Historic Landscapes

Last week I travelled to Miami, Florida to participate in a conference hosted by the American Public Gardens Association. The theme of the discussions was ‘On the Ground: Putting Preservation into Practice’. Listening to people from gardens all over the country

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

speak the language of historic preservation – Cultural Landscape Inventories, Cultural Landscape Report, As-Built Drawings and Maintaining Design Intent – was very informative, especially as each of us could relate to the lessons learned through hindsight.

I was invited to speak about lessons learned with the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project. Our project began in the later part of 2003, and now, at the end of 2011, while the project has been extremely successful in accomplishing our mission of rehabilitating five garden areas and interpreting their significance to the public, there are a few practices that could have been carried out slightly differently.

Palms capable of withstanding hurricanes are being grown at Montgomery Botanical Center, as well as many endangered palms. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

Starting out, there were limited funds topurchase a chipper a garden vehicle. Both pieces of equipment would have helped out immensely with the early gardening work of clearing 40 years of overgrowth. The accumulated biomass amounted to huge piles that was then hauled away mostly by wheelbarrow to decompose on the island’s Parade Ground. Today, we have our own chipper, a garden vehicle and most importantly, a designated compost site where 99% of our biomass is composted to be recycled back into the gardens.

Documenting changes and progress to the landscape is vital, especially when working with a historic site. The National Park Service holds an amazing collection of historic photographs that show the gardens and the landscape in the military and penitentiary eras. The photographs from the late penitentiary, 1940s to the 1960s, were used to design the gardens that visitors experience today. Taking pictures of the overgrowth from the same vantage point of the historic photographs was done for some garden areas but unfortunately, not all. Having a complete series of photographs of the historic, before, and after rehabilitation, and then continuing the series each year afterwards at different times of the year illustrates the work accomplished. A photo really does say a thousand words. We have used our before and after photos to apply for grants and on our website as well.

Lastly, funding for our project has been provided through many grants and donations -large and small. A federally supported grant, Save America’s Treasures, was awarded in 2006. Matching funds were required to be raised, which the Garden Conservancy was able to do. The combined $500 000 provided the funds for the rehabilitation work through to 2009. However, since 2009, the project has largely relied on donations. Long-term sustainable funding for these reclaimed historic gardens will require creative solutions.

One could wonder what gardens in Miami have in common with the Gardens of Alcatraz? We had the opportunity to tour the gardens of Vizcaya, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, Montgomery Botanical Center and the Kampong. The plant material in these gardens could not be more different than

The Kampong garden.

Alcatraz. But, the horticulture history with each of these gardens is rich. Each of these gardens continue to carry out their owners’ original intent, as we do on Alcatraz. Botanic gardens provide vital homes for historically significant plants that are often rare and threatened in the wild. When possible, seeds are collected and distributed to botanic gardens around the world to help insure their survival. On Alcatraz, we not only preserve heirloom plants that were introduced long ago, but we also preserve the past by telling the stories of the island’s residents that worked and cared for the gardens. Preservation of historic gardens – whether it be a home garden, large estate, or a National Park, protects history.

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Elliot’s Fig Tree

Harvest season is here and the chill in the air at night says winter is on its way. The fig tree, Ficus carica, growing in the inmate’s garden on the west side of the island has produced a bumper crop this year, at least for the songbirds who will benefit most from the abundance of fruit.

Elliot's fig tree with the Golden Gate Bridge in view. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The fig tree, believed to be a black Mission Fig, was planted by inmate gardener Elliot Michener in the early 1940s. In an oral history interview with Elliot conducted in the late 1990s, he visited the island and walked around his gardens once again, showing the interviewer where he had spent nine years of his life working in the gardens. He saw the fig tree still growing in its original spot; and in a proud gardener’s voice with a hint of tour guide points out “and here are my old fig trees.” Elliot clearly remembered the fig tree growing on both sides of the fence with the guard tower in the background. In the interview, Elliot remarks “Yes, they have lasted a long time, just all these years.”

The fig tree cleared of overgrowth and beginning of new plantings in November 2008. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The fig tree and restored gardens flourishing in May 2011. Photo by Shelagh Fritz













Where Elliot obtained the fig tree is not known. Perhaps one of the guards that traded seeds for bouquets of inmate grown flowers was the source; or maybe the inmates were treated to figs for dessert and the inmates grew the tree from seeds? Nevertheless, the fig tree continues to prosper.

The fig has done so well, that in fact, during the 40 years of the gardens being neglected, the fig took on a life of its own and colonized the western lawn. The thicket of fig provides prime summer nesting habitat for approximately 80 pairs of nesting snowy egrets.

Ripe fig. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Elliot also comments in his interview “I’ve eaten figs off of this tree”. I too, have eaten a few ripened figs off of the same tree and have tasted what he has tasted. Working the same soil and tending the same plants as gardeners past, reinforces the importance of preserving historic horticulture and the stories of the people that tended these gardens.

For island visitors, many of them pause at the tree and wonder what kind it is. For me, not only is it a chance to show them their first fig tree but to also tell them about Elliot and what the gardens meant to him.

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Spring Already?

The sky around the San Francisco Bay Area has been very active this week – from storm clouds to Fleet Week’s Blue Angels practice runs. Dramatic clouds and sudden rainfalls, while unexpected for this time of year, were

Storm clouds approaching over the Golden Gate Bridge with sunshine and a rainbow over Sausalito. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

refreshing and washed the island clean after the end of bird nesting season. The plants soaked up this first substantial rainfall and were sparked back to life after the dry summer.

Surprisingly, spring bulbs have been emerging in Officers’ Row. Daffodil leaf tips are poking through the soil and grape hyacinth (Muscari  armeniacum) have shot up over the last couple of days. Other bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia have been nudged into growing and their bright green leaves are a refreshing sight. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) leaves are unfolding as well, each leaf being an exquisite living art unfurling from a knarled exposed root.

Acanthus mollis leaves emerging in the Prisoner Gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Daffodil leaf tips in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz












All of these plants have origins in other mediterranean climates similar to that of the Bay Area. They are adapted to dry summers; being baked in well drain soils and with the slightest moisture can be triggered into growing. Examining the survivor plant list for the island, it is no surprise that many on the list are from climates similar to ours.

Elsewhere on the island, the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) continue to self-sow where

The next generation of nasturtiums beginning. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

they please. The nasturtiums were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort by the military. Whether you consider them invasive or successful, they are a part of the island’s rich horticultural history. Seeing them sprout now is reassuring that another generation will continue to decorate the slopes with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.


While some visitors plan their vacations to not be in rain, a visit to the island during a storm is exciting and the island feels more alive with the elements. Watching a storm approach through the Golden Gate and sweep toward you is a vacation memory that you cannot put in a photo album.

Sunrise this morning over Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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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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Finding Beauty

Garden staff and volunteers have been busy this week cutting back plants that have entered their dormancy period. This time of year is much like the autumn for elsewhere in the country, except for crisp frosts that kill plants, our dormancy is brought on by our dry season. Many of our plants are from other Mediterranean climates and have adapted well to cope with our climate.


Still, it is easy to find beauty amongst the seemingly dead and dry plants. The seed heads left behind are sometimes more interesting to look at than the flowers.


One of the most common plant id questions I hear is ‘What are those trees by the Warden’s House?’ Resembling trees with their height, the Dr. Seuss looking trees are actually the flower spike of Agave americana.  Silhouetted against the skyline of the city or the evening light, the spikes are so dramatic that even non-plant people wonder what they are. Commonly called the century plant for how long it takes to flower, the plant sends up one spike of flowers after 8 to 10 years; the plant puts all of its energy into sending up the flower spike that it actually dies. The next generation of plants have already begun at the base of the flowering succulent to repeat the show in a decade.


Agave americana with San Francisco. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Agave americana under a full moon. Photo by Shelagh Fritz













Aeonium arboreum planted en mass are another

Aeonium flower spikes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

succulent that provides a show with their flower stalk. The succulents planted long ago under the water tower all bloomed at once this year. Located in a closed area that is enjoyed by visitors on the garden tour, the view is impressive.


The west side inmate gardens are a host to surviving plants from the penitentiary. With the cell house as a backdrop, Acanthus mollis, bear’s breeches, 4 to 5 foot flowers standing tall above its once glossy green leaves. The leaves are fading and we will be leaving the flower stalks to provide interest for another month.


Acanthus mollis flower spikes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Many perennials in Officers’ Row are putting on a display of their own. Gaillardia, Agapanthus, Crocosmia, Foxgloves, Hebe and Artichokes are signifying the end of their growing season by setting seed. Many of these plants can be deadheaded to encourage the plant to keep blooming. The ‘deadheads’, as we call them, can make a curious dried bouquet. One of the best dried flowers on the island is Limonium perezii, sea lavender or statice, which holds the purple color well.


Elsewhere on the island, Shirley poppies and Crocosmia both have tiny seed pods that are appealing.


From the tall succulents to the more average size perennials, leaving flower stalks stand allows gardeners to enjoy their hard work longer into the year. Just like the gardens soften the harsh island, finding the surprising beauty in dead flowers will hopefully inspire people to appreciate all that surrounds them.

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Gardening by Trial and Error

Much of gardening is learned through experience – by working in the soil, getting your hands dirty and being open to make changes.

The inmate gardens on the west side had much to teach us about gardening on the Rock. Restoration of these gardens started in the fall of 2008 and by the spring of 2009, the overgrowth had been cleared, pathways rebuilt and new gravel added. The beds were amended and new plants were chosen. Plants were selected to give the look of the 1940s-1960s gardens that the prisoners created and tended. The original gardens resembled English cottage gardens and so we worked at finding plants that would fit, but that would also be drought tolerant.

The inmate gardens in early summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Plants such as Armeria maritima, Coreopsis, Dianthus, Oenethera, Cosmos, Gaillardia, Scabiosa, Linaria and Huechera sanguinea were some of the plants that we tried. The gardens looked gorgeous in the spring but by mid-summer, the unrelenting wind of the Pacific was taking a toll. Even the rainwater catchment that was installed was not enough to help all the plants through the dry summer.

We took this lesson to heart and looked for plants that could provide the historic look, be drought and wind tolerant and look really good well into October. A tall order, but not impossible.

Salvias seemed a likely candidate. While not known to have been on the island previously, they were likely to do well on the island and still give a cottage style look. This past January, we planted several different species of salvias and they are all doing well. Salvia clevelandii filled

Salvia clevelandii. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

an exposed corner of the garden. The very fragrant leaves and blossoms held on until this past week, when they were cut back to encourage new growth. Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage, is very common in San Francisco and it has done well on the island too. Salvia nemorosa ‘East Friesdland’ has done well at the front of the border and has bloomed twice this year with cutting off dead blossoms. Salvia chiapensis, Chiapas Sage, while from the cloud forests of Chiapas, Mexico has done surprisingly well under the fig tree in the shade. Salvia microphylla hybrid is continuing to bloom and has not needed any pruning at all; autumn is actually its peak bloom time. And lastly, we also chose Salvia ‘Waverly’ for the constant pale white blooms.

Salvia chiapensis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


We also planted low growing evergreen perennials and shrubs at the front of walkways and tucked in annuals behind, to hide the annuals as they died back. We propagated a surviving white hebe to hide the calla lilies during the summer; and planted dwarf agapanthus and heliotrope to cover columbine, foxgloves and homeria leaves when they passed their prime.

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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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From Normandy to Alcatraz

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

Cracked concrete and exposed rebar on the puppy stairs railing. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Students begin by learning how to work safely on the scaffolding. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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

Students file down the railing edge for the final touch. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

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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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In Bloom: Dahlias

Some plants never go out of style and Dahlias have earned their space in gardens over the past two centuries. Dahlias were popular on Alcatraz during the 1940s and 1950s and are easily identified in photographs of Officers’ Row. Mrs. Casey, the medical officer’s wife, tended to her dahlias when she was not busy in her home.

The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers' Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

Last year, dahlias were re-planted in Officers’ Row and this year’s display is even better. Heirloom varieties were chosen to give the ‘look and the feel’ of the historic photos with lots of red, orange and yellow blooms. Seven varieties of old-fashioned tubers were chosen that would had been available to the gardeners of Alcatraz:

‘Andries Orange’ (1936), ‘Clair de Lune’ (1946), ‘Old Gold’ (1947), ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ (1881), ‘Thomas A. Edison’ (1929), ‘White Aster’ (1879), and ‘Yellow Gem’ (1914).

Dahlia 'Old Gold'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dahlia 'Kaiser Wilhelm'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Dahlias are fairly easy to care for; they prefer soil rich in full sun, organic matter, and regular water. The Officers’ Row gardens are protected from the harsh Pacific winds on the east side of the island and enjoy a full eight hours of sun during the summer. The organic matter is supplied by our own compost with supplements of sheep manure in the spring. The water is provided by a rainwater catchment from the restroom roof by the Warden’s House. The rain barrel captures 500 gallons and supplies enough water for the summer months. Last year, we began utilizing this rain catchment and so could justify the use of the water for growing dahlias again.

The average winter temperature on Alcatraz is rarely below 40?F (4.4?C) and so the tubers are left in over the winter. Regular removal of dead flowers over the summer ensures a steady bloom to the end of September, Dahlia ‘Yellow Gem’ bloomed until October.

Dahlia 'White Aster'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Your best opportunity to see the dahlias are on Wednesdays when Officers’ Row gardens are open for our ‘Ask the Gardener’.

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