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Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz
The Rock is many things to many different people. For some visitors, it is a trip of a lifetime, something that they must see. For past residents, it can be a place of happy memories or of sad times (depending on which side of the bars you were on). For Bay Area residents, perhaps it is just a landmark in the middle of the Bay, a tourist trap that is best avoided. For others – volunteers and staff, the island holds a special place that we look forward to being each day.
For me, this week held a strange combination of people from all those categories.
On Tuesday, I was able to show the gardens to a couple from New Jersey whose daughter had raved about the gardens. The couple had put the gardens on the top of their list of things to see while they were in San Francisco.
My volunteers trooped onto the island on Wednesday and as always, enjoyed their morning. Late in the afternoon, as the last boat pulled away, I was left on the island with an interesting group of people:
A film crew from the Travel Channel that were highlighting secret places to visit,
Four guys who had backpacks,
Bob Luke, a past inmate, and his lovely wife,
A National Park Service ranger.
I could figure out how everyone related to the island, except for the guys with the backpacks. As it turned out, one of the guys, Jim Vetter, had entered the lottery system for an overnight on Alcatraz and had blogged about his stay. The volunteer group had waited five years before winning the chance to participate in volunteer work and then sleep overnight on the island. The Travel Channel picked up on his blog and contacted them to re-enact their night.
The Travel Channel was also able to
arrange an interview with Bob Luke, a former inmate sentenced for robbery. I had the chance to chat with Bob and his wife and never would I guess that he had a past on Alcatraz.
The gardens naturally fit with being a secret part of Alcatraz, one that catches people by surprise with the flourishing blooms.
As the week continued, on Thursday I hosted a group from the National Parks Conservation Association that were interested in seeing the gardens. An honor to have this group on the island, they work hard to educate decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks.
And finally, Friday arrived; and a new volunteer joined our crew. As an introduction to the island, she joined a group of 30 visitors for the free docent led walk through the gardens to learn about the history. Ending the week with the volunteers and the docent tour really brings home why we are here on the island – to engage the community and to share the stories of gardens with visitors. As I reflect on my week, I realize that everyone has their own reasons for visiting National Parks, and Alcatraz especially, has something to offer to everyone.
J.J. Abrams new hit series ‘Alcatraz’ premiered January 16 and has viewers sitting on the edge of their chairs. The show also has visitors creeping over ‘Area Closed’ signs on the island, trying to get a glimpse of the secret tunnels and passageways shown on the television show.
In one episode, lead characters step over
a chain and onto a gravel roadway. However, instead of leading to the underground high-tech research lab, in reality, the path leads to another secret – the gardens.
The thriving gardens are seemingly out of place on an island that was focused on punishment, containment and defense. Today, the plant life contrasts sharply against the weather worn concrete and iron bars. To fully appreciate the gardens, you have to be prepared to look over
retaining walls and not follow
I wonder if the television show will feature any of the inmate gardeners? Our newest webpage, Inmate Gardeners, profiles three inmates who were lucky enough to be assigned garden duties. One of the inmates, Elliot Michener, even worked in the Warden’s House, tending to household chores, serving meals and actually became friends with the Johnson family.
Now is the time to plan a trip to see the gardens in their spring beauty. Join us for free garden walks and we’ll take you into the secret closed areas; and show you our Alcatraz, the one that softens the Rock and looks beautiful in the sunshine and the mysterious fog. Be sure to book a ticket with Alcatraz Cruises for the 9:10 sailing on Fridays or Sundays.
We have just launched a new outreach program for island visitors called Discovery Table. The Discovery Table aims to engage visitors with interactive displays themed on the Gardens of Alcatraz. With the entire island to use as a resource, we want to share with visitors captivating information about the gardens that they otherwise would not learn about through our garden tours, brochure or website. We want to draw people’s attention to the details of the garden that might otherwise be missed.
The Discovery Table invites kids and adults to use their senses to experience the gardens in a different way. In only its second week, we have covered drastically different topics such as ‘Life on the Rock with Lichens and Moss’ and ‘Nose around Alcatraz: Scented Plants in the Gardens’. More topics to come will have visitors watching hummingbirds zip around the purple blossoms of pride of madeira, Echium candicans, getting your hands dirty with a demonstration of our worm farm and our award winning compost; as well as learning about how the succulents on the island survived without care for over 40 years.
Garden volunteers, Corny and Marney, hosted
the premier Discovery Table to introduce visitors to Life on the Rock, literally. Using a banana slug to draw people in, visitors were given a hand microscope to take a closer look at the sandstone that makes up the island. A surprise for many, lichens and moss have found their way into many niches on the rock and brick that make up Alcatraz. Just like the residents that called Alcatraz ‘home’, lichens and moss have to cope in the harsh marine environment to survive. As Corny and Marney found out, lichen and moss cope with chilly temperatures in the winter. Armed with hand microscopes, visitors could see the lichens were ‘flowering’ and could appreciate the variety of colors with the many species of lichen that are living side by side.
The second Discovery Table was presented yesterday on a calm, sunny day; a perfect day to invite visitors to follow their nose around Alcatraz and learn more about the scented plants in the gardens. Many of the heirloom plants in the gardens – bearded Iris ‘King’s Ransom’, Rosa russeliana, daffodil Narcissus ‘Grand Soliel d’Or’ all have wonderful scents that remind visitors of their grandmother’s house. Old-fashioned garden plants such as cherry pie, Heliotropium arborescens and nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, and sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, along with recently introduced plants to the island such as pineapple sage, Salvia elegans were presented to visitors to sniff and were then asked what scent they detected. It was interesting to hear the responses: the expected answers such as vanilla, peppery, honey, and pineapple versus the surprise of hearing that cherry pie reminded one young visitor of play dough.
A long-time garden volunteer commented ‘You can always tell what season it is by how a visitor asks “What’s that smell?”’ During the winter and spring, island gum trees, Eucalyptus globulus, delightfully fragrant the air. However, during late summer and fall, the island is home to over 3000 nesting seabirds and their guano permeates the air.
I like to think that the small pleasures in the gardens enticed the inmate gardeners to stay on their best behavior in order to keep the privilege of working outside. I hope these same pleasures will entice visitors to stop by our Discovery Table and learn more about the fascinating gardens.
The sky around the San Francisco Bay Area has been very active this week – from storm clouds to Fleet Week’s Blue Angels practice runs. Dramatic clouds and sudden rainfalls, while unexpected for this time of year, were
refreshing and washed the island clean after the end of bird nesting season. The plants soaked up this first substantial rainfall and were sparked back to life after the dry summer.
Surprisingly, spring bulbs have been emerging in Officers’ Row. Daffodil leaf tips are poking through the soil and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) have shot up over the last couple of days. Other bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia have been nudged into growing and their bright green leaves are a refreshing sight. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) leaves are unfolding as well, each leaf being an exquisite living art unfurling from a knarled exposed root.
All of these plants have origins in other mediterranean climates similar to that of the Bay Area. They are adapted to dry summers; being baked in well drain soils and with the slightest moisture can be triggered into growing. Examining the survivor plant list for the island, it is no surprise that many on the list are from climates similar to ours.
Elsewhere on the island, the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) continue to self-sow where
they please. The nasturtiums were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort by the military. Whether you consider them invasive or successful, they are a part of the island’s rich horticultural history. Seeing them sprout now is reassuring that another generation will continue to decorate the slopes with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.
While some visitors plan their vacations to not be in rain, a visit to the island during a storm is exciting and the island feels more alive with the elements. Watching a storm approach through the Golden Gate and sweep toward you is a vacation memory that you cannot put in a photo album.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
While Alcatraz is a relatively small 22.5-acre island, a few historic gardens tended long ago remain hidden; they have yet to be cleared of overgrowth vegetation, documented, and perhaps one day restored.
This past weekend, volunteers from the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association worked to reclaim a set of terraces that lead from the dock to the parade ground. These terraces were first gardened by Freddie Reichel in the early 1940s. Mr. Reichel was the secretary to Alcatraz Warden Johnson. Impressed with the gardens left by the military, he worked in his spare time to maintain their beauty. He began to tend these terraces behind his home.
Prior to any removal of vegetation, we investigate the history of the area. There should be some documentation that the area was once a garden. Evidence of a past garden can be found in historic photos, oral history interviews, old maps of the island, and existing ornamental plants and hardscape features. In this case, old photos, surviving ornamental plants, and extensive terraces confirmed our belief that the area had once been gardened.
The Whaleboaters revealed dry-stacked terraces and cleared the staircase that was becoming covered with eucalyptus leaves. They made a few interesting discoveries – a pink radio, several rubber boots and surviving ornamental plants such as Euonymus japonica and an unidentified rose.
The Whaleboaters did a fantastic job revealing this hidden corner of the island. From the dock, visitors can see for themselves the newly revealed terraces and the staircase that once led to the parade ground.