The Well-Dressed Garden: Ideas from the High Line

By Marty Ross
Universal Uclick

         The High Line is a gritty, glorious garden in the pulsing heart of New York City, full of ideas for gardens and gardeners everywhere. It is a landmark, an ever-changing horticultural and social scene -- and an inspiration.

         This garden doesn't attempt to hide its industrial roots. The abandoned train tracks running through the elevated park near the Hudson River are as much a part of the garden as the flowering shrubs, perennials and grasses that flourish there. The High Line celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and opened an extension, known as the Spur, the last section of the former freight line 30 feet above the hurly-burly of the city streets. With the addition of the Spur, the thriving greenway of the High Line is now nearly 1.5 miles long. Millions of visitors explore the space every year while taking in sensational views of the bustling city and the river.

Although the High Line is in the heart of the city, the planting design is naturalistic and a little bit wild. Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch plantsman who designed the planting plan, says he was not attempting to copy nature but to "re-create the emotion" of being in a natural place.

         Eric Rodriguez, the High Line's director of horticulture, is the steward of hundreds of thousands of plants, many of them North American native perennials and grasses, woven into a design by the renowned Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. The High Line doesn't represent an unobtainable model of perfection, Rodriguez says: It is a garden full of possibilities for anyone. "We are actively trying to encourage people to take ideas home," he says.

         The park's design took its cues from the wild, weedy nature that had established itself on the tracks in the 25 years after the line was abandoned. It is a lively, exciting, densely packed garden -- of surpassing beauty at all seasons -- filled with hard-working perennials, shrubs and small trees. It's also an environmentally friendly place, designed to invite pollinators and conserve resources, and maintained without the use of herbicides or pesticides.

         Rodriguez thinks of the High Line's planting scheme as "a vertical sandwich." In each area, he says, "we have a grass matrix, and on top of that is an herbaceous perennial matrix." In areas with woody plants, the design expands to include a layer of shrubs and a canopy of trees -- but since the soil is only about 8 inches deep all along the High Line, only relatively small trees and shrubs can be planted. Species with multiple stems, including buckeyes, fringe trees and serviceberries, thrive in the harsh conditions, exposed on all sides to wind and weather and to the reflected light and deep shadows cast by tall buildings.

         Although most High Line trees will never be giants, leafy trees embrace the beds in summer; in winter, their trunks, branches and bark impart a rare beauty. Multistemmed trees and shrubs are easier to manage in the garden than single-trunk plants, Rodriguez says. When stems get too tall or too lanky, or start to grow out of bounds, they can be cut back (sometimes to the ground), and new stems emerge. It's a great strategy for home gardeners, too.

         Oudolf's planting design calls for extremely tight spacing: six to eight plants per square foot. To make it work, "we put plants in very small," Rodriguez says. "In some ways, we push back on the instant gratification" by using smaller plants, he says, but the planting style allows the garden to conserve resources. Tight spacing reduces watering needs because the plants shade the soil, limiting moisture loss to evaporation. Close spacing also helps control weeds. Gardeners everywhere, including on the High Line, Rodriguez says, "are always trying to think about how to work less without compromising their aesthetics."

The High Line, on a former elevated rail line on Manhattan's West Side, is now a landmark park, celebrating its 10th anniversary. The park is full of ideas for gardeners everywhere. It is one of New York City's most visited sites.

         Spring and summer on the High Line are beautiful, of course, but fall and winter are also spectacular seasons in which to experience the garden. Drying perennial foliage and grasses rustle in the wind, and their seed heads throw elegant shadows and attract birds to the park through the winter. The winter light shining through the twiggy tracery of trees creates a dramatic contrast to the built environment all around. The dormant plants under gray skies or in the snow let visitors appreciate the season more fully. "It's important for us to have the full life cycle of the plants," Rodriguez says. High Line gardeners don't cut the herbaceous perennials and grasses back until spring.

         Over the winter, the gardeners nurture new ideas for the seasons to come, Rodriguez says. They consider new species to add to the garden, looking for plants that will perform well in the changing urban environment. Buildings with reflective glass have increased the heat and light in some areas along the High Line, and wind speeds and patterns have also changed as new buildings have been put up nearby. Among other things, the gardeners are interested in introducing more plants that attract beneficial insects, Rodriguez says, "and we're adding things that we want just because they would be fun and pretty."

         The High Line is not, strictly speaking, a garden but a park, and the gardeners look to nature for their inspiration. They study plant communities in native plant reserves in the region, including in coastal areas, where the vegetation has to be tough. The ideas they bring back to the city make the High Line more beautiful and sustainable, Rodriguez says, and the result may make you forget, just for a minute, that you're in New York City. But look again: This garden could be nowhere else.

This summer, a new addition called the Spur opened along the greenway. The trees in this area will eventually be the largest trees in the park, says High Line horticulture director Eric Rodriguez. Joshua David, co-founder of Friends of the High Line, says the Spur offers visitors "new ways to connect with one of the most dynamic urban environments in the world." There are lots of places to sit and watch the world go by.

If you go:       The High Line is a public park on Manhattan's West Side. There is no admission charge. The park begins at the intersection of Washington and Gansevoort Streets, near the Whitney Museum, and continues up to 34th Street, just past Hudson Yards. The High Line is a former elevated train line, so you're above the traffic.

         More Ideas From the High Line

         Here are some tips and ideas from Eric Rodriguez, horticulture director of the High Line:

         -- A strong design is the foundation of every good garden. An aesthetically pleasing design and well-chosen plants let you spend your time and resources on becoming a good steward of your local environment.

         -- Plants that are native to your region will thrive in the climate and conditions in your garden.

         -- Choose plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

         -- Conserving resources sometimes involves letting things go. Remember that death is part of gardening. "Gardening becomes less stressful when you have a comfortable acceptance of some plant deaths," Rodriguez says. Even experienced gardeners sometimes kill plants.

         -- Learn to appreciate the full life cycle of plants. Perennials that have worked hard in the garden all summer and fall should not be disturbed through the winter. They shelter birds and insects, help prevent erosion, and create a natural mulch for themselves and surrounding plants. Cut perennials back in early spring, not in the fall.