The High Line highlights

I’m spending some time 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.

First, though, to help you fully appreciate the genius behind it here’s a little background.GreenBar 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. (photo credit: www.Oudolf.comGreenBar High line beforeHigh line before

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 approach to creating gardens and meadows is the perfect combination of deliberate forethought and random chance, resulting in some of the most subtle yet stunning gardens I’ve ever seen.


The High Line is a long and narrow public garden stretching over 1.5 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 Section 1 alone, 161 of 210 of plant species are native to New York.)GreenBar

Thanks to the creative placement of asymmetrical plank-style pathways, the long and narrow bowling-alley syndrome is prevented.

Instead, the garden appears to meander from one garden section to the next, each with a slightly different feel to it and with plenty of areas to sit and take it all in.GreenBar One section of the garden has a prairie-like feel to it, filled with native grasses and perennials such as ‘Moorflamme’ grass, calamint, helenium, allium, asclepsias, red feather clover (trifolium rubens) and penstemon digitalis to name just a few.GreenBar Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’ and Calamintha nepeta (dwarf calamint)Helenium autumnaleGreenBarGreenBarpenstemon digitalisGreenBar   While further down another area has a more woodland-like feel to it, with plants such as Bowman’s Root (porteranthus trifoliatus), grasses (fescues, carex and Little Blue Stem), delicate birch trees and ‘Copper’ iris. GreenBarfestuca amethystina 'superba' and monarda bradburiana and Schizachyrium scoparium Ilittle bluestem)GreenBarGreenBar Soon you’ll find yourself strolling through a shady grove of small trees, leading to a collection of magnolias (‘Big Leaf’, ‘Green Shadow’ and ‘Ashes’), dogwood (cornus rutban) and philadelphus – all providing intoxicating scent and much appreciated nectar for hungry bees.GreenBar Bigleaf magnolia GreenBarSweetbay magnoliaBees on a bigleaf magnoliaGreenBar

I really loved how so many of the plants chosen for this garden have unusual shapes, textures and forms.  Just look at the vertical exclamation points of the astilbe which seem to pierce the air (especially when placed next to the wispy, mounding blades of the carex grasses), the waving wands of the Goat’s Beard (aruncus ‘Horatio’), the pink puffy clouds of smoke from the Smoketree bush (cotinus ‘Pink Champagne’) or the round globes of the knautia and alliums that appear to float and bob above the rest.  Not to mention to spears of the foxtail lilies or the swirling stars of the clematis seed heads. GreenBarastilbeGreenBarcotinusGreenBarknautiaaliumGreenBarGreenBar

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the colors of so many flowers, berries and foliage echo similar colors of the buildings and graffiti that lie beyond.  Somehow I think not.GreenBarGreenBarGreenBarHeuchera villosa 'Brownies'amelanchier laevis berriesGreenBarCercisGreenBar

Even the folks below can appreciate the High Line, as cascading climbing hydrangea and clematis seductively drapes over the railing almost touching the meat trucks picking up their daily deliveries.  This isn’t called the Meatpacking District for nothing!

GreenBar This most impressive garden is lovingly tended to by many, many volunteers who are discreetly weeding, pruning, and whatever else might be needed.

It’s so nice to see that after a day’s work they’re given a lift back down the long pathway where they can appreciate the garden in style.GreenBar

**If you’d like to read more about Piet Oudolf, I highly recommend his latest book, Planting: A New Perspective, filled with detailed planting plans and inspiring groupings that are easily interpreted and adapted for smaller gardens.

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  • This is genius. What an amazing eye and visionary. Wonderful post Rebecca!

    • Thanks Julie! Next time you visit your niece you’ll definitely have to stop by for a stroll. 🙂

  • This garden has been high on my list of must see gardens since it opened. I think your photos are among the best I have ever seen! And, Piet Oudolf is on top of my favorite designer list! Thank you for this beautiful tour.

    • Thank you, Cathi! I’m so glad you appreciated my tour and photos and I really hope you can visit it soon. From others who have been there many times I’ve heard June is the best time, followed by September. I hope to visit in the fall someday!

  • Rebecca, this is so coincidental. I was there on the 23rd, and I will go back probably tomorrow. I was blown away, much better than I had envisioned it.

    I must have not walked near some of the plants you photographed as I didn’t see them. I was able to see a monarch butterfly, which made me really happy.

    What an incredible project, I watched some of the videos on their website and they are so inspirational.

  • Thanks for teasing me with this post Rebecca. The High Line has been on my list of must-see gardens since right after it was created. Funny thing… we were visiting friends in Costa Rica shortly after the High Line opened and their nephew was also in town from NYC. He was part of the design team for this garden! The world is a very small and wonderful place.

    • Wow Sheila, small world indeed! I would love to hear his thoughts on how it went designing such a garden – it’s such an inspiration. You definitely need to see it – put it at the top of your list for next year’s travels!! 🙂

    • Glad you liked it, Greggo. Yes – can you imagine having that much talent? My head would explode.

  • Rebecca,

    I went there with a bunch of my college friends last September just before I decided to start blogging. I think the high line and reconnecting with old friend may have been my inspiration. It was so pretty even at the end of the season. Your pics are great and make me want to go back asap!

    • Thanks, Patti! As much as I loved it during the spring I’d also really love to see it at the end of the season. I have no doubt the brilliant golds and yellows of the ammonia would be amazing to see.

    • Thanks, Lisa – I loved the graffiti. It was probably one of the greatest gardens I’ve ever seen.

  • I am so eager to see the High Line, and I ate up every word of your post. We were in NYC the year before it opened, and I’m continually scheming to think of a way to get back up there and see it. Maybe this fall…

    • Pam – you must go back to see this garden!!! Must, must, must!!!

  • Thanks for sharing your visit. I was pleased to find that you showed more of the individual plants than I’ve seen in other reviews of High Line. I hope I can see it in person one day. James Corner also directed the development of Tongva Park in Santa Monica, CA, following some of the same principles used in designing High Line; however, the plant selections, while appropriate to SoCal, struck me as less complex.

    • You’re welcome, Kris, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Everyone who lives around here told me I really lucked out with the timing as the garden is in its prime right now. It was nothing short of stunning. My daughter goes to school at LMU so I’ll definitely take a look at the Santa Monica garden next time I’m down there – thanks for the tip! (oops – I just googled the park and I realized I’ve actually been there last year with a mother/daughter event from her school. It’s a pretty interesting park, but you’re definitely right about the plant selections not being quite the same.)


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