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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
‘How do you decide what to plant?’ is a common question that I get asked by visitors to the island. With choosing the right plant for the right place in a cultural landscape there are a few more considerations than your average backyard.
We aim to give ‘the look and the feel’ of what the gardens would have looked like during the days of the military era (1853-1933) and during the maximum security federal prison era (1934-1963). Detective work by Carola Ashford in the early days of the project built up a collection of historic photographs that we rely heavily upon. Using these photos, along with oral history interviews and historic letters, we were able to create gardens that echo the color schemes, textures and purpose of the original gardens.
Amazingly, historic photographs that we have never seen
before are still coming to light. Kathe Poteet had her early childhood years on the island in the 1950s while her father worked as the business administrator.
Kathe recently passed along a collection of photographs her parents had taken of their home on the Rock.
The photos reveal the Parade Ground, an area that has not been restored yet, to have once been a well-tended neighborhood with roses and hydrangeas at the foundations of the homes surrounded by manicured lawns. Many of the photos show Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum, spilling over the seawall and the grove of Eucalyptus by the dock is still young.
Kathe is planning on attending the Alcatraz Alumni Weekend in August when past residents visit the island to share their experiences with visitors. It is through this once-a-year occasion that we have been able to compile an extensive collection of landscape photos.
I hope to meet with Kathe to find out more about the people in the photos and about her father, who obviously had a green thumb.
Looking at the photos, the pride the residents took in tending their gardens is clear; it is easy to imagine calling Alcatraz home.
Spanish discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1769. The English surveyed the Bay in 1826. Early maps of Alcatraz can be viewed on the National Park Service website.
Cartography has come a long way since the Spanish and English mapped Alcatraz in the mid 1700s. This week, Robert Warden, the Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation (CHC) and Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M University has been on the island with his associates Dr. Julie Rogers, Associate Director for the CHC and Lonnie Champagne along with Director Dr. Tanya Komas and her students from the Concrete Industry Management Program at Chico State University, to demonstrate the uses of laser scanning.
Laser scanning or Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a method of producing millions of points in 3D space that represent the size and shape of objects as large as landscapes and as small as nails. The product is called a point cloud, which can look like a 3D photograph if there are enough points. It produces points by bouncing a laser beam off of objects – like buildings – and calculating the angle and distance of the object from the scanner. It works very much like a typical survey total station in concept with the exception that scanners can calculate tens to hundreds of thousands of point locations per second rather than the single point from a total station. Multiple scans are carefully pieced together to form a complete 3D point cloud of the object. Scanners, like cameras have differing technical specifications that make them useful for different purposes. The challenge of recording historic buildings and sites like Alcatraz is the necessity for accuracy at large and small scales. Typical accuracy for the Riegl 390 used for this session is 6mm.
As I was speaking with Robert, his students were scanning the Warden’s House and within 30 minutes, an image was produced that could show me the individual bricks in the fireplace, looking down into the building.
Laser Scanning has been in use since the 1970s but only in the last fifteen years has the development of laser digital technology allowed it to be adapted for preservation and engineering purposes.
On Alcatraz, this technology will be useful for documenting the historic site accurately. Mapping the gardens in the early days of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project was difficult with the overgrowth entanglements that obscured the fine details in the landscape.
With laser scanning, details such as gradient changes, precise distances and documenting the current state of the historic features can be done. Laser scanning is quick and accurate. In additional to documenting the landscape, the information gathered from laser scanning can produce accurate interpretive models and be useful for maintenance of the aging structures.
It will be exciting to see where this new technology will lead us.
Summer is slowly showing itself on the island and the change of seasons can be seen in the blooming gardens.
A section of the main road, as visitors walk from the dock to the cell house is affectionately called the ‘fern wall’, even though in summer there is no evidence of ferns anywhere. The granite blocks that form this retaining wall was built in the early military days and was softened by moss and ferns that came to the island likely as spores in the imported soil.
As the winter rains cease, the native fern, Polypodium californicum turns a golden brown and then go dormant. The fern wall undergoes a dramatic change from lush green to vivid pinks as the Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, bursts into the season. At the base of the wall is a collection of Pelargonium that are survivors from the prison days – ‘Brilliant’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and P. quercifolium that add to the hue of pinks.
To be accurate with historic photos of this wall, last year, we planted plugs of Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum in the cracks of the granite blocks that will eventually cascade down the wall. With living walls being the current trend in gardening, this wall on Alcatraz was way ahead of its time.
When the fog rolls in, the intent of the original gardeners to create cheerfulness on a barren island must have been no easy undertaking. I also cannot help but wonder if the inmate gardeners marked the passage of time with the changing blossoms.
On the west side of the island, tucked under the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is the historic tool shed, originally built by inmates in the 1950s. The tool shed has a million dollar view towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Without a doubt, this view was a constant reminder of a world beyond the reach of the inmates that worked in these gardens.
The tool shed, like the gardens, was abandoned in 1963, and could not escape the weathering effects of Pacific storms and the relentless summer winds and salt air. The tool shed was repaired by the National Park Service in the late 1970s and again by garden volunteers in the spring of 2010 with help from the National Park Service maintenance team. The tool shed was in a bad state of repair with the roof falling in and most of the wood structure rotting away. The cement block base walls were still in fair condition and only needed minor patches. Just like the inmates had used scrap lumber on the island in the original construction, we scouted re-use stores to find a door, suitable windows, and flashing for the roof. This past month, garden volunteers applied primer and a fresh coat of ‘Presidio White’ paint to finish up the restoration.
Has anyone been curious why the hillsides of Alcatraz are turning pink?
Pink iceplant, Drosanthemum floribundum or Persian carpet, has been very prominent this past week from Crissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and on a clear morning, even from Doyle Drive coming into the city.
The planting of the tiny succulent was part of a beautification effort undertaken by the military in 1924 after being pressured by the vocal citizens of San Francisco to landscape the barren the island. Inmates took part in the planting and soon, carpets of pink cascaded down the steep hillsides, not only stabilizing the soil but providing a cheerful look desired by San Francisco. It is somewhat ironic that a gentle soft pink was chosen to mask the harsh prison.
With 40 years of neglect, the iceplant on the cellhouse slope suffered and was soon choked out with oxalis, wild radish and grasses. In 2007, this historic garden area was restored.
The slope was stabilized with jute netting and cuttings of Drosanthemum from elsewhere on the island were established on the slope. Coaxing the drosanthemum to take root and to keep the slope free of oxalis has been no easy task. Staff and volunteers have invested countless hours into weeding over the past four years, but seeing our efforts from across the water, well over a mile, is quite awarding.
Bearded iris has been a long-time garden favorite that even found their way onto the most notorious prison island. There are five cultivars of bearded iris that are survivors from the prison days, blooming every May without fail. One survivor, Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ blooms twice a year, early spring and again in the fall. The other four cultivars are still unidentified, and we are working at finding out more about them.
My favorite iris is in bloom right now in Officers’ Row. This clump of iris was entirely covered by ivy and blackberries until 2003, when they were cleared and began to flower again. The 3’ flower stalks are heavy with lavender blooms that catch visitors by surprise with their bubble gum fragrance. Another survivor iris smells like root beer, clearly not your average modern iris.
The only thing better than five cultivars of bearded iris is more bearded iris! The Garden Conservancy’s first preservation project, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek is a garden haven for heirloom bearded iris. Ruth Bancroft’s collection matches the time frame of the penitentiary gardens, and so Alcatraz has received divisions of her iris for the past four years. We now have just over 30 cultivars of heirloom iris in a wide range of vibrant colors and rich scents. The iris are not troubled by the dry summers, winter rains or the salt breezes and fog. Occasionally, there will be aphids on the leaves but these are easily washed away.
The iris will be in bloom for only another two weeks, so now is the time to walk your nose around the island finding these heirloom garden beauties.
The historic gardens played a vital role for the residents that called Alcatraz home. The plants softened the barren rock and created purpose for the inmates that tended the gardens. Today, the gardens continue to play a role in creating homes on the island.
The overgrown vegetation created habitat for bird life. Snowy egrets have moved into the escaped fig tree, Ficus carica, and albizia trees on the west side of the island. These once endangered birds arrived two weeks ago to begin their nesting rituals. Perched in the overgrowth, the birds are first heard and then seen. Unsuspecting visitors stop in their tracks and puzzle over the sounds.
Working so close to these amazing birds is a great privilege, and the volunteers do their best to mimic them. Click on the videos below to hear the egrets, and the volunteers with their entertaining sounds.
Alcatraz has an amazing collection of plants that can be categorized many different ways – natives, drought tolerant, historic – but with popular interest focused on landscaping with edibles, Alcatraz can check this box as well.
Today, looking around the island, there is an assortment of edibles. There are the obvious miner’s lettuce, chickweed and oxalis and but there are also a few surprises.
The inmate gardens on the west side of the island have the surviving fruit trees. Originally planted in the 1940s, the apple, fig and walnut trees continue to thrive. The apple tree reliably produces a slightly sweet and very dense fruit while the fig tree is always loaded with an abundance of figs that never quite ripen in the cooler ocean breeze. For many visitors, this is their first time seeing a fig tree.
The west side inmate gardens also hold the original artichoke plants, Cynara cardunculus. The perennial thistles are forming their seed heads right now which contain the tasty artichoke hearts. The silvery artichoke leaves blend with the silver blue of Echium candicans, Pride of Madeira, on the toolshed terraces. Once in bloom, the artichoke has a typical thistle flower – iridescent purple and pink.
Tropaeolum majus, nasturtium, was introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society. This cheerful rambling vine continues to seed itself around the island. The leaves and flowers are edible and have a peppery taste – perfect for a salad or to decorate a cake. The seeds can be pickled and taste like capers.
The military era also introduced Agave americana, century plant, to the island. The spikes on the leaf tips were likely ideal for keeping inmates in but the popular agave syrup is also made from this plant.
We have few records of past gardeners raising vegetables for their own use; with dreary summer fog the residents chose to mainly grow bright colored cutting gardens to brighten the landscape. There are a handful of photos and references to Victory Gardens tended by children on the parade ground and of tomatoes growing in Officers’ Row. As a token to past gardeners, there are two tomato plants in the greenhouse, providing a lucky volunteer a little snack while they work.
In 2006, the Gardens of Alcatraz, on behalf of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, was granted a Save America’s Treasures award to support the rehabilitation work. Spread over three years, these funds provided the means to rebuild pathways, railings, and retaining walls; amend soil and purchase plants; and to return the gardens to their historic appearance that are now enjoyed by the 1.5 million visitors each year.
This past Tuesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of showing the gardens to the National Park Service grant officer who administered the Save America’s Treasures award throughout the three years of its term. The role of the representative was to ensure the funds were being allocated properly and work was progressing as planned. Based in Washington, D.C., Ms. Carter received quarterly updates from 2006 to 2009, but had never actually seen the gardens in person.
The Save America’s Treasures grant aims to do just that – Save America’s Treasures. Across the country there are many nationally significant sites that need to be preserved for their historical and cultural importance. The Save America’s Treasures is a wonderful grant program that provides a means to ensure these sites are saved. A common misbelief with national parks is that funding for these sites is guaranteed.
One of the requirements of the grant is for the applying organization to raise a matching grant. The Gardens of Alcatraz was awarded $250 000 and The Garden Conservancy, with its partner organization, was required to raise a matching $250 000.
The Gardens of Alcatraz is a great example of success. Without the award, we would not be where we are today. Visitors would not be strolling through cutting gardens reminiscent of the 1940s and 50s; they would not be aware that the gardens provided a home for the families that lived here, or the fact that inmates tended the gardens lovingly and created beauty in a place that focused on punishment and isolation.
Water is a precious resource around the world and especially in California where we receive our year’s supply between November and April. This past week was especially rainy and residents of the Bay Area are probably ready for a few sunny days.
This year year to date, downtown San Francisco has received 18.11 inches of rain, just above our normal for the entire year! With another month of winter rains to come, our reservoirs will be full to capacity for the dry summer months.
The rainwater catchment system on Alcatraz is nearing capacity with its current levels at 80% full. This is the second year the catchment has been in use and supplies enough water to meet the irrigation needs of the gardens for one year. Even though we choose drought tolerant plants, everything appreciates a drink to perk themselves up.
I ventured out to the west side of the island during one of the downpours this past week to see the system at work: water catchment. Seeing the rain water flowing easily from the downspout into our basins was very satisfying, knowing that each drop will be used by the thirsty plants to get through the summer months.
Even though the rain can be cold and unpleasant, the dramatic skies provide countless photo opportunities – so grab your camera and get outside.