Botanical wonders of Alcatraz

One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz
One of the endless plant oddities and delights growing wild on the island of Alcatraz

Hear the name “Alcatraz” and one most often thinks of criminals swimming across the San Francisco Bay to potential freedom after a horrid extended stay in one of the country’s most notorious prisons. While obviously the prison has long been closed and the island is now a national park and tourist destination, what many still don’t realize is that the island is positively brimming with plants and gardens.

When the prison was still functioning, both prisoners and workers alike tended to gardens around the island. Some of these gardens have been restored, while others have been allowed to become wild again. Yet, rather than try and restore the island back to what it had been pre-settler, the Park Service is allowing these plants to do what they want to do – creeping over crumbling walls, populating rugged hillsides, and in general fixing a toehold on an island of tough conditions and no source of fresh water. At this point, the plants are as much a part of the cultural history of the island as the buildings themselves and the waves of people and animals that have inhabited it.

To find out more about how you can go on a docent-led tour of the gardens and wild spaces of Alcatraz, click here.

On trees and what they say about us

Jared Farmer's book on the history of the trees that now signify "California" in the public imagination
Jared Farmer’s book on the history of the trees that now signify “California” in the public imagination

Trees say much about who we are as a culture – especially about what we want to be. In Northern California, redwoods are planted everywhere (including in places they dislike – such as in hot and dry roadsides). And they are planted to signify all the things that Northern California has long aspired so be – woodsy, a little rustic but still important, and decidedly not Southern California. Meanwhile in Southern California, the ubiquitous Mexican Fan Palm is almost synonymous with Los Angeles itself, spindly spires emanating tropical vibes above a low-slung landscape whose climate is, at its core, decidedly not tropical.

There has indeed always been an element of escape and fantasy to gardens and landscapes. They are idealized images of nature, and their makers oftentimes want their landscapes to offer us a respite from the modern world. It is little wonder then that all-native-plant gardens are a tough sell to many folks, as, well, they remind you of where you are, and perhaps you don’t always want to be where you are – a truism that has been seen throughout history in the trees we have chosen to populate our cities.

Case in point: California and the palm, the redwood, the eucalyptus, and citrus trees. These trees have come to signify “California” in the public imagination, and that is what Jared Farmer writes about in his book, Trees in Paradise. The prose is spritely and far from dry and the content is chock-full of tidbits of information you didn’t know. And once you’ve read it, you’ll never see California in the same way.

Where’s the give and take?

Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard
Four-foot-wide sidewalk with no trees along 50-foot-wide Claremont Boulevard

In our quest to add more and denser housing along commercial corridors in California’s cities, we are thoroughly short-changing both the residents of these new developments and those who walk down the sidewalks of these evolving commercial corridors. The sidewalks are staying impossibly narrow, while the roadways are staying too wide. In short, we are creating corridors of dense housing along dry creek beds of public space and along rivers of asphalt-lined roadway. Landscape in the broader sense of the term – the spaces in between buildings, the spaces that really make or break urban space – is simply not considered.

We wrote about this situation – the missing role of landscape in the housing discussion – for the Los Angeles Chapter of the APA a few months ago, and you can find that here.

There needs to be some give and take when we are asking people to give up four walls and space and a yard to move into a building of shared walls and no yard. The sidewalk and the spaces in between buildings need to be given just as much thought and care as the buildings and units themselves. But this, alas, we are simply not seeing.

Long-term learning from a landscape

What is so fascinating about this documentary on Southern California’s Descanso Gardens is that it really traces the evolution of our understanding as a culture of nature, ecology, and gardening. And this evolution can be seen through what the Gardens have prioritized and modified over the years – such as moving water-loving camelias (the early cornerstone of the Gardens) away from the live oaks (which hate summer water), and an increasing focus on water conservation and habitat landscaping. The documentary even weaves in the ugly history of Japanese internment, its connection to the Gardens, and how that story, once buried, is now told very openly.

Drought-tolerant vernacular

An everyday resident of Colton has planted their trees in drought-busting watering basins
An everyday resident of Colton has planted their trees in drought-busting watering basins

The watering basin is a planting technique in which the plant or tree is not planted at ground level but instead is sunken so that water is directed downwards rather than away from the plant. As a result, the plant’s roots grow deeply rather than superficially. As an added benefit, the basins both catch rainwater and make deep watering by hand much easier. The technique is a hallmark of the irrigation-free landscapes we do, and, lo and behold, is something that just an everyday resident of Colton, California, has been doing too (see photo above).

And yet, when I first shopped this planting idea around to landscape professionals and arborists when we were pitching the irrigation-free idea, I was told by many that this was bad practice. Once we had secured public funding for the pilot Irrigation-Free Landscape and I was in the thick of installing it, there was actually a professional landscape designer working on the landscape next door. While I was planting one of numerous grasses in the basin-style of planting, she came up, grabbed the plant by the crown, and said, “Why are you planting it this way? Don’t you know you are supposed to plant the crown just above soil level?” I said that I was, but above the soil level of the bottom of the basin. She was not convinced. In another conversation with an arborist, I was told that you could not plant trees in this basin style, because their roots would grow out and around and eventually girdle the trees.

In fact, within educational materials and at workshops put out and on by professionals working in the realms of sustainability and landscapes, the watering basin is simply never suggested. Rather, you are to plant your drought tolerant plants in the same way you’ve planted any other plant, and you are to still tether them to an irrigation system. In short, within the worlds of landscape architecture, design, and arborists – the professionals one would think would be at the forefront of real techniques for sustainability – there is at one end a limited take on designing for drought, and on the other, outright resistance to new techniques.

The truth is, landscape professionals and designers can be woefully unwilling to step down from their lofty seats of professionalism and advanced degrees to look at what everyday people are doing in their own landscapes when responding to drought – both in terms of planting technique and design. No, this is not to say that landscape professionals know nothing; rather, it is to say that we don’t have all the answers. No one does. And sometimes those answers lie within the work of non-professionals and what kinds of drought-tolerant vernacular landscapes they are making.

And so we come full circle to this resident in Colton, who clearly understood on an intuitive level that given low rainfall and high heat in a place like Colton, planting the trees in basins makes perfect sense, and the resident’s work has resulted in plants that are surviving and thriving.

-John Kamp