Student Spotlight: Joe Neumann Restores Vegetation and Habitat in the Union Bay Natural Area

Joe Neumann in the 76-acre Union Bay Natural Area at the Center for Urban Horticulture

Joe Neumann is completing a Master of Environmental Horticulture degree program at the University of Washington. He’s been working to restore different sites in the Union Bay Natural Area along the western shore of Lake Washington at the Center for Urban Horticulture. The restoration project includes clearing invasive plants and establishing native plants on three main sites to create healthy habitats for plant and animal life.

A boardwalk leads through Yesler Swamp on the eastern edge of the natural area, bordering the Laurelhurst neighborhood. Volunteers and students cleared invasives such as English ivy, firethorn, laurel, Himalayan blackberry, creeping buttercup, and reed canary grass. The area has a thick tree canopy, providing filtered light through the deciduous trees. The site was filled in with native herbaceous material, shrubs and groundcover, including fringe cup and mannagrass. On a tour of the site, Joe noted that invasives were on the decline and native plants are starting to thrive.

Plantings in Yesler Swamp

With Union Bay Natural Area rangers Joanna Long and Jon Backus, Joe built three bird boxes to attract certain species. Different species are particular about the dimensions of the hole, interior space, and the structure of the habitat. With guidance from Dr. John Marzluff, professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, the team built and hung the bird boxes and have seen one box inhabited by the black capped chickadee. Since most of restoration work is plant-focused, Joe found it rewarding to work directly with wildlife by creating the nesting habitats.

Bird box in the Union Bay Natural Area

On the western side of the natural area, the restoration project covers two main sites with the goal of establishing an open prairie, which is a rare and endangered habitat in Washington. Volunteer crews cleared waist-high Himalayan blackberry and cottonwoods that were creating too much shade for understory grasses. The open prairie is dotted with gravelly mounds which are called hummocks. They act as a drain and let water pass through them, making them a good host for plants that thrive in well-drained soil. Ninebark, yarrow, tufted-hair grass, blue wild-rye, and poverty oat grass are some of the new plants growing to establish the open prairie.

Just east of the first prairie site and closer to the shore of the lake, volunteers and students established a second open prairie. The site is rich in birdlife, and a member of the plover family – a killdeer – calls out sharply as people approach. The bird has found a nice nesting spot in the grasses and is protecting eggs from an errant footstep. The site was cleared of Himalayan blackberry and bags of sand were brought in to mix with the soil. Garry oaks, western buttercup, Roemer’s fescue, tufted hairgrass, and long-stolon sedge were planted to create the open prairie.

Originally, the site had been part of Lake Washington and when the ship canal was created, water receded and the site became a marshy area that was used as a garbage dump for over 40 years. Since the 1960s, the area has gone through various transformations and finally became a clean slate for new growth. Dr. Kern Ewing, professor of Plant Ecology at UW, hoped to establish an open prairie that would help diversify the natural area.

Volunteers planting one of the prairie sites in the Union Bay Natural Area

Joe describes the goals of restoration: to create a mosaic of different habitats. This could be a site that included groupings of tall trees, layers of shrubs, open prairie, a river running through the site – all elements that support the highest level of biodiversity.

Listen to the podcast! Joe leads a tour of the restoration sites.