Island Edibles

 Alcatraz has an amazing collection of plants that can be categorized many different ways – natives, drought tolerant, historic – but with popular interest focused on landscaping with edibles, Alcatraz can check this box as well.

 Today, looking around the island, there is an assortment of edibles. There are the obvious miner’s lettuce, chickweed and oxalis and but there are also a few surprises.

The inmate gardens on the west side of the island have the surviving fruit trees. Originally planted in the 1940s, the apple, fig and walnut trees continue to thrive. The apple tree reliably produces a slightly sweet and very dense fruit while the fig tree is always loaded with an abundance of figs that never quite ripen in the cooler ocean breeze. For many visitors, this is their first time seeing a fig tree.

Apples on Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fig tree with fruit. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The west side inmate gardens also hold the original artichoke plants, Cynara cardunculus. The perennial thistles are forming their seed heads right now which contain the tasty artichoke hearts. The silvery artichoke leaves blend with the silver blue of Echium candicans, Pride of Madeira, on the toolshed terraces. Once in bloom, the artichoke has a typical thistle flower – iridescent purple and pink.

Alcatraz artichoke. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Tropaeolum majus, nasturtium, was introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society. This cheerful rambling vine continues to seed itself around the island. The leaves and flowers are edible and have a peppery taste – perfect for a salad or to decorate a cake. The seeds can be pickled and taste like capers.

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The military era also introduced Agave americana, century plant, to the island. The spikes on the leaf tips were likely ideal for keeping inmates in but the popular agave syrup is also made from this plant.

Agave americana. Photo by Shelagh

We have few records of past gardeners raising vegetables for their own use; with dreary summer fog the residents chose to mainly grow bright colored cutting gardens to brighten the landscape. There are a handful of photos and references to Victory Gardens tended by children on the parade ground and of tomatoes growing in Officers’ Row. As a token to past gardeners, there are two tomato plants in the greenhouse, providing a lucky volunteer a little snack while they work.

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Saving America’s Treasures

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.

Volunteers clearing overgrowth

Cutting gardens restored. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

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.

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March Showers bring Summer Relief

Water is a precious resource around the world and especially in California where we receive our year’s supply between November and April. This past week was especially rainy and residents of the Bay Area are probably ready for a few sunny days.

This year year to date, downtown San Francisco has received 18.11 inches of rain, just above our normal for the entire year! With another month of winter rains to come, our reservoirs will be full to capacity for the dry summer months.

The rainwater catchment system on Alcatraz is nearing capacity with its current levels at 80% full. This is the second year the catchment has been in use and supplies enough water to meet the irrigation needs of the gardens for one year. Even though we choose drought tolerant plants, everything appreciates a drink to perk themselves up.

I ventured out to the west side of the island during one of the downpours this past week to see the system at work: water catchment. Seeing the rain water flowing easily from the downspout into our basins was very satisfying, knowing that each drop will be used by the thirsty plants to get through the summer months.

Even though the rain can be cold and unpleasant, the dramatic skies provide countless photo opportunities – so grab your camera and get outside.

Alcatraz Island in the early morning light. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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A local traveller discovers the Hidden side of the Rock

It is true, locals from the Bay Area are hard to find on the Rock. Usually deterred by the crowds of the summer, some people living in San Francisco have never taken the opportunity to discover what is in their own backyard. Local travel writer, Judy Zimmerman from Sacramento, finally made the trek, a short 10 minute ferry ride from Pier 33 that happens to take in the city skyline and waterfront and views of both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and found out why Alcatraz continues to be popular with visitors from around the world.

Alcatraz Island with the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Check out her blog that captures her visit so well. I often get asked by visitors if I ever encounter ghosts on the island, and while I have not (yet), upon reading Judy’s blog I realize that in the gardens I am truly surrounded by past gardeners: “and the ghosts of Alcatraz amazingly emerged from the tangle of vines: neatly laid out beds and paths, heirloom roses, bulbs and ornamentals.”

A prison staff member's wife tending the gardens, 1961. Photo by Fred Straley

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San Quentin’s Insight Garden Program

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.

Men nurturing their inner gardens through meditation. Photo by Kirk Crippins

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.

The non-segregated organic garden softening the San Quentin prison yard. PHoto by Kirk Crippins

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 Green Career Fair offered through the Insight Garden Program. Photo by Kirk Crippins

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.

To learn more about San Quentin’s gardening program, you can follow their progress on Facebook and The Avant Gardener blog.

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Garden blogger visits the gardens

I had the opportunity to host Patrick Albin through the gardens on a sunny day in February. Patrick captured the gardens and the volunteers enjoying their day.

Spring blooms in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Patrick is the founder of the garden blog, The Garden Geek. This blog is a plant database based on people contributing their own photos, tips and tricks. Follow the link here to read about his trip to Alcatraz and to see his fantastic photos.

An hour after our garden walk finished, I found him lingering in the gardens speaking with a docent before making his escape from the island. I am not even sure if he did the audio tour.

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Composting on Alcatraz

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.

Large pile of garden vegetation in September. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Dick checking the temperature of the compost. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Hard working red wriggler worms. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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 showing off the worms to kids. Photo by Diana La

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.

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Return of the Roses

Alcatraz Island was a place for life to struggle, where only the most determined could survive. The plant life on the island is no exception. Heirloom plants introduced to the island decades ago either thrived with neglect when the prison closed in 1963 or soon perished under the overgrowth.

Of the 200 species and varieties of ornamental plants that were documented in the early years of the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, one plant that has special significance is blooming right now – the Rose ‘Bardou Job’.

Rosa 'Bardou Job'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In 1989, a group of rosarians from the Heritage Rose Group came to Alcatraz to take cuttings of roses, and propagate them with the aim of identifying them and saving heirloom roses. The deep red climbing hybrid tea rose soon came to be known as the ‘Alcatraz Rose’. This rose, while having its roots on Alcatraz, has Welsh heritage. More importantly, this rose could no longer be found in Wales, but yet one rose bush was thriving on Alcatraz behind the Warden’s House. In 2000, six plants were returned to the Museum of Welsh Life at St. Fagan’s near Cardiff for the Wales Tourist Board’s Homecoming 2000 campaign.

Discovery of the rose made headlines in Great Britain and in San Francisco.

Cuttings of ‘Bardou Job’ were grown up and two plants returned to Alcatraz to be planted on the Rose Terrace, located below the water tower in 2007. Visitors are able to see this unique rose on the free docent led garden tour, every Friday and Sunday morning. Visitors will also be able to see other heirloom roses, ones that survived on the island and others that were introduced with the restoration project. Roses were chosen by the time period when they could have been grown on the island. In other words, all the roses on the island would have been introduced to the plant trade before 1963. For Bay Area gardeners, the roses on Alcatraz are a selection of plants that have minimal powdery mildew, black spot, cope with marine conditions and are reliable bloomers.

For rose enthusiasts, spring into summer is the ideal time to plan a visit.

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Remembering Carola Ashford

The rose terrace greenhouse turns one-year old this February. The cedar wood, greenhouse was built with volunteers last winter.

The completed greenhouse in the rose terrace. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Plaque for Carola.

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.

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Weedy and wild edibles

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 familyBrassicaceae – has naturalized in North America from its native Eurasia.

Radish weeds covering hillside. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Slope stabilization in 2007. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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.

Tim holding the edible radish root. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Flowering radish. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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