Alcatraz Island is famous for being a long-ago maximum security prison where Al Capone did time and three infamous prisoners escaped. But that is really only part of the story. The other part is that a resilient and flourishing historic garden thrives on the island in the middle of windy and foggy San Francisco Bay. As a Bay Area native, I had visited Alcatraz before but only to do the famous cellhouse tour. This time, I visited it for a garden tour. I jumped on the ferry and in 15 minutes arrived on the “The Rock” to take in the ever-evolving garden spaces.
Please join us as we look around.
Photography by Kier Holmes.
A Rocky History
Nicknamed ‘The Rock’, Alcatraz was literally just a massive rock with nothing else. Everything—and I mean everything (building materials, soil, water, and plants)—had to be brought over on boats and barges. For more than a century, the Gardens of Alcatraz played a huge part of everyday life for officers, families, and the prisoners. As early as 1869, military inmates installed and tended the garden, with many having zero horticulture experience. Then in 1933, the military left the island to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and inmate-gardening continued. In fact, maximum-security inmates were granted permission by the warden to work in the gardens.
What I find fascinating is that this opportunity was hugely important to the morale of the prisoners and guards, that the gardens offered positivity and the possibility to create life and beauty in a barren, harsh, and demanding environment. The plants in the garden had to be extremely tough, able to survive with minimal care and water and to withstand the incessant fog and wind.
Eventually in 1963, the prison closed and the garden was abandoned. For four decades, the garden sat neglected as birds and weeds took over. Fortunately, in 2003, the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy partnered with the National Park Service to create a plan to bring the gardens back to their glory and to maintain key gardens on the island.
Top Plant Survivors
On my island visit, I met Shelagh Fritz, Senior Program Manager of Alcatraz Gardens, and she explained that over 200 plant species had miraculously survived the years of neglect. About 15 rose species hung in there, plus bulbs, fig trees, and succulents. On the incredibly windy west side, the list of surviving plants include: Echium candicans, Agave americana, Coprosma repens, Crassula argentea, Agapanthus orientalis, Aloe saponaria, Sedum praealtum, Chasmanthe, Aeonium arboreum, Drosanthemum. On the surprisingly calmer east side: Fuchsia magellanica, Fuchsia ‘Rose of Castile’, various bearded iris, Crocosmia, Watsonia, Hebe, Centranthus, Cistus, Yucca, and Pelargonium.
“The Alcatraz Rose”
In 1989, George Lowery (a Sebastopol heritage rose cultivator) found a deep-red rose once considered long extinct living behind the house of the first warden. George took cuttings for propagation purposes and soon identified the rose as ‘Bardou Job’, among the rarest of varieties.
Caring for Compost
“Being on an island means that composting is especially important as we would quickly run out of space to place our vegetation. By composting, we’re able to recycle most of our biomass back into the gardens as topdressing or use it for growing medium,” shares Shelagh, Because every year they add their compost back into the gardens, the soil is rich in organic matter and able to retain more moisture. “Plus,” adds Shelagh, “it’s a great way to sequester carbon back into the soil.” Under the care of “Chief Composting Officer” Dick Miner, their compost wins awards at the Marin County Fair.
The garden team uses three 4 x 4 x 4 feet compost bins, constructed with the help of Job Corps of Treasure Island. “The only thing we don’t compost is eucalyptus. It’s toxic and you don’t want that in your compost,” says Dick.
Future Garden Plans
Other than rain water and fog drip, Alcatraz has no fresh water source. Both the military and the prison built cisterns to catch the rainwater, but these fell into disrepair after the prison closed. In 2009, the project team installed a rainwater catchment system. “I would love to be 100 percent sustainable for water,” says Shelagh. “We do have enough capacity right now for water collection, but I need to figure out how to move water from one side of the island, where the catchment is, to the other side.” Also, she would love to develop partnerships with high schools to introduce youth to horticulture.
The Main Visitors (Besides Tourists)
“Seabirds!” says Shelagh. Alcatraz is a protected nesting site for many types of seabirds including Western Gull, Brandt’s Cormorants, blue herons, pigeon guillemot, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, peregrine falcon, plus many song birds and hummingbirds. “The nesting season is from February through September so spring and summer is a great time to visit, plus nowhere else can you be this close to huge colonies of birds.”
For more California gardens to visit, see:
- Garden Visit: The University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley
- Required Reading: Ruth Bancroft’s Bold Dry Garden
- Letter from California: Lotusland Survives Fire and Fury in Montecito