A Community Tennis Center Graced With an Urban Orchard
Rushing toward the upper courts for an after-work match, tennis players at the Amy Yee Tennis Center might be surprised to glance up and find themselves surrounded by one of Seattle’s urban orchards. This hidden orchard shares an 8.5 acre site with the Center’s ten indoor and six outdoor tennis courts. Completed in 1977 and operated by Seattle Parks and Recreation, the tennis center was named in honor of Seattle tennis star and south Seattle resident, Amy Yee.
Amy Yee (1922-2000) grew up on a Vashon Island farm and brought a love of gardening, flowers and vegetables with her when she relocated to a home on Seattle’s Beacon Hill. A tennis star and inspirational teacher, Yee offered free tennis clinics at schools and public parks for more than 30 years. Her students ranged from young people to adults and included two future mayors of Seattle.
On August 28, 2002, two years and two weeks after Yee’s death, Seattle Parks and Recreation named the tennis center after Amy Yee to celebrate the life and accomplishments of the local athlete and teacher.
Trees & Sites: What’s Growing Around Amy Yee Tennis Center
The Amy Yee Tennis Center property is bordered by Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., S. Walker Street, 28th Avenue S., and S. Holgate Street in the heart of south Seattle. The property steps up the hill in two large terraces. The indoor tennis facility and parking lot are located on the lower terrace of land bordering Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. The large upper terrace to the east of the indoor center contains the outdoor courts and an open field. Fruit trees are scattered throughout the site.
There are 44 fruit trees on the property. 32 are apple, but there are also pear, cherry, and plum trees and quince and European pear grafted onto hawthorn trees. These fruit trees can be found along the east side of the parking lot, on the upper terrace both north and south of the outdoor courts and on the steep slopes east of the tennis center building. Many of the trees were planted in the 1940s when part of the Stadium Homes public housing project was located on the property. Some apple trees are heritage varieties, some have grown from seed, and other cultivars have been planted more recently. Most of the varieties have been identified but a few of the older trees need to have their fruit classified next harvest season.
Orchard Restoration & Development: An ongoing challenge
Once the Stadium Homes housing was bulldozed in the 1950s, no one lived on the property again and the fruit trees were forgotten. Until 2009 most of the trees were unrecognizable as fruit trees, so buried were they in blackberry bushes, Scotch broom and other invasive understory plants. To reclaim the trees as a valuable park asset, Don Ricks, a volunteer steward, worked with Solid Ground, Seattle Parks and Recreation staff, and volunteers from the YMCA Center for Young Adults and PopCap Games. This broad mix of volunteers removed invasive plants, mulched and pruned the trees, and harvested the fruit. City Fruit joined the effort in 2012, recruiting and training other expert stewards and organizing work parties.
As invasive plants were removed and the site was cleared, more fruit trees were discovered. In 2012 through 2014 grafting was done on a number of trees to introduce better quality fruit varieties, including Hudson’s Golden Gem, Liberty, and quince. Edible fruit harvested at the site was donated to the Rainier Valley Food Bank and other nearby food banks.
Work will continue around all the fruit trees to clear the understory of invasive plants including Himalayan blackberry, English ivy, Scotch Broom, and wild clematis. Trees will be pruned as needed to encourage a healthy crop of fruit and reduce the incidence of scab. Fruit varieties will be identified when possible, and in all cases the fruit produced will be quantified and classified for food quality, identifying those that are good for eating, good for cider, or only good for drying and other processing.
Neighbors and tennis center users will be encouraged to participate in orchard maintenance with a goal of at least three large work parties each year. The first took place on the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday in 2014. The major community event planned for each year is at least one fresh cider pressing celebration in October. In addition, bi-monthly work parties with a smaller group of core stewards will prune and thin the trees and manage orchard pests.
To raise community awareness, a large interpretational sign with history and map of the orchard was installed at the top of the staircase near the tenns center in 2014.
The Amy Yee Tennis Center property was logged prior to 1910. No European settlers lived on the property except for when the Stadium Homes row houses were occupied, from 1943 - 1957. In the 1920s primarily Italian immigrant farmers rented the land to grow vegetables. The property was used as a satellite parking lot during the 1962 World's Fair.
Look for the pear and quince branches grafted onto hawthorn tree stumps, east of the service road north of S. Walker Street.