Gardens Tell the Other Story of Alcatraz

By: Carola Ashford

Carola Ashford, a landscape architect, received a fellowship appointment to Alcatraz Island from the Garden Conservancy in 2003. She was…

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For more than a century, gardens were an important part of everyday life on Alcatraz. Planted by successive waves of island inhabitants, from Civil War soldiers and their families to prison inmates, penitentiary staff and their families, this garden legacy indicates a continuous desire by residents to make the forbidding island an inhabitable home. Many of the plants selected by these gardeners proved to be excellent choices for the harsh and barren environment, surviving through the four decades of neglect that followed the prison’s closing in 1963.

By 2003, the garden legacy left by the former residents was obscured by a massive tangle of overgrowth. Over the past four years, the Garden Conservancy and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, in partnership with the National Park Service, have gradually revealed the structure of the old ornamental gardens and begun their repair and replanting. Garden Conservancy staff and volunteer garden crews now work year-round to uncover garden features, control invasives, and replant four historic gardens around the island. Many of the colorful historic plants have come back to life now that the garden debris has been pulled away.

“I kept no records of my failures, for I had many—the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to the plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest.”
Fred Reichel, Warden’s Secretary 1934-1941

Volunteers in the newly reconstructed Officers’ Row gardens. Photograph by Roy Eisenhardt

Volunteers in the newly reconstructed Officers’ Row gardens. Photograph by Roy Eisenhardt

Garden Survivors

Whereas the military era had minimum security prisoners, incarcerated for minor offenses, the federal penitentiary had a maximum-security population, and few convicts would be trusted to garden. Many were there precisely because they had escaped repeatedly from other prisons. Fred Reichel knew that this handful of Alcatraz inmate gardeners needed tough plants that could survive with little water or care. Through contacts he made with the California Horticultural Society and well-known plant breeders, he gathered species adapted to mediterranean climates around the world.

Today, the island’s visitors still find those “Reichel survivors,” as well as other tough plants favored by Victorian gardeners and mid-century inmate gardeners: pelargoniums and geraniums, fuchsias, fragrant old roses, fig trees, bulbs, and colorful succulents like aeoniums. The plant palette is an example of sustainable plantings consisting not of natives but rather exotic ornamentals suited to the island’s particular conditions.

A visiting lieutenant reported in 1895, “near the citadel and officers’ quarters, in little garden spots artificially made by bringing earth from the mainland, were blooming in profusion poppies, geraniums, heliotropes, fuchsias and calla lilies.”

A volunteer resets the original brick edging in the Officers’ Row gardens. Photograph by Marney Beard

A volunteer resets the original brick edging in the Officers’ Row gardens. Photograph by Marney Beard

Rehabilitation of Officers’ Row

In 1881, the Army built three Victorian-style homes for the highest-ranking officers. Between each house were terraced gardens. After the Bureau of Prisons demolished two of the houses in 1940, the large areas within the remaining concrete foundations were turned into cutting gardens that were tended by staff families and inmates until the prison closed. In fall 2006, the historic gardens of Officers’ Row were re-established. The garden project is charged with rehabilitating the gardens to “the look and feel” of the original gardens, as documented in time-period photographs or first-person accounts. The plants chosen for the Officers’ Row rehabilitation are, in some cases, the historic plants still found on the island, if they lend themselves to “the look and feel” of those former cutting gardens. Other notable Alcatraz garden plants, such as heliotrope and gladiolus, were reintroduced, provided they were horticulturally suitable and had introduction dates appropriate to the mid-twentieth century period of significance for these gardens (1940-1963). When no commercial source was available, or when the historic plants would not be sustainable given today’s limited water and labor, gardeners have substituted alternative plants with a character and scale similar to the documented plants.

These newly re-established gardens tell the story of life outside “the big house.” They illustrate, in a dramatic way, the importance of gardens to the human spirit and the healing benefits gardens can provide. They serve as a demonstration of the aesthetic possibilities of sustainable gardening with plants gathered decades ago from around the world.