallons of water still in the cistern, enough to water all of the gardens for 10 years! Now there was the question of how to use it, and how to refill it. With a specially designed water pump from WaterSprout, we use a solar panel behind the greenhouse in the Rose Terrace to pump water from the cistern and to the Rose Terrace. From there, the hose is attached to our irrigation system and waters the Rose Terrace. To refill the cistern, we are testing out a method in which we take water from the roof of the Laundry Building and pump it to the cistern. This is still in a trial and error phase, but hopefully we can get it down to an art during the rainy season.
The next development for our water catchment system is to refill the rainwater tanks behind the upper restroom. Currently we have 3000 gallons of water being collected. This supply runs out by early summer and then we revert back to using water barged in from the city. We aim to refill these tanks with the cistern water and keep off imported city water year-round. There may be no natural freshwater on Alcatraz, but with patience and ingenuity, we can make our gardens beautiful with the rain water freely given.
Over the years, gardeners have developed ways to keep the plants alive and beautiful. From prisoners with garden hoses to Shelagh Fritz and the water catchment system, the gardeners have worked with San Francisco’s climate to create beautiful flowers.
However, things are starting to change. Climate change is having an impact on the plants around Alcatraz. San Francisco used to have predictable and stable weather. It would rain from about November to January. It would be dry and foggy in the summer. And generally, the temperatures would stay between 50- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit year round, with a few days in August raising above. This predictable weather pattern is great for gardeners as it allows for planning. You can collect rainwater in the winter and then use what you collected throughout the summer to keep the gardens thriving. The lack of frost meant that plants could bloom longer and grow larger, something all gardeners want. While it’s true non-native plants can have a harder time with the climate, with proper care, they can thrive.
One of the first major signs of climate change affecting the plants on Alcatraz was the California drought. The drought from 2011 to 2017 was one of the worst in California’s history. 2011 to 2014 was the driest period in California history since record keeping began. In 2001, the annual precipitation was 25.03 inches. In 2011, the annual precipitation was 15.64 inches, nearly ten inches less than ten years previously (Data from Golden Gate Weather Services: https://www.ggweather.com/sf/monthly.html). Because of the drought, there wasn’t water available during the summer from the water catchment system. Even on areas where the island was not watered regularly suffered. The Persian carpet used to look very vibrant and pink on the cellhouse slope. Even after nearly three years of steady rainfall, it has yet to recover.
The average yearly temperature has also increased (see graph). The average temperature for the year has not been 55 degrees Fahrenheit since 1975. Two years in a row (1996 and 1997) the average temperature has been above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And while an increase of about one or two degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, it can wreak havoc on the plants.
Frost is starting to appear on Alcatraz, which as any gardener knows, can cause plants to hibernate and in some cases die. Summers are experiencing less fog and winters less rain with the rain coming in short downpours that just runoff. Gardens and gardeners can adapt over time. However, what can be said for wild landscapes?
It seems every day there are stories about pollinators. There are news stories detailing their decline. There are new “Bee Hotels” designed to attract solitary bees. There are websites dedicated to creating a list of plants to attract pollinators. As gardeners, we know pollinators well. Almost any plant that has a showy flower is likely to attract pollinators. Yet, pollinators are not limited to bees and butterflies. They also include ants, male mosquitos, beetles, flies, wasps, birds, and even some mammals and reptiles. Each pollinator has a job within an ecosystem and each plant has a pollinator it is designed to attract.
Preparations for planting at Black Point Historic Gardens are underway. There is a unique opportunity for us to use Alcatraz Gardens and what we learned to make Black Point more successful. Volunteers cleared away the overgrowth and replanted flowering plants. This gave rise to a noticeable increase in bees, flies, butterflies, and birds.
We know now there are at least ten species of bees in the gardens of Alcatraz, some of them native. However, no study was completed to create a baseline estimate for species diversity before restoration work began. We know the number of pollinator species before the military’s use of the island in the 1800s was likely zero since Alcatraz was a rock with no native vegetation. The wives of soldiers established gardens. These beautiful blooms provide food and habitat for the pollinators. A baseline would have helped us know if our efforts were beneficial and guide us to future planting plans.
As historical gardeners, we have a duty to present Alcatraz and Black Point as they would have been. Heirloom plants are used to represent a specific time frame. Even where we plant certain plants is dictated by historic photographs. As a result, the ideal gardens of the late 1800s through the 1960s guide us; and in those time periods, native pollinator gardens were not in fashion. As we design the plantings at Black Point, we wish to include plants that will help native pollinators but still have the look and feel of a Victorian strolling garden.
Studies have shown planting native plants and increasing the diversity of blooms will help native pollinators. So, we have begun to start observing pollinator species diversity and population numbers. Does the garden, previously overrun with ivy, blackberries, and oxalis, function as a pollinator garden? Does the presence of native California flowering plants help increase the amount of diversity? Do the pollinator population levels increase as more flowering plants and space are made available?
These are questions we want to answer. We can only learn from the past and use Alcatraz as a guiding force for Black Point.
Help save the soil you wonder? Are we not in drought? Should we not be saving water instead?
I wondered these same questions until I listened to Dr. Stephen Andrews, a soil scientist and professor at U.C. Berkeley. Stating the fact that California is now the driest since 1580 was enough to scare everyone in the room. California depends on water from snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada that slowly melts over the summer months. The snowpack gets replenished during the winter. Without a reliable winter to bring moisture, there is more at stake than just a lack of water.
Another fact – Just 1 teaspoon of forest soil can contain 10 billion bacteria! Wow! And of the 10 billion, we hardly know anything about them.
Another fact – California has 15.5% of rare soil types and 104 of endangered soils in the USA.
The loss of a soil series is a bigger problem than losing an endangered animal. As Dr. Andrews explained – when you lose a soil, you lose the entire community of organisms supported by it. There is so much we do not know about the ground beneath our feet, that we are not even aware of what we are losing. To further open our minds, Dr. Andrews pointed out the Clean Air Act protects the air, the Clean Water Act protects the water, but there is no Clean Soil Act – very astonishing considering the soil is what we depend on for our food.
So what can the average person do?
1. Lose the Lawn
Ask yourself ‘What is your lawn doing for you?’ There are plenty of low-water lawns to choose from now, check out ‘No Mow Fescue’ or a Delta bluegrass blend.
2. Water Deeply
Two-thirds of a plant’s biomass is underground so getting water to the roots is vital. A deep watering accommodates plants as they grow over time. Water emitters need to be moved as the plant grows to encourage proper root development. If you have a tiny emitter right at the base of tree and never move it, the roots will have no reason to grow further and anchor the tree.
3. Upgrade your Irrigation System
New systems have many programs that you can set, including ‘wet weather sensors’. Be sure to group plants with similar water needs.
4. Capture Every Drop
Keep every drop in your yard, make it your goal to not send any runoff to the street. Capture, re-use and filter your water. Create a water garden, install a water catchment or consider using your grey water to water landscape plants. Be sure to use bio-degradable soap and alternate the landscape plants you are watering. On average 14 000 gallons of water falls onto a rooftop during the rainy season – this stored water could be a source of water during a fire or for an earthquake. The water tanks alongside a house can help moderate the temperature of the home as well – keeping it cooler in the summer and warmer during the winter.
5. Plant Water Wise Plants
The Bay Friendly Coalition provides a list of recommended plants for the Bay Area. Most nurseries will be able to help you choose wisely. Another tip – purchase smaller sized container plants – 1 gallon instead of 5 gallons, 4″ pot instead of 1 gallon. The smaller sized plants will require less water to get established and be under less stress.
6. Skip the Fertilizing
Fertilizing encourages plants to grow – but this new growth needs water. Feed your plants with compost. The nutrients will become available as the compost breaks down naturally.
7. Compost, compost, compost!
Use compost instead of fertilizer. Fertilizer contains salt, which is harmful to soil bacteria and burns plant’s roots. When the soil bacteria is stressed, disease has a chance to settle in. Compost is natural and will decompose over time.
Mulch is a permanent cover over the soil and can be done in layers to conserve moisture in the soil. The mulch controls weeds and moderates the soil temperatures so the plants’ roots and the soil bacteria have a happier home.
Below is a diagram of what a mulch layer looks like. The larger particles in the top layers will decompose as a new layer is added each year, thereby becoming the layering underneath.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With Northern California experiencing the most rain we have had in 3 to 5 years (depending on who you ask), it seems a bit ironic that this post is about our new irrigation system that we installed this week.
We are VERY happy for the rain, even if it meant the island was closed today. With three years of drought, the winter rains we had been receiving was never adequate to fully saturate the dry soil, and while water catchment would be filled, there was a deficit of moisture in the ground each year.
All of the gardens are hand watered except for the pelargonium trough, the new lighthouse lawn and the toolshed terraces. The trough line was installed when the pelargoniums were planted in 2005, and we recognized the need to water the dry toolshed terraces last winter to keep the plants healthy and thriving.
This past summer, staff and volunteers spent the majority of working days hand watering the remaining gardens, and often, our efforts were still not quite enough. The plants got by on rationing our supply and when our tanks went dry we were lucky enough to still have access to the barged in fresh water.
We wanted to be proactive this year, and not only save ourselves time watering but use the water more efficiently by installing water emitters directly to the plants.
The rose terrace is supplied by one tap that is gravity fed from the holding tank at the summit of the island. The rose terrace itself is flat but there is enough pressure to meet our needs. Staff member, Karolina, designed the rose terrace to have 4 irrigation zones. Each zone, running by its self has enough water pressure to fully cover all of the plants in each zone.
For each zone, we have a 1” pipe that will connect to our garden hose. Using shut off valves, we can select which zone we will water. Connected to the large pipe are the ¼” spaghetti tubing connecting a bubble emitter at the base of each plant. We can even adjust for future plantings by adding a spaghetti tube or by plugging a hole and removing the tube.
A pretty simple system for the do it yourself home gardener that will undoubtedly save time.
California is entering what is typically a dry time of year, and with the severe drought, this year is especially tough. On Alcatraz, we have cut back on watering in the gardens and have altered our watering schedule to water less frequently but longer so the water can soak deeper into the soil.
The plants are coping with reduced water and it is interesting to see how different plants are responding. The survivor plants – the plants that were able to cling to life after the Federal prison shut down in 1963 – are demonstrating their true strength.
For example, the plantings of Pelargonium on the Rose Terrace are all heirloom cultivars but are either survivor plants from the island or are ones that we purchased and introduced. We even have three Pelargonium that were propagated from the Presidio pet cemetery where they receive no water or care.
The island survivors are coping well and are blooming away after a short dormant period. They include plants with the names of ‘Prince Bismarck’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Brilliant’, ‘San Antonio’, Pelargonium quercifolium, and ‘Alphonse Ricard’. In our gardens, some of these slow down with the blooming in July and do have rust spots on the leaves and tend to drop the lower leaves but by the end of August, they are rebounding and are back in full bloom.
A treasured find were the pelargoniums from
the Pet Cemetery. I’ve only been able to positively identify one with a name as being Pelargonium ‘Apricot’. This one has scented leaves that are very lobed and crinkly with rose/pink flowers with a white center. This is a non-stop bloomer from spring through to the beginning of winter for us. We have another two that are Martha Washington varieties in two different shades of pink.
Contrasted to our survivors, the purchased pelargonium have really slowed down with blooming and with overall growth. For most of them, they have finer leaves and are more delicate. We do give them more water than the survivors, but without the extra love, I’m sure they would not make it. Even though they may not be much to look at right now, they are still impressive for their ability to cope through the summer and once spring arrives they will be blooming fearlessly.
I confess, I’m always on the lookout for plants growing in the toughest and unlikely places. Just last night, while attending a Park Academy class at the Fort Scott Community Garden in the Presidio, I noticed some pelargonium with wooden stems spilling out of wine barrels. I caught site of another fuzzy leaved one growing alongside a potting shed. Another scented leaved one was spotted growing in the herb garden! Very exciting to find these tough guys that were obviously heirlooms. With permission, I took cuttings of each and hope to find names for them and see how they do with our Alcatraz collection.
On June 30, 2014 a milestone in the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz project was reached – the Garden Conservancy graduated its preservation project of the Alcatraz gardens to its ‘completed’ list and handed the rehabilitated gardens over to the Stewardship department of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit partner of the National Parks Service.
The rehabilitation of the historic gardens began in 2003 with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy enlisting the expertise of the Garden Conservancy to lead the effort to restore the gardens and to interpret the significance of the gardens to the public.
The project was ambitious – removing 40 years of overgrowth to restore 5 key garden areas, gather historic documentation and keep detailed records of work performed, develop a volunteer garden program to help care for the gardens, and to promote the gardens with free guided walks, free self-guided brochures, a website and social media. Not to mention the biggest hurdle – fundraising. A big order to say the least!
It was all accomplished.
The ultimate goal of taking on a project like the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz is to eventually hand the completed project over to caretakers who will take on the responsibility of caring for and funding the gardens.
Each of the 15 preservation projects the Garden Conservancy is currently working on is different from each other, and with that, each has its own unique management for achieving the goal of financial sustainability. The Ruth Bancroft Garden, the Garden Conservancy’s very first project is a model for success. The garden began as a private garden of a homeowner and has now become a public garden with its own staff, board of directors and revenue generating events.
With its graduation, the Gardens of Alcatraz joins the ranks as a successfully completed project. However, the Alcatraz gardens could not be more different from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. As a National Park, the Alcatraz gardens could never easily obtain permission to host revenue generating events, such as issuing garden memberships, plant sales or hosting garden tours. A different solution was needed.
Fundraising for the initial scope of the project (the restoration) was easy (or as easy as any fundraising effort is). The economy was good and the Garden Conservancy had supporters who were happy to help with a noble cause. The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy had a yearly budget for the project, and with smaller donations and grants, the project always had sufficient funds.
With the economy crashing in 2008, fundraising became more difficult and repeatedly asking the same donor base for assistance was unlikely. As well, finding support for just maintaining the gardens was more not as exciting as actually restoring them. (As they say in the park – its easy to fund a new restroom but hard to find funding to clean it).
The solution was easy but came with a lot of paperwork. The gardens should be funded by the people enjoying them – the visitors. A portion of the ticket sales is directly funding the gardens.
At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.
This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.
During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!
It was inevitable that the lawn failed.
The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.
Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:
- we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
- a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
- a grass that would tolerate being mowed
- a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
- a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold
Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!
Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms. Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.
Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!
After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).
Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).
Installing the irrigation drip lines took
about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.
We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.
We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,
as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).
So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.
Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.
Compost guru Dick Miner has been cultivating our island compost for five years. In his retirement, he found a way to apply his career skills working in a lab for AIDS research with his hobby of gardening. In doing so, Dick has developed a deep passion turning our island green ‘waste’ back into soil.
Proudly, Dick’s Alcatraz compost was awarded the blue ribbon in the Marin County Fair’s ‘Best Backyard Compost’ competition this past holiday weekend.
Dick began to work on this winning batch of compost back in February. Actually, he began to think about this year’s competition the day after he won first place last year. Dick wanted to add food scraps into this year’s batch to increase the organic matter content. We had been experimenting with collecting vegetable and fruit scraps from the island’s staff lunches, but, after collecting the scraps for several months, we found that we were not obtaining desirable contents in the bins. So, Dick enlisted fellow garden volunteers to bring their scraps from home.
The batch was cultivated with care – being turned once a week to aerate and watering weekly to maintain the moisture content to a moist, but not wet feel. Our soil thermometer registered temperatures from the center of the 4’x4’ pile between 120F and 150F. These temperatures were maintained for two months.
How did Dick know when the compost was done? Dick’s biggest pointer on knowing when you can use the compost is when you can’t tell what you had started with.
A natural teacher, Dick shared his love for his work with a microbiology class from San Francisco University High School this past May. The class is a survey class in microbiology that had been learning about bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The visit was an opportunity for the students to learn about microbiology as applied to decomposition. After a short lecture about the many organisms and processes involved in compost production, the class worked together to turn the compost piles. Turning the pile of compost, they could see first-hand the workings of a healthy compost pile that was teaming with microbes and earthworms—and even feel the heat from the decomposing vegetation. I’m sure the kids were appreciative that they were learning from a compost master.