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Tag Archives: Alcatraz
In part 4 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we go from the glittering excess of the twenties into the Great Depression. The transformation from Military Prison to Federal Penitentiary finished in 1933 and from there on out, the military days were over. Several areas were reconstructed for the new use. In particular, the houses on Officers’s Row, save for the Doctor’s House, were torn down and transformed into gardens. New rules about plants were implemented, such as nothing could be higher than waist height, lest prisoners hide behind the shrubs. And prisoners were dangerous, meaning that instead of a steady stream of gardening labor, there weren’t a lot of people to maintain the vast gardens.
Gardening itself was going through a severe transformation and lack of resources. The Great Depression brought most gardening advancements to a standstill. There wasn’t enough money for most Americans to eat, let alone pay for the expensive upkeep of a vibrant garden. If the crops themselves couldn’t survive, how were ornamental plants supposed to?
Those that were lucky enough to afford a garden did have some trends, however. Large rose gardens were popular in the 1930s. Another popular trend was a focus on vegetables and food gardens. If the stores weren’t providing enough food to eat, perhaps your own little plot of land could. Hedges were sculpted in a boxier style, like the styles of the 1900s and 1910s. Plants such as hydrangeas, lilacs, and hostas were also popular as a pop of color.
Overall, however, the gardens were a luxury few could afford. What was once a sprawling, beautiful, lush garden could be transformed into a scraggly plot of dust in a matter of weeks. People had to cut corners in order to survive and gardens were among the first things to go. There were no longer garden parties in outdoor salons or front yards that promoted public space and friendly interaction. Everyone was trying to survive.
Still, Alcatraz does have some 1930s touches sprinkled throughout. Hydrangeas are prominent in the Rose Terrace and a particularly beautiful one is found along the walkway up to the cell house. There are also roses found in Officers’ Row, the Rose Terrace, and along the terraces on the West Side. It took a while for gardens to recover from the Great Depression, but they would. They would come back brighter and more beautiful than ever.
Other than rain and fog drip, Alcatraz has no fresh water.
And yet, walk through the gardens at any time of the year, especially in spring and summer, and you’ll see beautiful flowers in bloom. How do we do it?
Alcatraz gets its freshwater in two ways: shipped in from the city, and collected from the rain. The city water is shipped in on a daily basis and is used to supply the entire island: the water you drink, the water you use to wash your hands, the water we clean with, all shipped in. This can be a problem for the gardens as the humans get priority. If the water is running low, our irrigation systems will be shut off.
So, we needed to come up with a way to get water without competing with thirsty guests. This is where the rainwater comes in. The first garden to test out a rainwater catchment system was the West Side Gardens. The large tanks at the back of the lawn collect rainwater from the cellhouse and stores it to be used throughout the summer, and fall. With a maze of hoses, we’re able to connect this system to the entire West Side and water it for most of the dry season. This allows us to be more environmentally friendly with our gardening practices, and also saves the park money.
This catchment system was a success, which meant it was time to turn to other gardens. There is a cistern behind the water tower that was thought to provide fresh water to the laundry building during the Federal Penitentiary. Upon removing the covering, we discovered there was over 70,000 gallons of water still in the cistern, enough to water all of the gardens for 10 years! Now there was the question of how to use it, and how to refill it. With a specially designed water pump from WaterSprout, we use a solar panel behind the greenhouse in the Rose Terrace to pump water from the cistern and to the Rose Terrace. From there, the hose is attached to our irrigation system and waters the Rose Terrace. To refill the cistern, we are testing out a method in which we take water from the roof of the Laundry Building and pump it to the cistern. This is still in a trial and error phase, but hopefully we can get it down to an art during the rainy season.
The next development for our water catchment system is to refill the rainwater tanks behind the upper restroom. Currently we have 3000 gallons of water being collected. This supply runs out by early summer and then we revert back to using water barged in from the city. We aim to refill these tanks with the cistern water and keep off imported city water year-round. There may be no natural freshwater on Alcatraz, but with patience and ingenuity, we can make our gardens beautiful with the rain water freely given.
In part 3 of our “Gardening through the Decades” series, we look at the Roaring Twenties. A time period known for its glittering excess and the start of the gangster era, this was a period of transition for Alcatraz. Alcatraz the Military Prison was ending, but there were still families on Alcatraz, and they were determined to make their gardens beautiful.
From the blues and purples of the Victorian Era, to the pinks of the 1900s and 1910s, these gardens were all about colorful flowers. This changed in the 1920s as the reigning trend became all about the green. There were still flowers, but the lawns became a fixture for many homeowners.
Likewise, they also had a desire to celebrate and welcome nature. Unlike the Victorians, however, their gardens weren’t allowed to grow wild. Instead, they started attracting wildlife. Bird houses, bird baths, fish ponds, and rock gardens were all the rage for the 1920s gardener. They also planted trees and bushes with bird attracting berries, such as holly and crabapples, in hopes of being a paradise for bird watchers.
The 1920s also marked a shift in landscaping focus. Before, backyard gardens were all the rage. It was a private space for entertaining and for showing off your beautiful collections of flowers. However, with more and more people owning homes in the suburbs, the front yard as a public space became the focal point. You couldn’t have your neighbors walk by and see your front lawn in a deplorable state. So, this space received the most attention with gardening and landscaping. Walkways and driveways were lined with perennials, such as irises, foxgloves, hollyhocks, California poppies, and bachelor’s buttons. Shrubs such as boxwood and holly provided the natural, bird attracting green that was so popular. And the lack of fences reinforced the idea that the front yard was public, and not private.
Alcatraz follows many of these trends. While most families lived in the apartment building, meaning no front yards, houses on the parade ground did have front yards. We also have many of the hallmarks associated with the 1920a.boxwood in Officers’s Row and along the Sally port provide some subtle barriers between walkways and garden space. Likewise, one can see California poppies dotting every garden on Alcatraz.
What is perhaps the most striking feature that relates to the 1920s garden aesthetic is the birdbath in the birdbath garden on the west side. The birdbath was originally designed by inmate Elliot Michener. It was sadly destroyed when the gardens were no longer cared for. Thanks to our handy and multi-talented volunteers, we were able to reconstruct the birdbath that is a pleasant surprise in the Bird Bath Garden. Thanks to our work in the gardens, we have many birds for the bird watchers among us. From the snowy egrets to the variety of songbirds, Alcatraz does attract wildlife.
The Roaring Twenties peaks through in many areas of the Alcatraz gardens. Look around the next time you’re out there and see if you can spot any of the historical elements.
Over the years, gardeners have developed ways to keep the plants alive and beautiful. From prisoners with garden hoses to Shelagh Fritz and the water catchment system, the gardeners have worked with San Francisco’s climate to create beautiful flowers.
However, things are starting to change. Climate change is having an impact on the plants around Alcatraz. San Francisco used to have predictable and stable weather. It would rain from about November to January. It would be dry and foggy in the summer. And generally, the temperatures would stay between 50- and 70-degrees Fahrenheit year round, with a few days in August raising above. This predictable weather pattern is great for gardeners as it allows for planning. You can collect rainwater in the winter and then use what you collected throughout the summer to keep the gardens thriving. The lack of frost meant that plants could bloom longer and grow larger, something all gardeners want. While it’s true non-native plants can have a harder time with the climate, with proper care, they can thrive.
One of the first major signs of climate change affecting the plants on Alcatraz was the California drought. The drought from 2011 to 2017 was one of the worst in California’s history. 2011 to 2014 was the driest period in California history since record keeping began. In 2001, the annual precipitation was 25.03 inches. In 2011, the annual precipitation was 15.64 inches, nearly ten inches less than ten years previously (Data from Golden Gate Weather Services: https://www.ggweather.com/sf/monthly.html). Because of the drought, there wasn’t water available during the summer from the water catchment system. Even on areas where the island was not watered regularly suffered. The Persian carpet used to look very vibrant and pink on the cellhouse slope. Even after nearly three years of steady rainfall, it has yet to recover.
The average yearly temperature has also increased (see graph). The average temperature for the year has not been 55 degrees Fahrenheit since 1975. Two years in a row (1996 and 1997) the average temperature has been above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. And while an increase of about one or two degrees doesn’t seem like a lot, it can wreak havoc on the plants.
Frost is starting to appear on Alcatraz, which as any gardener knows, can cause plants to hibernate and in some cases die. Summers are experiencing less fog and winters less rain with the rain coming in short downpours that just runoff. Gardens and gardeners can adapt over time. However, what can be said for wild landscapes?
The second in this “Historic Gardening Trends” series, we are now moving out of the 1800s and into the 1900s. The 1900s through the 1910s had their own gardening trends; building from what was popular during the Victorian era but rejecting and changing what new gardeners did not like about the style. Alcatraz itself was going through a change. The Civil War had brought a rapid amount of development and change in the structures, trickling down to the gardens. The construction of the main concrete cell block began in 1909 and, once again, the wives of the soldiers sought a way to bring life and civilization to the Rock via gardens.
By the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, there was a trend to return to formal gardening. There was no longer a desire to have a “garden growing wild” aesthetic. The plants were often carefully pruned and nurtured to be contained. Furthermore, there was more of an effort to use architecture in gardening. With building projects being wider-spread, people sought to show off their house and its features, using the garden to direct the eye. Similarly, using concrete terraces, paths, and steps provided a bit more structure and more of an architectural feel. The Victorian tradition of using gardens as an outside room continued and would continue to be a hallmark of modern gardening practices. Gardens were places to gather with family and friends, not just a place to grow food. Water was another major feature in the early 1900s gardens. Fountains, pods, and waterfalls were popular.
The plants themselves were almost an afterthought to the garden. Gardeners used geometric lines and an enclosed feeling to make the outside feel more like the inside. Furthermore, the Victorian fascination with wild, sprawling exotics was replaced with neat, boxed hedged beds. The actual flowers and shrubs were kept off verdant laws and bowling greens. It was no use having people over to your garden if they could not walk around without stepping on flowers.
Inside these neat and tidy beds were a variety of peonies, irises, lavender, erigeron, and foxgloves. The colors were muted but more diverse than the Victorian era’s use of mainly greens, pinks, and purples. Roses were common as well. However, instead of ramblers and creepers allowed to sprawl and climb, they were contained into neat, round bushes.
The modern gardens of Alcatraz have these early 1900s touches hidden throughout. The water features are easy to spot since this is an island and the ocean serves that purpose nicely. The foxgloves can be found most commonly in the Rose Garden. While there are creepers and ramblers all over, other rose bushes, such as those in Foundation 8 of Officers’ Row, are kept rounded and contained. Lavender can be spotted peaking through in Foundation 9. The Toolshed Terraces gardens bring forth a more architectural element to these gardens, a subtle call back to the terraces commonly used during this time period.
What is perhaps most in line with the gardening style of the early 1900s is the fact that the gardens serve as a backdrop to the architecture, the prison. Instead of the garden being a separate entity, it is tied to, and often overshadowed by, the main cellhouse. The beds along the pathway are contained and wind around following the road; they are not allowed to grow wild and eclipse the cell house. As gardeners, we sometimes forget people come to Alcatraz not for the gardens, but for the prison. In the 1900s, the gardens were also there as a second thought; meant to enhance life and beauty on the island. It moves away from the “natural” and into the backdrop. These gardens have their own beauty and serve another purpose. But the combination of styles from such a long period of time is what allows the Gardens of Alcatraz to be diverse and beautiful, to represent a time and provide a look back as to what life would have been like for the families living on the island, and not just the prisoners and guards.
One of the most beautiful groups of flowers we have on Alcatraz is the iris. They have been a common staple in gardens for centuries. It is worth taking a moment to look at the long history of these flowers and when they became common garden staples in America.
Irises first grew to prominence as a garden flower in 1469 BCE. The Egyptian pharaoh King Thutmose III conquered Syria, where irises grew. An avid gardener, he brought them back to Egypt to be cultivated. This was the first-time irises had been documented as a gardening flower. From there, irises rose to prominence for their religious significance. They were carved into sculptures at temples and doctors used the rhizomes for medicine and perfume offerings.
As irises began to spread in the popularity, due to their showy flowers and lovely scents, the Greeks were the first to name them “iris”. Iris means rainbow and is the Greek messenger of the gods. Indeed, irises come in an array of colors, from deep purples to brilliant oranges. They continued to spread around Europe, becoming a staple in gardens from Spain to parts of Asia. Indians began to use their rhizomes for religious offerings. In Florence, Italy, the scent became a popular perfume. The iris inspired the design for the Fleur-de-lis. It is a common motif in France, past French Colonies, and with the Catholic Church, usually relating the Virgin Mary.
The first documented iris in America was in 1600s Virginia. From there, irises would continue to hybridize, speciate, and transform into unique American varieties. It wasn’t until Michael Foster (1836-1907) studied and planted these beautiful flowers, that irises were made popular. One of his students, William R. Dykes (1877-1925) took an interest in irises and published a book called “The Genus Iris”. It was this study of irises that brought the flower to the popular conscious. In the early 1900s, there was a rise of irises in American gardens. It became so popular, Tennessee adopted it as the state flower. The most popular iris today is the German or Bearded Iris, an iris we have on Alcatraz. However, most irises have hybridized so much that there are 300 species, and these species are difficult to separate into a clean taxonomy.
The hybridization provides another unique focal point for Alcatraz’s irises. If you smell a modern iris, it doesn’t smell like much. On Alcatraz, the irises have a stronger scent. Different Alcatraz irises smell like root beer, vanilla, and grandma’s perfume (according to
some visitors). We have pastel purple, deep purple, white, orange and yellow Irises scattered about the Rose Garden and Officers’ Row. We use heirloom plants, which means our irises still have the genetic markers to make scent. Our use of heirloom plants provides an extra touch of historical intrigue to visitors who know their flowers.
As a flower, irises inspire the creative and bring delight to the floral enthusiast. They provide intriguing patterns and interesting shapes. They are unique and vibrant against the backdrop of stone and concrete. They are a flower with a long history, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve been a garden staple for thousands of years.
Alcatraz’s gardens were restored with the intention of being a reflection on gardening trends found from the 1830s to the 1960s. But what trends came in and out of fashion during this period? After all, much like clothing, gardening has styles, trend-setters, and certain characteristics that allows gardening historians to identify what was popular at the time.
The Victorian Era, named after Queen Victoria, was a period that ran from 1837 to 1901. This was one of the first times authorities made an effort to provide public gardens in England. The reasoning being the gardens would improve the manners of the lower class. The wives of soldiers on Alcatraz had a similar desire. They wanted to bring a sense of civilization and order to “The Rock”. There was also a need to ease boredom. With little to do while on Alcatraz and with the new soil and sand, they could begin to garden.
The Victorian Garden has three major characteristics: furniture, statues, and plants. The furniture used in Victorian gardens included benches, canopies, and pavilions. The purpose was to make the gardens feel more like a salon. It was a place to entertain and enjoy nature as well as show off to your neighbors how well you were doing. Statues were also used in Victorian gardens. They were mostly Greek Gods and semi-nude females. It was an attempt to invoke the classicism and culture of Ancient Greece.
The plants were where Victorian gardens started to become unique. Shades of pink, purple, and green were the most common colors. There were also many different types of plants in each garden. Thanks to globalization and imperialism, gardeners had access to more rare and exotic plants than ever. Orchids, tulips, roses, and daisies were all regulars in Victorian gardens. The rarer the plant, the more wealth you had. Another interesting style choice was the various ways these gardens were planted. There were showy, geometrically placed flowers (squares being the most popular shape, followed by triangles). Yet, there was also a call to have “wild” gardens. Creepers, ramblers, hardy shrubs and herbaceous plants emphasized the natural look. Pebbles marked the pathways and they used rocks invoked the image of wild and far off mountains.
On Alcatraz, the Rose Garden is where these Victorian trends are the strongest. The various roses are allowed to creep and ramble over concrete railings and walls. Come at the right time and you’ll see rows of various types of blue bells in both Officers’ Row and the Rose Garden. In Officers’ Row, there is a hidden cache of lavender, showing off muted greens and purples. Luckily, we don’t have to import rocks to get a “rocky” feel throughout the gardens. Alcatraz’s natural terrain already provides us with outcrops of rocks. We even kept the tradition of having rare and exotic plants in our gardens. One of the more famous examples is the Bardou Job Rose, a rose that is so rare it was thought to be extinct until it was found growing on Alcatraz in 1989.
The Victorian Garden is one of contradictions. It is a call back to the wild, but it is characterized by geometric designs and exotic plants. It is an attempt to bring civilization and good manners to the lower classes, but it is also a sign of wealth. On Alcatraz, we try to capture the complexity and beauty in our gardens. And as the climbing roses make their way up the rocky outcrops and bloom, we capture a moment in gardening history.
It seems every day there are stories about pollinators. There are news stories detailing their decline. There are new “Bee Hotels” designed to attract solitary bees. There are websites dedicated to creating a list of plants to attract pollinators. As gardeners, we know pollinators well. Almost any plant that has a showy flower is likely to attract pollinators. Yet, pollinators are not limited to bees and butterflies. They also include ants, male mosquitos, beetles, flies, wasps, birds, and even some mammals and reptiles. Each pollinator has a job within an ecosystem and each plant has a pollinator it is designed to attract.
Preparations for planting at Black Point Historic Gardens are underway. There is a unique opportunity for us to use Alcatraz Gardens and what we learned to make Black Point more successful. Volunteers cleared away the overgrowth and replanted flowering plants. This gave rise to a noticeable increase in bees, flies, butterflies, and birds.
We know now there are at least ten species of bees in the gardens of Alcatraz, some of them native. However, no study was completed to create a baseline estimate for species diversity before restoration work began. We know the number of pollinator species before the military’s use of the island in the 1800s was likely zero since Alcatraz was a rock with no native vegetation. The wives of soldiers established gardens. These beautiful blooms provide food and habitat for the pollinators. A baseline would have helped us know if our efforts were beneficial and guide us to future planting plans.
As historical gardeners, we have a duty to present Alcatraz and Black Point as they would have been. Heirloom plants are used to represent a specific time frame. Even where we plant certain plants is dictated by historic photographs. As a result, the ideal gardens of the late 1800s through the 1960s guide us; and in those time periods, native pollinator gardens were not in fashion. As we design the plantings at Black Point, we wish to include plants that will help native pollinators but still have the look and feel of a Victorian strolling garden.
Studies have shown planting native plants and increasing the diversity of blooms will help native pollinators. So, we have begun to start observing pollinator species diversity and population numbers. Does the garden, previously overrun with ivy, blackberries, and oxalis, function as a pollinator garden? Does the presence of native California flowering plants help increase the amount of diversity? Do the pollinator population levels increase as more flowering plants and space are made available?
These are questions we want to answer. We can only learn from the past and use Alcatraz as a guiding force for Black Point.
Written by Josefina Pacheco
Before volunteering at Alcatraz, I worked at a summer camp in Maine that emphasized teaching ecology and sustainability to elementary and middle school aged students. After ten weeks of running around in the sun and eating lobster every Thursday I found myself asking the question that many college students find themselves asking after graduation, “So, now what?”. I began searching for jobs in the Bay Area and soon discovered that I needed more experience. A friend of mine suggested to look for an internship using volunteer.org; this is where I found the post about volunteering on Alcatraz. I thought to myself I could help with gardening (one of my favorite activities), volunteer (this means experience), and look for jobs at the same time. It seemed like a win-win situation.
I contacted Shelagh about volunteering in September 2016. In early October, I was given the unique opportunity to apply for the intern position at Alcatraz. After a cover letter, resume, and interview I became Alcatraz’s newest intern. As an intern I now get to go on the ferry five days of the week (yay!). Twice a week I work with the volunteers which usually starts off with answering the question “So, what are we doing today?”. I then quickly take attendance and work alongside the volunteers for the day’s project for the remainder of the morning. On the other days of the week, I work one-on-one with Shelagh. The day’s schedule varies day by day but some of the more notable ‘behind the scenes’ projects include: learning to prune roses, learning to transfer seedlings to planting pots, propagating succulents, assist with leading volunteer groups, and taking pictures of the watercolor paintings from the Alcatraz Florilegium next to the actual flowers from Alcatraz. Additionally as an intern, I’m learning in greater depth about gardening and plant maintenance in general, along with gardening specifically on Alcatraz and its history.
What many people don’t know is that as an intern one gets a stipend and housing at (one of the most breathtaking places) the Marin Headlands. At the Headlands, other interns from other parts of the Park live there as well. To help meet even more interns, specifically those in the Presidio, there are monthly intern swaps. At a swap, interns get to go to another park site and volunteer there for a day (so far I’ve only participated in the Milagra Ridge intern swap where I planted native grasses). To further enhance your knowledge there are Park Academy Classes held a couple times a month. The topics range from botany to fire management to leadership training. Being able to meet new people, volunteer at different parks, and learn more about whatever topic you want to learn more about makes this an incredible experience.
At first I was a little nervous about the transition from volunteer to intern but everyone (staff and volunteers) have been really helpful and supportive, so thank you and I’m looking forward to seeing the gardens through the seasons!
Most people are familiar with the idea of a portrait – usually it brings to mind a picture of a person that captures a close up of their face and maybe tells something about the person’s personality or life. It turns out you can also do portraits for plants! Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a talk at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross to learn how to build a Photo Florilegium from Saxon Holt and David Perry.
Florilegia (plural of florilegium) were started by Victorians to document a specific collection of plants, usually painted with watercolors. The illustrations would be bound in a book and later became popular as framed prints. With the Alcatraz Florilegium in its final year, I was curious to see what a photo Florilegium is and hopefully pick up some tips for taking better photos of the gardens and plants.
First to speak was Saxon Holt, a renowned plant photographer who has several e-books and bestsellers. A successful garden photographer for over 40 years, Saxon had plenty to share with us.
Saxon is perfecting a technique called ‘extraction’. Done in Photoshop, close-up shots of a plant are taken. Usually a number of exposures are taken to get a portion of the plant entirely in focus with sharp edges. The plant is brought forward out of the background. This technique has many cool details that are missing in a typical hand painted illustration.
First, a photograph captures the plant where the gardener chose to put it, with the colors in the background and showing the plant in context with its surroundings. Second, a photograph only records a moment in time. The portrait captured is never going to look exactly like that again. With the ease of recording GPS coordinates, it is relatively simple for anyone to return again and again to the same plant to capture stages of the plant’s life – creating a true portrait of the plant.
One feature of the Alcatraz Florilegium
illustrations that I’m drawn to is when artists paint the brown tips on leaves, rust and when the plants are setting seed and going dormant. This is truly how the plants are.
David Perry next spoke on tips for taking plant portraits. One point David was quick to say was that you do not need an expensive camera to take great photos. The main thing is to have the eye to know a good shot.
Think of photographing plants as you would people, keep in mind that you want to tell a story. David explained that a common problem when taking photos is that most people take pictures of nouns (snapping pictures of a tree, flower or a landscape). What are lacking are verbs, adjectives and prepositions. Brushing up on grammar school, this simply means don’t take mug shots of plants. Take photos that say something.
Tips from David made perfect sense:
-Look up / Look Down – people tend to take photos of what’s in their view. With the average height of people being between 5’3” and 6’3”, most photos are from this perspective.
-First / Last light of the day is best – the best light is already gone by the time people are putting the second cream in your coffee. Stick around after sunset for the best light. White flowers almost will glow in this fading light.
-Keep going back – show different moods of the same plant in different light, seasons, capture the telling detail of the plant.
-Be mindful of what’s in the background – avoid getting houses, and you can also create your own background with sheets of patterned paper for close-ups.
-Photo apps that David likes – camera+, handyphoto, overphoto, and mextures. All of these are a few dollars each and are fun to play with.
David also said ‘it’s not fair to let the plant do all the work’. He recalls being intimidated by ‘how pretty she was’ when referring to Rose ‘Felicite Hardy’.
Listening to these energized photographers, it was easy to see why they are so passionate about plants and photography. Gardeners are passionate to plant and to care for a garden, and now another step is to take photos of the plants you have chosen to be a part of your garden – creating a Photo Florilegium of a garden that is unique from any other garden.