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The rocky shores of Alcatraz bloom once again

Alcatraz is a forbidding landscape, but its rocky gardens – once tended by prisoners and families of the guards – are being restored, and bloom once again.

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Michener liked his work so much that for a while he turned down parole to stay on, says Fritz, although he eventually left and went to work at a dairy farm in Wisconsin.

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After the prison closed in 1963, partly due to high operating expenses, the gardens fell into disarray — flowers died back, shrubs grew into misshapen monsters, and weeds ran wild. But more than 200 species — shrubs, succulents, bulbs, and perennials — survived.

The progress of the restoration

The restoration dates back about six years when the Garden Conservancy, a national nonprofit group dedicated to saving significant gardens, opened a West Coast office.

It started looking for a project, and someone suggested Alcatraz, says Antonia Adezio, president of the Garden Conservancy. "We just became tremendously excited about the potential to show the public how important gardening is. Here they were in this desolate place and finding ways to connect with it."

The conservancy is working in partnership with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service. Late last year, the gardens were recognized with the California Preservation Foundation Trustees Award for Excellence.

Gardening on a rock's not easy. All fresh water still has to be brought in by boat.

This year, a 15,000-gallon water cachement system went in, which should provide enough water to keep the gardens irrigated year-round.

As spring beckoned, flowers in bloom included the bright blaze of yellow narcissus and the softer lavender of iceplant climbing up a west side bank. Gardeners are doing battle with another import to the island: the weedy oxalis that apparently seemed a good idea back in the early 20th century.

Other highlights include a rose garden, in which restorers found a Welsh rose, Bardou Job, that hadn't been seen in Wales for years. Welsh gardeners were given a cutting.

Along the way, workers have uncovered more than botanic secrets.

One of the resources being used by restorers are some paintings done by a former inmate that show views of the west side gardens looking toward the San Francisco skyline.

The inmate's family, who never knew about the man's time in prison, found the pictures after he died and puzzled over them for a while. Where could they have been painted? Slowly, it dawned on them, he had to have been on Alcatraz — at a time when the island wasn't open to day excursions.

Poteet's island memories live on in her backyard.

When they left the island, her parents took some cuttings from their gardens. Descendants of those plants now grow at her home in central California, and Poteet, who has worked as a volunteer on the garden project, gave restorers some of the cuttings.

"Full circle," she says.


To read more about gardening, see the Monitor's main gardening page and our lively gardening blog, Diggin' It. Both of these have changed URLs, so we hope you'll bookmark them and return. Want to be notified when there's something new in our gardening section? Sign up for our RSS feed.

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