Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz

Aloe arborescens, the tree aloe

As the seabird nesting season is about to get underway, beginning February 1st, there are a few landscape areas that we do one final weeding and tending to the plants, as the gardeners won’t be allowed back in these areas until September.


One area the volunteers weeded last week was a section of survivor plants on the west side of the island. The survivor plants include Agave americana, Pelargonium ‘Alphonse Ricard’, Chasmanthe floribunda, and Aloe arborescens. All of these plants are quite happy on their own but a little weeding never hurts!


The volunteers weeding the slope of oxalis and mallow. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The volunteers weeding the slope of oxalis and mallow. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The aloe, commonly referred to tree aloe, candelabra plant or Krantz aloe, is a plant that we have been giving some extra attention the past few years. The bush aloe was once a full stand, approximately 20 feet across. But, the weight of all its beauty caused the aloe to collapse in 2006. We had repotted some of the smaller plants and grew them in the greenhouse, transplanting them back when they filled a one-gallon pot.


Aloe arborescens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aloe arborescens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

While we cleared away oxalis and weedy mallow, the original aloe ‘trunk’ could be seen. The trunk had fallen over and was sprouting new plants, just like a nurse log in a forest. A nurse log is very common in woodlands, where an older tree has fallen and as it begins to decompose, seedlings take root.


The nurse log in 2011. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The nurse log in 2011. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The nurse log in 2013. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The nurse log in 2013. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With the aloe listed in Pam Peirce’s ‘Wildly Successful Plants’, this must be a tough plant, especially to survive on Alcatraz. Native to the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, the aloe was used as plantings on top of earth embankments, creating corrals for livestock. The plant travelled to Europe in the early 1700s with explorers and later arrived in California with the early Spanish settlers. How the plant arrived on Alcatraz is a mystery, but it certainly is a good plant choice. The aloe is thriving in poor, well-drained soil, receives full sun and tolerates the cool coastal summers. The plant also happens to be deer resistant (not that we have that problem), but we do protect it against seagulls!


A few of the propagated plants were established along the road that takes visitors through the Prisoner Gardens. We also have a yellow blooming aloe, donated from the Ruth Bancroft Garden that is blooming right now. All of the aloes are great for attracting and feeding hummingbirds.

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Making Volunteering a Tradition

There are a number of garden volunteers that have been involved pretty much since the garden restoration project began. Many of these volunteers come to the island twice a week to help out, and have adopted gardens to tend. There is another set of volunteers, also involved pretty much right from the beginning, but only make the trip once or twice a year to the island. It’s not because they don’t love the work, but because they live across the country.

Over the holidays, people return to the Bay Area to visit friends or family and have also made volunteering on Alcatraz their own tradition.

Garden volunteer, Dan Klein is one of them. For the past 8 years, Dan looks forward to coming to the island, checking in with anticipation a month ahead to make sure the volunteer days have not changed. From Ithaca, New York, Dan first heard about the Gardens of Alcatraz through volunteering with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days programs, a national program that enables visitors into privately owned gardens.

Dan remembers his first volunteer trip in 2005 – it was the day when the 300’ trough planter was being planted. This planting project was literally the first planting on the island in over 40 years. Dan recalls “feeling very lucky” to have been there that day. His timing for the second trip was pretty lucky too – he picked the second anniversary of the project when all the volunteers were taken on a behind the scenes tour into the dungeon!

Coming from the East Coast during the middle of winter, California is a gardener’s getaway. The succulent slope on the west side is his favorite, as he can’t grow most of the plants in Ithaca. There are also plenty of other plants in flower now whereas at home everything is covered with snow. Soaking up the sunshine as we hacked away at the overgrowth on the west lawn (our project for this winter) Dan described the gardens as “not just background landscape, it’s a stop and look at me” type of landscape.


The 'stop and look at me' landscape in the Prisoner Gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The ‘stop and look at my’ landscape in the Prisoner Gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We are pretty lucky to have Dan working with us too. Not only is he a volunteer willing to travel but he comes with a background in horticulture. Dan manages the Beautification Program for Ithaca and also works with volunteers himself. To some, to go on vacation only to work (especially at your own trade) may seem a little bizarre. Aside from Alcatraz being super cool and something he brags to his friends about, Dan has some other reasons for volunteering.

Dan tackles the overgrowth on his annual visit to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dan tackles the overgrowth on his annual visit to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

As part of his own job, he works with and coordinates volunteers; so by being a part of our project he sees what it is like to be a volunteer himself. Dan is impressed with the Alcatraz volunteers, and catches up with the ones he has made friends with. Dick Miner, our own Worm Man of Alcatraz, stands out. Every single time Dan has stopped in, Dick has been there. Dick is a role model volunteer who has immersed himself in the project.

We hope Dan times his next trip with our big 10 year anniversary coming up this October!

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The Numbers Have been Tallied

The volunteer hours from 2012 have been and the results are very impressive!


Over the course of the year, from the drop-in volunteer days we had an 118 volunteers show up to garden, and these gardeners contributed 5357.75 hours. The total from the group work days came to 1172 hours, the result of 530 people from  42 different work parties.


Together, the final year total is 6529.75! This brings our year to date total to 43065 hours. Certainly, an amazing achievement  that we are very proud of. As we begin our 10th year of gardening on the Rock, we will easily surpass the 50000 mark in volunteer hours by the end of the year.


Thank you to all the volunteers for another productive year in the gardens!


 Alpha Pi Omega

Alpha Pi Omega

Alpha Pi Omega


 Americorps Alumni

 Atlas Obscura Society 

 Bay Area Whaleboater Rowing Association

 Black Rock


 Castlight Health, Inc

 Cresswell High School

 Cub Scout Den 11

 Environmental Protection Agency


Thank you FedEx!

Thank you FedEx!


 Goldman Sachs


 High Five Marketing

 Hillsborough Garden Club

 InterContinental Hotels of San Francisco

 KP Internet Services

 Lick Wilmerding High School

Thank you BuildOn!

Thank you BuildOn!


 LivePerson, Inc.

 Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

 Method Products

 National Park Service John Muir House volunteers

 Nixon Peabody


Thank you PG&E!

Thank you PG&E!



 Stuart Hall Boy’s  School

 US. Marines

 Ygnacio Valley Teen Garden Corps

 Youth Conservation Corps




Thank you REI!

Thank you REI!

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Clearing 40+ Years of Overgrowth

It’s a fun time to be a volunteer in the gardens with working on the big projects for this winter. Many of the volunteers got hooked on gardening on the Rock because of the initial uncovering and ‘discovering’ of the forgotten gardens. For people that loves getting dirty and feeling like you are making a difference – this is the time to get involved!


The lawn, which is being prepared to be planted in the Fall of 2013 with native grasses, has become neglected and the ‘green’ of the lawn is all from non-native grasses and oxalis. But even this green vegetation died during the dry summer, leaving a barren looking backdrop to the manicured gardens.


To prepare the area, the first layer of mulch layering has been laid down, and to my dismay, birds have pecked their way through the compost and the cardboard to reach the soil, allowing light to the oxalis that we are trying to suffocate.  Those darn birds! I’m hoping to place another layer of cardboard and mulch in the coming week.


Beginning to lay down cardboard to smother the oxalis and weed seeds. A layer of mulch is then placed on top of the cardboard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Beginning to lay down cardboard to smother the oxalis and weed seeds. A layer of mulch is then placed on top of the cardboard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The finished cardboard and mulch layer. Photo by Sarah Mendel.











In the meantime, the volunteer crew is working away at clearing the forty plus years of overgrowth on the north end of the historic lawn. The overgrowth is being tackled from all sides, and today we finally made it to the base of the large Albizia tree that is in the middle. Another few hours were spent digging up ivy roots and before we knew it, it was 2pm already! As we worked, one of the volunteers wondered out loud if the author of Jack in the Bean Stock was a gardener that had pulled ivy. Some of the ivy shoots were easily 20 feet long!

Marney tackling the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Marney tackling the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Clearing ivy is pretty addictive – the work is slow but methodical.

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The Worst of the Worst

The Federal Prison on Alcatraz was meant for the ‘worst of the worst’. Inmates only got sent to Alcatraz because they were behaving badly at another prison; in a way, they had to earn their way to Alcatraz.


But what if you are a plant? And you are misbehaving? And you are already on Alcatraz?


This seems to be the case with our Agaves.


While the island was operating as a military fortress to protect the Bay, and later as a military prison, Agave americana were brought to the island in the early 1920s in attempts to landscape the island. The plant proved to be ideal for growing in the dry, rocky soil with little water or care. But this plant has a defense mechanism of its own. Perhaps it is not commonly known, but Agaves can cause skin irritations when the sap comes into contact with people’s skin.


While not everyone is afflicted, a few of my volunteers have had reactions to being poked by the thorns or have developed a skin reaction with itching and blistering because of the sap. The sap contains calcium oxalate crystals, acrid oils, saponins, and other compounds, but it seems the calcium oxalate is responsible for the irritation.


A quick search on Wikipedia found that – “The juice from many species of agave can cause acute contact dermatitis. It will produce reddening and blistering lasting one to two weeks. Episodes of itching may recur up to a year thereafter, even though there is no longer a visible rash. Irritation is, in part, caused by calcium oxalate raphides. Dried parts of the plants can be handled with bare hands with little or no effect. If the skin is pierced deeply enough by the needle-like ends of the leaf from a vigorously growing plant, this can also cause blood vessels in the surrounding area to erupt and an area some 6–7 cm across appear to be bruised. This may last up to two to three weeks.”


There are three types of Agaves on the

Agave attenuata has smooth leaves and no thorns. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Agave attenuata has smooth leaves and no thorns. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

island – Agave americana, which has established itself on hillsides and needs minimal care, while in the gardens, we have introduced Agave attenuata and Agave parryi. The Agave attenuata is my favorite! Not surprisingly, it has smooth leaves and no thorns. The Agave parryi, has a different story. This low growing blue leaved succulent has black spines along the margins of the leaves and the tip – very nice to look at, but not nice to weed around.


Agave parryi

Agave parryi

Like a bad sibling, this plant has been cursed at more often than any other plant on the island, and is one step away from the compost pile after pricking the volunteer that stewards the succulent slope. Instead of being sent to ‘D’ Block aka, the compost pile, Agave parryi will be isolated on a slope outside of the rec yard, far away from any well-meaning hands. With a view of the Golden Gate and city, Agave parryi, can think long and hard about what it has done! Or perhaps, it will think ‘alone at last, now I can enjoy the view’.

The view from the 'bad plant' corner. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The view from the ‘bad plant’ corner. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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But it’s a Rock…

Even though Alcatraz is a rock, greywackle sandstone to be exact, erosion is taking its toll.

The Warden's house in 1924. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Library

The Warden’s house in 1924. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Library

Originally, the island had two summits that were blasted down by the military when the island was used as a fortress and later a military prison. Steep cliffs were created and the roadways that we walk today were carved into the hillsides. The Commander of the Army, and later, the Warden of the Federal Prison, picked the best vantage point to build his home on Alcatraz, of course, he picked the top of the island overlooking the Parade Ground.

The Warden's house and garden in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Chuck Stucker

The Warden’s house and garden in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Chuck Stucker

The cliff that the Warden’s House is perched upon has been slowly crumbling over the past few decades. This month, work was started to stabilize the cliff with placing shotcrete, to preserve the cliff and the historic home. Shotcrete is a mortar that is more dense, homogenous, stronger and waterproof compared to concrete. Shotcrete is sprayed onto the cliff, usually over a mesh, through a hose at high speed, so it can even be applied to vertical surfaces – making it a great choice to stabilize cliffs.

The cliff below the Warden's house in 2008. Photo by Owen Shui

The cliff below the Warden’s house in 2008. Photo by Owen Shui

Workers first dangled over the cliff to remove vegetation and loose rock. A huge pile of Agave americana soon accumulated. These plants are truly amazing to cling to rock.

This week, the crew color coded the locations for placement of dowels that would be used to secure the mesh and bond the shotcrete (white) to the cliff face, weep holes to provide drainage (blue) and the locations of deeper rock bolts (orange).

The cliff being stabilized. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The cliff being stabilized. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The work to stabilize the cliff will continue to the end of January. Visitors can watch the work progress and it is pretty interesting to see preservation of this historic landmark in progress.

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A New Shortcut to Explore

I’ll let you in on a little secret – now is the best time to visit Alcatraz. The Thanksgiving crowds have gone home and the holiday season hasn’t started yet. The ferries are not packed, which means you can buy a ticket the day of. And even better, the island is lush and green, the daffodils are blooming and the hummingbirds are zipping around.


Daffodils blooming in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Daffodils blooming in Officers’ Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The island feels almost tranquil, especially the gardens. Normally quiet, even during the summer, the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island typically only sees visitors when the weather is particularly beautiful. In the winter, it is possible to work for hours in the gardens without saying hello to anyone. So, I had a bit of a surprise while working yesterday on the west side – the gardens actually felt busy. I wondered what was going on and then I realized – people were on the wrong side of the gate – in the CLOSED area!


Following the stream of people, I entered the Laundry Building and spoke to the National Park Service Intern, Nora. It seems like the Park decided to open the building doors and let visitors experience this normally ‘off limits’ shortcut.

 A new shortcut takes visitors through the Laundry Building. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Through the eyes of the inmates - from inside the Laundry Building inmate gazed at the gardens and city beyond. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Through the eyes of the inmates – from inside the Laundry Building inmate gazed at the gardens and city beyond. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This additional visitor access is pretty special – not only do visitors get to see more of the island, but now they can walk around the island through the Laundry Building instead of backtracking. The visitors are also walking in the steps of the inmates – walking through the gardens and seeing the city in the distance while on their way to work in the Laundry Building.


The cliché of being so close yet so far, probably never had a better example.


Even though you will not need to book ahead to visit during the winter months, don’t leave it until the last minute. This area will close for February 1 as Brandt’s Cormorants return to nest in a nearby area.

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Honoring Antonia Adezio, Garden Conservancy President

This week the Garden Conservancy celebrated ten years of our West Coast Council programs. We also gathered to honor Antonia Adezio, our President, who is stepping down in December.

Antonia addresses the close-knit community of gardeners. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia addresses the close-knit community of gardeners. Photo by Emily Riley

We reflected on our goal of having a bigger impact on West Coast gardeners. Looking around the room Wednesday evening at the close-knit community of gardeners, the Garden Conservancy has certainly excelled at this. In a way, it reminded me of what Freddie Riechel, the first secretary to the Warden challenged himself with when he took on caring for the gardens on Alcatraz back in 1933. Riechel reached out to expert horticulturists to keep the tradition of gardening on the Rock going. The Garden Conservancy has done the same, seeking advice from the West Coast Council and professionals to create educational programs to connect experts to local gardeners and to further develop preservation project gardens.


A packed room of Garden Conservancy supporters celebrates ten years of being in San Francisco. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia joined the newly founded Garden Conservancy in 1989 at the request of Frank Cabot. With the organization firmly established on the East Coast, the board of directors determined that in 202, the organization was ready to have a regional office based in San Francisco. Shortly after, the Garden Conservancy was enticed by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to form a partnership to restore the Gardens of Alcatraz. The neglected historic gardens quickly became a passion for Antonia. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, I had the honor to present a brief history of our work on the island and to highlight our accomplishments with bringing the gardens back to life.


Presenting our work for the Gardens of Alcatraz. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia’s leadership throughout her time with the Conservancy has shaped the success , especially with Alcatraz, and her vision will be continued as we carry on. I like to think that every garden holds onto some characteristic of their caretakers, even as the caretakers move on. I see this especially in the old gardens on Alcatraz – the surviving apple trees that still bear fruit, the inmate built terraces, and perhaps the greatest mark left – the decision by the Garden Conservancy get involved to restore the gardens for the future enjoyment for all.


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Screen printing our t-shirts

I’m constantly learning new things about gardening and Alcatraz, even after working in the gardens for close to six years now. On a recent trip to pick up my order for more volunteer shirts, I finally met David, president of Plum, a company in Emeryville that prints our t-shirts and hoodies. David invited me to take a look behind-the-scenes to see the screen printing process.

T-shirts being screen printed on a rotary printer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

David has owned the business for 35 years, first starting to print shirts for museums. A connection then led to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit organization that manages the bookstores throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In fact, sweatshirts for Muir Woods had just come off the line. Plum also prints shirts for various humane organizations.

The screen printing is fairly simple

Plum staff holds up the Alcatraz printing screen. Each color is applied separately. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

and hasn’t changed that much since the Chinese invented the process hundreds of years ago. Garments are placed on an automatic rotary printer, with each arm having a screen. The first step in the process is to separate each color in the design to exactly abut each adjacent color so that the colors do not actually touch each other; each color segment is printed separately. This step is now done on the computer, but in the early days of the company each color was hand cut. Each color is then shot on its own screen. Setting up the screens so that this can be achieved is a critical part of the screen printing process. The attached screen forms open areas of mesh that transfer ink which can be pressed through the mesh as a sharp-edged image onto the garment. A fill blade or squeegee is moved across the screen stencil, forcing ink into the mesh openings. The garment is then taken off and is placed on a drying conveyor belt. Depending on the types of inks used, the drier is set at 325 Fahrenheit and dries the shirts in one to four minutes.

Printed t-shirts going through the dryer at 325 Fahrenheit. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

David estimates that that they can print over two thousand shirts on one machine in one day!

Elliot Michener, our inmate gardener, would surely have been impressed with the setup. Elliot was a skilled printer himself at a newspaper; or perhaps he was not that skilled afterall, as he tried his hand at counterfeiting money but obviously was caught.

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Jail Birds

Loosely translated, Alcatraz means ‘strange looking seabird’ in Spanish. Even today, the island is a bird haven. This time of year, the cacophony of the Western gulls has left and the background noises of the island become heard. The cheerful chirping of songbirds is apparent, especially along the west road that takes visitors through the inmate gardens. Anna’s hummingbirds are zipping around while black Phoebes can be seen perched on branch shrubs.


Speaking with the National Park Service wildlife biologist, Victoria Seher, she updated me on the latest songbird activity: “For many years the Natural Resource office did a monthly Alcatraz Bird Census of the island during the winter months, however, it hadn’t been done for several years. This year we decided to resurrect the count, modifying the protocols a bit. The island bird walks are conducted 2 – 3 times per month from October through January. Waterbird docents from the previous season are helping with the counts, but we are accepting new volunteers as well. The counts start at 9am on the dock and follow the Agave Trail up the stairs to the Parade Ground, around the rubble piles, behind Building 64 and up the path to the cell house, down the west road, through the Laundry Building and down the north road back to the dock. The counts have been about 2.5 – 3 hours long and we travel about 1 mile. All birds are counted (even the ones we see in the water or flying overhead).”


Alcatraz Bird Count

Victoria and her keen observers counted 26 different species of birds last week, a surprise count even for themselves.


Reading through the suspect list, I mean, bird list, I couldn’t help but wonder; which one of these guys is eating my marigolds and chrysanthemums? The marigold nibbling started innocently enough – first just the orange flowers, but next it was the orange flowers, then all the leaves disappeared. The chrysanthemums also proved to be a tasty treat – all the flower buds were gone in a few days.

A chrysanthemum minus the flower buds. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A marigold stripped of its flowers and leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The gardens are providing much more than just enjoyment and beauty for visitors, the gardens also provide food and shelter to the birds. The benefit of the gardens to the birds is, in a strange parallel, very similar to what the Federal Bureau of Prisons provided for the inmates. Regulation Number 5 stated “You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.” The gardens stop short of providing clothing for the birds but with Victoria with her team of volunteers and interns keeping watch over the birds, they do receive medical attention if needed.


Be sure to visit the island in the next month to witness these special jail birds.

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