Fruit where the people are, along a popular recreation trail
Most runners, walkers, cyclists and skaters winding through north Seattle on the Burke-Gilman Trail are moving too fast to see the dozens of apple trees lining their route. This linear orchard provides healthy fruit and serves as a pollination corridor in the heart of a dense urban environment.
Twenty-eight fruit trees have been rescued from blackberry-tangled, neglected areas along the 17-mile long Trail. Most are located between the University Bridge and the intersection where N Northlake Place branches off from N Northlake Way, west of Gas Works Park. Some are heritage apples, many are volunteer seedlings, and a dozen are modern plantings.
History: From Railway to Pedestrian Superhighway
In 1885 Judge Thomas Burke, Daniel Gilman and ten other investors set out to establish a Seattle-based railroad. Their Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad was a major regional line serving Puget Sound logging areas. The line was acquired by Northern Pacific in 1913. By 1970, however, rail traffic had all but disappeared on the railroad right-of-way.
Recognizing the potential of the property, visionary citizens launched a movement to acquire the right-of-way for a public biking and walking trail. On September 12, 1973, twenty-five organizations and over 2,000 participants held a hike-in along the rail line and a rally at Matthews Beach. More than 1600 people signed a petition asking Burlington Northern to donate the land.
The public trail became a reality in 1973. Ownership and jurisdiction of the right-of-way within Seattle were shared by Seattle Parks & Recreation and Seattle Engineering Departments, the University of Washington, and the State of Washington.
The original 12.1 miles of trail connecting Seattle’s Gas Works Park with Kenmore were dedicated in 1978. Since then, the Burke-Gilman Trail has been connected to the Sammamish River Trail at Bothell’s Landing, inching toward the ultimate goal of a contiguous trail extending from Golden Gardens Park in Ballard to Bothell.
The Burke-Gilman orchard boasts 25 apple trees, five crabapples, three European pears, two Italian plums, two persimmons, two quince, and a fig. They range in age from three to more than 50 years. They are located between the University Bridge and the intersection of N Northlake Place and N Northlake Way, west of Gas Works Park. While some of these trees are heritage apples, most are volunteer seedlings, plus a dozen modern plantings.
Most trees in the 10-30 year range started as seedlings, opportunistic survivors that sprouted from seeds — perhaps from apple cores tossed by passers-by. Of the seedlings, many have characteristics of heritage fresh-eating apples (Hawkeye Delicious, Common Delicious, and Golden Delicious). Others are better suited to cider pressing or drying.
The trees have adapted to their urban environment. One apple tree lives literally beneath Interstate 5, and five others are in its shadow at some point each day. The youngest trees, planted in 2014, enjoy a picture postcard view of Lake Union, downtown Seattle, and the Space Needle.
A Hawkeye Delicious Apple tree is nestled between a parking lot at N Northlake Way and the Trail. This heritage apple was planted by a Seattle resident.
The Ben Davis apple tree is one of the oldest fruit trees along the Burke-Gilman Trail, with I-5 nearby, and is located next to a cherry tree. In this photo (right), the cherry is the blooming tree, with the Ben Davis in front.
A grove of at least ten trees near the University Bridge are all seedlings. Here it’s difficult to determine where one tree begins and another ends as so many tree trunks have grown up next to each other.
One tree has fallen over but thrives through its new vertical branches. Although one of these trees bears good eating apples, most are best suited for cider.
The Blue Pearmain apple tree is a heritage variety. (pictured, right)
The Yellow Bellflower Apple (pictured blooming, left) is a new arrival, transplanted from the shores of the Duwamish to a slope near Sunnyside Avenue N.
Twelve others (Italian plum, apple, crabapple, European pear, fig, quince, persimmon) were donated nursery stock that the stewards planted.
Orchard Restoration & Development: An ongoing challenge
When the Burke-Gilman orchard stewards started working in the orchard in 2010, the legacy orchard had been neglected and overgrown: Scotch broom, English ivy, holly, and wild clematis all did their best to suffocate the trees. The Common Delicious apple was 99% enveloped by cherry laurel shrubs. The Gravenstein seedling was visible only after its branches grew taller than the 6’ blackberries surrounding it. These fruit trees had clearly been forgotten, recognized only when they dropped fruit onto the Trail below. Many had never been pruned; others were dramatically reconfigured to meet human needs. One was topped on a regular basis to improve the neighbors’ view of Lake Union. The crown of the Blue Pearmain tree was rudely sliced by power lines leading to street lights.
In addition, although many of these trees have a lovely view of Lake Union, none has a water supply on site. During Seattle’s sunny, dry summers, water must be hauled in buckets up the trail’s sloped contours to nourish new seedlings and established trees.
Green Seattle Day 2010 marked the first work party for the Burke-Gilman Trail Urban Orchard Stewards. Five volunteers cleared blackberry vines from around the grand Ben Davis apple tree just west of I-5 on the Trail and discovered another seedling apple in the brambles.
Between 2010 and 2014 Burke-Gilman Stewards discovered a total of 27 fruit trees, removed invasive plants, and spread Zoo Doo Bedspread compost (Woodland Park Zoo’s premium composted mulch), wood chips, and pea gravel around the trees. They pruned branches, thinned apples, attached thousands of insect barriers (paper bags and nylon footies), harvested fruit, and pressed fresh cider.
Volunteers also rescued fruit trees that suffered from traffic-related abuse. Delivery trucks and pickups had backed into a Hawkeye Delicious seedling, which displayed awkward-angled branches as proof. This tree now thrives in its 6’ wide home, bounded by a business parking lot and the speeding bike lane of the Trail. It is routinely pruned, mulched, and kept company by daffodils in the spring. A second Hawkeye seedling a few yards away was also regularly bruised by cars and completely shaded by a large birch tree. Even in that situation, it managed to bear 50 tasty apples in 2012. This tree was moved to the Ben Davis grove near I-5 in 2013.
Orchard Stewards have been joined in this work by volunteer groups from Children’s Hospital, Phi Sigma Rho sorority, Pop Cap Games, UW External Affairs, Slow Food, AT&T, and the WSU Center for Civic Engagement.
All this hard work has many rewards. Apples harvested along the Trail benefit neighborhood food banks and the annual October cider pressing. Apples have also delighted many as apple pies, apple crisp, applesauce, dried apples, fresh cider and hard cider.
Plans for 2014 and Beyond
In 2014 Burke-Gilman Stewards will continue to improve growing conditions for existing trees while planting newly donated ones. Early in the year stewards will prune the older apple trees. They will remove invasive plants from around the recently-discovered crabapple tree and transplant volunteer seedlings. They will also prune and train the grape vines established in 2013.
Several new projects are also planned. Stewards will explore permaculture solutions for increasing the ability of the deep soil around the trees to hold water. They will plant more exotic fruits along the trail, like fig, persimmon, and quince (five trees planted 2014). They also intend to enhance the pollination potential by installing more mason bee structures and planting pollinator-attractants between trees to create the orchard’s own “Pollinator Pathway.”
Selecting the button below will pop up an email window, pre-addressed so that you can easily contact the site leader. Introduce yourself and let them know what kind of volunteering you’re interested in. We would love to have your help!
1. The Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad right-of-way ran along what is now N Pacific Street, the station was located at the NW corner of its intersection with Latona Avenue – near the orchard’s Common Delicious apple tree.
2. The first section of the Burke-Gilman Trail was paved in the summer of 1974. This four block section between Latona Avenue N and Pasadena Avenue NE goes past five apple trees, including the old Ben Davis. This section also passes over a concrete bridge that was originally constructed for use by the railroad.
3. The ship canal bridge section of Interstate 5 that now looms above five of the fruit trees along the Trail was the first section to be built in the late 1950s. Property acquired for the freeway between 5th Avenue NE and 7th Avenue NE eliminated a two block swath of residential neighborhoods. The Ben Davis apple tree may have originally been planted near a home that was demolished.
4. The Burke-Gilman Trail in Seattle is a “park” jointly maintained by Seattle Parks and Recreation and Seattle’s Department of Transportation.
Research Sources – More Information
New & Happening
Rumors are flying that the Burke-Gilman Trail Urban Orchard will be hosting a fall bicycle tour of these and other public fruit trees to raise awareness of the orchards and celebrate the harvest. Stay tuned and remember to keep an eye out for overhanging fruit as you stroll or roll along this magnificent and fruit-full urban trail!