I spent a few weeks in New York City this summer, and am thrilled to have finally visited the High Line public garden.
Ever since its grand opening in 2009, I’ve been dying to see the transformation of this abandoned, defunct elevated railway into one of the city’s most inspiring and innovative public gardens.
I’d like to share with you some of the High Line highlights, but first a little background…
In the early 1900’s, this area was the largest industrial area of Manhattan, transporting meat, produce and dairy throughout the entire city.
In an effort to remove the dangerous freight trains from the already too-congested streets below, an elevated railway system was created, known as the Life Line of New York.
The High Line’s last run was in the 1990s, and there it sat slowly deteriorating into a powerfully unattractive eyesore.
Until, that is, the creative collaboration between James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf joined forces.
Behold, the High Line Garden!
Whenever I’m asked which designers have influenced me the most, the work of Piet Oudolf is always at the top of my list.
His naturalistic designs are the perfect combination of deliberate forethought and random chance.
The results are some of the most subtle yet stunning gardens I’ve ever seen.
The High Line is a long and narrow public garden stretching over 1 1/2 miles, and elevated high above the streets below.
Carefully set in a naturalistic pattern are hundreds of plant species, the vast majority being natives.
In fact, in one section alone, 161 of the 210 plant species used are native to New York.
One of the first things I noticed are the plank-like pathways, and how important they are to the flow and feel of the garden.
To avoid the bowling-alley effect that’s so common in long and narrow gardens, the pathways here vary throughout the space.
The pathways are a combination of straight sections that gradually transform into areas of asymmetrical patterns.
The result is a garden that meanders, encouraging guests to leisurely stroll from one section to the next.
There are several different gardens, or zones, that wind throughout the 1.5 acres (click here to read about them all.)
One of my very favorites is the middle section which has a prairie-like feel to it, brimming with native grasses, wildflowers and perennials.
After awhile, you’ll come upon another zone that has a cool, woodland-like feel to it.
The shade is quite refreshing on a hot summer day, and I spent quite a while cooling off here, before moving on.
In this area, understory plants happily grow in the dappled shade of birch, dogwoods, and magnolia trees.
Some of my favorites are the Bowman’s Root (porteranthus trifoliatus), grasses (fescues, carex and Little Blue Stem), and ‘Copper’ iris.
The grove of magnolias not only provides intoxicating scent, but also much-appreciated nectar for hungry bees.
Part of Piet’s genius is his ability to create densely planted areas that are full and overflowing, yet don’t appear chaotic and overwhelming.
This is because the plants are placed in large drifts, with a focus on contrasting shapes, textures, and forms.
For example, take a look at the vertical rockets of the astilbe which seem to pierce the air (left.)
It’s the contrasting shapes of the vertical flowers, that allow them to stand out among the surrounding wispy blades of the carex grasses (left.)
Other strong shapes include the twirling seed heads of the geum triflorum, the waving wands of the Goat’s Beard (aruncus ‘Horatio’), the pink puffy clouds of the Smoketree bush (cotinus ‘Pink Champagne’,) and the round magenta globes of the knautia and alliums that appear to float and bob above the rest.
I can’t help but notice that the colors of so many flowers, berries and foliage echo the colors of the surrounding buildings, bricks, railroad ties and graffiti that lie beyond.
It’s a great example of how powerful subtle color echoes can be, creating unity and flow.
Even the people below, on street-level, can appreciate the garden. The cascading climbing hydrangea and clematis seductively drapes over the railing, almost touching the trucks picking up their daily deliveries.
This most impressive garden is lovingly tended by an army of volunteers.
It’s so nice to see that after a long day’s work the volunteers are given a lift back where they can appreciate the garden in style.