The Gardens of Alcatraz Island

I didn’t expect much from a prison garden, but I was very pleasantly surprised by the gardens in and around San Francisco’s former federal penitentiary, Alcatraz.

Alcatraz is called “The Rock” for good reason.
It’s mostly rock and buildings.

The island, originally an uninhabitable pile of rocks, home to only birds, had barely anything more than scrub brush when roads were first blasted out of the rock in the 1850s. Then it was developed as an army military garrison leading up to the Civil War. The three officer’s homes, at the time, had small gardens. And the common areas used plantings to visually break up the seemingly endless piles of cannon balls. Soil had to be brought there from the mainland for growing. One large lawn and garden was watered with reclaimed water from the cell house showers.

It became, partially at least, a military prison as early as 1861. Over time, to accommodate more military prisoners, more buildings were constructed. By 1933, it was decommissioned as a military establishment and made a federal penitentiary. At that time, some prison officers and guards lived in the houses with their families. Gardens were still kept, but now some gardens were maintained not only by the prison officers and their families, but by well-behaved prisoners.

Great view of the Golden Gate Bridge for any
prisoner that had access to a window or outdoors.

In the 1930s, the warden at the time asked the California Horticultural Society and western plant breeders for seedlings that might do well in the harsh environment. More than 230 species of ornamental climate-appropriate plants were accumulated before the prison closed in 1963.

One inmate, in the 1940s, used salvage materials to build garden terraces, a greenhouse and even a birdbath. With food scraps for composting, and seed packets from staff, he and other prisoners tended gardens for years.

After 1963, when the prison closed, because of its run-down buildings and too-expensive-to-upkeep facilities – and for the 40 years after its closing, the gardens went feral. Any plants that survived had to do so without watering or care.

The “gardens” start at the Alcatraz Pier in San Fransisco.
Plants that can be found on the island can be found here
in planters, labeled with some historical information
for those waiting in line to get onto the boats.

And what survived? Roses, fig trees, bulbs, and succulents and more – historical examples of sustainable plantings – many with a Mediterranean pedigree.

In 2003 the current owner of the island, the National Park Service, along with partners  Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the Garden Conservancy joined forces to preserve and restore the gardens. Volunteers now work year-round to plant and maintain the gardens.

Now there are gardens with names like, Officer’s Row, Warden’s House, Cellhouse Slope, West Lawn & Toolhouse Terraces and the West Side Prison Gardens. And they’re beautiful! Many are built on the foundations of the homes that originally stood on the island. Some are in the original spots from the Civil War era. Some are in the same spots as where the prisoners maintained them.

Takes about 50 volunteer
gardeners year round to maintain
the gardens these days.

I talked briefly to one of the volunteers working in the garden. She said it takes about 50 volunteer gardeners. she herself comes out there about twice a week. If you get to San Francisco, Alcatraz is worth the visit for the gardens alone, but the tour of the prison is what draws about a million people there each year.

It is fascinating to see what life was like and peek in cells. Hard to imagine what life the incarcerated life is like. Makes you appreciate your life just a little bit more. Much like a garden does.

Lots of succulents make up many of the garden beds.
This one a hilly spot as you walk up to the prison from the docks.
Geraniums in a planter built into a railing wall. And look – the plants are imprisoned in cages!
Steps down to the garden beds that are planted in the foundations of the homes that were once there.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
Garden beds in the old home foundations.
I believe this garden bed is planted on the footprint of the former greenhouse.
I believe this garden bed is planted on the footprint of the former greenhouse.
Here the plants were well-marked. That’s not the case everywhere.
I believe this garden bed is planted on the footprint of the former greenhouse.
One hill’s steep slope was covered in ice plants.

I have a long-time garden blog, a popular garden on America's largest garden tour, and have co-written a book on garden design titled, "Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs" When I'm not doing all that, I am an advertising designer always out looking to design things to promote your business. Look me up at #jcharlier.

0 comments on “The Gardens of Alcatraz Island

  1. Gardens can be grown anywhere. Those are some hardy plants. I really like filling the old foundations with gardens.


  2. Thanks for this tour. The gardens surprised me too. So nicely done.


  3. So pretty! I once saw a segment about the gardens of Alcatraz on “Gardening by the Yard”, but this was a few years ago. It looks like they've come quite a long way in restoration!


  4. do you think this would be a good tour stop for the SF garden blogger fling…? i'm guessing it'd be a full half-day trip with a boat ride… or would you allow for more time?


  5. Andrea,I'd be torn about getting folks out there to see the Alcatraz gardens. It's a tourist destination that most will want to see, and to see it right, you need almost three-quarters of a day/ And the gardens would not take that long to see. Not sure how often the boats run, but we'd be at their mercy time-wise. I'm sure the volunteer gardeners out there would love all the attention bloggers would bring to the gardens. Also, unless you get a great price (or free) it could be very expensive to get nearly 100 people out there. Not sure what t tell you. I guess you should peruse it until you find out that it's either unreasonable time-wise, or adding considerably to the expense.


  6. Gardening is not so easy.It really requires a lot of effort to build a very beautiful garden like this.Inkjet Paper


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