Category Archives: Rehabilitation

The ‘Paperwork’ Side of Gardening

I was fortunate today to be invited to the monthly meeting of the Alameda Master Gardeners to teach them the ‘paperwork’ side of gardening. It’s a side of gardening that most visitors are not aware of, even if they are gardeners themselves.


With Alcatraz being a National Historic Landmark, the National Historic Preservation Act applies to everything that is done on the island, not to mention the other roughly 2500 sites in the United States designated as National Historic Landmarks. Adopted as law in 1949 by Congress, National Historic Landmarks are nationally significant historic places designated by the Secretary of the Interior because they possess exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.’ (


Section 110 and 106 of the Preservation Act set out broad responsibilities of Federal agencies and requires the agencies to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) does have its own team of a historic architect, historic landscape architect, archeologist and supporting staff to ensure that historic preservation is fully integrated into the ongoing programs within the Park.


Beginning the class off, I introduced the concept of a cultural landscape – special places that reveal aspects of our country’s origins and development through their form and features, and they ways they were used. The special places include a wide range of landscapes – residential gardens, parks, scenic highways, battlefield and institutional grounds.


There are 4 types of cultural landscapes – historic sites, historic designed landscapes, historic vernacular landscapes and ethnographic landscapes. Alcatraz Island is a cultural landscape and the gardens fit in the historic vernacular landscape category. This is a landscape that has evolved through use of people whose activities shaped the landscape. The landscape now reflects the physical, biological and cultural character of the everyday lives of the residents.


Alcatraz Island’s period of significance expands from 1847 to 1973. These years span the early exploration of the Bay, military fortification, including the construction of the first lighthouse on the west coast, the military prison, federal penitentiary and the early General Services Administration (GSA) caretaking, Native American Occupation and the beginning of the GSA while the island became part of the GGNRA.

Alcatraz as a military fort.

Perhaps this is where people started to doze off…but we weren’t quite done with terms and definitions.


The Secretary of the Interior has Standards for Treatments, which is a series of concepts about maintaining, repairing, and replacing historic materials, as well as designing new additions or making alterations. The standards offer general design and technical recommendations to assist in applying the standards to a specific property.


In a nerdy way, these standards are why I love my job. Using the guidelines, you can transform an overgrown historic garden into a cared for landscape once again.


Of the 4 types of treatments – preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction – rehabilitation was chosen for the best method for the Alcatraz gardens. “Rehabilitation is making a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions of features that convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values.”


Rehabilitation fit our goal – to preserve and maintain the gardens created by those who lived on the island during its military and prison eras, and to interpret their history, horticulture, and cultural significance for visitors. The island still had over 200 species of plants, the majority of these were ornamental survivors from past residents, and plenty of remaining garden paths that gave the framework of the gardens.

Looking for evidence of a garden in 2004. Photo by Bill Noble.

With the rehabilitation treatment chosen, we had many considerations to take into account – the use of the gardens – historic, current, and proposed use for the future, archeological resources, the natural systems (nesting seabirds and we had no fresh water), interpretation of the gardens to visitors, accessibility and safety, not to mention the management and maintenance of the gardens.


Beginning in 2005, a treatment plan was written up for each garden area that reflected the military and/or federal prison eras. Each plan contained historic photos, documented current existing conditions and described the future use. Working on one area per year, we finished the scope of our project in 2010.

The view today of the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The south end of the island in the 1950s. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

The bulk of our work was done prior to Alcatraz Island having a Cultural Landscape Report (CLR). Most historic sites have a report that has documented all of the contributing features of a landscape. However, the longer we waited, features of the gardens and the plants themselves were failing. We received permission to have a Cultural Landscape Inventory done, a much faster process, and with our treatment plans we moved forward.


Now, with a CLR we are able to work on areas and while we still need our plans reviewed and approved, our plans fit into the overall plan for Alcatraz Island.


Finishing off the lesson with photos of historic, before, and after photographs of the gardens, the terminology learnt earlier made sense (or at least I hoped). Just like compost is the best foundation for thriving plants, well made plans make the best foundation for gardens.


Afterwards, people came up to chat and many remarked that they had no idea there was so much history on Alcatraz. I think this quote from Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation says it best – “History is typically conveyed through books or in a classroom, but history can also be conveyed through place”.


Maybe next time just walking down the street, you’ll question why a row of trees was planted or why the fountain was placed where it was, or why a random granite block is in the sidewalk? The cultural landscape is everywhere around us, just waiting to be read.

Posted in Artifact, Gardens of Alcatraz, History, Preservation, Rehabilitation | Comments Off on The ‘Paperwork’ Side of Gardening

Rejuvenation of the Eucalyptus Slope

Alcatraz these days is a bustling place of projects. The big project of repairing the west side wall of the cellblock is very apparent but visitors can’t see the work being done as the scaffolding is wrapped in white plastic.

The other significant project that was just completed at the end of December was in full sight of visitors and left a dramatic difference to the island. The Eucalyptus grove at the south end of the island (just off the dock), was removed. The project had been two years in the planning and finally had enough urgency and funding to make it possible. The trees, originally planted by the military in the early 1920s, had reached maturity and were a safety risk of falling.

Marin County Arborists were trusted with the tree removal. The company had previously worked on tree removals on the island and was familiar with barging equipment over and working around visitors.

Arborists tackling removing 18 trees. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Sixteen blue gum eucalyptus trees and two non-historic Monterey cypress trees were removed and chipped over three weeks.

The chips were hauled to the Parade Ground to be stored until the National Park Service’s archeologist had a chance to examine the bare slope for evidence of military construction. We received the ‘all clear’ within a day of the trees being removed and we set to work!

The chip pile growing to the size of a house on the Parade Ground. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

First, chips from 18 trees is a heck of a lot more than I could envision!  The recommendation from consulting arborist was to put the chips back on the slope to a depth of 4”, place jute netting over top and anchor wattles horizontally across the slope to stabilize the slope. The slope had been eroding badly for years, so this would be the perfect opportunity to stop the erosion.

Volunteer groups were enlisted to manually place the chips on the slope. With bucket brigades and teamwork, the slope was covered over a month. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Stewardship Team (of which the Alcatraz Gardens is a division within the company’s organization) were set to take a day off from their normal sites and lend a hand. To sweeten the deal, an overnight was planned (and what better way to say thank you than a night in solitary?).

Biodegradable wattles were placed across the slope to control erosion. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The effort was a huge success with people filling

Bucket brigade in action! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

buckets, people carrying the full buckets to the bottom of the slope, to the chain of people to send the full buckets up the slope, and empty bucket retrievers! Maria Durana captured the well-oiled machine of the bucket brigade:

Once the chips were in place, the jute netting could be placed on top. The rolls were heavy and we soon figured that cutting them first was best.

Rolling the jute rolls from the top. We soon realized, cutting the netting was much better. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



Two volunteers pretending to be Kate Middleton and Pippa carrying her train. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Aside from the Stewardship Team, four corporate groups and the regular drop-in garden volunteers pitched in to help spread the mulch. In total 900 yards of jute netting was placed and 750′ of wattles were installed.

The slope almost halfway done. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The slope will be replanted with Eucalyptus cinerea ‘Pendula’ in September 2017 in keeping with the historic look of the island.

On another note of discovery, the perimeter wall of the Parade ground was further revealed along with the basement of one of the former cottages. And a new fern was found growing! With more years of planning to come, hopefully this neglected garden are will be the next focus of garden preservation.


Posted in Artifact, Gardens of Alcatraz, Plants, Preservation, Rehabilitation, Volunteers | Comments Off on Rejuvenation of the Eucalyptus Slope

You are Forever Responsible for what you Tame

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

The outline of the island is considered historic. Photograph by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz, as a Historic National Landmark, has a pretty constant look, even the silhouette view of the island from the city is considered historical. However, over the past two weeks, the look of the island has changed dramatically. Unlike earthquakes that suddenly jolt the landscape into a different look, tree maintenance can (and should be) planned for.

Like all changes to the landscape, approval from the National Park Service was essential, especially when two one-hundred year old trees are being questioned. As a starting point, the Cultural Landscape Report that was adopted in 2010, had made the recommendation for tree work on the island’s historic and non-historic tree. The difference between historic and non-historic is any tree growing on the island between 1854 and 1963 is considered historic – any tree outside of that time frame is non-historic.

Tree maintenance, and especially tree removals, are quite expensive. With limited funds, we realized we could not do all of the recommended work at once, but would need to spread it over a few years. To help us decide what work should be done right away, tree consultants were brought in. The consultants evaluated each of the historic trees on health and safety. Non-historic trees were not examined as they will be removed anyway and were not posing any safety hazards.

The consultant’s report made a few recommendations that went against the recommendations in the Cultural Landscape Report. With experts advising us, we decided to go with the consultant’s report.

To obtain the National Park Service’s final permission, a detailed description of all the work to be performed needed to be entered into the Planning, Environment and Public Comment (PEPC). A well written summary answers the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when, why) and the 1 H (how). Maps and diagrams may be attached and often help to explain to the people who review the projects who are not familiar with project sites. For the tree work, an administration approval was granted, however, sometimes a presentation must be made to a committee.

The consultant’s gave safety priority ranking and trees along the main roadway that leads to the cell house were ranked highest. The consequences of a tree falling along the main roadway would have frightening implications for visitors and staff, not to mention close down the only road that leads to the cell house.

Loud disruptive work must be completed before the annual bird nesting season begins on February 1, so a push was on to get the work done.

Sounding like an opening scene for a scary novel, the arborists boarded a ferry on a dark and stormy morning out of San Francisco with their chainsaws in hand.

Starting work on probably the rainiest day was just bad luck. Nevertheless, lines got strung up in the trees, equipment moved to where it needed to be and the next morning work started promptly at 6am with the ferry ride.

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Arborists working to remove the large cypress tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The arborists made steady work pruning the large Eucalyptus and moved onto various cypress along the roadway. The arborists were more like trapeze artists up in the trees. The crews skillfully tying limbs to be lowered to the ground instead of just letting them drop. Visitors actually cheered them on when large limbs were cut.

The amount of light and the feeling of airiness was apparent to us immediately. Often you don’t notice how overgrown a plant has become.

While it is sad that trees were cut down, it is important to remember that trees have lifespans as well. One of the trees will be replanted with another cypress and in another 100 years, we will likely cut it down again and replant. Even looking at historic photos from the military, there are many trees in the photos that are no longer there. Plus, for an island that originally had no trees, we should keep Antoine De Saint-Exupery quote from The Little Prince in mind ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.

The in-progress image - the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The in-progress image – the eucalyptus has been finished and work begins on the cypress. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Historic photo of the cypress along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

Historic photo of the cypress and eucalptus along the roadway. Photo courtesy of GGNRA

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Plants, Preservation, Rehabilitation | Comments Off on You are Forever Responsible for what you Tame

Concrete Preservation on Alcatraz

Did you know that when the cell house on Alcatraz was completed in 1912, it was the largest steel reinforced concrete structure in the world?

The world of concrete has come a long way since then, becoming the main building material in pretty much everything from buildings to bridges, and is actually the world’s second most consumed material (water is first). Fittingly, Alcatraz continues to play a part in the latest technology for concrete with the Concrete Preservation Institute.

A National Park Service Partnership began with a school program based out of Chico State University for students in Concrete Studies to have hands-on experience. Alcatraz happens to be an island full of concrete that is weathering in the salty wind that offers endless projects to students.

Summer 2015 Class. Photo courtesy of CPI.

Summer 2015 Class. Photo courtesy of CPI.

Much like the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, the Concrete Preservation Institute program quickly grew and, as of 2015, is now its own separate ‘non-profit educational foundation that advances the industry and partners with the US National Park Service at Alcatraz Island to preserve landmark structures’.

Personally knowing very little about concrete, other than it is strong, I wanted to know more about how the students worked their magic of transforming deteriorating railings back into new. Catrina, a current student of the program, and Scott, one of the programs leaders were generous with their time to answer my questions.


The concrete preservation projects the team works on are decided by a Projects and Stewardship committee of staff from the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the CPI team themselves. As the program continues, the student’s projects are getting more complicated and more skilled. However, the gardens offer a fairly straightforward project with the many concrete panel railings in the Rose Terrace and Officers’ Row. For each project, students learn project management and hands on training doing the work. For management, students run the project and comply with NPS protocols such as providing an existing conditions report, historical report and taking in progress photos to document the work. The hands on training involves drawing the railings to scale in blueprints, building the forms and learning how to work with the various materials with safety as a priority.

CPI students removing forms on a concrete railing. Shelagh Fritz photo

CPI students removing forms on a concrete railing. Shelagh Fritz photo

In her own words, Catrina is embracing CPI for what it is; a once in a lifetime opportunity to be a part of becoming an asset to history. “I am learning so much here. Other internship would be all paperwork and no application of skills. This is what makes CPI different. We learn from instructors who have dedicated their lives to the concrete Industry”. The students frequently receive visits from people who literally write the textbooks students use in concrete engineering majors!

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the program itself?

A: CPI is a twelve weeks program open for college students and post nine eleven veterans. There are 3 sessions per year. CPI teaches students research & technology innovation, tool knowledge and application skills, importance of industry job site safety, and using skills to apply to preservation of Alcatraz. There are people from many different educational backgrounds in this program. Some participants educational background range from construction industry management, civil engineering, biology, megatronics engineering, and architecture. Several people involved are both in schools and active duty servicemen and vets who served in Iraq. Veterans are always urged to join CPI program. I believe this program is an amazing opportunity for anyone who is involved.

Q: What makes the concrete you are using now special?

A: The concrete we are using is manufactured by BASF to add extra features to withstand the elements which typically limit the longevity of concrete. We mixed fibers in the mix for the panels of the railing because those areas are subjects to a greater weight load because of the top portion of railings. The panels are only 2″ in thickness so the panels have stainless steel threaded rods (the new rebar) embedded in them. Cracking over time is natural process in concrete because the rebar corrodes. The synthetic fibers never break down and so in theory, the concrete should last indefinitely.

New railings in the rose terrace. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

New railings in the rose terrace. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

Catrina was initially informed about this opportunity from her program director at New Jersey Institute of Technology. The current session finished on August 21 program and she will have a greater advantage for applying for fellowships and scholarships. In the fall, Catrina will continue her schooling at New Jersey Institute of Technology for her engineering degree in concrete industry management and construction management. Her future is bright with limitless possibilities.

With the abundance of concrete in the world, skilled people will be very much in demand to care for aging structures. Students will either go directly into the industry after their internship or will return to school to study chemistry, biology or architecture.



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A crime scene on Alcatraz

Seabird nesting season is in full force on Alcatraz. This wonderful time of the year is a rare chance to see many of the Bay Area’s seabirds nesting and raising their young. In numbers (and in volume) are the Western gulls. Last year they counted in at around 2000 pairs.


However, their arrival always comes with a bit of apprehension. The gulls of course need material to make nests and must also claim territory. Both of these tasks mean that plants are torn up and shredded, and all too often these are garden plants!


We have come to expect a bit of damage but with the native grass, Carex praegracilis, lawn that was planted with plugs we were a bit nervous if the plugs would take root and be strong enough to withstanding the tugging by gulls.


The plugs were planted at the beginning of November when the rains would hopefully start. While we had some showers we had to supplement with hand watering too from our rainwater catchment. About 1/3 of the lawn was planted and now 5 months along, the plugs have started to send out stolons and are spreading.


On a recent sunny morning, while checking the gardens over, I noticed a puzzling crime scene – the grasses were being shorn off close to their bases.


Carex plugs being nibbled to their bases. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Carex plugs being nibbled to their bases. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Guilty by past behavior, I immediately suspected the gulls. But, the telltale sign of shredded vegetation was not present. In fact, the missing tops of the grasses were actually gone! What could this be? We don’t have deer or rabbits and yet the grass looked ‘nibbled’.


Examining the scene closer, I spied the ‘evidence’ left behind – droppings. Sure enough Canada geese had found our lawn. There are maybe 3 pairs of geese on the island and they were making our lawn their morning buffet.


Canada goose 'evidence'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Canada goose ‘evidence’. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

For all of our planning and thinking of possible ‘what could go wrong scenarios’, we had overlooked the population of geese and their liking of grass.


Luckily, few plugs have been pulled out, the geese are proving to be more grazers, and hopefully the plugs will continue to grow. Mowing actually helps grasses get thicker and encourages them to send out more stolons.


The lawn is slowly being ‘mown’ from left to right, but at least the plugs are being fertilized too.

The native sedge lawn being 'mown' by Canada geese. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The native sedge lawn being ‘mown’ by Canada geese. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


With the mandated 25% cut in water usage in California, I’m so relieved we choose to have a native sedge replicate the look of a lawn. Our ‘lawn’ will be low maintenance and will only require 2” of water per month to stay relatively green throughout the summer months.


As Alcatraz is a destination, I’m hoping that visitors will take notice of our drought tolerant lawn and ask questions. The lawn will also be a topic on our garden tours and offered as an alternative.

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A Milestone has been Reached

On June 30, 2014 a milestone in the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz project was reached – the  Garden Conservancy graduated its preservation project of the Alcatraz gardens to its ‘completed’ list and handed the rehabilitated gardens over to the Stewardship department of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit partner of the National Parks Service.

The rehabilitation of the historic gardens began in 2003 with the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy enlisting the expertise of the Garden Conservancy to lead the effort to restore the gardens and to interpret the significance of the gardens to the public.

Shirley poppies, Al Healy's photos 2008 127

Shirley poppies blooming in Officers’ Row. Photo by Al Healy

The project was ambitious – removing 40 years of overgrowth to restore 5 key garden areas, gather historic documentation and keep detailed records of work performed, develop a volunteer garden program to help care for the gardens, and to promote the gardens with free guided walks, free self-guided brochures, a website and social media. Not to mention the biggest hurdle – fundraising. A big order to say the least!

It was all accomplished.

The ultimate goal of taking on a project like the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz is to eventually hand the completed project over to caretakers who will take on the responsibility of caring for and funding the gardens.

Each of the 15 preservation projects the Garden Conservancy is currently working on is different from each other, and with that, each has its own unique management for achieving the goal of financial sustainability. The Ruth Bancroft Garden, the Garden Conservancy’s very first project is a model for success. The garden began as a private garden of a homeowner and has now become a public garden with its own staff, board of directors and revenue generating events.

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

With its graduation, the Gardens of Alcatraz joins the ranks as a successfully completed project. However, the Alcatraz gardens could not be more different from the Ruth Bancroft Garden. As a National Park, the Alcatraz gardens could never easily obtain permission to host revenue generating events, such as issuing garden memberships, plant sales or hosting garden tours. A different solution was needed.

Fundraising for the initial scope of the project (the restoration) was easy (or as easy as any fundraising effort is). The economy was good and the Garden Conservancy had supporters who were happy to help with a noble cause. The Golden Gate Parks Conservancy had a yearly budget for the project, and with smaller donations and grants, the project always had sufficient funds.

With the economy crashing in 2008, fundraising became more difficult and repeatedly asking the same donor base for assistance was unlikely. As well, finding support for just maintaining the gardens was more not as exciting as actually restoring them. (As they say in the park – its easy to fund a new restroom but hard to find funding to clean it).

The solution was easy but came with a lot of paperwork. The gardens should be funded by the people enjoying them – the visitors. A portion of the ticket sales is directly funding the gardens.

Alcatraz - awaiting your discovery. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Alcatraz – awaiting your discovery. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Rehabilitation, Sustainability | 2 Comments

A new native lawn

At long last, here is an update on what has been keeping us busy this spring! The biggest project we took on was renovating the lawn in front of the cell house, at the very summit of the island. Keep in mind, when I say ‘summit’, you have to envision the harshest possible place to try to grow anything.

This little patch of lawn, about 3000 square feet in size, was last renovated 10 years ago when it was planted with sod and had irrigation installed. Over time, weeds had worked their way into the lawn and the lawn had become more weeds than grass. The biggest culprits were Bermuda grass and oxalis, with the odd dandelion. Even the irrigation had never worked properly.

The lawn of oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The lawn of oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

During the summer months, the wind blows so strongly that the water from the irrigation nozzles was literally blowing away. Regular watering had become a hand watering task done by the limited National Park Service maintenance staff. For a brief time, the cable fence surrounding the lawn was removed and the lawn was trampled by the heavy foot traffic of the daily 5000 visitors. The cable fence was put back, however, the concrete used to hold the fence posts in place was poured over the irrigation valves!

It was inevitable that the lawn failed.

The National Park Service, seeing the wonders of the now thriving gardens that had sprung from the overgrowth under the care of the horticulturists on the garden crew, were hopeful that the lawn could have a similar outcome.

Many ideas for a lawn were discussed, even replacing the weeds with new sod or trying artificial turf! From previous research done, we did have certain requirements to meet:

  • we wanted a low spreading grass, not a clumping type, that would give the look of a lawn
  • a drought tolerant lawn that would require a minimum amount of water once it was established
  • a grass that would tolerate being mowed
  • a grass that would not go dormant in the summer
  • a cool-season grass that would grow in the fog and cold


Meanwhile, one of our other projects underway is to renovate the historic west lawn using drought tolerant grasses. This project has been in the works for two years now as we are using a cardboard sheet mulch to smother the oxalis and annual weeds. For the lawn at the  summit, we did not have the luxury of leaving a bare patch of ground for two years. Even if we did, I’m sure the mulch and cardboard would blow away!

Volunteers working on the last patch of weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Volunteers working on the last patch of weeding oxalis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Using crews of volunteers, we hand-weeded the lawn and hand-picked buckets of oxalis corms.  Our most common question from visitors was ‘what were we looking for?’ It was always tempting to say ‘bodies’, but we stuck with our story of weeding oxalis.

Next, we dug out the old irrigation system. It was no surprise to see concrete poured over the emitters, no wonder why this system had never worked!

After two months of weeding, we added an entire pallet of chicken manure. Again, we got a lot of attention from our activities. It was amazing to see how many people were sensitive to the smell of manure (especially kids).

Leveling off the area, we dug trenches for the pvc pipes that would feed our new irrigation of Netafim drip lines. (I’ll leave out the step of purchasing the wrong pvc pipe diameter and hauling them to the island, only to return to them to the mainland and then go buy the right diameter).

Installing the irrigation drip lines took

Installing the new drip line irrigation of NetaFim. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Installing the new drip line irrigation of NetaFim. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

about three days. We wanted to lay the lines about a foot apart and have three zones that could be turned on/off separately. Laying the network of lines in a grid pattern was easy, it just took a little bit of time to cut and connect the T-connectors. One of the problems with the old system was that there was not enough pressure to have good coverage as the water was spraying. Netafim already has emitters built into the lines that do not clog with soil. The lines can actually be buried and they apparently will still not clog. Our lines are laying directly on top of the soil and the grasses will grow over them, so eventually they will not be seen.

We encountered the usual problems of discovering a broken water pipe that feeds the irrigation box – likely cut from deep shoveling oxalis corms, running out of T-connectors and needing to buy more, and of course the wind picking up every afternoon and making it unpleasant to work on the lawn.

We purchased plugs of Carex praegracillis,

Helping hands to get the grass plugs to the island on the ferry. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Helping hands to get the grass plugs to the island on the ferry. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

as growing from seed would have taken too long. We purchased a few flats of plugs from California Flora Nursery that were fantastic. However, there were not enough to finish the job and I needed to buy more plugs. The rest of the plugs were of very poor quality and were very root bound in the packs. The volunteers had to spend extra time to cut the strangling roots away, soak the plants in water and then to finally plant them. We did have a little assembly line going and it was a really good group activity (we so rarely all get to work side by side anymore).

Rootbound plugs of grass. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Rootbound plugs of grass. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



Assembly line of volunteers teasing apart the root bound plugs. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Assembly line of volunteers teasing apart the root bound plugs. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



Beginning to plant! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Beginning to plant! Photo by Shelagh Fritz



So far, so good with the lawn. The little plugs have some new shoots on them and will eventually fill in. The seagulls have only pulled out a few plugs that are easily replanted.

Hopefully by summer of next year, Alcatraz will boast a drought tolerant lawn that will be an example to people from around the world that you can have a lawn that does not use precious fresh water.

The newly planted lawn. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The newly planted lawn. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Garden Update

A key component to historical garden restoration is to document our work. As we have replanted a few garden beds this season, we are now following up the work with ‘after’ shots.

The little roadside bed that we fondly call the Chapel Bed was renovated this past August, and it is really coming into its own with the spring show of daffodils.

For snow bound East Coasters,

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The daffodils in full bloom. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

probably smelling our scented heirloom daffodils in January is a treat for the senses.

Including the daffodils, just in this tiny bed, there are five different plants blooming right now. There is the red valerian, Centranthus ruber, Hebe, and Verbena bonariensis. The mix of purple, red and yellow just say ‘spring is here’.


The plants not in bloom are building up to put on a great show for the summer. Already, the Tower of Jewels, Echium pininana, has doubled its size many times over. We dug up a seedling elsewhere on the island and planted it on the corner knowing that it will demand attention from the visitors walking by. Right now, it is quietly doing its own thing, growing a little each day and probably doesn’t even get a glance from the thousands of people passing by – but just wait – by the end of the summer it will reach 10 feet high and will be the star of the bed. The Tower of Jewels showed up in newly acquired historic photo along the main roadway, so it was appropriate to replant it.


The Echium was started in a 4" pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium was started in a 4″ pot back in August. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Echium is on its way to being 10 feet tall. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another silent wonder in this bed unfortunately will not get a season to shine. This, of course, is the new compost that was added. Rich in organic matter and worms, the compost is from our own award winning recipe and is the essential building block.




All too often, home gardeners are so eager to plant that the important step of soil preparation is missed. Amending a bed is the most physically challenging part, but the effort will be rewarded. Compost should be mixed in with the existing soil, so the plants get extra nutrients but also get accustomed to the native soil.

As the arm chair gardeners sit out the rest of the winter looking at seed catalogues, don’t forget about your soil and plan to give it some extra attention this spring.

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The Toolshed Terraces Receive their Deserved Attention



Our winter renovation projects are moving right along even though we are still waiting for rain.


The toolshed terraces have never really

Out of season. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Out of season. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.


Fresh compost ready to be mixed into the beds.

Fresh compost ready to be mixed into the beds.

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.


Most of the succulents we propagated ourselves from island stock. Photo by  Shelagh Fritz

Most of the succulents we propagated ourselves from island stock. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Karolina bringing our purchased plants from the Alcatraz dock to the work site. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Karolina bringing our purchased plants from the Alcatraz dock to the work site. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


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.

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Inmate Gardeners, Plants, Rehabilitation | Comments Off on The Toolshed Terraces Receive their Deserved Attention

Get Back in Line!

As the end of December approaches and we get into the depths of winter (California winter, of course), we are busy with our planting projects in the gardens.


High on the ‘to-do’ list was to replant a terraced garden in Officers’ Row, the eastern facing gardens. These gardens were first rehabilitated in 2006 and looked fantastic for the first 8 years, but had noticeably declined this past summer. This garden is open every Wednesday for our casual garden viewing with a gardener present so it was vital that our showcase garden impressed our visitors.


The gardens were designed by the late Carola Ashford, the first project manager, to resemble the cutting flower gardens created by the wives of the federal penitentiary during the 1940s and 1950s. She selected perennials and bulbs that would give year-round color based on a few key photographs.


The historic photo showing red and yellow cutting flowers. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak

The historic photo showing red and yellow cutting flowers. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak

In the photos, reds and yellows are predominant, so Gaillardia ‘Burgandy’ and ‘Goblin’ were selected to give the cheerful look. Yellow Aurinia saxatilis, gold basket, was chosen to edge the pathway mixed in with blue Muscari, grape hyacinth, for a spring mix. Heirloom daffodils were planted in rows to bloom successively through the spring months. As the garden matured, many of the neat planting rows were beginning to meander, and the perennials were not blooming as fiercely as they once had.


While we could have gone back to Carola’s original planting plan and done the same, this was an opportunity to introduce a few new plants to Alcatraz that provided the look we were after.


The first step was to supplement the soil with rich compost from our own pile and chicken manure that we had purchased. The sparrows had a field day scurrying around after insects.


A sparrow watching our every move. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A sparrow watching our every move. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The burgundy gaillardia was replaced with Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Tiger Stripes’ that has a brilliant mix of red and yellow on each flower. This is a very forgiving perennial that also makes a great cut flower, plus it is also an heirloom plant, first introduced in 1885. We did keep the Gaillardia ‘Goblin’ but needed to transplant a few of the plants to keep the orderly lines of cut flowers.


We have become big fans of Coreopsis!

Coreopsis grandiflora 'Sunburst'. Photo courtesty of Annie's Annuals

Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunburst’. Photo courtesty of Annie’s Annuals

We also introduced Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunburst’. This is a great bloomer with golden flowers. The coreopsis does perform better when regularly deadheaded but this garden task is very meditative.


We had also noted that the garden was lacking in fall blooms – we would always make an emergency trip to the local nursery for some fall plants to fill in the blanks when the iris and dahlias had died back. This past fall we purchased Rudbeckia, black eyed Susan, to give us the extra color we needed, and they were very happy on the island. So happy that they spread! Not a lot, but they were wandering. We never had the heart to weed out the strays, and the neat lines of a cutting garden were beginning to be lost.


The bearded iris also needed rethinking. This was a difficult one, as they are legacy plants to the gardens. Mostly blooming in spring, the large section of iris would remain barren and become a chore to nip the brown leaf tips throughout the rest of the year. We dug up the entire patch (and hopefully got rid of some nasty grass with long rhizomes as well) and tucked a single row of iris between the gaillardia and the coreopsis. The iris blooms should rise above its neighbors and then we can cut the foliage back to be hidden by the other perennials.


Placing all the plants first and then planting really helps to see what the garden will look like; and lets you make any changes before you actually plant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Placing all the plants first and then planting really helps to see what the garden will look like; and lets you make any changes before you actually plant. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We also added in a few missing plants – a couple of Limonium perezii (statice), penstemon (beard tongue), and centranthus (Jupiter’s Beard). With Centranthus being a notable naturalizer, I refused to buy one. Ironically, we had to hunt around for a seedling of a red centranthus, the gardeners do a great job of removing them.


The daffodils remain to be tackled though. This will need to be done in the spring when we can identify each flower. The dahlias and the daffodils are inter-planted as they bloom at different times of the year. Unfortunately, with constant digging in this bed, the neat rows of heirloom daffodils have become interspersed with each other. The daffodils will need dividing anyway, as they have formed big clumps that are forcing themselves out of the ground.


All done! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All done! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

All in all, it was a great week to be in the gardens. Now we just need some rain.

Posted in Gardens of Alcatraz, Plants, Rehabilitation | Comments Off on Get Back in Line!