Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
August, 2004
Regional Report

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Alcatraz Island, a.k.a. The Rock, is home to hardy plants and compelling gardens.

The Gardens of Alcatraz

I have lived in the Bay area all of my life, but I had never walked across the Golden Gate Bridge or been to Alcatraz Island. At least one of these omissions has been rectified. The "Henry's Garden" crew took the employee launch over to Alcatraz to shoot a segment on the gardens there.

We were accompanied on our garden tour by a docent, a gardener, and a ranger, all of whom were bursting with information on the history of the island and the people who first cultivated the gardens. Our first stop was the Sally Port gardens. The Sally Port, or guard tower, was the first thing prisoners saw when they landed at the penitentiary. Amazingly, fuchsias, jade plants, and nasturtiums endure the arid environment, even after all these years of neglect.

Gardening on The Rock
Before anyone ever lived on Alcatraz, it was a rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Nothing grew there. It was home to sea birds and was completely covered with white, bird guano. Eventually it was home to not only prisoners but the staff and their families, including the warden and guards. To make life on the rock more pleasant, successive generations of inhabitants -- from Civil War soldiers to Victorian wives of army officers -- planted gardens. Only with careful cultivation and patient tending did the island eventually blossom.

Roses, iris, nasturtiums, Jupiter's beard, ice plant, and aloes not only survive but thrive on the island to this day. There is no source of water on Alcatraz, every pint must be ferried over from either the mainland or nearby Angel Island. Imagine trying to create a garden in a place where there is no soil and no water.

As we made our way up the road toward the warden's house, there was a long planter, now empty, that bordered the roadway. I can imagine it as it was in the past, planted with geraniums, colorful and lively -- quite a contrast to the living arrangements. As a matter of fact, the most coveted cells on the block were those with a view of the gardens.

The gardens at Alcatraz are now tended by volunteers and are an example of the variety of the plants that thrive in our arid climate. Native sweet peas, aloes, hebes, agaves, aptenia, and even fuchsias are growing wild in the rocky soil. The garden volunteers work diligently to keep the fuchsias on the west side of the island from covering the roadway. The Garden Conservancy is very active in the restoration project.

As our crew made our way around the island to observe the wild roses and native plants, we saw hundreds of seagull chicks -- little brown puff balls squeaking for their first taste of a French fry. Nesting gulls were on every ledge and hillside. I'm glad they have a safe place to raise their chicks. I don't care what anybody says, to my mind seagulls are elegant fowl.

We saw hundreds of cormorants drying their wings against the strong breeze on the Western side of the island. There are now over 200 nesting pairs of night herons who call Alcatraz home, their numbers up significantly from only a short while ago. I have to think that the guano from these avian inhabitants aids in the fertilization of the thin, rocky soil.

I was amazed to learn that over 1.4 million visitors come to the island every year -- an average of more than 4,000 people each day. In the summer, tickets for the ferry ride over are sold out several weeks in advance.

As we shot our way back to the eastern side of Alcatraz, I started to believe that those numbers were no exaggeration. Crowds of people were everywhere. I loved seeing the children wearing the audio tour headphones while dragging their parents through the cell block. "Mom, come ON! We're supposed to be on "C" Block now. Hurry up!"

The fact that there are gardens at Alcatraz at all is a tribute to the human spirit and the desire to create beauty even in the most unusual circumstances. The people who built these gardens had to be almost spiritual in their need to cultivate and grow things in such an inhospitable place. The plants that thrive on the island are also testament to survival.

There is no irrigation during the dry months, so if you are expecting to see a garden of Eden, perhaps you had better plan your visit for April or May. However, if you are inspired by tenacity and the power of nature, or just want to find some really hardy plants for your own garden, consider making a visit to The Rock.

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