Category Archives: Volunteers

A Typical Week

The Rock is many things to many different people. For some visitors, it is a trip of a lifetime, something that they must see. For past residents, it can be a place of happy memories or of sad times (depending on which side of the bars you were on). For Bay Area residents, perhaps it is just a landmark in the middle of the Bay, a tourist trap that is best avoided. For others – volunteers and staff, the island holds a special place that we look forward to being each day.

For me, this week held a strange combination of people from all those categories.

On Tuesday, I was able to show the gardens to a couple from New Jersey whose daughter had raved about the gardens. The couple had put the gardens on the top of their list of things to see while they were in San Francisco.

My volunteers trooped onto the island on Wednesday and as always, enjoyed their morning. Late in the afternoon, as the last boat pulled away, I was left on the island with an interesting group of people:

A film crew from the Travel Channel that were highlighting secret places to visit,

Four guys who had backpacks,

Bob Luke, a past inmate, and his lovely wife,

A National Park Service ranger.

I could figure out how everyone related to the island, except for the guys with the backpacks. As it turned out, one of the guys, Jim Vetter, had entered the lottery system for an overnight on Alcatraz and had blogged about his stay. The volunteer group had waited five years before winning the chance to participate in volunteer work and then sleep overnight on the island. The Travel Channel picked up on his blog and contacted them to re-enact their night.

The Travel Channel was also able to

Bob Luke, a former inmate, with his mugshot when he was 26 years old. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

arrange an interview with Bob Luke, a former inmate sentenced for robbery. I had the chance to chat with Bob and his wife and never would I guess that he had a past on Alcatraz.

The gardens naturally fit with being a secret part of Alcatraz, one that catches people by surprise with the flourishing blooms.

As the week continued, on Thursday I hosted a group from the National Parks Conservation Association  that were interested in seeing the gardens. An honor to have this group on the island, they work hard to educate decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks.

And finally, Friday arrived; and a new volunteer joined our crew. As an introduction to the island, she joined a group of 30 visitors for the free docent led walk through the gardens to learn about the history. Ending the week with the volunteers and the docent tour really brings home why we are here on the island – to engage the community and to share the stories of gardens  with visitors. As I reflect on my week, I realize that everyone has their own reasons for visiting National Parks, and Alcatraz especially, has something to offer to everyone.

Sunrise on Friday morning. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr Day of Service

Around the nation today, thousands of people joined together in volunteering to mark Martin Luther King, Junior Day. This federal holiday was first observed in 1986 to mark Dr. Martin Luther King’s, birthday. In 1994, in honor of Martin Luther King, Congress designated the third Monday in January as a Day of Service; it is the only federal holiday observed as a national day of service – a “day on, not a day off.” As described by the Martin Luther King, Jr. website, “the MLK Day of Service empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”

Once again, people in the Bay Area fully supported their Golden Gate National Recreation Area by quickly filling up the volunteer opportunities. Park-wide, 587 volunteers registered!

On Alcatraz, I had the pleasure of working Sifting compost for MLK Day of Service. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwith a variety of community members. A family with two daughters learned all about composting from our own Worm Man of Alcatraz, Dick Miner.

While the other group of volunteers was made up of 10 youth from BuildOn, a non-profit that builds schools in third world countries, and four park enthusiasts, who have volunteered for the Park before. For many of the volunteers, this was their first time to Alcatraz.

Working together, the groups accomplished clearing an overgrown pathway and sifting a yard of compost that will be used in the gardens.



Joining in by cutting back Ivy and Mirror Bush. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



A fulfilling morning with the cleared pathway. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


 Thank you for supporting MLK Day and your Park!

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A Record Year for Volunteering


The opportunity to garden on Alcatraz has always been one of the more unique places to volunteer in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Volunteers are

Volunteers tending the pelargonium trough. Photo by Fergal M. Moran

drawn to the island for many reasons: to learn about gardening, to meet new friends, to learn the real stories about Alcatraz or to simply brag to their friends that they gardened on Alcatraz. The popularity of the volunteer garden program continues to grow and 2011 was a record year with 7987.25 hours being logged.

This staggering total was achieved with the help of 138 volunteers that turned out for the regular Wednesday or Friday volunteer program, and from 711 people that came to garden as part of a work group. Over the course of the year, 47 work groups participated in stewarding different garden areas. Many of these people were first time gardeners.

With 4.5 acres of gardens that are seen

Dick using the chipper. Photo by Fergal M. Moran

by 5000 people a day, it takes special dedication to have the gardens looking their best every day. Working alongside Garden Conservancy staff, volunteers are an integral part of caring for the gardens. Many volunteers have their own area that they tend faithfully while others are happy to do whatever is needed. Still, others enjoy the big projects of re-setting brick walls, stabilizing terraces and turning mounds of compost. I believe there is a job for everyone, no matter what color their thumb is.

Thank you to everyone that supported the gardens this past year, the gardens continue to thrive!





Habitat for Humanity. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Bay Area Whaleboat Association

Boy scouts


Charles Schwab

City College of San Francisco

Cloudkick / Rack Space

Cresswell High School

Denver Academy

Gay and Lesbian Sierrans

Goldman Sachs

Government Services Association (GSA)

Hotel Vitale

InterContinental Hotel

Americorps volunteering in the Rose Terrace. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Lanier Law Firm



Merritt College

Msquared Consulting


Nixon Peabody LLP

Ruth Bancroft Garden Inc

SCA commuter group

Sleep Train

Goldman Sachs tending the north road calla bed. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Stuart Hall Sacred Heart School for girls

UC Irvine

Union Bank

Wells Fargo Bank




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Volunteers give a Saving Fix to Historic Terraces

Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.

The laundry terraces during the Federal prison era. Photo by J. Simpson 1942-1946c



The inmate built terrace gardens today. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect

The recipe ingredients: sand, Portland Cement and lime. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.

Bharat re-setting the concrete blocks with mortar. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February.  A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.

Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.

Numbers etched into the cement that once formed a drain basin under a spigot. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.


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Come Discover Alcatraz

We have just launched a new outreach program for island visitors called Discovery Table. The Discovery Table aims to engage visitors with interactive displays themed on the Gardens of Alcatraz. With the entire island to use as a resource, we want to share with visitors captivating information about the gardens that they otherwise would not learn about through our garden tours, brochure or website. We want to draw people’s attention to the details of the garden that might otherwise be missed.

The Discovery Table invites kids and adults to use their senses to experience the gardens in a different way. In only its second week, we have covered drastically different topics such as ‘Life on the Rock with Lichens and Moss’ and ‘Nose around Alcatraz: Scented Plants in the Gardens’. More topics to come will have visitors watching hummingbirds zip around the purple blossoms of pride of madeira, Echium candicans, getting your hands dirty with a demonstration of our worm farm and our award winning compost; as well as learning about how the succulents on the island survived without care for over 40 years.

Garden volunteers, Corny and Marney, hosted

Corny and Marney point out a banana slug to visitors. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

the premier Discovery Table to introduce visitors to Life on the Rock, literally. Using a banana slug to draw people in, visitors were given a hand microscope to take a closer look at the sandstone that makes up the island. A surprise for many, lichens and moss have found their way into many niches on the rock and brick that make up Alcatraz. Just like the residents that called Alcatraz ‘home’, lichens and moss have to cope in the harsh marine environment to survive. As Corny and Marney found out, lichen and moss cope with chilly temperatures in the winter. Armed with hand microscopes, visitors could see the lichens were ‘flowering’ and could appreciate the variety of colors with the many species of lichen that are living side by side.

Lichen living on a military era brick wall. Photo by Corny Foster


The second Discovery Table was presented yesterday on a calm, sunny day; a perfect day to invite visitors to follow their nose around Alcatraz and learn more about the scented plants in the gardens. Many of the heirloom plants in the gardens – bearded Iris ‘King’s Ransom’, Rosa russeliana, daffodil Narcissus ‘Grand Soliel d’Or’ all have wonderful scents that remind visitors of their grandmother’s house. Old-fashioned garden plants such as cherry pie, Heliotropium arborescens and nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, and sweet alyssum, Lobularia maritima, along with recently introduced plants to the island such as pineapple sage, Salvia elegans were presented to visitors to sniff and were then asked what scent they detected. It was interesting to hear the responses: the expected answers such as vanilla, peppery, honey, and pineapple versus the surprise of hearing that cherry pie reminded one young visitor of play dough.


Scented plants awaiting island visitors. Photo by Karolina Park

A long-time garden volunteer commented ‘You can always tell what season it is by how a visitor asks “What’s that smell?”’ During the winter and spring, island gum trees, Eucalyptus globulus, delightfully fragrant the air. However, during late summer and fall, the island is home to over 3000 nesting seabirds and their guano permeates the air.

I like to think that the small pleasures in the gardens enticed the inmate gardeners to stay on their best behavior in order to keep the privilege of working outside. I hope these same pleasures will entice visitors to stop by our Discovery Table and learn more about the fascinating gardens.

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A Busy Month of Volunteering

September has been a very productive month in the gardens with the annual cleaning up of dead vegetation in areas that have been off limits because of the nesting seabirds.

With the Garden Conservancy’s one full-time and one part-time gardener staffing the garden project, volunteers are a vital resource for tackling the large closed areas quickly. This month, seven corporate work groups got involved in garden work. Wells Fargo had five groups on the island and Government Services Association (GSA) and Zoomerang made up the other two work groups. For many of the participants, volunteering in the gardens is not only their first taste of gardening but also their first visit to Alcatraz.

Wells Fargo volunteer group cleaning up by the water tower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The work groups are organized by team leaders within the companies and then employees can sign up to help out. Many organizations in the Bay Area strongly support community service and encourage giving back to the community through volunteerism. The United Way hosts a ‘Week of Caring’ mid-September that brings corporate groups and non-profit groups together. The coming together of these groups has great advantages. For the groups themselves, they have the opportunity to work in unique sites (you can’t get more unique than Alcatraz) and to develop their team skills by working with colleagues in an environment different from their office. The non-profits not only benefit from the additional labor but can raise general awareness of national treasures that need to be preserved.

Each group is provided free passage to the island and is given a quick history lesson upon arrival. How gardens came to be on a barren island is an intriguing story in itself and adds a layer of history to Alcatraz that most are not aware of.

Wells Fargo tending the garden on the East side of the cell house. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The groups are then provided with tools and head up to the work sites. This month’s groups assisted with a range of garden projects: cutting back ivy, sifting compost, propagating Persian carpet ice plant, cutting back dormant chasmanthe

The satisfaction of digging out a blackberry root is hard to beat. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

and removing invasive radish and grasses. The tasks are invigorating and varied enough to accommodate everyone’s physical abilities. A fair amount of planning does go into preparing for each group – thinking of work projects, setting up the tools at the work site, ensuring a safe work place and putting away the tools afterwards.

Thank you to everyone that supported the Gardens of Alcatraz this month.  In total, 95 people from 5 groups contributed 285 volunteer hours!

To get involved, contact the volunteer coordinators to arrange a group work party.

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New this Fall

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

Drosanthemum covering the entire slope in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

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.

Drosanthemum growing in the greenhouse. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Volunteers propagating Drosanthemum cuttings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Overgrown slope. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

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Gardener’s Ode

I like to think that everyone looks forward to going to their work, to a job that is their hobby, and to spend their work day with people they like. I am that fortunate, and this morning on the ferry ride to the island, my volunteers surprised me with a poem, homemade cookies and a token of their appreciation for me.

One of my volunteers, a talented song writer and singer, wrote a

Gardener’s Ode to Shelagh Fritz.

To Shelagh Fritz who always knows

Exactly how her garden grows

And thus imparts this sage advice

“Rid oxalis at any price!”                   

Doing time on the slope. Photo by Corny Foster

Thus we perch on cellhouse slope

With hori hori and the hope that

Wind will die and sun come out

That does not always come about.

More likely that a chilling rain

Trickles down my neck to drain

Inside the shirt that once was dry

A chill so deep my fingers cry,

A chilly winter day. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

“Enough, now to the ferry get

Before the toes know they are wet”

But oh this island has a knack

Of luring all the gardeners back.

“Why do we come?” Well, since you ask

The mundane nature of the task

Upon that rock, in the middle of that bay

Puts you in a soulful way.

What does all this have to do with Shelagh?

We’d like to tell her that she rocks!

Drying gloves. Photo by Sharlene Baker

But please, Ms. Fritz, we have one question,

Along with gloves can you get us some socks?

By Beth Marlin Lichter

I am constantly amazed by the people that come out to the island, rain or shine, to help in the gardens. Just today, I worked with a group of interns from Filoli, a family whose children were earning their Girl Scout and Boy Scout badges, and my regular dedicated volunteers. All the volunteers come for their own reasons – new in town, new to gardening, want to meet more people, stay active, or just to try something new – but the ones that keep coming back, I think all stay for the same reason; they are the one that have discovered that the Gardens of Alcatraz are a really special place, and once you put your hands in the soil and you start caring for the island, it become a part of you.

Thank you to all my volunteers and staff, you keep me coming back too.

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Building Blocks of History


The Discovery film that greets island visitors introduces the idea of Alcatraz being a layered cake of history with each era built upon the previous. Looking closely, an observant person can see where the layers meet.

 The military mainly used bricks in the early construction of the island fortifications. The bricks are like ingredients in the layered cake history, each adding to the flavor of history.

The bricks themselves are rich in history and have their own stories about where they were made and how they arrived on Alcatraz. Brick companies often stamped their name in the bricks and in the gardens, nine types of named bricks have been recorded. Many of these bricks were re-used in the construction of the 1940s era garden pathways mostly found in the Officers’ Row gardens.


One of the early bricks is stamped ‘COWEN’. This firebrick was manufactured by the Joseph Cowen & Company at Blaydon Burn in northeast England between 1816 and 1900. It is a mystery how a brick from northeast England ended up in a garden pathway on Alcatraz, perhaps the brick came as ballast in a ship and was then destined for building a growing San Francisco.

An interesting brick is stamped simply ‘CH’, standing for City Hall. Bricks for city hall were manufactured by several companies in Oakland and San Francisco in the 1870s. Usually, bricks are stamped with the manufacturer’s name, not the destination of the brick. City Hall was destroyed by the earthquake and fire in 1906 and the bricks were located to Alcatraz in an effort to clear up the rubble that littered the city.

‘CARNEGIE’ bricks date between 1902 and 1911 and were made at Carnegie, in San Joaquin County, California. Many companies had their beginnings related to the gold rush and the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company is no different. Founded in 1902, railroad workers found a seam of coal and while mining for the coal, discovered clay. With a building boom in San Francisco, building materials were in high demand and by 1910, 110 000 bricks a day were being made and were distributed all over California. The factory supported a small town but sadly, the bank that held the mortgage failed and the plant soon closed. The site is now part of the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area.

The Livermore Fire Brick Company also has bricks on Alcatraz and the beginnings of this company illustrate the entrepreneurial characteristic of California’s early business men. In 1908 a group of businessmen proposed to develop Livermore’s first non-agricultural industry. Their plan involved the donation of 5 acres of land with the condition that all workers would live in the town, thereby boosting the local economy. An additional ten acres was purchased by the businessmen for $2650. The town then decided to use the remaining money from their Earthquake Fund to purchase the community’s share in the plant. A clause was added to the purchase of the land that the plant was to revert to town property if the plant was to be used for anything other than manufacturing. The brick plant was in operation from 1910 to 1949. A source of clay was never found locally but the company was able to ship their bricks to Sacramento, Washington State, Mexico and Honolulu. The company began experimenting in 1914 using diatomaceous earth and replaced the use of cork in lining commercial refrigerators.

LINCOLN fire bricks were made between 1890 and 1943 by the Gladding McBean & Company in Lincoln, Placer County, California. Founder Charles Gladding came to Sacramento after serving in the Civil War. He had heard about clay being found and travelled to Lincoln to take samples. The clay was found to be of excellent quality and the supply was good. He enlisted the help of his friends from Chicago and in May of 1875, the company was started. The company started to make sewer pipes and soon located an office on Market Street in San Francisco. They decorated the building with terra cotta trim and soon became known for architectural terra cotta facades. The company expanded to produce fire bricks, roof tile, chimney pipes and garden pottery. Their roof tiles were used at Stanford University and they continue to supply tiles for any current work. The company is still going strong.

Other bricks on the island are SNOWBALL, from the Derwenthaugh Fire Bricks Works in England; M.T. & CO dated from the 1860s; DFC and WEMCO from the Denver Firebrick Company. More remains to be researched about these companies and their bricks. For brick collectors (yes, there is such a thing), a great resource is Dan Mosier’s website ‘California Bricks’. Randy, a long-time garden volunteer has taken a deep interest in the bricks and is constantly on the lookout for new bricks that that we have not seen yet.

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Tool shed has a new look

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.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The toolshed in 2009. Photo by Robin Abad

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.

Garden volunteers applying the final coat of paint. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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