Category Archives: Rehabilitation

Getting better with age

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.

Before view of the west road terrace in 2009. Photo by Diane Ochi

Rambling rose cleared from hillside in September 2009. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Present view of west road terrace. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Algentis volunteer group clearing the rose in September 2009. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Historic photo from 1946 of the same hillside. Photo courtesy of GOGA

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Weeding season is here

The much anticipated winter rains that bring a lush green to the island mark another “season” in the gardens – the weeding season. The most prolific weed on the island is Oxalis pes-caprae, commonly known as sourgrass or Bermuda buttercup. It is native to South Africa and highly invasive in California, especially along the coast.

How oxalis came to be on Alcatraz is not known. However, it is thought that the bright yellow winter flowers of oxalis were ideal to plant with the summer blooming pink Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum.

While this planning of sequential garden bloom is clever, past ornamental plant introductions often turn out to be problematic choices.

Drosanthemum and Oxalis growing together. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

To maintain the Persian carpet and to keep it from being choked out, volunteer gardeners will be spending countless hours on the south facing cell house slope from now until April.

Volunteer gardeners weeding Oxalis. Photo by Melissa Harris

Weeding oxalis is no easy feat but not without rewards. Oxalis grows from a corm from a depth of one inch to over nine. Digging out the corm is the key to removing the weed once and for all, and the satisfaction of pulling out the entire corm is very rewarding. I often find myself holding up the offending corm and showing it off proudly to the volunteers, as usually it’s only other weeders who can fully appreciate the accomplishment. In addition to the sheer pleasure of weeding for hours, enjoying views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, chatting with visitors who are also admiring the view, and occasionally eavesdropping on conversations cannot be beat.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Shelagh FritzView of the Bay Bridge and San Francisco skyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

View of the Bay Bridge and the city skyline. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Volunteers Uncover Hidden Terraces

Whaleboaters on Alcatraz

Members of the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association. Photo by Corny Foster

While Alcatraz is a relatively small 22.5-acre island, a few historic gardens tended long ago remain hidden; they have yet to be cleared of overgrowth vegetation, documented, and perhaps one day restored.

This past weekend, volunteers from the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association worked to reclaim a set of terraces that lead from the dock to the parade ground. These terraces were first gardened by Freddie Reichel in the early 1940s. Mr. Reichel was the secretary to Alcatraz Warden Johnson. Impressed with the gardens left by the military, he worked in his spare time to maintain their beauty. He began to tend these terraces behind his home.

Prior to any removal of vegetation, we investigate the history of the area. There should be some documentation that the area was once a garden. Evidence of a past garden can be found in historic photos, oral history interviews, old maps of the island, and existing ornamental plants and hardscape features. In this case, old photos, surviving ornamental plants, and extensive terraces confirmed our belief that the area had once been gardened.

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Alcatraz inmate gardener

A guard supervises an inmate gardener clearing the same stairs in 1955. Photo by Bergen.

The Whaleboaters revealed dry-stacked terraces and cleared the staircase that was becoming covered with eucalyptus leaves. They made a few interesting discoveries – a pink radio, several rubber boots and surviving ornamental plants such as Euonymus japonica and an unidentified rose.

found radio and boot

Motorola radio and rubber boot found in the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The Whaleboaters did a fantastic job revealing this hidden corner of the island. From the dock, visitors can see for themselves the newly revealed terraces and the staircase that once led to the parade ground.

Before and after. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

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