Gardens of Alcatraz

– Posted in: Garden Photography, Garden Visits

The rock - Alcatraz island

I was recently invited by The Garden Conservancy to tour the Alcatraz garden project.  The Conservancy, in partnership with The Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, has spent the past 5 years restoring and replanting the barren and windswept old prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay.

Talk about Gardening Gone Wild!  It is a truly wild and difficult site.  The fact there are any gardens at all is a testament to the human spirit.  This barren rock had hardly any soil until early Army engineers brought soil in the 19th century for the original military prison and built a Victorian style garden.

Alcatraz gardens in the ruins

Much of what prospers today are hardy Mediterranean native plants that were planted as a beautification project starting in the 1920s.  Notice the Acanthus mollis here with the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance.

Acanthus mollis on Alcatraz

The gardens were expanded during the years as a Federal penitentiary, 1933- 1963, when prisoners were given permission to work out of doors.  Other naturalized flowers such as Centranthus ruber grow among succulents under the watchful guard tower.

guard tower and Alcatraz gardens

The ferry ride trip to the gardens is a must do tour for any visitor to San Fransisco.   The prison itself has definite if depressing history, but the very location of this island rock with sweeping views of the city skyline is thrilling.  Below we see Verbena and Achillea on a hillside overlooking the Bay.

Gardens of Alcatraz with San Francisco skyline

More on The Gardens of Alcatraz website with virtual tours.  More of my Alcatraz photos on the Saxon Holt website.

Late addition tour tip from an Alcatraz volunteer (Comment #7): ” . . . we encourage GGW readers to join our public tour of the gardens: we take visitors behind the scenes on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. (Book your Alcatraz Cruises ticket for the 9 o’clock boat.) Or come on a Wednesday, when we open the Officers’ Row gardens to visitors from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.”

Saxon Holt
Saxon Holt is the owner of, a garden picture resource for photographs, on-line workshops, and garden photography stories. An award winning photojournalist and Fellow of The Garden Writers Association with more than 25 garden books, he lives and gardens in Northern California. PhotoBotanic - Garden Photography online at
Saxon Holt

Latest posts by Saxon Holt (see all)

11 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Lisa at Greenbow July 9, 2009, 6:35 am

I have read some about these gardens. I hope to get to see it sometime. The views are marvelous.

It’s not to be missed if you get to SF – if only for the views – S

Town Mouse July 9, 2009, 11:00 am

How interesting! I took a trip to Alcatraz a very long time ago, and don’t remember any gardens (I do remember being locked in as part of the tour). Maybe I have to go again, preferably during a time of not so many tourists…

There are lots of tourists during the summer. Get an early ferry. But most tourists go to see the prison; the gardens are spread out and it’s where you get the views . . . – Saxon

Pam Kersting July 9, 2009, 5:47 pm

WoW! Who would have guessed that such a beautiful perennial garden would exist in such a place! I absolutely love the Acanthes mollis and the centranthes ruber — two of my favorite plants. I knew the Centranthes was quite drought/salt tolerant but had no idea about the Acanthes (although I was aware it liked very well drained soil conditions). Thanks for sharing this with us!

Glad you could actually get some gardening tips Pam. – Saxon

Kathy in Napa July 10, 2009, 11:59 pm

Wonderful photos, though your descriptions of a wild and difficult site did bring to mind the outfield at The Stick.

Yeah, not much grew in that field – except a rivalry. Yesterday while you were writing this comment I was at the best baseball field in the world watching a no-hitter as the local heros draw inexorably closer to those guys you root for – Saxon

Les July 11, 2009, 10:55 am

What a nice thing to do to a place with such a sad a storied past.

It’s amazing how gardening becomes a tonic for so many people in the most difficult circumstances. I recommend anyone visit the defiant garden site – Saxon

Jamie Rex July 12, 2009, 8:14 am

Fascinating photos. Although I am a California native, I would have never guessed there were gardens on Alcatraz. Next time I visit SF I will definately make the effort to cross the channel and get a closer look. Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for dropping by Jamie. Indeed, it is hard to imagine gardens in such a wild spot – until one realized gardeners will find a way … – Saxon

Marney Beard July 13, 2009, 3:47 pm

I’ve been a volunteer with the Alcatraz Gardens project for over four years. Saxon, thanks for the terrific photos of the gardens. We’re very proud of the project’s work, and we’d be happy to welcome additional volunteers. Also, we encourage GGW readers to join our public tour of the gardens: we take visitors behind the scenes on Friday and Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. (Book your Alcatraz Cruises ticket for the 9 o’clock boat.) Or come on a Wednesday, when we open the Officers’ Row gardens to visitors from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Who knows . . . you may want to become a Garden Docent yourself.

Marney – Thanks for the tour tips. I will add this to the body of the post so more folks, who don’t read comments, can find it. – Saxon

Heirloom Gardener July 13, 2009, 10:54 pm

Wow, I’ve been to San Francisco countless times, but never knew there were gardens out there.

Well The Garden Conservancy project is only about 5 years old and most folks would never go to Alcatraz expecting to see gardens. Now you know. – Saxon

Bonnie July 18, 2009, 1:20 pm

so cool. I went about 7 years ago and didn’t see this, but I wasn’t really looking either. Looks gorgeous.

The Garden Conservancy project only started about 5 years ago, so you would have seen little of the gardens, and lots of what has been done today is an expansion of what the original gardens were. – Saxon

Commonweeder July 20, 2009, 1:40 pm

I am amazed and delighted to find that gardens were planned as part of the original prison. Even happier to find that prisoners were allowed to work in the garden. I think it is unfortunate that modern jails and prisons so rarely allow the inmates to work outside, to grow some of their own food, and to grow some flowers for the soul.

Dee/reddirtramblings August 21, 2009, 12:48 pm

I really enjoyed this post about the gardens. Bill and I visited there many years ago, and they had a few gardens then. In fact, our guide took us to see what they had. It’s nice to know it’s become a conservation project. Thanks.~~Dee

Previous Post:

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]