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Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz
It is true, locals from the Bay Area are hard to find on the Rock. Usually deterred by the crowds of the summer, some people living in San Francisco have never taken the opportunity to discover what is in their own backyard. Local travel writer, Judy Zimmerman from Sacramento, finally made the trek, a short 10 minute ferry ride from Pier 33 that happens to take in the city skyline and waterfront and views of both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and found out why Alcatraz continues to be popular with visitors from around the world.
Check out her blog that captures her visit so well. I often get asked by visitors if I ever encounter ghosts on the island, and while I have not (yet), upon reading Judy’s blog I realize that in the gardens I am truly surrounded by past gardeners: “and the ghosts of Alcatraz amazingly emerged from the tangle of vines: neatly laid out beds and paths, heirloom roses, bulbs and ornamentals.”
Garden volunteers joined other Alcatraz staff and volunteers to visit San Quentin prison. The day was certainly eye-opening, as we were able to freely speak with low-risk inmates who are determined to change their lives. Our conversation with them in a sun-filled plaza was in sharp contrast to our walk through a cell block not unlike those at Alcatraz. Experiencing the sights, smells, and sounds of a five-tiered cell block housing over 1000 inmates was an altogether different experience, beyond words. For garden staff and volunteers, Alcatraz is a wonderful place where we all choose to go and work in the gardens. It is easy to forget the true reason behind the gardens: that for Alcatraz inmates, the gardens were an escape from daily prison life.
Alcatraz Island and San Quentin have a few commonalities – both prisons are located fairly close to each other on prime San Francisco Bay land, both have long histories as being a prison (Alcatraz beginning in the early 1850s as a military prison and San Quentin opened in 1852 as California’s oldest prison), as well as both being a community for staff and their families.
But both prisons also share another surprising feature – gardening!
The military on Alcatraz recognized the importance of providing vocational training to inmates to enable them to learn a skill and inmates were allowed to landscape much of the island. As the maximum security Federal Bureau of Prison took over the island from 1933 to 1963, the inmates continued gardening allowing a few to find meaningful employment upon release.
San Quentin has a remarkable rehabilitative gardening program, the Insight Garden Program that helps men reconnect to themselves, their communities and the natural world through the process of organic gardening. Led by Beth Waitkus, the community-based program teaches organic gardening skills and eco-awareness as well as the “inner gardener” aspect of healing — interpersonal skills development that encourages men to grow so they can contribute to their communities when they leave prison.
Since it’s inception in 2002, the IGP has served more than 800 men. In 2003, participants built an organic flower garden on San Quentin’s medium-security prison yard that serves more than 1,000 prisoners. This oasis — in an otherwise bleak area — is the only non-segregated area of the yard, transcending the traditional segregation of prisons. The men enroll in the program because of their desire to change, an interest in gardening, and with the hope of creating a better life for themselves.
Scientific studies have shown that the process of gardening can benefit people and communities in a multitude of ways. According to research on people-plant relationships and horticultural therapy, “the act of caring for plants includes the qualities of responsibility, empathy and discipline that also transfer to the interpersonal realm.” By growing plants, people “grow.”
With 70% of inmates returning to prison within three years of release, rehabilitation through gardening is a solution worthy of continued exploration. Programs like the Insight Garden Program save an estimated $50 000/year per inmate and also can help men prepare to become productive family and community members after release.
The Insight Garden Program has set ambitious goals for the upcoming years — it has already begun to expand its classes which include topics such as nutrition, growing organic food and other sustainable practices. Ultimately, the IGP aims to start a re-entry program for the men to find employment in gardening, landscaping and “green” jobs when they leave prison.
I had the opportunity to host Patrick Albin through the gardens on a sunny day in February. Patrick captured the gardens and the volunteers enjoying their day.
Patrick is the founder of the garden blog, The Garden Geek. This blog is a plant database based on people contributing their own photos, tips and tricks. Follow the link here to read about his trip to Alcatraz and to see his fantastic photos.
An hour after our garden walk finished, I found him lingering in the gardens speaking with a docent before making his escape from the island. I am not even sure if he did the audio tour.
Gardening and composting go hand in hand. Aside from the obvious benefits of returning organic matter back into the soil, recycling the garden vegetation on the island is especially important as once materials come to the island, they very rarely leave.
With the gardens, our composting system has evolved as well. When the project began in 2003, there was no designated place to compost the 40 years of overgrowth. The removed vegetation was hauled to the Parade Ground and added to the ruins of the former apartment buildings that were already being taken over by vegetation. With the parade ground closing each bird nesting season from February to September, each winter there was a race to clear and deposit the vegetation, then during the summer months work would continue and a massive pile would soon accumulate, only to be hauled away at first chance in September.
In 2007, restoration of the rose terrace began. Situated half way up the east side of the island, this garden area was historically the center of gardening operations with a large greenhouse. Logically, our rehabilitation plans recommended this area to once again be used as a center of operations, including the site of our compost.
With use of a chipper, woody vegetation (ivy, blackberries, roses and other shrub clippings) are shredded. These materials provide the ‘browns’ that are high in carbon. Our ‘greens’ come from spent flower heads, weeds that have not gone to seed, and ivy leaves that provide nitrogen. Chasmanthe floribunda also provides an excellent supply of greens but these plants require the extra work of hand clipping into smaller pieces for a quicker breakdown.
One volunteer in particular, Dick Miner, is our chief composter. Using three 4’x4’x4′ compost bins constructed with the help of Job Corps of Treasure Island, Dick produces award winning compost.
Each batch takes roughly one month to mature. The bins are located in shade and we rely on high temperatures to break down the organic matter. Dick regularly brings hops from Anchor Steam Brewery and horse manure from Marin farms. With the addition of chicken manure and topsoil the temperature easily reaches between 140 – 160 F. The highest temperature achieved has been a steamy 170 F.
After the temperature cools, red wriggler worms do their magic and work their way up from the bottom of the bins. Ideally, the worms are left for another month to add to the organic matter.
Once the batch is ‘done’, volunteer groups, especially kids, have a chance to get their hands dirty by sifting out the larger fibrous pieces that have not broken down, sorting out the worms and putting them back in the bin. For kids that have never held a worm before, it is amazing to see squeamish kids going home to ask for pet worms for their kitchen scraps.
Dick has also successfully experimented with composting oxalis! Volunteer gardeners separate oxalis from other weeds and deposit the corms and green tops in a designated pile. A season’s worth of oxalis is constantly turned and manure is incorporated. With consistently high temperatures, the corms are exhausted. The oxalis compost is tested for weed seeds by placing flats of the compost in the greenhouse, labeled, watered and monitored for any growth. We have never had any oxalis return.
The weed seeds that do return are commonly wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, and American nightshade, Solanum americanum.
The docent tour does take a stroll by the compost bins and Dick is usually there to let you feel the rich soil. Otherwise, be sure to look over the rose terrace railing to see the compost, you can only detect it with your nose when the bins are turned.
Alcatraz Island was a place for life to struggle, where only the most determined could survive. The plant life on the island is no exception. Heirloom plants introduced to the island decades ago either thrived with neglect when the prison closed in 1963 or soon perished under the overgrowth.
Of the 200 species and varieties of ornamental plants that were documented in the early years of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, one plant that has special significance is blooming right now – the Rose ‘Bardou Job’.
In 1989, a group of rosarians from the Heritage Rose Group came to Alcatraz to take cuttings of roses, and propagate them with the aim of identifying them and saving heirloom roses. The deep red climbing hybrid tea rose soon came to be known as the ‘Alcatraz Rose’. This rose, while having its roots on Alcatraz, has Welsh heritage. More importantly, this rose could no longer be found in Wales, but yet one rose bush was thriving on Alcatraz behind the Warden’s House. In 2000, six plants were returned to the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s near Cardiff for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 campaign.
Cuttings of ‘Bardou Job’ were grown up and two plants returned to Alcatraz to be planted on the Rose Terrace, located below the water tower in 2007. Visitors are able to see this unique rose on the free docent led garden tour, every Friday and Sunday morning. Visitors will also be able to see other heirloom roses, ones that survived on the island and others that were introduced with the restoration project. Roses were chosen by the time period when they could have been grown on the island. In other words, all the roses on the island would have been introduced to the plant trade before 1963. For Bay Area gardeners, the roses on Alcatraz are a selection of plants that have minimal powdery mildew, black spot, cope with marine conditions and are reliable bloomers.
For rose enthusiasts, spring into summer is the ideal time to plan a visit.
The rose terrace greenhouse turns one-year old this February. The cedar wood, greenhouse was built with volunteers last winter.
The greenhouse is dedicated to Carola Ashford, the first project manager for the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, who past away February 24, 2009.
Carola began with the Garden Conservancy as the Marco Polo Fellow in 2004, later to become the project manager. Her meticulous research for historic photos, letters and interviews with past residents are visible in the gardens she designed. From the beginning, she had the vision to see a garden through all the overgrowth. As a lifelong gardener, she had the zeal and passion to tackle the ivy, blackberries and honeysuckle with her own hands, even on a few occasions being told to get down from a precarious ledge.
Inside the greenhouse a plaque displays an excerpt from her work journal. In her flowing handwriting, she writes of tackling the toolshed gardens – “I just love how evocative that garden is…wonderful array of terraces w/ Echium, succulents, acanthus and more Chasmanthe than is at all necessary.” February is exactly the time of the year when this garden is in its prime, all the plants she wrote of are bursting with flowers, even the Chasmanthe.
The Gardens of Alcatraz has served many purposes for the people that created and tended them over their long history. From the Victorian ladies who called Alcatraz home in the late 1800s to both the military and federal inmates, who found that gardening provided an escape and solace, to the volunteers and staff that brought the gardens back to life, each person continuing the tradition of gardening. Carola came to the gardens at a vital time, and the gardens are thriving today with her touch. To continue her legacy, you can make a contribution to the Carola Ashford Alcatraz Gardens Fund.
Volunteers took advantage of the sunny weather this morning to weed wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, on the southern facing slope in front of the cell house. This annual weed, a member of the mustard family – Brassicaceae – has naturalized in North America from its native Eurasia.
This overgrown section of the slope was stabilized in 2007 with waddles and jute netting but has since become overgrown with radish, Lavatera and oxalis. This is the first year that we are attempting to control the radish. Our intent is to reduce the number the weed seeds so that in future years, this slope will be planted with the Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum that was historically planted on this slope during the 1920s.
The radish is just beginning to establish itself for the summer by sending its long taproot deep into the soil to find moisture. Volunteers took on the challenge of pulling the entire root, otherwise the plant will continue to grow. Either it was the hard work or the scent of fresh radish but like other radishes, these roots are edible and soon the volunteers were nibbling at the roots. The flowers are also edible and are easily identifiable with four petals ranging in color of pale yellow, apricot, pink and white. When considering consuming any plant from the wild, it is vital to be confident that you have positively identified the plant.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the Gardens of Alcatraz is to see the changes over the years. While continuously caring for a garden, it is easy to not notice the subtle differences as it matures. Sometimes it takes comparing photographs taken over a span of time to be able to stand back and think ‘Wow’!
Working on historic preservation of landscapes requires diligent photographic documentation of existing conditions, work in progress, and the final result. Ideally, photos should be taken from the same vantage point. An added bonus is to have historic photos as well.
This year, the west side of the island along the roadway is doing particularly well with many succulents coming into bloom right now. Many of these succulents were propagated from elsewhere on the island and to see them flourish is very satisfying. Plants include Aeonium arboretum, Aloe arborescens, Carpobrotus edulis, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, and Lampranthus aurantiacus. In March 2009, rocky bare soil and a thicket of Rosa wichuraiana spilled onto the roadway in this same area. A sprinkling of California poppy seeds, Eschscholzia californica, added a bit of color to the slope.
In September 2009, a volunteer group cleared the ramble of roses and the hillside was revealed. Over the next few months, succulents obtained from the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which happens to be the very first garden preserved by the Garden Conservancy, were added to the sunny slope to complement the other succulents up the road. The Ruth Bancroft Garden succulents, available to gardeners during the 1930s to 1960s, were choice plants for our Alcatraz gardens.
The difference in the before and after photos of this garden area is vivid. Like many things in life, gardens keep getting better with age.
Volunteers around the Golden Gate National Parks joined in a Day of Service to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, January 17. Volunteers from the Gay and Lesbian Sierrans, along with other community members worked in the gardens trimming back Agave americana, clipping Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, and pulling weeds – oxalis, grasses and invasive blackberries – from the laundry terraces. While views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge eluded us in the morning, everyone worked tirelessly in the light fog. With the group effort, three heaping piles of weeds were pulled and hauled away in the trusty garden vehicle and will be composted.
One lucky volunteer, Sabrina, definitely picked the right place to weed when she found a marble amongst all the weeds. Similar to finding a needle in a haystack, you never know what artifacts will turn up next. Another volunteer working alongside Sabrina demonstrated her luck by finding chicken bones, most likely takeout from the many seagulls visiting Pier 39.
Thank you to all the volunteers that came out to participate in the projects around the Golden Gate. Many of the projects filled up quickly, again showing how dedicated people in the Bay Area are for giving back to their community.
There are many sea birds that call Alcatraz home. Western Gulls make up the majority of the birds with around 2000 nesting on the parade ground at the south end of the island. The parade ground will be closing to allow these birds to raise their young on February 1st to mid September.
During the penitentiary days, families of the guards also called the parade ground home. Many of the families lived in apartment buildings and tended gardens. The apartments were torn down by the government after the island was occupied by the Native Americans from 1969 to 1971 and the rubble was left.
From the remaining ruins, new life does spring. Like elsewhere on the island, the neglected gardens were overrun with aggressive ivy, honeysuckle and blackberries. The tough conditions on the parade ground allow for only the most determined plants to survive.
Taking a walk around the rubble piles, it is hard not to be impressed with how the Aeoniums have found niches for themselves. Spilling over concrete walls, these plants are thriving without soil, no summer water and very windy conditions.
The photo opportunities alone warrant a visit to the island before this intriguing part of the island closes until September.