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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2005 Issue

Gardening on the Rock
Over the years, this former prison has become an unlikely garden spot.

By Judith B. Tankard

Gardening on the Rock

When I recently stepped off the ferry at Alcatraz Island, I momentarily imagined I was back on Madeira, an island off the coast of southern Portugal known for its lush flora and steep, rocky terrain. All that was missing were the banana trees and the poolside resort hotels.

Alcatraz, of course, was never a holiday resort, only a place of last resort for society's incorrigibles. As I followed in the footsteps of Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly, I thought life on this flower-filled isle could not have been all that bad until I saw the close confines of the cell-house, which serves as the island's primary tourist attraction today. Wandering up the steep paths to the top of The Rock and picking my way among the derelict buildings overgrown with red valerian and other wildflowers, I felt like a visitor who had discovered the ruins of a forgotten city. In many ways, this is exactly what Alcatraz is today.

Now a preservation project of the Garden Conservancy, the extraordinary gardens once created by prisoners on Alcatraz are being reclaimed. In continuous existence for over 150 years, these gardens reflect a rich history of horticulture and gardening ideas spanning many different eras, from floriferous Victorian cottage gardens to environmentally sensitive attempts at erosion control. To date, more than 140 types of plants have been recorded as having survived from the years when Alcatraz was a prison: a mix of California natives, introductions from the Mediterranean, and rampant weeds. Some of them are considered rare or out of commercial cultivation.

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