Near University Village in NE Seattle
Garden and Courtyard
Access to Yesler Swamp and Union Bay Natural Area
Mary Gates Memorial Drive and NE 41st Street
The UW Center for Urban Horticulture opened in 1984 and is part of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. The public is welcome and admission and parking is free.
The UW Botanic Gardens include the Center for Urban Horticulture, Yesler Swamp, Union Bay Natural Area, and Washington Park Arboretum. There are several distinct areas at the Center itself including an urban agriculture farm and a tree grove, but for this preview I’m focusing on the garden and courtyard.
This garden has been on my list of potential places to visit for quite some time. When I realized we’d be passing near it on the way to a restaurant for my friend’s birthday I figured we had to add it to our outing because she loves gardens. I’m so glad I thought of it because the garden is more charming than I’d anticipated.
There are two parking lots. The first one is on the north side of the center in front. It’s long and narrow and has the spaces closest to the garden. The second lot is on the east side, in between the CUH and Yesler Swamp. It’s much larger and still has easy access to the garden.
We entered the garden from the lot in front. A paved path runs between the garden on the left and a building on the right, with plantings on both sides. Halfway down the short path is an opening on the left into the garden, or you can go to the end of the path and go left from there.
The garden has several beds with a wide variety of decorative plants including small trees, grasses, shrubs, and flowers. Each bed contains plants that need a similar type of soil and amount of sunlight. This lets you pick up ideas of what to plant in your yard based on soil composition and sun/shade.
But even if you have zero intention of doing any planting yourself (I have a brown thumb), the garden is very nicely designed for those of us who simply enjoy spending time in a thoroughly pleasant outdoor space.
The garden contains plants that bloom in all different seasons, so any time of year should make for a good visit. There were even a couple of trees in the east parking lot that were in bloom when we were here in mid-September.
The one frustration for me as someone who is pretty clueless about plants is that the signs indicating what is in each bed contain only the Latin names. The common names should be included as well.
The centerpiece of the garden is a neat little rustic stone fountain. As far as I’m concerned, no garden is truly complete without a water feature so I was delighted.
The garden is fairly small, on level ground, and there are benches everywhere. This is a great place to bring your elderly friend or relative who loves gardens but has a difficult time with the amount of walking needed at typical public gardens.
There’s a bench in the northeast corner that I named the Rustling Leaves Bench because it sits underneath an oak tree (I think it’s an oak anyway) and when the breeze came through while sitting there the leaves made a wonderfully soothing sound.
At the southwest corner of the garden, at the end of the path from the parking lot, is the entrance to McVay Courtyard. It’s a naturalistic garden courtyard surrounded by the Center’s main cluster of buildings.
The courtyard contains large rocks, small trees, and a few planters with flowers. It’s very shady, so would be lovely on a hot day. A few cafe style tables and chairs are scattered around the area. This would be a nice spot to bring a sack lunch or takeout from one of the numerous restaurants around University Village.
As for how much time to allow to see the garden, it depends on your interests. Since it’s small you could make a brief stop and quickly breeze through in 10 minutes. We took our time and spent a leisurely 45 minutes here, which made for a very relaxed visit. I could also see bringing a book, laptop, or a friend to chat with and planning to just hang out for a couple of hours on a nice day.
Even though the Center for Urban Horticulture garden isn’t very big, if you’re a garden enthusiast it’s still probably worth going a bit out of your way to visit. Especially if you combine a trip here with a visit at the Magnuson Park Community Garden or an extended walk through the nearby swamp or natural area. For those who have a lesser degree of interest, it’s a neat place to stop by when you find yourself in the area.
The Yesler Swamp is a wetland located where Yesler’s sawmill used to operate in Seattle’s early days. The entrance is across the street from the CUH east parking lot.
A lot of community volunteer effort has gone into restoring the area, including removing invasive species and planting with appropriate native wetland species. An extensive boardwalk through the wetland was completed in recent years making Yesler Swamp much more accessible to the public than when it was just a few rough trails with large patches of boot-stealing mud.
It doesn’t meet my accessibility requirements for a full preview, however. The boardwalks are ADA compliant, but that’s for wheelchairs. The boardwalks are narrow with no railings. For people like me who often walk with a cane and are a bit unsteady on our feet it looks daunting. Especially since as far as I can tell there are no benches for rest stops.
There are “turnouts” along the boardwalks to make passing people easier, and there are small viewing platforms with railings in a few places. This is a good place for birding and maybe getting lucky and spotting an elusive beaver.
You can get more info about Yesler Swamp on the website link below.
Union Bay Natural Area
The Union Bay Natural Area is located just south of the CUH and you can use the Center’s parking lots. It’s often called the Montlake Fill by locals because it was used as a landfill garbage dump after the level of Lake Washington dropped due to completion of the Ship Canal.
The dump closed in 1966 and was capped with clay and a layer of soil. The UW manages the 74 acres and the area has been going through a slow restoration process over the decades since. A lot has been accomplished, but there’s still a lot to do. The University uses parts of the acreage as an outdoor restoration laboratory.
The UBNA is one of the best birding spots in Seattle. Over 200 species have been ID’d over the years, including year-round residents, migrants, and an occasional rare visitor. The acreage is mostly open grassland with a few trees and ponds.
There is a system of walking paths which are relatively level to make for easy meanders. However, there are only four benches in the entire area, all located along the far south shoreline. So for people who can only go short distances before needing a rest stop this isn’t the best place to visit.
You can get more info and download a trail map at the website linked below.
Things to Know
The garden is open to the public from dawn to dusk every day.
The buildings are open:
9 am to 8 pm Monday
9 am to 5 pm Tuesday – Friday
9 am to 3 pm Saturday
Lots of benches.
Cafe tables in the courtyard.
Located inside Merrill Hall. The entrance to the hall is in the courtyard. Access to the bathrooms is only available during the building hours listed above.
One smaller lot in front with two handicap spaces next to the garden entrance path.
The front lot curves around the west end of the buildings to the back (south) side of the CUH. The spaces there are the most convenient to use when visiting the UBNA
One large lot on the east side of the garden. The spaces on the east side of that lot are the most convenient for visiting Yesler Swamp.
You should usually have no trouble finding parking unless a special event is going on. Avoid going during Husky football home games.
There were a few other people wandering through on the overcast September Saturday we were here. Most of them didn’t stay long. It’s too difficult for me to guess what a typical day is like by season, but I expect the garden is rarely crowded.
The Center rents out facilities for private events, so it will be busy on days such an event is in progress. A wedding had wrapped up not long before we arrived, so we were lucky in our timing. There was a sign at the courtyard entrance warning that an event was in progress so please be quiet, which indicates the courtyard was still open to the public while the event was in progress. But it would have felt a bit awkward to go in.
From NE 45th Street turn south onto Mary Gates Memorial Drive at the traffic light. The intersection is just east of University Village.
Follow the street 2-3 blocks to where you can look ahead to see it starting to curve to the left with the street divided by a center planting strip.
Just before the curve and planting strip turn right into the Center’s front parking lot entrance.
If you miss the entrance or prefer to use the east parking lot, follow the road as it curves to the left and make a right turn at the intersection with 36th.
University Village, Yesler Swamp, Union Bay Natural Area, Magnuson Park.
Flowers, fountain, humming birds.
Best light: morning.