Rock Gardening

Thanks to a team of dedicated volunteers, the lost gardens of Alcatraz Island are back—and blooming


?The pink flowers of Centranthus ruber, also known as Jupiter?s Beard, grow among succulents near the Guard Tower. All these plants are extremely drought tolerant.

Credit: Saxon Holt

They shouldn't be here, the brilliant drifts of flowers cascading over the ruins and roadways and terraces of Alcatraz Island. The Rock is a notoriously inhospitable place—both for prisoners (it was the site of a federal prison from 1934 to 1963) and for flowers (before residents imported dirt, the island's poor soil could support only native grasses and a few shrubs). But passionate gardeners transformed the slopes of Alcatraz in the middle of the 19th century, turning a barren and desiccated landscape into a colorful oasis. And today, passionate gardeners are at work on The Rock again, reclaiming the lost gardens of Alcatraz, and restoring their former brilliance.

The greening of this 22-acre island dates to the 1860s, when residents of the first U.S. military fort on the west coast began excavating pocket gardens and filling them with soil brought from nearby Angel Island. By 1870, a formal Victorian garden bloomed near the citadel, and by 1890 the first of what would become hundreds of agave plants had taken root. After the military prison here closed and a federal penitentiary opened, the tradition of gardening continued, with staff and their families cultivating an increasingly colorful landscape.

A new chapter in the island's history opened when Fred Reichel, secretary to the warden in the mid-1930s, contacted horticulturists across the state to learn about the best plants for this unusual microclimate. He also lobbied his boss to allow prisoners to work the soil on Alcatraz.

"The inmates added to the terraces already established, and transformed the island into a series of remarkable garden spaces," says Bill Noble, director of preservation for the Garden Conservancy, which has partnered with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service to restore the Alcatraz landscape. The foundations of demolished houses once occupied by the commandant and his officers became thriving flower gardens, and a prisoner named Elliott Michener even received permission to build a greenhouse for intensive propagation. For decades the gardens flourished, until the prison closed in 1963 and the carefully tended beds were abandoned. Native Americans occupied the island for two years starting in 1969, but the celebrated gardens of Alcatraz largely disappeared. "By the 1990s," Noble says, "there wasn't much left."

The island became an overgrown jumble of blackberries, English ivy—and weeds. Lost beneath were close to 200 species of plants that tenaciously clung to life without water, fertilizer, or pruning for 40 years. "Yes, it was a terrible mess," admits Garden Conservancy President Antonia Adezio, "but it was also a place with grandeur that we knew could tell a story of incarceration and inspiration and survival."

The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (the nonprofit support organization for the national recreation area) had already published a book about the vanished gardens, and it financed a stabilization plan. Adezio's organization reached out to them, offering professional support and expertise. (As Bill Noble remembers, the Garden Conservancy contributed "the chutzpah to drive the project forward.") Their efforts received a boost when the National Trust's western office helped fund a cultural landscape inventory, and Save America's Treasures, a partnership between the National Park Service and the National Trust, awarded a $250,000 federal challenge grant.

In 2003, a part-time horticulturist hired by the Golden Gate conservancy put out the call for volunteers. A core group of two or three volunteers began gathering at a pier in San Francisco, and crossing the bay to mount a mammoth reclamation effort on Alcatraz. Within a year, the volunteer group tripled in size, and local corporations were sending teams of employees to help rip out ivy and blackberries, and drag them to compost piles.

Dick Miner is one of the volunteers who joined the effort in 2004. "In those days it really was a jungle," he recalls. "I pulled weeds for the next two and half years and got so interested I eventually became a docent, teaching the public about our progress." He remembers days when ruined rock walls and old pathways began emerging from the tangled mass of greenery cloaking the island. "Those discoveries energized us," he says. "They still do."

Visitors stepping off the ferry to Alcatraz today are likely to find Project Manager Shelagh Fritz digging alongside volunteers who come out to work every Wednesday and Friday. "When we started in 2003, we had the goal of restoring five area gardens, and we finished the bulk of that work this year," she says. "But like any garden, the work is never done." She's currently supervising repairs to the inmates' terraced gardens, and planning reconstruction of the historic rose garden greenhouse, slated to open this year. The completed cedar-and-glass greenhouse, once the center of garden operations for the entire island, will house heirloom plants and serve as a potting area.

Workers are also nearing completion on an innovative water catchment system. "This was an important part of our work because we always wanted the gardens to be sustainable," Fritz says. The gravity-fed system will collect rainwater off the cellhouse roof and direct it to massive cisterns originally installed to contain runoff from the prison showers. "We're reusing a historic feature," Fritz notes, "and catching 15,000 gallons in tanks with no moving parts."

Volunteers scramble to build and plant during the winter months because many projects must be put on hold from February to September, when the region's abundant seabirds nest and raise their young. (Spanish explorers called this island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," "Island of the Pelicans.") The flourishing wildlife represents an increasingly important draw for the estimated 1.4 million visitors who arrive by ferry each year, but the same western gulls and snowy egrets that thrill bird watchers pose enormous challenges for gardeners.

Fritz tells a story of the first volunteers here, who planted a newly revealed 100-foot-long trough with pelargoniums. (Commonly called geraniums and treated as annuals in parts of the country, they thrive here as perennials.) "Everyone came out to take part and stood back and applauded," she says, "but the next day the plants were gone. The gulls ripped out young plants and used them for nesting material." Today, when gardeners place tender seedlings into the soil, they cover them with wire cages until the roots are established. "The plants look a little bit like they're in jail as well," Fritz says.

The restored gardens of Alcatraz now include those flanking the main road, a rose garden that Fred Reichel maintained in the 1930s, and beds along Officers' Row, around the warden's residence, as well as on Cellhouse Slope and west-facing terraces. Most species chosen for the landscape once flourished here, including pelargoniums, Echium, fuchsia, and European roses. Where historic plantings had vanished, low-maintenance varieties were planted in their place.

"We got involved here because these gardens tell a compelling tale about human determination," Adezio says. "With very few tools, but with ingenuity and time, these complex gardens were established … They testify to the power of work and thought."

Prisoners recycled rubble to make pathways. They used food scraps to amend the soil. And they persuaded prison staff to give them the seeds to establish an extraordinary landscape. Under the watchful eye of guards, they made this island bloom. "What the prisoners did on Alcatraz was a miracle," Adezio says. "They made something out of nothing. It's a sight to see."

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that volunteers are completing an innovative rainwater catchment system. In fact, Oakland-based WaterSprout was hired through a bid process to design and build this system.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.