National Park Shutdowns – how the Gardens were Affected.

The government shutdown that closed all National Parks, and disrupted many other services lasted from October 1 through October 17.  Not only was the closure interruptive to lives and normal routines, but the gardens of Alcatraz were also affected. During the shutdown, non-government employees were allowed on the island only a few days during the 16 day closure. Being Garden Conservancy staff, the two gardeners were in a race to water and care for the 4.5 acres of gardens before the only return boat at 4pm.

On the whole, the gardens fared well, but we still had a few casualties. New plantings were shriveling; leaves from the eucalyptus were piling up on roadways, and the original wooden

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The original wooden doors fell in our absence. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

doors of the garden ‘closet’ in the basement of the 1940s garden decided to fall down in our absence. With only two weeks of neglect, it is easy to imagine how the neglect of 40+ years after the prison closed in 1963 was nearly the end of these wonderful gardens.

Our drought tolerant gardens were designed to cope with the limited fresh water on the island, not the absence of gardeners to tend them. However, the plants were chosen well and most perked up again after being watered. The gardens on the west side were needed the most attention. During the shutdown, the beautiful weather dried out the soil and the plants were

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Wilting Rudbeckia that were newly planted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

getting very crispy. The hebe shrub began to wilt and the asters were completed desiccated. The hebe has recovered while the asters were cut back to the ground to come back next year.

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Damage to the asters that should have been in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The human reaction to not being allowed in the gardens was more surprising. For the first week, having the island just to staff was actually nice (sorry to say). Cell house staff who never venture outside to the gardens were assigned to sweeping roadways and finally saw the gardens that are off the beaten path to the cell house audio tour. After a day or two of this, the visitors were missed, and for the garden staff, not having visitors to share the gardens with was tough.

Garden volunteers, many of whom are retired, suddenly found themselves without anywhere to go. Gardening on Alcatraz is largely a social outing for many people – the team of volunteers are a close knit bunch, who look forward to not only the gardening but to catch up with each other. In total we lost five volunteer days and two scheduled work groups.

Sadly for the many thousands of would-be visitors, they missed out altogether on an Alcatraz experience. The island receives roughly 5000 visitors a day, many of whom are from other parts of the world. A trip to San Francisco isn’t complete unless they see Alcatraz and the other Golden Gate National Recreational Area sites that make the Bay Area so wonderful to visit.

Unfortunately, the appreciation reception for the florilegium exhibit was to be held for 100 guests the evening of October 1. Needless to say, this fundraiser for the gardens had to be cancelled. This was particularly disappointing after so much work had gone into planning both the exhibit and the reception. As well, a visiting group of conference attendees that had been organized by the National Tropical Botanical Garden to visit the gardens on October 5 had to be cancelled.

As the shutdown continued, access to the island for staff slowed down and then halted.  As we finished this work week, we are all caught up with sweeping, tidying and watering the gardens. All the volunteers and staff were in a joyous spirit!

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