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Category Archives: Rehabilitation
The fall and winter are the busiest times of the year to work on new garden projects. Mid-September to February 1st is the time when the seabirds are gone from the island and the closed nesting areas can once again be worked in; as well, the winter rains help water any new plantings.
With September here already, we are
getting ready for this fun time of year. One big project that will be worked on is expanding the Drosanthemum floribundum planting on the cellhouse slope. Historically, this entire slope was planted with pink Persian carpet ice plant with the intention of it being visible from San Francisco.
Currently, half of the slope is planted with Persian carpet while the other half is overgrown with wild radish and grasses. Volunteers have been busy the past few months taking cuttings and propagating plugs of the tiny iceplant. The succulent is easy to propagate and rooting hormones are not needed to encourage new roots. We use our rich garden compost to start the plugs in; however the slope itself is well drained sandy soil.
The area of the slope is quite large, approximately, 6000 square feet. The plugs are planted about 8 inches apart so we will need PLENTY of plugs to cover the area. In other garden areas, we have been successful at rooting the cuttings by planting them directly in the ground and watering right after. We will likely need to rely on this method as well to cover the entire slope.
Once established, the drought tolerant plants will help control erosion while giving the look of the manicured prison gardens.
There are also several other garden areas that can only be maintained during the winter season. For these areas, we will be cutting back overgrowth, typically sweetpea, honeysuckle, brambles and ivy that grow to their hearts content all summer. For this annual cleanup, corporate volunteer groups trade their pencils for pitchforks and help out for the morning.
What do the WWII Normandy landing site, Point du Hoc, and Alcatraz Island have in common? The answer: aging reinforced concrete buildings, unrelenting coastal elements of buffeting wind and saltwater, and heavy traveler visitation to the site.
These environmental elements affected the picturesque Puppy Stairs which lead from the switchback behind Building 64 up to the historic gardens above. The concrete is cracked and chipped, the rebar
rusting, and the stairs unusable to the majority of Alcatraz Island visitors. Built in the 1920s, during Alcatraz’ Military period, the steps are known as the Puppy Stairs because of their small rise. They were also known at one time as the Poodle Stairs, and other stairs in the same vicinity with a much larger rise were known as the Great Dane Stairs.
Dr. Tonya Komas, Director of the Chico State Concrete Industry Management program and a few students visited Point du Hoc in 2009 to do some noninvasive evaluations of the 20 World War II military bunkers. In 2009 Jason Hagin, Historical Architect for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, heard about this project at Chico State University exploring issues of environmental damage to structures similar to Alcatraz.
With Hagin’s connection to Komas, along with a grant from BASF, a concrete repair materials company, the rehabilitation of the Officers’ Row Stairs last summer and this year’s Puppy Stairs was a go. Students from Chico come to this project to fulfill an internship requirement which gives them credit toward their degree.
Phil Peterson, Public Relations Director for the Concrete Industry Management Alcatraz Preservation Field School, answered some questions about the project:
What is involved in this project?
In 1966, the U.S. Department for the Interior established the National Historic Preservation Act, intended to preserve America’s historic and archeological sites. This legislation applies to our work in the areas of restoration, rehabilitation, and repair. To rehabilitate is to fix the historic site for use by the public, making every effort to maintain its historic nature.
What type of special materials will be used?
We are using a special concrete repair mortar called ZERO-C, a fresh-on-the-market repair mortar short for “zero-cracking” that has been developed over the past half-decade by BASF, a global chemical company. It’s basically construction Play-doh.
How long do you think the project will last?
We leave August 12 and return to school the week after, but we will be back many more summers. Chico State’s Concrete Industry Management program has a five-year agreement with the National Park Service to keep performing our restoration work, so we will keep coming back until at least 2015. As far as the Puppy Stairs is concerned, they should be finished next year, or the year after.
Who is working on this project?
The project is led by Professor and CIM Director Tanya Komas as well as Project Manager Andrew Billingsley. He is a
student from last year’s pilot program who graduated and has been hired as faculty to oversee the project, as well as teach this year’s group of students. Students involved include Brandon Agles, Steven Aguilar, Kenneth Garcia, Greg Hollingshead, Brian O’Hair, Brian Peart, Phil Petermann and Sofia Salazar.
We have been provided with housing in the Marin Headlands for this project by the Parks Conservancy and NPS. Without housing, we wouldn’t able to do this project, and we’re eternally grateful for their help. On a personal note, this whole summer has just been unreal to me. Every once in a while I take a break from work and just look around and attempt to absorb the gravity of our work.
Contributed by Kristen Elford, Parks Conservancy
Thanks to Phillip Petermann, Dr. Tanya Komas and Jason Hagin. Bibliography: Thompson, Erwin N. “The Rock; A History of Alcatraz Island, 1847 to 1972”. Denver Service Center Historic Preservation Division National Parks Service. Denver Colorado.
Spanish discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1769. The English surveyed the Bay in 1826. Early maps of Alcatraz can be viewed on the National Park Service website.
Cartography has come a long way since the Spanish and English mapped Alcatraz in the mid 1700s. This week, Robert Warden, the Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation (CHC) and Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M University has been on the island with his associates Dr. Julie Rogers, Associate Director for the CHC and Lonnie Champagne along with Director Dr. Tanya Komas and her students from the Concrete Industry Management Program at Chico State University, to demonstrate the uses of laser scanning.
Laser scanning or Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a method of producing millions of points in 3D space that represent the size and shape of objects as large as landscapes and as small as nails. The product is called a point cloud, which can look like a 3D photograph if there are enough points. It produces points by bouncing a laser beam off of objects – like buildings – and calculating the angle and distance of the object from the scanner. It works very much like a typical survey total station in concept with the exception that scanners can calculate tens to hundreds of thousands of point locations per second rather than the single point from a total station. Multiple scans are carefully pieced together to form a complete 3D point cloud of the object. Scanners, like cameras have differing technical specifications that make them useful for different purposes. The challenge of recording historic buildings and sites like Alcatraz is the necessity for accuracy at large and small scales. Typical accuracy for the Riegl 390 used for this session is 6mm.
As I was speaking with Robert, his students were scanning the Warden’s House and within 30 minutes, an image was produced that could show me the individual bricks in the fireplace, looking down into the building.
Laser Scanning has been in use since the 1970s but only in the last fifteen years has the development of laser digital technology allowed it to be adapted for preservation and engineering purposes.
On Alcatraz, this technology will be useful for documenting the historic site accurately. Mapping the gardens in the early days of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project was difficult with the overgrowth entanglements that obscured the fine details in the landscape.
With laser scanning, details such as gradient changes, precise distances and documenting the current state of the historic features can be done. Laser scanning is quick and accurate. In additional to documenting the landscape, the information gathered from laser scanning can produce accurate interpretive models and be useful for maintenance of the aging structures.
It will be exciting to see where this new technology will lead us.
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.
In 2006, the Gardens of Alcatraz, on behalf of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, was granted a Save America’s Treasures award to support the rehabilitation work. Spread over three years, these funds provided the means to rebuild pathways, railings, and retaining walls; amend soil and purchase plants; and to return the gardens to their historic appearance that are now enjoyed by the 1.5 million visitors each year.
This past Tuesday afternoon, I had the pleasure of showing the gardens to the National Park Service grant officer who administered the Save America’s Treasures award throughout the three years of its term. The role of the representative was to ensure the funds were being allocated properly and work was progressing as planned. Based in Washington, D.C., Ms. Carter received quarterly updates from 2006 to 2009, but had never actually seen the gardens in person.
The Save America’s Treasures grant aims to do just that – Save America’s Treasures. Across the country there are many nationally significant sites that need to be preserved for their historical and cultural importance. The Save America’s Treasures is a wonderful grant program that provides a means to ensure these sites are saved. A common misbelief with national parks is that funding for these sites is guaranteed.
One of the requirements of the grant is for the applying organization to raise a matching grant. The Gardens of Alcatraz was awarded $250 000 and The Garden Conservancy, with its partner organization, was required to raise a matching $250 000.
The Gardens of Alcatraz is a great example of success. Without the award, we would not be where we are today. Visitors would not be strolling through cutting gardens reminiscent of the 1940s and 50s; they would not be aware that the gardens provided a home for the families that lived here, or the fact that inmates tended the gardens lovingly and created beauty in a place that focused on punishment and isolation.
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.
The rose terrace greenhouse turns one-year old this February. The cedar wood, greenhouse was built with volunteers last winter.
The greenhouse is dedicated to Carola Ashford, the first project manager for the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, who past away February 24, 2009.
Carola began with the Garden Conservancy as the Marco Polo Fellow in 2004, later to become the project manager. Her meticulous research for historic photos, letters and interviews with past residents are visible in the gardens she designed. From the beginning, she had the vision to see a garden through all the overgrowth. As a lifelong gardener, she had the zeal and passion to tackle the ivy, blackberries and honeysuckle with her own hands, even on a few occasions being told to get down from a precarious ledge.
Inside the greenhouse a plaque displays an excerpt from her work journal. In her flowing handwriting, she writes of tackling the toolshed gardens – “I just love how evocative that garden is…wonderful array of terraces w/ Echium, succulents, acanthus and more Chasmanthe than is at all necessary.” February is exactly the time of the year when this garden is in its prime, all the plants she wrote of are bursting with flowers, even the Chasmanthe.
The Gardens of Alcatraz has served many purposes for the people that created and tended them over their long history. From the Victorian ladies who called Alcatraz home in the late 1800s to both the military and federal inmates, who found that gardening provided an escape and solace, to the volunteers and staff that brought the gardens back to life, each person continuing the tradition of gardening. Carola came to the gardens at a vital time, and the gardens are thriving today with her touch. To continue her legacy, you can make a contribution to the Carola Ashford Alcatraz Gardens Fund.
Volunteers took advantage of the sunny weather this morning to weed wild radish, Raphanus raphanistrum, on the southern facing slope in front of the cell house. This annual weed, a member of the mustard family – Brassicaceae – has naturalized in North America from its native Eurasia.
This overgrown section of the slope was stabilized in 2007 with waddles and jute netting but has since become overgrown with radish, Lavatera and oxalis. This is the first year that we are attempting to control the radish. Our intent is to reduce the number the weed seeds so that in future years, this slope will be planted with the Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum that was historically planted on this slope during the 1920s.
The radish is just beginning to establish itself for the summer by sending its long taproot deep into the soil to find moisture. Volunteers took on the challenge of pulling the entire root, otherwise the plant will continue to grow. Either it was the hard work or the scent of fresh radish but like other radishes, these roots are edible and soon the volunteers were nibbling at the roots. The flowers are also edible and are easily identifiable with four petals ranging in color of pale yellow, apricot, pink and white. When considering consuming any plant from the wild, it is vital to be confident that you have positively identified the plant.
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.