I’m fascinated by mention of gardens that crop up in unexpected places and under unusual circumstances. Of course, gardens don’t just crop up. They are initiated and fostered by humanity.
Nevertheless even in serious controlled places, there’s gravitation toward experiencing the beauty, challenges, and the pride that comes along with gardening. Perhaps gardening is doubly inspired because of entrapment, restraint and a pervading heavy atmosphere.
Rocky, raw, remote Alcatraz Island is one such site. The island was used as an army fortress in the early 1800s, a military prison in the mid-1800s, and a federal penitentiary established in 1934. Over the years, soldiers, wardens, guard families and prisoners were drawn to gardening however possible.
When the penitentiary system abandoned the island in 1963, flowers and plants found freedom to wander and grow unsupervised, unguarded—Agave, Albizia, Baccharis, Centranthus, Fuchsia, Pelargonium, ivy, yucca.
Today, we see that the Alcatraz gardens have come back to life under the dedicated nurturing of an active staff, 40 volunteers and docent led tours.
The Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project was spearheaded in 2003 by the Garden Conservancy in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Much research, planning, and fundraising preceded a year’s worth of overgrowth and debris-clearing. Between 2003 and 2008 more than 22,000 volunteer hours were logged. Finally, plants were able to be re-introduced in their original areas. Heirloom rose hybrids were discovered as well as Welsh rose bushes previously thought to be extinct. The island finds more than 200 species of plants.
There are multiple garden areas on Alcatraz Island. Take the virtual tour http://www.alcatrazgardens.org/virtual_tour.php
- The Main Road gardens lead up from the dock—inmates maintained gardens here between 1912 and 1963.
- The Officer’s Row on the less windy side of the island is an area with the longest garden history. In the mid-1800’s a formal Victorian garden grew here. At the time, soil had to be barged in. Later in 1934 when the site went to the Bureau of Prisons, staff families and inmates began some cutting gardens.
- In view of San Francisco and the bay the Warden’s Garden was created between 1919 and 1921.
- At the Cellhouse Slope we learn that the army began a beautification project after constructing new prison facilities to improve the view from San Francisco. In 1924 plants were donated by the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association. Prisoners planted hundreds of shrubs, trees, and perennials.
- The Rose Terrace below the Main Road held a greenhouse and what had become a very overgrown rose garden. In 2010 the Garden Conservancy built a new greenhouse on the prior greenhouse foundation, with nearby cottage-style gardens created and maintained by prisoners.
I asked Shelagh Fritz, Project Manager and Horticulturist, what the geographic challenges were for maintaining the island gardens. While roses and other plants seem to thrive in the salt air, “there is no source of freshwater other than winter rains and summer fog drip. We choose plants that are drought-tolerant. We plant during the rainy season to take advantage of the ‘free water’ and we do all our watering by hand.”
Perhaps taking a cue from Warden Johnston in the late 1930’s—when water from inmate bathing was captured below and later used for watering lawns and shrubs—a catchment system is used today. Completed in November, 2009 the new system reuses the historic grey water cisterns from the federal prison shower rooms for storing rainwater collected from the cell house roof. So now, Shelagh says, “We have a capacity of 15,000 gallons meeting the garden’s annual water needs.” You can read about this clever design of the gravity-based water-catchment, filter, and storage-system here. http://alcatrazgardens.org/catchment_system.php.
No one lives on the island of Alcatraz, not even staff. But Shelagh has a steady stream of volunteers who make their way by ferry from SF Pier #33 on Wednesday and Friday mornings. They return to San Francisco four hours later. She finds “the more that volunteers invest their time in the gardens and see the gardens develop and change with the seasons, the more hooked they become.” That’s a good thing as volunteers have made all this work possible.
Shelagh gets to know each volunteer and their task preferences, and is cognizant of the toll that windy conditions take on the west side of the island. Dick Miner, long-time volunteer and tour-guide, says “There is a great sense of camaraderie among our regular volunteers who have really become our crew.”
As I read more I see that my intrigue with this particular garden site is not unusual. Garden Conservancy President Antonia Adezio notes “people are enthralled by the contrast between the feeling of bleakness and misery inside the cellhouse and the sense of beauty and freedom outside in the gardens. It truly demonstrates how a place can touch the human spirit and vice versa.”
Link to: Alcatraz Gardens for much more information http://www.alcatrazgardens.org.
The Garden Conservancy is a national non-profit organization founded in 1989 to preserve exceptional American gardens for the public’s education and enjoyment. Donations are accepted. http://www.gardenconservancy.org/
Nancy R. Peck