From rural Ontario to Alcatraz

Guelph grad leads garden restoration on Alcatraz 

AlcatrazI’ve long wanted to visit Alcatraz, the notorious prison island off the coast of San Francisco commonly called simply “The Rock”.

I didn’t make it there during my first trip to the area almost a decade ago; back then, I didn’t realize you had to buy tickets days or even weeks in advance during peak tourist season.

I was better prepared during a trip to California with my husband this past June.

During our visit to the island, which started as a military garrison and was ultimately converted to a civilian penitentiary in 1934 before being shut down in 1963, I was particularly fascinated by the many beautiful plants and flowers everywhere.

It wasn’t until I was home again that I learned of the Alcatraz Gardens’ connection to Bruce County and the University of Guelph.

Her name is Shelagh Fritz.

She’s the Program Manager at Alcatraz Gardens, where she’s responsible for everything from gardening, researching historical records, and supervising volunteers to giving tours and garden presentations, blogging, and social media outreach.

Fritz hails from Bruce County, near the small hamlet of Chepstow. Following her graduation from the University of Guelph in 1999 with a B.Sc. Agr in Horticultural Science and Business, she worked in gardens and grounds maintenance in Toronto, Pennsylvania and the United Kingdom before landing at Alcatraz in 2006.

Shelagh Fritz_Program Manager Alcatraz Gardens - web

The restoration of the island’s historic gardens began in 2003. That’s when the U.S. National Park Service and the it’s non-profit arm, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, approached the Garden Conservancy to head up efforts to rehabilitate the gardens and interpret their significance to the more than 1.3 million people who visit Alcatraz every year.

The job was no small challenge: clearing over 40 years of neglect in five key garden areas with a miniscule budget and a lot of work ahead to source period photos and records of the four and a half acres of gardens in their heyday to direct the project.

Alcatraz is a mixture of both gardening and history. In order to do historic preservation of a landscape, proof of what it used to look like is needed – whether photographs or other images, garden records, or even accounts from the inmates themselves.

“The gardens now are mostly from the penitentiary period because more photos exist from that time to help us with the restoration,” explains Fritz. “We have photos from the 1940s and 1950s and actual inmate records from the national archives in San Bruno.”

Letting people know about the gardens is one of the biggest challenges, says Fritz, and one of the reasons she started the popular Gardens of Alcatraz blog (


Not only does it help interpret the history and culture for the public, it’s also a way of documenting the work that is being done, and she finds people are genuinely interested in how and why things are done in the Alcatraz gardens.

“It’s easy to take a picture and post it to Facebook, even if reception isn’t always the best on the island,” she says. “Working on the island is fun and always changing. I never get bored going to work!”

Fritz particularly likes the preservation aspect of her job; there are many other gardens to restore in the Bay area and the Alcatraz project has been a great learning experience, especially from the small amount of funding available at the project’s onset and working with volunteers.


Many of the gardens’ volunteers are put their “real life” skills to work on the island, says Fritz, such as a math teacher with a love of carpentry who helped build an exact replica of a closet door shown in one of the old images, and a retired microbiologist who helped the gardens team win “Best in Show” at the Marin County Fair earlier this year with their compost.

June 30, 2014 marked a milestone for the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz – the Garden Conservancy moved the project to its ‘completed’ list and the Stewardship department of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy assumed responsibility for caring and fundraising for the gardens.

Note: this article was originally published in the Ontario Farmer, fall 2014.

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