Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project

April 23, 2007


 Alcatraz, San Francisco: When hearing the name Alcatraz, few think of it as a place of beauty or a place where people connected with the land, and found a sense of peace and freedom. But now, thanks to the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, this softer side of “The Rock” is being uncovered.

At the halfway mark, the seven-year project’s goal is to rehabilitate the grounds around the legendary prison and military site, and share the tales of plant survival, as well as those of the inmates, personnel and residents who attempted for more than a century to turn Alcatraz into a livable, bearable place through horticulture. The Garden Conservancy, which is spearheading the project, has made a commitment to develop a strategy that ensures continued maintenance so that the gardens become a permanent part of the visitor experience to Alcatraz.

“The gardens were abandoned in 1963 when the prison closed,” said Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project Manager Carola Ashford. “After more than three years of research, planning and fundraising, not to mention clearing out tons of debris and overgrowth, we’re beginning to see the big payoff this spring. Reintroduced plants are growing in key areas, flowers are blossoming and visitors are venturing around the outside of the cellhouse with our garden brochure in hand. Still, we have a lot of work and improvements ahead that will keep our volunteers and staff busy.”

Ashford is an employee of the national non-profit Garden Conservancy, which is responsible for the project’s day to day work, staff, volunteers and fundraising. She works closely with the Golden Gate National Parks and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy who teamed up with the Garden Conservancy in 2003 to rescue the historic gardens on Alcatraz.

Ashford and Shelagh Fritz, Alcatraz’s first full-time professional gardener who also works for the Garden Conservancy, are inspired by the work of many early gardeners on The Rock including Secretary to the Warden Freddie Reichel and Inmate Elliott Michener who worked the gardens in the 1930s and 1940s. With no water, little soil and a unique location in the middle of San Francisco Bay, their challenge was enormous, but not insurmountable.

“I kept no records of my failures, for I had many,” wrote Reichel. “The main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to those plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest.”

Reichel convinced his boss, Warden James A. Johnson, to allow some of the inmates to work in the gardens under the guard tower. While escaping the island was often on the mind of prisoners, working in the gardens provided a brief escape from the harsh realities of the cellblock for a few hours.

“The hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession,” said Michener who was sent to Alcatraz for counterfeiting but found a sense of freedom through gardening. “This one thing I could do well.”

Today, vintage images and historical records of the Alcatraz gardens from the mid 1800s through 1963 influence Ashford and Fritz as they seek planning approvals by the Golden Gate National Parks, which requires close attention to historical accuracy. Visitors will see the gardens as they likely were in the past, complete with a roughly constructed greenhouse and time-worn tool shed.

“Our hope is that as the preservation work progresses, that the beauty and complex nature of these once manicured gardens will become known,” said Ashford. “The project is a tribute to those who tended the gardens in the past, as well as to those who work to save them today.”

Volunteers are an important part of the restoration of the gardens. College students, corporate groups and individuals join the garden staff a few times each week to clear brush, prepare the soil, plant, water and weed in the gardens.

“Planning, stabilizing, planting and nurturing a garden takes patience and time,” said Ashford. “Without our volunteers, we wouldn’t be nearly this far along on the project.”

Restoring the garden railings, stairs, walls, buildings and irrigation system are costly. So, donations of equipment, in-kind services and money are also critical to the project, which is estimated to run over $1 million. After completion of the rehabilitation project in 2009, a maintenance plan and budget will follow.

“We’ve seen a gratifying level of interest in this project,” said Garden Conservancy President Antonia Adezio. “Of all the gardens we support around the country, this is the best known by far. 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.”

To donate services or money to the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project, call the Garden Conservancy at (415) 561 7895. For more information about the Garden Conservancy, see To volunteer for the project, visit or call (415) 561 3013.

To learn more about the historic gardens, visit the Garden Conservancy's website.