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Category Archives: Inmate Gardeners
In part 3 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we look at the Roaring Twenties. A time period known for its glittering excess and the start of the gangster era, this was a period of transition for Alcatraz. Alcatraz the Military Prison was ending, but there were still families on Alcatraz, and they were determined to make their gardens beautiful.
From the blues and purples of the Victorian Era, to the pinks of the 1900s and 1910s, these gardens were all about colorful flowers. This changed in the 1920s as the reigning trend became all about the green. There were still flowers, but the lawns became a fixture for many homeowners.
Likewise, they also had a desire to celebrate and welcome nature. Unlike the Victorians, however, their gardens weren’t allowed to grow wild. Instead, they started attracting wildlife. Bird houses, bird baths, fish ponds, and rock gardens were all the rage for the 1920s gardener. They also planted trees and bushes with bird attracting berries, such as holly and crabapples, in hopes of being a paradise for bird watchers.
The 1920s also marked a shift in landscaping focus. Before, backyard gardens were all the rage. It was a private space for entertaining and for showing off your beautiful collections of flowers. However, with more and more people owning homes in the suburbs, the front yard as a public space became the focal point. You couldn’t have your neighbors walk by and see your front lawn in a deplorable state. So, this space received the most attention with gardening and landscaping. Walkways and driveways were lined with perennials, such as irises, foxgloves, hollyhocks, California poppies, and bachelor’s buttons. Shrubs such as boxwood and holly provided the natural, bird attracting green that was so popular. And the lack of fences reinforced the idea that the front yard was public, and not private.
Alcatraz follows many of these trends. While most families lived in the apartment building, meaning no front yards, houses on the parade ground did have front yards. We also have many of the hallmarks associated with the 1920a.boxwood in Officers’s Row and along the Sally port provide some subtle barriers between walkways and garden space. Likewise, one can see California poppies dotting every garden on Alcatraz.
What is perhaps the most striking feature that relates to the 1920s garden aesthetic is the birdbath in the birdbath garden on the west side. The birdbath was originally designed by inmate Elliot Michener. It was sadly destroyed when the gardens were no longer cared for. Thanks to our handy and multi-talented volunteers, we were able to reconstruct the birdbath that is a pleasant surprise in the Bird Bath Garden. Thanks to our work in the gardens, we have many birds for the bird watchers among us. From the snowy egrets to the variety of songbirds, Alcatraz does attract wildlife.
The Roaring Twenties peaks through in many areas of the Alcatraz gardens. Look around the next time you’re out there and see if you can spot any of the historical elements.
Our winter renovation projects are moving right along even though we are still waiting for rain.
The toolshed terraces have never really
been overhauled in the years of the garden restoration project, other than the removal of forty years of overgrowth to allow the survivor plants some breathing room.
The terraces were built by the inmates of the Federal prison in the early 1940s and was tended up until 1963 when the prison closed. The Mediterranean plants, such as Chasmanthe, Echium, Aeonium, artichokes and Sedum praealtum have thrived, plus the tough Rose ‘Felicite et Perpetue’ is still holding its own. The majority of these plants put on a great spring show but by July, the garden is looking like the ugly duckling with no hint of really how pretty it is.
Other than needing plants to bloom throughout the year that will tolerate the dry, windy slope, we needed two main ingredients – better soil and an irrigation system.
Normally, bringing in supplies to the island is a chore, but luckily, our compost pile provides rich compost. We did purchase chicken manure that was brought out on the monthly barge. We installed drip line irrigation so we will not have to wrangle the hose up and down the fragile terraces. Even though all of our chosen plants are drought tolerant, the plants will do better with weekly deep watering.
The succulents growing across the road provided inspiration for the corner of the terraces. We had Dudleya, Echeveria and Aeonium cuneatum on the island already from a planting project this past spring. The seagulls took a liking to the plants and we ended up rescuing the plants and placing them in the greenhouse to nurse them back to life. Let’s hope the seagulls leave them alone in this garden! A few larger Agave attenuata were planted as well to tie in with the established Agave.
We had taken cuttings of the Crassula ovata and these propagations were planted on lower terraces to carryon the block of plantings.
We also added Fremontodendron californicum (flannel bush) to this garden. And an interesting fact – this is the last plant that we needed back on the island from the plant lists that were mentioned in the 1996 book The Gardens of Alcatraz.
The Leonotis leonurus, lion’s tail, that was planted in the lawn borders have been receiving a hugs amount of attention, and so we added in more on the terraces to give a punch of orange throughout the summer and fall. Purple Limonium perezii were added in as well, as they are great for seaside conditions.
We wanted to add a bit more red and purple so we introduced Asclepias curassavica and purple trailing Lantana to the mix.
One thing that needs to be finished yet it to divide the surviving bearded iris! They don’t ever seem to slow down.
With the fence removed, visitors are now strolling past this garden to get a better look I can’t wait to see how the garden will only get better.
Gardeners tend to be sharers, whether it be gardening advice, seeds, surplus zucchini or to just share their gardens with others. The inmate island gardeners were no different. They shared flowers with island residents on Sundays by leaving bouquets at the dock, and they traded seeds and gardening advice back and forth amongst themselves. However, one thing that was not permitted on Alcatraz was to visit each other’s gardens.
Inmates Elliot Michener, who gardened the West side Prisoner gardens, and his friend, Richard Franseen, who tended the Rose Terrace on the East side of the island, were not allowed to visit each other’s gardens. With five overlapping years of served time on the small island, the priviledge of enjoying their friend’s garden was withheld – another small reminder to the men that they were still in prison.
Gardeners from around the world now visit the island to see the restored gardens. On behalf of Elliot and Richard, it is our pleasure to share the gardens with them.
On the reverse side, it is also fun to go and visit gardens and be lucky enough to get the ‘special tour’. The horticulture world is pretty small, whether it is the Bay Area, USA or even worldwide, chances are there is a connection that will add a spark to your trip.
I was lucky enough to have Marion Brenner ask me if I could show a couple of her friends from France the gardens while they visited San Francisco. Marion is a longtime friend of the Garden Conservancy and professional photographer and landscape designer. Her work has illustrated many articles in garden magazines and publications, including Martha Stewart Living. Delighted to be asked, I mentioned that I actually had a trip planned to France. Marion quickly put me in touch with her friend, Catherine Delvaux, editor of the bi-monthly garden magazine Detente jardin, who had been showing Marion around Paris for her upcoming book on Parisian gardens.
Catherine generously offered to pick us
up in Paris and drive us to Monet’s Giverny garden – a garden high on my ‘must see list’ While Catherine knew the head gardener, he was pretty busy and we never had a chance to meet. We learned that upon undertaking his position, he had researched which heirloom varieties were available during Monet’s time and has since recreated overflowing beds of color. Monet grouped plants by color so he could study the effect of the lighting on them. In fact, he chose to make Giverny his home because of the quality of light in the valley. Seeing the ‘real life’ version of the lily pond was quite impressive.
Before leaving the tiny village of Giverny, Catherine took us for quick respite from the warm day in a shaded restaurant courtyard just down the street. The restaurant actually had an entire hillside garden behind it that had the starting signs of being neglected and on its way to being overgrown. The little garden had its own charm and not a single person in it, despite the busloads of visitors just down the street.
Catherine next took us to an out of the way garden treasure by the name of Le Jardin Plume. This country garden is also not as popular as the famous Giverny, but it should be. A couple had bought three hectacres of farmland in 1996 and have slowly turned it into many garden rooms separated by shaped boxwood hedges.
Each room is a surprise – we wandered through butterfly gardens, prairie grasses grown in quadrants, and each room offered unique plant combinations. We were able to meet with the owners and I really wished I had paid more attention in my grammar school French classes, but we managed to have a full conversation. Even in French, the word Alcatraz needs no translation.
Being a tourist instead of being a staff member at a famous destination was an eye opener. It is really too easy when we are at work to just focus on getting the tasks done, but on my trip, I’ll always remember the staff that took the extra time to chat or to point out something, or even to just help with directions. So, please, ask the staff and garden volunteers questions! We do love to help and more importantly, we really want to share our gardens with you.
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.
Spring is by far the best time of year to see the gardens, the island is brilliant with color and most visitors are surprised by this unexpected beauty.
Right now we have four
kinds of poppies profusely blooming. The state flower, the California poppy, Eschscholzia californica, seem to spread every year, and the bright orange almost glows on a foggy day.
It is thought that the original seeds came in with imported soil with the military in the mid-1850s. A few of the poppies in the Rose Terrace garden are a soft buttercup yellow.
The Shirley poppies, Papaver rhoeas, are looking great again this year. We grow these from seed every year and always end up with a wide variation in pinks and reds. The Shirley poppies were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort. In the early 1920s, it seems that the town of San Francisco
was not too happy with the appearance of the military prison in the middle of their beautiful Bay. Military inmates were enlisted to plant the slopes in an effort to create a cheerful face for the town.
This year, we planted a few Iceland poppies, Papaver nudicaule. These are the bright orange and yellow flowers that are typically seen in early spring.
An annual poppy that we tried this year is Papaver ‘Danebrog’. The results so far are quite impressive! A brilliant red with white splotches on the outside of the petals, the plant has reached a height of 4’ so far.
Our last poppy is another ‘stop and notice me’ plant. The fried egg looking blossoms of the Matilija poppy, Romneya coulteri, look like they are made from tissue paper. The delicate looking blooms sit at the end of thorny stems of a rather tall shrub. This California native was tough to get started but it is now fully established and is loving its location in the Prisoner Gardens.
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!
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.
Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.
According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.
Without a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s
work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.
Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.
For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.
Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.