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Category Archives: History
Our upcoming Florilegium of watercolor paintings of island plants will also be showcasing written poetry about the gardens. The poems are a collection of ‘Compare and Compose’ Poetry that was put together by a National Park Service intern in 1992. Mary Schumacher organized an interpretive program where visitors to the island spent a couple of hours walking the island and gaining inspiration from the landscape.
The poems have had little mention since they were written over two decades ago, but Mary has held onto the treasured poems. The gardens have changed dramatically since inspiring the writings, but the spirit of the gardens still remain – cherished plants brought to a desolate island to provide beauty, the neglect of the gardens, the determination of the plants to hold onto the life they had.
With the poems being presented alongside the art, at long last, they will be read and provoke thought once again about the importance of plants and beauty in our every day lives.
Now the ice plant
lives on the cliffs
of another age.
In the purple light
are also purple.
When the rock it hangs on
begins to crumble
piece by piece
breaking to new form…
the plant cannot
remember another age.
Where men denied the privileges
Once more the priviledges of nature
were denied as well
It did not work
As well as men cannot be made
Control of nature is not within men’s
Alcatraz – where “destruction” has
not become the final word
Alcatraz – where nature survived and
gave rise to new beauty
-Lars Pohlmeier, Bremen, Germany; September 24, 1992
Beauty within the Beast
How can there be so much life
surrounding so much that is
Mother Nature will prevail
-Larry Neal, Oklahoma City, OK; September 26, 1992
Sometimes it is not easy to uphold our garden goal of having every visitor amazed by the beauty of the gardens and to experience high horticultural standards. We wish that each of the 1.3 million visitors to Alcatraz a year (5000 per day) be able to appreciate the gardens regardless of the time of year -– whether they see them in the lushness of spring, or the dry and windy autumn.
The garden restoration is now in its tenth year, and we have really come to know the difficult areas of the gardens. The obvious is the windy west side, but even this side, through trial and error (much how the inmates learned), is for the most part flourishing at all times of the year.
One challenging garden area remains though – the series of terraces built by the inmates in the 1940s. Facing the Golden Gate Bridge, this area is a haven for hummingbirds and sparrows in the spring with the overflowing terraces of Echium and Chasmanthe, the complementary blue and orange colors standing out against the backdrop of the cell house.
The sandy soil has received annual topdressings of our rich compost for the past 3 years, but the soil still tends to dry out and become compacted mid-summer, despite hardly anyone walking on these beds.
These terraces do hold many of the survivor plants on the island – Echium, Chasmanthe, Aeonium, Artichoke, spuria Iris, Acanthus mollis and even Rose ‘Russeliana’ – so we know that plants can grow and thrive in these soils. The trick will be to find plants that add to the existing palette to have a garden to show off all year round, instead of the plants going dormant mid-July.
The terraces were rehabilitated in 2009
as part of the West Side Treatment Plan. At the time, we examined historic photos to identify plants that the inmates may have been growing. The photos clearly show gladiolus neatly staked and plenty of unidentifiable low growing mounds. We replanted the top terrace that runs along the parapet wall with Pelargonium ‘Brilliant’, an island survivor. The plantings did well up until last year, when sections started to die out and we eventually removed them all. This year, we are experimenting with a purchase from Annie’s Annuals – Dicliptera suberecta ‘Uraguayan Firecracker Plant’. With deep weekly waterings, the 4” potted perennials are off to a good start.
Bill Noble, Director of Preservation for the Garden Conservancy, visited the gardens last month and this area was examined. Bill visits each of the preservation projects several times each year and lends his expertise and guidance to the gardens. Bill’s perspective is a valuable resource, as often, gardeners need some ‘outside’ advice. Bill suggested tying in the established plantings of succulents on the slopes above the roadway. The succulents would be an ideal choice to give a garden that has year round interest and that is drought and wind tolerant.
Gladiolus will likely not be making a come-back in this garden bed – we can only be impressed with the skills of the inmates to grow such beauties in this tough spot.
Most gardeners have a winter pastime of pouring over plant order catalogues, examining each plant and adding it to a wish list. Here in San Francisco, while we do not quite receive the same snowstorms as elsewhere, we do have long nights and look forward to spring.
I placed an order for heirloom Gladiolus from Old House Bulbs this past fall and they arrived this week! With their bright pink labels, they looked like bags of candy. I ordered a selection of bulbs that would have been available to gardeners before 1963. The federal prison closed in 1963, and so when choosing heirloom plants, we try to be as authentic as possible.
Gladiolus flowers were identified in a few historic
photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, in one photo an inmate is actually holding a whole armful of apricot sprays of flowers. Often, these bouquets were taken to the chapel to decorate the altar, or placed on the dock for resident families to come and take for their own homes.
Another photograph shows the blooms standing at the back of a bed in the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island. Maybe the inmates were able to order from a catalogue too? Or maybe a guard brought them back to the island to be planted. Not knowing how plants arrived on the island is part of the mystery of gardening on the Rock. At any rate, a great deal of effort was put into obtaining plants to provide beauty.
The gladiolus that I ordered have fun names – Friendship, Carolina Primrose, Dauntless, Bibi, Melodie, Contentment (probably not the best name for being on Alcatraz), Abyssinian (which appears in the Gardens of Alcatraz book), and Boone. These glads will be planted this coming week in the Rose Terrace in the raised bed in front of the greenhouse, where the photo of the inmate holding the cut gladiolus was taken.
Last year, our gladiolus had significant rust, so this year we will experiment with treating them with a fungicide and lifting them at the end of the growing season to store them for the winter.
Upon arriving to Alcatraz, many visitors are surprised at how, well, BEAUTIFUL, the island is. The gardens are a stark contrast to what they were expecting to find – a barren island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that has the world’s most famous prison. Test your knowledge about the gardens with these questions, I bet you learn something new.
1. In 2005, a plant inventory was done of the surviving vegetation on Alcatraz. How many species of plants were found?
A. Less than 50
B. Between 51 and 100
C. Between 101 and 200
D. Over 200
2. True or False – the island has no source of freshwater other than fog drip and rainfall.
3. True or False – all of the island’s soil was imported.
4. True or False – the gardens have plants from every continent except Antarctica.
5. True or False – inmate gardener, Elliot Michener,
was so attached to the gardens he created during his 9 year stay, that upon his transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he requested to come back to Alcatraz to finish his sentence.
6. True or False – today, the garden volunteers have a worm farm in the rose terrace greenhouse.
7. The nasturtiums seen growing on the island today were introduced:
A. 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society
B. A seagull dropped the seeds
C. 2003 when The Garden Conservancy began clearing overgrowth
8. Alcatraz Island is 22.5 acres in size. The gardens make up:
A. 500 ft2
B. 1 acre
C. 2 acres
D. 4.5 acres
9. True or False – During the island’s days as a military prison, there was a mule stable on the west lawn.
10. True or False – Penitentiary guards would sometimes fish from the Alcatraz dock. They would use the fish heads to fertilize the island’s roses.
11. True or False – Penitentiary inmates tended flower gardens and would leave buckets of flowers on the dock for guards’ families.
12. The garden restoration began in 2003 and relied heavily on volunteer gardens. As of January 2013, garden volunteers have logged:
A. 1000 hours
B. 10 000 hours
C. 30 000 hours
D. 40 000 hours
13. True or False – once you are on the island, the garden tour is free.
14. The military and penitentiary encouraged inmates to garden, mainly to give the inmates something to do. A number of greenhouses were constructed on the island to help grow plants. Today, there are 2
greenhouses on the island, but how many greenhouses once stood on the island?
15. Today, Alcatraz is a protected sanctuary for many kinds of water birds who return to the island every spring to nest and raise their families. A few of these birds began coming to the island during the 40 years when the gardens became overgrown. Which birds come to the island because the overgrowth provides ideal nesting sites?
A. Seagulls and Brandt’s cormorants
C. Snowy egrets and black crowned night herons
D. Pigeon guillemots and penguins
16. True or False – there are still more gardens to restore on the island.
17. True or False – the military had vocational training for inmates to become gardeners.
18. The slope in front of the cell house was planted in 1924 to give a friendly look to San Francisco. The slope was restored in 2007 and the Persian carpet iceplant is blooming bright pink once again. The slope can be seen as far away as:
A. As you approach on the ferry
B. Fisherman’s Wharf
C. Crissy Field
D. The Golden Gate Bridge
19. What is the secret ingredient in our award winning compost?
A. Bird guano
C. Anchor Steam hops
20. True or False – there is always something blooming in the gardens, regardless of the time of year.
1. d; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True; 6. True; 7. a; 8. d; 9. True; 10. True; 11. True; 12. d; 13. True; 14. c; 15. c; 16. True; 17. True; 18. d; 19. c; 20. c
How did you do?
15-20 correct answers – You should become a docent!
10-14 – Very good!
6-9 – Pretty good.
0-5 – Come join us on a tour!
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
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.
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’.
Even though Alcatraz is a rock, greywackle sandstone to be exact, erosion is taking its toll.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Instead of being asked gardening
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.
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 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.
The repaired tower will not hold any water,
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!