Apartment Garden Blues (Blog): The Gardens of Alcatraz

Gardens of AlcatrazI mentioned that I took a quick weekend trip to San Francisco recently, and I definitely picked the right time to go. In May the weather is perfect (no fog!), and the flowers are all in bloom. At one of the most visited sites in San Francisco, Alcatraz Island, I was surprised by how beautifully landscaped “The Rock” was. Not only is it the site of a former federal penitentiary, but it is literally a rock. Before it was settled in the mid-1800s as an army fortress, the island only had a thin layer of soil that could only support native grasses and shrubs.

The gardens of Alcatraz all began in 1865 when the military brought soil over from Angel Island and the Presidio and started planting Victorian-style gardens. In 1933, when Alcatraz became a federal prison, a man named Fred Reichel, the secretary to the warden, began caring for the gardens left by the army. He convinced the warden to allow prisoners to care for the gardens. The children of the prison guards who lived on the island also tended to their own gardens, including vegetable gardens.

After the prison closed in 1963, the gardens were abandoned. Because no one maintained the gardens, some plants thrived, and others died out. But in 2003, the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service partnered up to preserve, rebuild, and maintain the gardens created by those who lived on the island during its military and prison eras, and interpret their history, horticulture, and cultural significance for visitors.

If you haven’t been to Alcatraz Island, or haven’t visited since 2003, make sure to visit again. Not only will you experience the poignant audio tour narrated by former Alcatraz prisoners and guards, but the island’s gardens will also leave a lasting impression.

Learn more at AlcatrazGardens.org.


Alcatraz Gardens


Alcatraz Gardens


Alexandra Martin is a professional writer from Southern California who grows vegetables, herbs, lots of aloe vera and one giant Boston fern in her balcony garden. She also grows dracaena, pothos and English ivy indoors. She loves traveling and birdwatching in addition to gardening.

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