Fun with Weeding on Alcatraz

Well, I made it out for another visit to the Alcatraz Gardens this week. What a stunningly gorgeous day it was, too! Temperatures were well into the 70’s, and I got to spend my hours gardening at the West Lawn, where I took all those fabulous succulent pix on my visit last week.

Yours Truly, with my day's work upslope behind me.

I was given a fun task this week that turned out to be somewhat challenging, yet very rewarding. I weeded some overgrown wild grasses off of a slope, and planted the slope with some geraniums. Doesn’t seem too difficult, but the site conditions added to the challenge. I suppose weeding really shouldn’t be so much fun, but when you’re doing it someplace like Alcatraz there really is nothing to complain about. I mean, sitting there in the sun, looking out over the bay and the SF skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge… Heaven!

The view from my weeding site.

The slope I was on is rubble. Lots of loose chips of rock that were piled up in banks under the wall of the prisoners’ recreation yard. The rock is loose and easily crumbles down the hill. In places, the grass I was tasked with removing was the very glue holding the slope together. Alcatraz, in its natural state, was completely, completely devoid of soil. Soil was brought over during the island’s period as an Army base specifically to absorb any incoming artillery fire, and it’s a precious commodity on The Rock today. On my little patch of rocky slope, there was little soil there, yet surprisingly plenty to support tons of plant life.

Rocky rubble slope to be weeded. Removing the grass above, under the Mirror Plant (Coprosma repens)

The slopes are well-suited to many succulent plants, and drought-tolerant plants from Mediterranean Climate zones around the world. Geraniums (Pelargonium species) tolerate the same conditions as so many of the succulent plants that thrive on the island. The West Lawn slopes are replete with many species of Aeonium, Agave, Echeveria, Cotyledon, Crassula, and members of Mesembryanthemaceae (the Ice Plants family), and have been growing in for a couple of years. A Pelargonium was already doing well on the slope, so this last patch of grass needed to be pulled and replaced with some cuttings that had been rooted from geraniums on other parts of the island. The gardens’ staff gardener, Shelagh, chose Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ for its magenta flowers that will nicely highlight the umber tones of the spines on the Agave below. (I think it’s Agave parryi truncata, but I’m not 100% on that.)

After the grass is gone.

It was some tricky footing and took a bit of clever stacking of rubble to retain parts of the slope. One benefit of weeding on a steep slope is that you don’t have to bend over so far! Still, my legs got quite a workout from maintaining balance in the loose rubble. Plus, it took many trips up and down: had to empty my 5-gallon bucket many times into a larger tub, had to water everything in by bucket (the hose was in use elsewhere), and had to put chicken wire cages over each of the plants afterwards. I’ll explain.

Flat of Pelargonium 'Prince Bismarck' to be planted.

Geraniums in the ground.

The only real pest on the island is the Western Gull. This time of year the gulls are nesting, and the island hosts about 1500 of those nests. Young plants make great nesting material, as any gull will tell you. Chicken wire cages help the young plants get a foothold.

Geraniums, caged up like so many prisoners before.

The other nifty thing that happened this visit is that I had an archaeological find! I mentioned that the slope I was working on was right below the prisoners’ recreation yard. The primary activity in the yard was handball, and handballs are the most prolific find on this part of the island. I was weeding away, and lo! a half of a handball! There are plenty of these already in the archives, but it was the first time I found one myself. It was very exciting to find something that a prisoner had accidentally lobbed over the wall over 50 years ago. Quite a thrill, despite their being fairly common still for the gardeners to find. Unfortunately, I set it down and lost track of it. It’ll give someone else a chance to experience the same thrill of the find as I got from it.

Archaeological find! A handball that was lost over the Rec Yard wall (above, left in the photo) over 50 years ago.

Can’t wait to see the results of my work over time. It’ll be exciting to see the geraniums grow and bloom in the future!

Me with some Golden Gate Bridge action in the background. What a place to work, right?

Followed by… Some gratuitous shots from my back-and-forth from the dock to the West Lawn…

Volunteer gardener heading out of the Rose Terrace gardens on the East Side.

Volunteer gardeners heading up the Main Road on the eastern side.

Volunteer gardeners heading down into Officers' Row.

The side of the old Warden's House at the summit of the Main Road.

Golden Gate Bridge color-saturated pano shot, from the summit of the Main Road.

Some geraniums. This might well be some of the same Pelargonium 'Prince Bismarck' that I planted down the hill a bit...

Lovely shot of some Hens-and-Chicks - Aeonium arborescens.

If only the signs applied to the gulls! 🙂

Another stunning Aeonium species by the West Lawn gardens.

Aeonium and roses.

A Docent-guided garden tour coming down the hill...

Volunteer gardeners at work in the Prisoners' Garden on the west side.

Shelagh and a volunteer gardener, among the succulents on the West Lawn garden.


View of the SF skyline, from the old hothouse foundation in the Prisoners' Garden.

Prisoners' Garden bloomerifousness.

Volunteers gardening on the West Side Toolshed Terraces and the West Lawn.


Golden Gate Bridge from the Toolshed Terraces.

Elliot's fig tree in the Prisoners' Garden.

Prisoners' Garden blooms.

Spanish Lavendar just outside the Prisoners' Gardens.

Chasmanthe floribunda on the West Side.

The Warden's House, at the summit of the Main Road.


Thanks for visiting boZannical Gardens!

9 responses to “Fun with Weeding on Alcatraz

  1. You are so lucky. It’s absolutely beautiful there. And, the rich/interesting/tragic history comes though in your photos.

    • Thanks, Beth! Gotta say, I feel lucky to be able to go out there. Originally, I was going out every week for nearly two years. Sometimes twice a week, to lead Docent-guided tours of the gardens. What fun that was! My working schedule is more limiting now, but I still get out when I can.

  2. More beautiful pictures! I especially love the lavender picture.
    Your sunny day pictures and descriptions are warming me up after coming in from an hour of standing around in the snow in 15 F weather!

  3. This really was a beautiful reel of photos. Thanks for sharing. I only recently learned that Alactraz had been converted to a succulent garden, this was a different perspective. So Cool!

    • Nat, I’m sorry I missed reading your comment way back in March! Thank you so much for the compliment. It’s a phenomenal place, a great story of survival. Restoring what had been abandoned is a very gratifying project…

  4. Pingback: Flora Grubb Gardens

  5. Pingback: Prepping for a Meadow on Alcatraz | boZannical Gardens

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