The Fall Garden in NYC’s Little Island

Have any of you heard of the Little Island garden before? 

Well, I sure hadn’t, so imagine my surprise when I quite literally stumbled upon this breathtaking fall garden that appeared to float in the Hudson River!

A few weeks ago, my daughter, Emily, and I took a quick trip to New York City. 

It’s been forever since we’ve traveled anywhere, and it was fantastic to get away after the crazy few years we’ve had.

The purpose was just to have fun, and fun we had! 

We spent the week shopping, going to the theater, enjoying the holiday decorations, and (of course,) visiting some of my favorite gardens to see how they’re looking in the late fall.  Like Central Park, featured left and below.

Now that Emily is older, she has finally embraced gardening.  Okay, embrace is a strong word -maybe ‘warmed up to’ is more accurate. 

However, she actually enjoyed letting me drag her around to garden after garden.  

 

While looking for someplace to have lunch after visiting the Highline, we spotted something far in the distance. 

Whatever it was, it appeared to float in the Hudson River! 

Well, of course, we had to walk down to the river to see what it was. 

I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I realized this was a floating, public garden. 

And not just any public garden, but an incredible, mind-blowing creation that did, indeed, float among the piers in the Hudson River Park.

Let me introduce you to the Little Island!

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t either.  And that’s most likely because it was planted in March 2020, just as the coronavirus was walloping New York! 

While the idea was conceived in 2013 by mega-donor & media mogul Barry Diller and the Hudson River Park Trust, it took several years to come to fruition.

Signe Nielsen, a principal landscape architect with MNLA, Heatherwick Studio (the design team behind the construction,) and countless other engineers and architects, finally introduced the garden to the public in 2020. 

It’s difficult to convey with photos just how unique this space is, so I borrowed these from Heatherwick Studio so you can see an overhead layout and schematic of the garden.

 

According to Ms. Nielsen, her goal in creating this garden was to have guests feel as if they were going to ‘Oz’, leaving the city far behind them.

She wanted the journey to the garden to be just as important as the garden itself.

The two bridges that lead you into the 2.4-acre garden are indeed journeys.

As you walk over the water, you’re surrounded by pilings of piers past that still peek out of the water.

 

 

At the end of this journey, when you transition from bridge to garden, this is what you see.

A  gardener’s version of ‘Oz’ to be sure!

Upon entering the garden (at the park’s lowest point), is an area with plenty of expansive lawns for seating, sunning, and playing.

Surrounding these lawns are tasteful play equipment for children, and a 700-seat amphitheater.

Even on this cold and windy day, plenty of children and families are enjoying this space. 

Imagine how fun it is when a special event or concert is happening.  It’s such a fantastic addition to the city and another opportunity to bring nature to city kids.

As many of you may know, I am a HUGE fan of grasses (click here for proof!) so you can imagine how much I appreciated Signe’s ample use of grasses throughout this space.

And, since it was mid-November when I visited, the grasses were in their full glory.

 

According to Ms. Nielsen, her planting strategy was, what she calls ‘the out to the in’ – with grasses in the back of the beds and colorful plantings (perennials, bulbs, annuals) closer to the front. 

In this instance you can see the tall grasses in the back, with lower-growing geranium and plumbago ground cover in the front.

This is also a technique used in many traditional garden beds, placing taller plants in the back with shorter ones up front.

Weathered steel columns and walls, with the same warm, rusty hues of the grasses and fall colors, provide structure and support for the garden beds.

 

I especially appreciate that she didn’t forget the colder months, including many plants with fall and winter interest.

These include plants with plenty of texture, fall colors, seed heads left on the plants, and colorful berries – all ways to have a four-season garden.  

Examples here are Snowberry (above), Winterberry Holly (left), viburnum, rose hips, and the seeds of blackberry lily, below.

Can you imagine the environmental challenges of creating a garden that thrives in a maritime environment? 

Just think of the salt spray, urban pollution and freezing, high winds (makes me embarrassed to complain about my hot summers!)  

Here are a few more interesting facts about this amazing garden:

-It rises from the remnants of historic Pier 54 (which Hurricane Sandy destroyed in 2012)  Why is this pier historic?

  • In 1912, the Titanic survivors arrived to safety on this pier.
  • In 1915, remember the tragic ‘Lusitania’, sunk by the German U-boats five days later in World War 1?  It departed from Pier 54.

– The giant concrete structures are referred to as ‘tulip pots’. 

– There are 132 of these pots, which hold up the island and are configured to support various load capacities.

– The garden is a perfect square (320’x320’) but feels so much more expansive because of the topography, the various views, and the winding pathways.

– There are 35 species of trees (70% of the deciduous trees are native,) 65 varieties of shrubs, 270 varieties of grasses, vines, perennials, and 66,000 bulbs!

– There are 114 trees, all planted in 2020.  Yep, that recently!  To achieve an old-growth effect, 19 of these are what they call ‘hero trees’ – weighing 16 to 20K pounds!  

– The soil depth ranges from just 14” for the turf to 6-feet for the trees. 

As you can probably tell, I’m a huge fan of this public garden and hope you can visit it one day!

For more information, I HIGHLY recommend listening to these interesting and detailed videos from Signe Nielsen.

A short version is here.

A more in-depth version is here.

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22 Comments

  • I’d read about the Little Island and seen the videos last spring so when we headed to the Hudson Valley at the end of August I made sure we’d have a couple of “garden days” in NYC. Arrived the day after hurricane Ida, in full “timed entry” restrictions at NY Botanical Garden to see downed trees in the stunning garden I hadn’t seen in 25 years. The next day we got to the High Line at Hudson Yard, walked the length to the end and crossed the avenue to the pier. You can see the giant mushrooms from the High Line. The hardscapes of concrete, rusted steel and wood were perfect. As a shade gardener, I was wowed by the planting designs, the masses of heuchera, ajuga and tricyrtis with the grasses and trees! You definitely do need to see it at other seasons. NYC is a gardener paradise.

    Reply
    • I agree, Jacki – NY is truly a gardener’s paradise! After walking to the end of the High Line is exactly where I also spotted the Little Island off in the distance and while the HL is one of my all-time favorite gardeners, the Little Island is now right up there along with it. I love seeing gardens in the late fall and winter, to see what kind of structure there is (or isn’t) to hold it through the year. I’m so sorry to hear that the NYBG had downed trees – so tragic. 🙁

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  • What an amazing space! The thought of designing the plant landscape kind of boggles the mind – too much? too little? right conditions – sun, water, shade… Thanks for the links to the videos, too. I watched the short one and then some other short ones but will hopefully go back and watch the long one.

    Reply
    • I’m glad you listened to the videos, Barbara – the long version will REALLY put it all in perspective in terms of how incredibly difficult this project was. I can’t even imagine how their heads must’ve hurt by the end of the day sometimes!!!

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  • How many years ago was it that you discovered other quaint gardens in New York City and shared with us, when you escorted Emily to her new school ? Do I remember your worry when there was a fire in her residence building ? Reading your words and seeing the picture suddenly raised my appreciation of the Big Apple. It has been embroiled in so much negativity this past year. To see the beauty that was the dream of some creative stewards of the city, warmed my heart. Thank you for discovering and sharing that harmony in the NYC garden. Your bosom buddy ❣️

    Reply
    • Hi Susan, gosh it’s nice to hear from you! It was only 6 years ago (but seems like an eternity) since I discovered so many of those amazing NY gardens. You have such a good memory (though she went to school in LA, at LMU – we spent the summer in NY because she was modeling at the time and there was no way I was going to let her do it by herself!!! 😉 I’m so glad you enjoyed the tour and hope you and your family have all been well through the craziness. Happy Holidays, bosom buddy!?

      Reply
  • Thank you for sharing this wonderful garden. I’ve never seen anything like it!
    Merry Christmas to you and your family.
    Nancy Dyer, President, Discovery Bay Garden Club and member of Diablo WGClub.

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you enjoyed touring this garden, Nancy – there certainly isn’t anything like this on our coast, is there? It’s unbelievable and caught me by surprise when I saw it floating way out there. Worth the 1-mile walk to see it up close, that’s for sure! Happy Holidays to you and your family. Stay warm! 🙂

      Reply
  • What a treasure, Rebecca. Thank you so much for finding and sharing it with us.
    Toni

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  • Thank you for taking me along on your trip with these photos. Such an interesting concept.
    Hope to visit this island/garden in the near future.
    HAPPY HOLIDAYS.
    Helga

    Reply
    • I’m so glad you enjoyed seeing the garden, Helga, and I certainly hope you can visit it one day. I’d like to go back and see it in the spring and summer as I’m sure it’d look entirely different! Happy Holidays to you and your family! 🙂

      Reply
  • Very cool, thank you for this beautiful “field trip” Rebecca. I imagine the tulips will hold up in storms. I can’t wait to see in person someday. You and your daughter look radiant.
    Miss you!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Gigi, glad you enjoyed the field trip! There are a series of straps that hold the roots in place underground, and apparently they had hurricane-force winds this year and not a single tree was uprooted. So far, so good! Happy Holiday, my friend!

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  • Darn! My son used to live in New York but fled to San Diego during Covid. This will definitely be one of the first things I see when I do go back to the Big Apple. Those big trees make me a little nervous being able to root in only 6′ of soil! Yikes. The tulip design is extraordinary.

    Thanks for finding it!!

    Merry Christmas to you and yours.

    Sarah
    PS Isn’t it the best going away with your kids?!

    Reply
    • Hi Sarah, darn is right – I wish you could see this garden, too! If you have a chance to listen to the video link as she addresses the concern about wind blowing the trees over in the tulip pots. They used a really creative solution of underground straps that have already proven successful in hurricane-strength winds they’ve encountered. I agree – Redwood trees in 6′ of soil? It’ll be interesting to see how they fare over the years. And yes, one of my favorite things in the world to do is travel with my daughter! Merry Christmas to you and your family 🙂

      Reply
  • Hi Rebecca,

    Wonderful and inspiring public garden. Thank you so much for sharing.
    Best always,
    Sabrina

    Reply
    • Hello Sabrina and thank you! You and Freeland would LOVE this garden – creativity at its best, that’s for sure!

      Reply
  • Rebecca, this is absolutely fabulous, the pictures that you took as well as the videos. Hi hope that someday I’ll be able to visit in person, but I will definitely share this with my friends. Thank you so much for taking the time effort and energy and love to send this out. Judy

    Reply
    • Thank you, Judy, I appreciate the kind words. These posts take so much time to create so it’s definitely a labor of love on my end, but it makes it all worth it when I get comments like yours. 🙂

      Reply
  • This is amazing…what a gorgeous, beautiful idea. Thanks so much for sharing it.

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    • Thanks Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed the garden tour! Signe Nielsen’s videos, where she explains her design process, are really interesting to listen to if you get the chance. 🙂

      Reply

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