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Prepping for a Meadow on Alcatraz

What a GORGEOUS day it was today! Here we are a couple of days into the new year, and it was clear and sunny. A perfect day for gardening on Alcatraz!

It was cold, though. Very cold (well, not by the standards of people outside of a Mediterranean climate, but cold nonetheless.) The overnight low at my house was 41°F, and it was still 41 when I left for The Rock at 8 in the morning. On the eastern side of Alcatraz, we were working in the leeward side of the island and sheltered from sunlight, and it stayed just about that temp I’m sure. Feet and legs chilled to the knees, since we’re all standing on a rock in the middle of the bay. Once we got over to the sunny western side, though, we were all stripping down layers and staying hydrated. I love how varied the microclimates can be here, even within a few hundred feet of each other.

On the east side of the island I started off my volunteer gardening shift with sprinkling some seeds. Well, actually, I started off by taking pictures. I am very prolific at that, after all. 🙂 (Plus, I recently upgraded my phone and now have the best phone camera in existence. It’s so freaking awesome and intense! Love it.) The historic water tower that is a major feature of the island’s skyline had been renovated last year, but just for show. It’s not holding water any more, but its condition had deteriorated to the point that rusty jagged frisbees of metal were whirring down into the crowds on windy days. The renovation was to strip the old lead paint, replace what needed to have replaced, and repaint it sans lead. This all happened behind a white sheath of plastic last year, and the big unveiling revealed they even repainted some historic graffiti that had been painted on it during the Indian Occupation period around 1970, when the island had been deserted and was commandeered by a group of Native Americans who reclaimed the island for a spell. Back to seeds. I was given a couple of packets of California poppy seeds to scatter about the area under the water tower, now that the work crew area has been deserted. These native flowers will spring up in Spring. A lovely surprise they will be for the unsuspecting.

(As usual, clicking a photo will open a gallery carousel that you can navigate with clicks or keyboard arrows.)

After scattering seeds (and taking more pictures) I joined the volunteer crew in the Rose Garden for some weeding. There’s a big exciting project going on at the other side of the island (more of that in a minute), and weeding the existing gardens is one of the usual things to be neglected. We all crawled around the roses and geraniums, digging out the Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup) and South African Ehrharta erecta grass – both invasive species that colonize any abandoned inch of ground. No chemicals used here, since the island is an important nesting ground for birds on the Pacific Flyway. Only physical removal of invasives is permitted.

It’s always a delight to garden with the group and catch up on chat and garden gossip. I spent a lot of my crawling time with an annual visitor, Dan, who comes all the way from Ithaca, NY every New Year for a concert and spends a day volunteering on Alcatraz. He works for his local chapter of The Garden Conservancy, who are the funders of the restoration in the Gardens of Alcatraz. It was fun to hear gardening stories from a climate other than my own! I also got to catch up with Marney, Monica, and Betsy, a trio of the Alcatraz regulars. All in all, a very good time.

Some of the crew were working on the massive composting operations, and had the chipper running continuously for three hours! There is a TON (probably literally) of biomass being produced on the west side of the island right now, and it all has to be chipped so it can be sent back over the island for a new purpose.

Which brings me to that exciting project I mentioned earlier. A meadow! The western side of the island has a large, flat weed patch that was once a manicured lawn. It is unceremoniously known as the “West Lawn”, and it’s becoming one of the refurbished garden areas of the island. The project got started out of interest by local grass expert John Greenlee, but is running as an independent project now. He’s known for (among other things) his book The American Meadow Garden, and is an expert on meadow establishment. One of the challenges of gardening on Alcatraz is historic interpretation. His style of meadow won’t float here, though, as gorgeous and ecological as it would be. Since this had historically been a lawn, the restoration efforts can’t go too far astray from that original purpose. No wildflowers, in other words. The island’s gardener, Shelagh, is working with a local purveyor of California native grasses to get a variety of four natives for a lawn replacement. Assuming the Western Gulls don’t pull everything up to use as nesting material, the variety of grasses will take advantage of the varying temperatures and moisture levels throughout the seasons to provide a continuous bed of grass. Not a manicured lawn, per se, but visually much better than the overgrowth of weeds that is currently hacked back once a year by volunteers.

To prepare for this upcoming native grasses meadow, there is a lot of prep work. The area has to be cleared of weeds and invasive grass. Also, lots of ivy and mimosa trees (Albizia) have taken over. This all has to be cleared and chipped. Once chipped, it’s being reused for a sheet mulch project. Sheet mulching is where you cover the ground with sheets of cardboard. This is supposed to block sunlight from reaching the seeds of the former weeds, hopefully killing them and certainly at least slowing the invasion process. The cardboard is covered by the mulched biomass. Over a rainy season, the cardboard will decompose, and mixed with the mulch it will provide a rich top layer of new “soil” to help the new meadow to establish. From clearing to sheet mulching to planting, establishing the lawn replacement will be over a year in the works!

On one of my earlier gardening days out there, I had a project of pulling the invasive grass out of a slope and planting some geraniums. Sadly, the invasive grass took over that area again. 😦 It’s always a challenge, because that part of the island can only be gardened for a few months, after the nesting season is over. Once Spring arrives, we have to step back and just watch what happens during the birds’ reign. Come October, they’ve all hatched and fledged and flown away, and we come back in to garden once again. The poor little geraniums didn’t stand a chance over the dry season this year. Oh, well. Try, try again. That’s what the projects out there are all about. I also revisited a site where I’d pulled out some Acanthus. Nice to see how things have progressed after my efforts!

After cleaning up, I took some time to wander the island and (yes) take more pictures. I love wearing my Alcatraz Gardens hoodie out there. It’s literally the magic ticket to being able to wander wherever you want on the island (unless it’s nesting season, of course). Tourists don’t have access to the whole island, but staff and volunteers have the ability to visit closed areas. I was able to explore some areas where even I hadn’t been before. I love that! In one area I walked past a cliff stabilization project that I had read about on the Gardens of Alcatraz blog, so it was cool to see it in person. Here’s that individual post. Shelagh also recently posted about the sheet mulching project herself. Check it out!

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4 responses to “Prepping for a Meadow on Alcatraz

  1. Very interesting. what a marvellous project!

  2. An orange invisibuility cape, err hoody…enchants the enchanted.

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