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Category Archives: History
Summer is slowly showing itself on the island and the change of seasons can be seen in the blooming gardens.
A section of the main road, as visitors walk from the dock to the cell house is affectionately called the ‘fern wall’, even though in summer there is no evidence of ferns anywhere. The granite blocks that form this retaining wall was built in the early military days and was softened by moss and ferns that came to the island likely as spores in the imported soil.
As the winter rains cease, the native fern, Polypodium californicum turns a golden brown and then go dormant. The fern wall undergoes a dramatic change from lush green to vivid pinks as the Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, bursts into the season. At the base of the wall is a collection of Pelargonium that are survivors from the prison days – ‘Brilliant’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and P. quercifolium that add to the hue of pinks.
To be accurate with historic photos of this wall, last year, we planted plugs of Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum in the cracks of the granite blocks that will eventually cascade down the wall. With living walls being the current trend in gardening, this wall on Alcatraz was way ahead of its time.
When the fog rolls in, the intent of the original gardeners to create cheerfulness on a barren island must have been no easy undertaking. I also cannot help but wonder if the inmate gardeners marked the passage of time with the changing blossoms.
On the west side of the island, tucked under the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is the historic tool shed, originally built by inmates in the 1950s. The tool shed has a million dollar view towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Without a doubt, this view was a constant reminder of a world beyond the reach of the inmates that worked in these gardens.
The tool shed, like the gardens, was abandoned in 1963, and could not escape the weathering effects of Pacific storms and the relentless summer winds and salt air. The tool shed was repaired by the National Park Service in the late 1970s and again by garden volunteers in the spring of 2010 with help from the National Park Service maintenance team. The tool shed was in a bad state of repair with the roof falling in and most of the wood structure rotting away. The cement block base walls were still in fair condition and only needed minor patches. Just like the inmates had used scrap lumber on the island in the original construction, we scouted re-use stores to find a door, suitable windows, and flashing for the roof. This past month, garden volunteers applied primer and a fresh coat of ‘Presidio White’ paint to finish up the restoration.
Has anyone been curious why the hillsides of Alcatraz are turning pink?
Pink iceplant, Drosanthemum floribundum or Persian carpet, has been very prominent this past week from Crissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and on a clear morning, even from Doyle Drive coming into the city.
The planting of the tiny succulent was part of a beautification effort undertaken by the military in 1924 after being pressured by the vocal citizens of San Francisco to landscape the barren the island. Inmates took part in the planting and soon, carpets of pink cascaded down the steep hillsides, not only stabilizing the soil but providing a cheerful look desired by San Francisco. It is somewhat ironic that a gentle soft pink was chosen to mask the harsh prison.
With 40 years of neglect, the iceplant on the cellhouse slope suffered and was soon choked out with oxalis, wild radish and grasses. In 2007, this historic garden area was restored.
The slope was stabilized with jute netting and cuttings of Drosanthemum from elsewhere on the island were established on the slope. Coaxing the drosanthemum to take root and to keep the slope free of oxalis has been no easy task. Staff and volunteers have invested countless hours into weeding over the past four years, but seeing our efforts from across the water, well over a mile, is quite awarding.
Garden volunteers joined other Alcatraz staff and volunteers to visit San Quentin prison. The day was certainly eye-opening, as we were able to freely speak with low-risk inmates who are determined to change their lives. Our conversation with them in a sun-filled plaza was in sharp contrast to our walk through a cell block not unlike those at Alcatraz. Experiencing the sights, smells, and sounds of a five-tiered cell block housing over 1000 inmates was an altogether different experience, beyond words. For garden staff and volunteers, Alcatraz is a wonderful place where we all choose to go and work in the gardens. It is easy to forget the true reason behind the gardens: that for Alcatraz inmates, the gardens were an escape from daily prison life.
Alcatraz Island and San Quentin have a few commonalities – both prisons are located fairly close to each other on prime San Francisco Bay land, both have long histories as being a prison (Alcatraz beginning in the early 1850s as a military prison and San Quentin opened in 1852 as California’s oldest prison), as well as both being a community for staff and their families.
But both prisons also share another surprising feature – gardening!
The military on Alcatraz recognized the importance of providing vocational training to inmates to enable them to learn a skill and inmates were allowed to landscape much of the island. As the maximum security Federal Bureau of Prison took over the island from 1933 to 1963, the inmates continued gardening allowing a few to find meaningful employment upon release.
San Quentin has a remarkable rehabilitative gardening program, the Insight Garden Program that helps men reconnect to themselves, their communities and the natural world through the process of organic gardening. Led by Beth Waitkus, the community-based program teaches organic gardening skills and eco-awareness as well as the “inner gardener” aspect of healing — interpersonal skills development that encourages men to grow so they can contribute to their communities when they leave prison.
Since it’s inception in 2002, the IGP has served more than 800 men. In 2003, participants built an organic flower garden on San Quentin’s medium-security prison yard that serves more than 1,000 prisoners. This oasis — in an otherwise bleak area — is the only non-segregated area of the yard, transcending the traditional segregation of prisons. The men enroll in the program because of their desire to change, an interest in gardening, and with the hope of creating a better life for themselves.
Scientific studies have shown that the process of gardening can benefit people and communities in a multitude of ways. According to research on people-plant relationships and horticultural therapy, “the act of caring for plants includes the qualities of responsibility, empathy and discipline that also transfer to the interpersonal realm.” By growing plants, people “grow.”
With 70% of inmates returning to prison within three years of release, rehabilitation through gardening is a solution worthy of continued exploration. Programs like the Insight Garden Program save an estimated $50 000/year per inmate and also can help men prepare to become productive family and community members after release.
The Insight Garden Program has set ambitious goals for the upcoming years — it has already begun to expand its classes which include topics such as nutrition, growing organic food and other sustainable practices. Ultimately, the IGP aims to start a re-entry program for the men to find employment in gardening, landscaping and “green” jobs when they leave prison.
Gardening and composting go hand in hand. Aside from the obvious benefits of returning organic matter back into the soil, recycling the garden vegetation on the island is especially important as once materials come to the island, they very rarely leave.
With the gardens, our composting system has evolved as well. When the project began in 2003, there was no designated place to compost the 40 years of overgrowth. The removed vegetation was hauled to the Parade Ground and added to the ruins of the former apartment buildings that were already being taken over by vegetation. With the parade ground closing each bird nesting season from February to September, each winter there was a race to clear and deposit the vegetation, then during the summer months work would continue and a massive pile would soon accumulate, only to be hauled away at first chance in September.
In 2007, restoration of the rose terrace began. Situated half way up the east side of the island, this garden area was historically the center of gardening operations with a large greenhouse. Logically, our rehabilitation plans recommended this area to once again be used as a center of operations, including the site of our compost.
With use of a chipper, woody vegetation (ivy, blackberries, roses and other shrub clippings) are shredded. These materials provide the ‘browns’ that are high in carbon. Our ‘greens’ come from spent flower heads, weeds that have not gone to seed, and ivy leaves that provide nitrogen. Chasmanthe floribunda also provides an excellent supply of greens but these plants require the extra work of hand clipping into smaller pieces for a quicker breakdown.
One volunteer in particular, Dick Miner, is our chief composter. Using three 4’x4’x4′ compost bins constructed with the help of Job Corps of Treasure Island, Dick produces award winning compost.
Each batch takes roughly one month to mature. The bins are located in shade and we rely on high temperatures to break down the organic matter. Dick regularly brings hops from Anchor Steam Brewery and horse manure from Marin farms. With the addition of chicken manure and topsoil the temperature easily reaches between 140 – 160 F. The highest temperature achieved has been a steamy 170 F.
After the temperature cools, red wriggler worms do their magic and work their way up from the bottom of the bins. Ideally, the worms are left for another month to add to the organic matter.
Once the batch is ‘done’, volunteer groups, especially kids, have a chance to get their hands dirty by sifting out the larger fibrous pieces that have not broken down, sorting out the worms and putting them back in the bin. For kids that have never held a worm before, it is amazing to see squeamish kids going home to ask for pet worms for their kitchen scraps.
Dick has also successfully experimented with composting oxalis! Volunteer gardeners separate oxalis from other weeds and deposit the corms and green tops in a designated pile. A season’s worth of oxalis is constantly turned and manure is incorporated. With consistently high temperatures, the corms are exhausted. The oxalis compost is tested for weed seeds by placing flats of the compost in the greenhouse, labeled, watered and monitored for any growth. We have never had any oxalis return.
The weed seeds that do return are commonly wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, and American nightshade, Solanum americanum.
The docent tour does take a stroll by the compost bins and Dick is usually there to let you feel the rich soil. Otherwise, be sure to look over the rose terrace railing to see the compost, you can only detect it with your nose when the bins are turned.
Alcatraz Island was a place for life to struggle, where only the most determined could survive. The plant life on the island is no exception. Heirloom plants introduced to the island decades ago either thrived with neglect when the prison closed in 1963 or soon perished under the overgrowth.
Of the 200 species and varieties of ornamental plants that were documented in the early years of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, one plant that has special significance is blooming right now – the Rose ‘Bardou Job’.
In 1989, a group of rosarians from the Heritage Rose Group came to Alcatraz to take cuttings of roses, and propagate them with the aim of identifying them and saving heirloom roses. The deep red climbing hybrid tea rose soon came to be known as the ‘Alcatraz Rose’. This rose, while having its roots on Alcatraz, has Welsh heritage. More importantly, this rose could no longer be found in Wales, but yet one rose bush was thriving on Alcatraz behind the Warden’s House. In 2000, six plants were returned to the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s near Cardiff for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 campaign.
Cuttings of ‘Bardou Job’ were grown up and two plants returned to Alcatraz to be planted on the Rose Terrace, located below the water tower in 2007. Visitors are able to see this unique rose on the free docent led garden tour, every Friday and Sunday morning. Visitors will also be able to see other heirloom roses, ones that survived on the island and others that were introduced with the restoration project. Roses were chosen by the time period when they could have been grown on the island. In other words, all the roses on the island would have been introduced to the plant trade before 1963. For Bay Area gardeners, the roses on Alcatraz are a selection of plants that have minimal powdery mildew, black spot, cope with marine conditions and are reliable bloomers.
For rose enthusiasts, spring into summer is the ideal time to plan a visit.
One of the most rewarding aspects of working in the Gardens of Alcatraz is to see the changes over the years. While continuously caring for a garden, it is easy to not notice the subtle differences as it matures. Sometimes it takes comparing photographs taken over a span of time to be able to stand back and think ‘Wow’!
Working on historic preservation of landscapes requires diligent photographic documentation of existing conditions, work in progress, and the final result. Ideally, photos should be taken from the same vantage point. An added bonus is to have historic photos as well.
This year, the west side of the island along the roadway is doing particularly well with many succulents coming into bloom right now. Many of these succulents were propagated from elsewhere on the island and to see them flourish is very satisfying. Plants include Aeonium arboretum, Aloe arborescens, Carpobrotus edulis, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, and Lampranthus aurantiacus. In March 2009, rocky bare soil and a thicket of Rosa wichuraiana spilled onto the roadway in this same area. A sprinkling of California poppy seeds, Eschscholzia californica, added a bit of color to the slope.
In September 2009, a volunteer group cleared the ramble of roses and the hillside was revealed. Over the next few months, succulents obtained from the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek, which happens to be the very first garden preserved by the Garden Conservancy, were added to the sunny slope to complement the other succulents up the road. The Ruth Bancroft Garden succulents, available to gardeners during the 1930s to 1960s, were choice plants for our Alcatraz gardens.
The difference in the before and after photos of this garden area is vivid. Like many things in life, gardens keep getting better with age.
There are many sea birds that call Alcatraz home. Western Gulls make up the majority of the birds with around 2000 nesting on the parade ground at the south end of the island. The parade ground will be closing to allow these birds to raise their young on February 1st to mid September.
During the penitentiary days, families of the guards also called the parade ground home. Many of the families lived in apartment buildings and tended gardens. The apartments were torn down by the government after the island was occupied by the Native Americans from 1969 to 1971 and the rubble was left.
From the remaining ruins, new life does spring. Like elsewhere on the island, the neglected gardens were overrun with aggressive ivy, honeysuckle and blackberries. The tough conditions on the parade ground allow for only the most determined plants to survive.
Taking a walk around the rubble piles, it is hard not to be impressed with how the Aeoniums have found niches for themselves. Spilling over concrete walls, these plants are thriving without soil, no summer water and very windy conditions.
The photo opportunities alone warrant a visit to the island before this intriguing part of the island closes until September.
Over 200 species of plants managed to survive on the island without any care after the federal prison closed in 1963. Among these hardy plants are several bulbs that are adapted for the dry summers and wet winters of a Mediterranean climate.
Freddie Reichel, the first secretary to Warden Johnson from 1934 to 1941, was one of the first federal penitentiary employees to voluntarily care for the gardens. One of his favorite plants was the daffodil. Through his effort, inmate gardeners soon took over caring for the landscape and even began hybridizing daffodils. Reichel visited the island years later and an inmate “showed Reichel where he had hidden his treasured hybridized narcissus, for it seemed that other residents thought they were too pretty to stay in the gardens.” (Gardens of Alcatraz book by John Hart, Michael Boland, Russell A. Beatty, Roy Eisenhardt, 1996)
While picking the flowers is not permitted in the National Park, visitors can enjoy the sight and smell of these garden treasures. Paperwhites are already in bloom. For the next two weeks, the fragrance of Narcissus ‘Galilee’ will greet visitors as they make their way up to the cell house. Flower buds of Narcissus ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ are ready to burst open.
This heirloom bulb produces up to fifteen small flowers on each flower stem and a walk through Officers’ Row garden is not to be missed when these tiny flowers are in full bloom.
To complement the existing bulbs, additional daffodils were planted in the fall of 2006. With each passing year, they produce a better display. Officers’ Row is planted with ten different cultivars of daffodils that bloom from now until mid-March.
While other parts of the country are cold and snowy, a visit to Alcatraz to experience the sight and smell of these bulbs will lift winter weary spirits.
Location, location, location. Alcatraz Island, situated in the middle of the entrance to the San Francisco Bay, has always been prime real estate. In 1846, the military recognized a fortress strategically placed on the island would protect the bay against the threats of the impending Civil War.
On the naturally bare island with only a few sparse grasses, soil was needed to hold the cannons in place ringing the steep cliffs. In 1869, soil was imported from nearby Angel Island and with the soil came seeds of native plants: Baccharis pilularis (coyote bush), Eschscholzia californica (California poppy), Rhamnus californica (coffeeberry), and spores from several types of ferns.
Recent winter rains have caused the island to erupt into a lush green oasis after the dry summer months. Ferns and moss drape over walls, staircases and down hillsides.
There are four species of ferns that grow well on the island: Polypodium scouleri (leathery polypody), Polypodium californicum (California polypody), Polystichum munitum (western sword fern), and Pentagramma triangularis (goldback fern).
All of these ferns thrive in moist sea air. The leathery polypody and the western sword fern are evergreen, while the California polypody and goldback fern are only appreciated during the rainy winter months.