Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz

Small Changes, Big Challenges

Gardens are all about change – hopefully for the better, but they are never still. With any change, it can almost be expected to face challenges; and this is especially true when you are gardening on Alcatraz.


This week, the gardens saw the installation of a new pipe railing, albeit a pipe rail that was historically there, but had long ago disappeared. The Officers’ Row gardens, opened to the visitors on mid-day Wednesdays suddenly had the new addition seemingly overnight. The approval and installation of the pipe rail was the easy part; getting the pipe rail to the island proved to be the real challenge.


A Federal Prison era photo showing the Warden’s Irish setter sitting beside the railing. Photo courtesty of Chuck Stucker.

The pipe rail is evident in several photos from the Federal Penitentiary days, and with the obvious hazard, it was approved by the National Park Service review board fairly quickly.


The metal pipe rail was assembled off-site by Heavy Metal Iron and was planned to be brought to the island on an early morning boat. However, at the last moment, the 14’section was denied passage and another plan had to be drawn up. A second attempt was made. This time, the railing was scheduled to be on the early morning barge; but was hampered by the landing at Pier 33 being repaved. The third attempt took advantage of the monthly barge that sails out of Pier 50 and the railing was delivered safe and sound. Success!


Once the railing was on the island, it still had to be hauled up the switchbacks to the gardens. The guys had planned ahead and had brought a dolly to support the railing as they walked up the hill, and the exercise proved to be a good workout.


Hauling the metal pipe rail up the switchbacks. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Installing the railing was pretty simple – coring the concrete to sink the posts, double checking that the railing was sitting level, filing the metal to have a snug fit and then a quick set mortar was used to hold the railing posts in place.


The crew had to bring all their own tools to place the railing, and be sure not to forget anything! Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The railing looks like it has always been there and I’m sure the seagulls will be happy to christen it when they return in February.

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Unveiling the Water Tower

Instead of being asked gardening

Water Tower being uncovered after a year of construction. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

questions, a common question visitors and locals alike have been asking is ‘What is that white covered tower on the island?’ The tower in question is the water tower that has been wrapped in protective plastic while repair work has been done.


The water tower was first built in 1940–41 primarily to hold fresh water that would be used for laundry services. The Federal penitentiary provided laundry service for the Army and inmates were put to work doing laundry. The sea air and wind have been punishing the tower ever since.


For the past year, workers have been busy removing rust, safely removing lead paint, repairing the iron work, and painting the structure with a coat of primer (Macropoxy 646) and two coats of finish paint (Sher-Cryl), the same paint that is used for painting the Golden Gate Bridge, except the water tower is not done in ‘International Orange’.


The work began with the construction of the scaffolding last October 24, 2011 and it was amazing to just watch the ant-like workers build up the scaffolding. The scaffolding was then wrapped in a heavy duty white plastic tarp for a few reasons – reduce disturbance of nearby nesting seabirds, safety of the workers and lead abatement. In a funny way, locals that have gazed at the outline of the island for years suddenly forgot what was there before it was wrapped.


View of the rose terrace far below. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This past week, I was invited for a trip up to the top of the water tower, somewhere I had never been before on the island! Walking into the tent at the bottom, I had to smile seeing a clump of Chasmanthe emerging; ever resilient, this island survivor never gives up.


On a windless day, walking up the levels of scaffolding was easy and the plastic wrapping hid just how far off the ground I was.  Apparently, on a windy day, the whole structure hums.


 Kyle Winn, project superintendent for MTM Builders Inc. explained the more fascinating parts of the repair work.

  • How many workers on the crew? 11 to erect the scaffolding, 5 to do the steel repairs and 3 to paint the structure.

  • How much original metal is left on the structure? Approximately 85% of the steel is original.

  • Where did the new steel come from? Kentucky.

  • How many gallons of paint were used? 350 gallons.

  • How long did it take to paint? 2 months.

  • How much did the repairs cost? $1.541 million.


The repainted catwalk around the water bowl. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The catwalk around the top of the tower is still original and Kyle was impressed with the quality of steel used when the tower was first constructed. The walking platform is about ½ inch in thickness and solid, not showing any signs of rust. Kyle pointed out the name of the company where the original steel was made – Tennessee. New construction consisted of a new roof along with the supporting top one foot of the water tank itself.


Newly painted lower portion of the water ‘bowl’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The repaired tower will not hold any water,

Native American graffiti sketched out and waiting to be painted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

but its reconstruction was important as the water tower contributes to the National Historic Landmark that Alcatraz is. The Native American graffiti is also an important part of the island’s history and has been repainted.


 The scaffolding is already coming down and the new water tower will be unveiled!


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Calling in the Marines

Once again, San Francisco amazed visitors from around the country and the world this past weekend with a plethora of activities going on throughout the city. Fleet Week, America’s Cup races and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival were just a few of the events that were on offer.

With so many activities for visitors

With the city for a backdrop, it was a beautiful day to work in the gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

to choose from, it was a special opportunity to have the United States Marine Corps and Navy personnel volunteer throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Many of the personnel were on ships coming from Los Angeles, and for many, this was a first time visit to San Francisco.

A group of Marines joined the garden volunteers to clear overgrowth from a series of terraces. We had been saving this ‘once a year’ project for a tough volunteer group and who could work harder than the Marines? After a quick lesson on how to work safely on the historic terraces built by inmates in the 1940s, and shown the difference in the types of plants that we were cutting back, the Marines set to work.

Clearing out the vegetation on the historic terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In no time at all, the terraces were cleared and we made several trips to our compost pile, which is now a compost mountain.

The volunteer coordinators from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy were instrumental in organizing the activities. For the second year in a row, Marines and Navy have volunteered throughout the park. This year, there were 154 personnel volunteering at 5 park sites. Together, they contributed 462 hours, or the equivalent of 3 months of work for one full time staff!

Everyone pitched right in to help. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Thank you to all of the volunteers who helped in the gardens, we hope to see you back next year!

Fast progress was made in clearing the terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



It’s not every day you get to work alongside the Marines! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Agave americana – the Inaccurate Timekeepers

Of all the plants on the island, the ones that get the most attention are the agaves.  Agave americana covers the southern slope of the island and greets visitors as they approach the island on the ferry. Originally planted by the military in the 1920s, these natives to the southwest and Mexico are excellent in coastal conditions and stabilizing slopes. They also have a sharp needle at the tip of each leaf that perhaps was useful in keeping inmates out of areas.


Agave flowers spikes with the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With the common name of the century plant, Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to the Warden in 1934, called the agaves the ‘inaccurate timekeepers’.  The basal rosette of leaves takes between 10 and 15 years to send up a flower; but for impatient gardeners, it would seem like a century.


The flower spike is quite dramatic, and often visitors mistake it for a tree. The spike can rise up to 26 feet in height (8 meters). Once the plant has flowered, it will then die; but in the meantime, the plant has sent out new adventitious shoots (pups), that will take the place of the parent plant.


While this is not the plant that tequila comes from, the plant does have many other uses. The fibers in the leaves were used by natives to make rope, sew, or to make rough cloth. The seed pods are edible and a sweet liquid can be harvested from the flower stalks before the flowers open.


This past summer, the stand of agaves by the Warden’s house had one plant that was ready to flower. Being a gardener on the island certainly has its perks, and I was able to watch the flower spike reach for the sky and take a photo every week to see how fast it would grow. I first noticed the spike rising above the leaves mid-May and finished reaching the full height with the seed pods expanded mid-September.


Weekly progress of the flower spike growing. Photos by Shelagh Fritz


The flower spike has now taken its place alongside the other centuries. Now that the flowering is finished, I can start watching the new pups grow.



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The changing seasons

Autumn in North America is automatically associated with vibrant leaf color. Autumn in the Bay Area may not be as dramatic as on the East Coast, but the plants here are also anticipating the changing of the season.


Aside from an unusual sprinkle of rain in July, our landscape has only received fog drip since the last significant rainfall in May. Needless to say, the plants on Alcatraz that do not receive additional irrigation can hardly wait for the first rainfall.


Aeonium arborerum has shed its lower leaves to conserve water. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Succulents are well suited to our Mediterranean- like climate; they are just now beginning to show signs of dryness. Many of the signs are actually adaptations to the lack of water. All of the succulents are able to store water in their highly evolved stems, leaves, and/or roots. In fact, when water becomes scarce, some succulents will shed their lower leaves to conserve water. As soon as water becomes available again, the plant begins to store water again in the existing leaves and will grow new leaves as well.

Another response is a change in leaf color. Chlorophyll is responsible for the green that we see in plants; but there are other pigments in plants that give red, blue, orange and yellow colors.  It is thought that in response to stress, plants will show pigments that would otherwise be hidden.  Anthocyanin and betalain are pigments that give a red hue.

Several succulents on Alcatraz are

Jade plant with green leaves in the spring and early summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

now showing their true colors. Crassula ovata, the common Jade plant, normally has a leaf edge ringed in red, but now has the entire leaf deepened in a shade of red and while the red edge is very brilliant.




Jade plant with red leaves at the end of the summer and into the fall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aeonium arboreum normally displays a rosette of green leaves; but now each leaf is edged in red, plus the lower leaves have been dropped to conserve moisture. Another succulent, Aeonium cuneatum has also adds to the display of color. This succulent normally is grayish green but has taken on more rosy gray leaves.

Aeonium arboreum with green leaves. Photo by Shelagh Fritz





Regardless of the cause, the gardener can appreciate the changing seasons and design with the red hues in mind.

Aeonium cuneatum with grayish green leaves during the spring and summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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The Gardens of Alcatraz Logo

The garden volunteers are easy to spot on the island with our maroon colored t-shirts and sweatshirts. Proudly worn, our dark maroon uniform with the purple iris cannot be purchased but must be earned by volunteering five times in the gardens. Another source of pride is how faded the t-shirts become –the more faded the clothing becomes indicates a longer tenure, even the holes caused by names tags is something volunteers point out to each other.


 But how did our t-shirt come to be? Why was an iris chosen to represent the volunteer gardeners and the restoration work?


I spoke with Bill Prochnow and Vivian Young, graphic designers for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to learn more.


The logo was developed in 2004 after Alcatraz poster by Michael Schwabbthe restoration project began in November 2003. In keeping with the existing park logos created by Michael Schwab, the iris graphic was designed to be fairly simple with bold colors and a strong black border. The Douglas iris drawing had already been designed by Vivian in 2004 for another project within the park, but had not been used. With iris being one of the survivor plants on the island, the decision to use the iris to represent Alcatraz was logical. Coincidentally, Douglas iris had been planted on the island by a group of BoyScouts in the early years of the island becoming a National Park, but had perished over the years. Amazing, a new clump of Douglas iris found its way to the island along the Main roadway and has flowered for the past two years.

The Gardens of Alcatraz volunteer t-shirt.Superimposing the iris image on the outline of the island’s silhouette tailored the graphic to represent the gardens. Reading into the images, the creation of the final graphic is perfect for the Gardens of Alcatraz – the harsh prison is softened by using yellow and the iris (the plants) dominate. A contrast to what visitors to the island expect to see.


The maroon color of our t-shirts was chosen by the late Carola Ashford, the gardens first Project Manager, simply because it was her favorite color. With a gift for color combination, she chose well as the maroon blended perfectly with the yellow and purple.

The start of the project was focused on removing vegetation to restore the gardens; so the wording on the shirts was worded ‘Alcatraz Garden Restoration’. The wording has since changed to ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ to reflect that now there are gardens again to see and enjoy.

While our volunteer t-shirts still must be earned, we now offer a light lavender color version of our t-shirt for purchase in the island’s bookstores and online. The sale of our t-shirt helps to support our preservation work on the island.


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A time capsule?

The late Carola Ashford, the garden’s first Project Manager, described gardening on Alcatraz as ‘garden archeology’. Peeling back the layers of overgrowth from years of neglect would always reveal artifacts – forgotten items from the prison days. As we approach our tenth year, we are still finding items. But not all of our findings are artifacts from long ago.

This past week, while weeding

Barbara pointing out the location of the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

around the metal detector at the base of the recreation yard steps, Barbara, discovered a message in a bottle!


The crew of volunteers and I all gathered around, we all wondered what could be inside.


Prying open the Boylan Bottle Works Root Beer bottle (luckily one of the gardeners travels with a bottle opener), we teased out some moist papers. We speculated it was a time capsule or perhaps a million dollars left to care for the gardens. We were a bit off with our guesses; but the contents of the bottle did make us smile.


The volunteers gathering around to see what is inside. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dated April 26th, 2011 -the bottle held the message ‘I love you. Let’s find this and laugh’. The note also had a big imprint of lipstick lips. We all did laugh at the find and it was fun to think that a visitor had left this behind for someone to find one day.


The message in the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The bottle also contained a BART ticket, a business card from Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and napkins from Extreme Pizza. Perhaps the bottle held the best memories from the person’s trip to San Francisco?


The bottle and its contents. Photo by Shelagh Firtz

Whatever the reason for leaving the bottle, it was exciting to find.

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Spending the Night

Staying the night in a prison is probably one thing that most people would rather do without. But when the prison is Alcatraz, suddenly, the opportunity is much more appealing. The garden volunteers spent the night on the Rock as an appreciation for all their hard work. The group was treated to an evening BBQ on the dock, live music in the hospital, a chance to see a foggy sunset and breakfast the next morning with a view of the city. Not bad for a prison experience.


Music in the hospital. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Volunteers and their guests arrived on afternoon boats and showed their guest around the gardens they help care for. The group was also treated to a performance in the hospital wing while dinner was being prepared by garden volunteer, Beth.


Gathering on the dock for dinner, some arriving visitors for the night program assumed the BBQ was for them as well and joined the line of hungry volunteers. The interlopers were quickly weeded out and sent on their way up the hill to Prison.


Fine dining on the Rock. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

The fog crept in and swallowed up any chance of seeing a sunset. No one seemed to mind though, as the night tours offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy night program were fascinating. Island visitors were escorted off the island around 9pm, leaving the island to the gardeners and a ranger.


The race was on to find the best cell to

Volunteers in D-block. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

sleep in. Most people chose the tiers of D-Block in the isolation wing, while others preferred the larger cells of the hospital. A couple brave volunteers thought the operation room was ideal.

Settling into the Operating Room for the night. Photy courtesy of Lynne Buckner.


Corny finding a cell. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Aside from a few noisy seagulls, everyone slept pretty well. The beds were oddly comfortable and the cells were snug and cozy. There was no sleeping in as we had to be out of the cells before the first boat of visitors arrived the next morning. I’m sure visitors would have been surprised to see people fast asleep!


The fog lifted enough for a lighthouse tour to offer a 360 degree view of the island while breakfast was enjoyed outside of the Administration Offices.


A sad farewell was said to one of volunteers and docents, Kristen, as she was embarking on

The lighthouse on a foggy night. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

new adventures by moving across the country. As a token, we gave her a pen that was engraved with Alcatraz Prison Regulation #41-Correspondence: “Inmates may correspond only with the approved correspondents. You will refrain from discussing other inmates or institutional affairs. Violent or abusive letters will not be mailed.” Hopefully she knows that everyone on the island is on her approved list.


Thanks to all of the garden volunteers for a fun night and for fantastic gardens!

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Apple trees on Alcatraz

Abandoned and overgrown orchards are pretty common to see in the country side, left for the birds and wildlife to enjoy the harvest.  Of all the survivor plants on Alcatraz, perhaps some of the most unexpected are the apple trees. Not exactly an orchard, the two trees were planted years ago in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island and they are still producing bright red gems with a yellow blush every autumn.


Ripening island apples. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The trees are believed to have been started by an inmate gardener, who likely had apples for a snack and saved the seeds to grow. I’m sure any gardener today has thought about saving their apple seeds and starting their own trees; but few have the patience to wait years for the tree to mature, not to mention having a safe place where the seedling can be nurtured.


However, Alcatraz inmate gardeners had that time.


Twig cuttings of the trees were taken last December and were couriered to the National Plant Germplasm Repository for Apples, a department of the United States Department of Agriculture for Plant Genetic Research in Cornell, New York, with the hopes of identifying the apples with a cultivar name.


So far, researchers at the Repository have not been able to find a correct id for the trees. As the Alcatraz trees lack a graft union, where the scion (the top half of the tree) is joined to the trunk (the rootstock), we can reason that the trees were started from seed. Starting plants from seed increases the genetic variation and the difficulty of positively identifying the trees. If the trees had been started from vegetative cuttings, then the genetics would be the exact same as the parent plant and would most likely be from a known apple tree which would already be in the database.


While we do not have a name, we can still preserve the trees by keeping them growing. Keith Park, Horticulturist for the National Park Service at the John Muir House in Martinez, California was consulted. Park is the caretaker of Muir’s fruit trees and has also worked as the horticulturist at the well- known Filoli Gardens in Woodside, California and looked after their heirloom fruit trees.


Dormant twig cuttings of the Alcatraz apples were taken during the winter and Park grafted them onto a suitable rootstock. Park chose the rootstock MM.111 EMLA. Rootstocks are used to give the mature tree qualities the desired tree lacks, mostly to control the tree height and to give disease resistance. The scion still determines the kind of fruit produced. What does the MM.111 EMLA stand for? Much of the initial apple research began in England in the early 1900s. The ‘M’ refers to the East Malling Research Station in England; the ‘MM’ prefix refers to Malling-Merton when hybrid trees of the Malling series were crossed with ‘Northern Spy’ apples in Merton, England in the 1920s. The ‘EMLA’ suffix stands for ‘East Malling /Long Ashton’ when rootstocks were bred to be virus free in the 1960s. (Click here to read more about rootstocks).


The MM.111 EMLA rootstock is recommended for dry sandy soils in low rainfall areas (perfect for Alcatraz), has good anchoring capacity, rarely produces root suckers and has good resistance to woolly apple aphids.


Park had rootstock that was already a few years old, and so the diameter of the rootstock was slightly larger than the scion. Typically same size diameters would be used, but for us, it would work. Park described his handiwork:


Grafting technique.

“When I have scion and rootstock material of different sizes I usually do a cleft graft, which involves splitting the rootstock down the middle with a knife about 3/4 of an inch, then shaving the bottom end of the scion to a long, even wedge (like a flat-blade screwdriver) and inserting it into the cleft in the rootstock. The most critical part is aligning the cambium of each piece. If the pieces are not exactly the same diameter (as is often the case) then I insert the scion to one side of the cleft and match up the cambium on one just one side.”


“The next step is to seal and secure the scion to its rootstock so it doesn’t dry out or fall out. I discovered a product called Parafilm, which is a wax impregnated cellophane tape that works great.”


“After the graft has taken the only real maintenance is to periodically rub off any adventitious growth from the rootstock. I’ve heard you should also prune off any flower buds if they appear on newly grafted trees, since it just consumes plant energy at a time when you don’t want fruit anyway.”


The grafted apple trees were grown outside in Woodside and we now have a few of the new apple trees back on the island. One of the trees, planted in the Electric Shop, barely lasted a week, as the wind snapped the tree in half. Luckily, we had a replacement and we can reuse the rootstock. Gardening on the Rock is a challenge but one with many rewards.

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The Unknown Alcatraz

Having local Bay Area residents visit Alcatraz is a pretty rare occurrence, and when it does happen, it is usually when they have out-of-town visitors in tow. Very seldom do locals take the 10-minute ferry ride out on the Bay to see their closest National Park.


But this is changing.


Obscura Society, hosts ‘unusual adventures for curious minds’, specializes in tours with unusual access, secret places and unknown history. The Gardens of Alcatraz definitely matches all of these criteria.


Annetta, from the Obscura Society, and her group came out this past Sunday for a tour of the gardens and then pitched in for a couple hours of volunteering.

The group was excited to work clearing the historic lawn, when they learned of the long-term plan of making it into a meadow.


The energetic group met me at Pier 33 and it was easy to tell it was going to be a fun afternoon. The group, many of whom were meeting for the first time, all had shared interests of history, plants and doing something different.


Beginning the tour at the dock, the group was asked the question “What do you think of when you hear the word Alcatraz”? The group spoke up with descriptive words of ‘prison’, ‘island’, ‘Al Capone’, ‘cold’; but no one said ‘gardens’, the very reason that they were there.


The hour and a half walking tour led the group through all areas of the gardens, including two closed areas, and finished on the west side of the island in the Prisoner Gardens. As we walked through the gardens, a group member really understood the importance of passing along family stories from one generation to the next, sharing with me how she asked her grandfather to tell her about his past before he sadly passed away. This sharing of history is part of what we are doing on the island – passing along stories.


Timely, the island’s Alumni Day is this coming Saturday, August 11; when past residents of the island come back and share with visitors their experiences and what life was really like on the Rock.


If you cannot make it to the island this Saturday, plan on checking out what you can learn about your own neighborhood, or even better, ask your grandparents to tell you a story.



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