A journey of the High Line planting

To console myself for no longer being able to pop out to the High Line for my thrice weekly walk, I thought I’d produce a virtual version, from the Meatpacking District in the South to the Rail Yards of the North, highlighting the various planting styles along the way.

Washington Grasslands, the High Line

Amazing intricacy of interwoven grasses and perennials on the High Line

I borrowed On the High Line, by Annik La Farge, from the RHS library to help me piece it all together and was somewhat surprised to learn that pages 68-69 of 226 covered ‘The Plants of the High Line’. What on earth were the other 224 pages about? My efforts to console myself somewhat backfired upon learning that I had apparently missed 99% of what was on offer. I had enjoyed the architecture along its length, but it was clear I needed to return asap to fully embrace all that Annik had so beautifully captured.

Rose hips near 10th Avenue Square, the High Line

Rose hips near tenth Avenue Square, the High Line

Fortunately, the hours I spent on the High Line had substantially sunk in so it wasn’t too tricky to remember each section, in least in terms of the plants. I hope you enjoy the walk too…

1. Gansevoort Woodland
Gansevoort Woodland, the High Line

Gansevoort Woodland: Betula populifolia is a common pioneer species of old industrial areas

As you ascend the 45 steps on to the High Line, the steel beams of the railroad surround you until you pop out into the centre of a beautiful, green woodland. Groves of grey birch (Betula populifolia) host a canopy of branches, throwing astonishingly beautiful patterns of light on to the ground. You are immediately transported into a whole new world, your brain no longer processing the sound of the incessant car horns below. The layers of planting reflect those of nature: dense, low ground covers nestling in the shade with chinks of light coming through beneath the birch leaves.

2. Washington Grasslands
Washington Grasslands, the High Line

Washington Grasslands: Persicaria ‘Firetail’ glowing in the autumn sunshine

The Line then opens out into an area of grassland; again the light is just stunning. Early one morning I ran into a professional photographer for the Line, who told me he felt this was the nicest time of day of the nicest time of the year for capturing its beautiful. On the one hand, I was thrilled that I hadn’t missed a summertime peak, but on the other, I felt the justification to myself for less than perfect photography had just evaporated in front of me!

3. Northern Spur Preserve
The Northern Spur Reserve is an example of a sponsored area on the High Line. Thank you Christy and John Mack, whoever you are!

Northern Spur Preserve: Includes Heuchera ‘Autumn Bride’ and Eupatorium perfoliatum

Past the Diller-Von Furstenberg Sundeck, the next jaw-dropping viewpoint is out over the Northern Spur Preserve. Originally connecting the railway to the Merchants Refrigerating Company, it is now home to a vast number of plants (I did read 75,000), including asters, sedges, catmint, and Phlox. More than any other section along this first phase of the High Line, this area was designed to evoke the wild landscape that took over the High Line when the trains ceased. It is the most stunning tapestry of colours, soft and muted, and looking down on it from above quite takes your breath away.

4. Tenth Avenue Square
Tenth Avenue Square, the High Line

Tenth Avenue Square: The brassy-coloured bark of Acer triflorum picks up the orange fruit of Pyracantha ‘Mohave’ in the background

And if you got your breath back before arriving at the next stop, it will likely be taken away from you once more. Ten Acer triflorum maples frame a view of the Statue of Liberty, each with the most exquisitely textured, peeling bark. Whilst this is a native to northern China and Korea, not the US, it’s easy to see why it is one of Piet Oudolf’s favourite plants.

5. Chelsea Grasslands
Chelsea Grasslands, the High Line

Chelsea Grasslands: Skeleton alliums contrast perfectly with the autumn grasses

The Line opens out again as it mutates into the Chelsea Grasslands. Five grasses (Andropogon gerardii, Sorghastrum nutans, Panicum virgatum, Schizachyrium scoparium and Sporobolus heterolepis) are interwoven with various perennials and bulbs to form what I think is probably my favourite section of the Line. The crowds have thinned out by now and the backlit grasses with pops of mauve from Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favourite’ (since when did I like mauve asters, I ask you?) are a very special sight. The density of planting is incredible and the more you look, the more you see, yet holistically the impression is of naturalistic simplicity. (For more photos, click here.)

6. Chelsea Thicket
Even the very straightest sections of the High Line don't feel boring; we have much to learn in our small urban plots!

Chelsea Thicket: A change of pace with thick, green foliage, such of that of Clethra barbinervis, wrapping around you

From the Chelsea Grasslands we transition to phase two of the High Line and into an area more tightly sandwiched between mid to high rise blocks. Branches in the Chelsea Thicket arch over the walkway, creating the feeling of a secret passage. There are plenty of evergreens to help maintain this atmosphere even in winter and it’s almost a relief to have respite from the heart-stopping, magical light of the Grasslands.

7. Meadow Walk
Meadow Walk, the High Line

Meadow Walk: Knautia ‘Mars Midget’ and Panicum ‘Sheriandoah’ provide deep claret shades

Meadow Walk brings colour once more, with a prairie-like effect. Piet Oudolf talks of his design philosophy as,

‘the idea is not to copy nature, but to give a feeling of nature’.

He enhances nature to bring intensity to these small spaces but most importantly, creates plantings that evoke the reassuring, peaceful, contented feeling that nature induces. He has provided the essence of North American prairies, without the constraints of a purist approach. And he has selected plants that thrive on this windswept line, despite its microclimate meaning it is one horticultural zone warmer in summer and one colder in winter, relative to the gardens just a few metres below.

8. Philip A & Lisa Maria Falcone Flyover
Joggers on the High Line

Philip A & Lisa Maria Falcone Fly Over: Magnolia canopies can be admired at eye level

The next section of the High Line cuts a narrow passage between two old industrial buildings and so a flyover, elevated by a further eight feet, was created to bring light in and take advantage of a further change in microclimate. In such a sheltered area, Magnolia are just one of the species that thrive and the experience of walking within the trees, rather than under them, brings an additional new dimension to the Line.

9. Wildflower Field & Radial planting
Opposite Radial Bench, the High Line

Wildflower Field and Radial Planting: Grasses (dominated by Calamagrostis) pop up from the original rail tracks

Grasses predominate the Wildflower Field in autumn, though they are punctuated with perennials such as Helianthus ‘Gold Lace’ and Symphyotrichum ericoides. Grasses are perhaps the most important element of the High Line, playing a subtle, yet fundamental role. They are the matrix plant for the entire Line, into which various feature plants have been added to provide unique character to each zone. They provide year-round structure and a vertical element to the long horizontal planes, they allow views out to the city and river and they add movement and life in the breeze, in a manner reminiscent of the self-seeded grasses that preceded them.

10. Rail Yards and Interim Walkway
The Rail Yards, The High Line

Rail Yards and Interim Walkway: Rustic plantings frame the enormous parking area for Penn station

A mix of planted and self-seeded sections make up the third and final section of the High Line, which wraps around three sides of the rail yards. I loved that you could see the trains below–a direct connection to the history of the Line–although this prime Manhattan space is soon to be covered over with new commercial developments. The Interim Walkway was so called as it was opened before planting began, to allow access between completed sections whilst funds were raised. However, the strong appeal of the self-sown garden was soon felt and the Interim Walkway is now a permanent feature. It’s a wonderful piece of history and its contrast with the designed plantings makes the transition from old to new both more transparent and appreciated.

Chelsea Grasslands, the High Line

Asters and bees on the High Line

This virtual journey is a definite celebration of autumn (or should I say fall?) on the Line. The colours and forms represent an array of plants resting–well-deservably–into winter, after their tremendous growth and show of spring and summer. Piet Oudolf is the world’s champion of creative, year-round, seasonal interest and I feel the High Line has enhanced my appreciation of this concept; plants can be beautiful in senescence. However, I’ve seen but one short week of the year up on the High Line of New York. I feel there is just so much more for me to learn going forward about this phenomenally special place.

behind the Diller-Von Furstenberg Sundeck and Water Feature

Native American sumacs (Rhus) leave no question as to the season of this virtual journey along the High Line

22 thoughts on “A journey of the High Line planting

  1. kate@barnhouse says:

    Another great post, Janna. I shall follow this book up for winter reading, thank you for the recommendation. Doesn’t Calamagrostis brachytrichia look a knockout in late summer/early autumn borders?

    • jannaschreier says:

      Diana, it is so lovely to hear that someone in South Africa is moved by a park in America, via a few words from England! I can almost sense the Earth revolving around the sun, as different parts of the world wake up and leave a thoughtful comment! How very lucky we are that the world is such a small place today.

  2. Adriana Fraser says:

    Wonderful Janna. Grasses have become one of my favourite plants to add drama to the garden. Nothing beats the afternoon sun behind a large clump of Miscanthus transmoriensis or the stunning golden flowering stems of Calamagostis ‘Karl Foerster’. This year I have planted Verbena bonariensis behind my ‘Karl’s’. I go out each day to see if they are flowering yet. I, unlike Piet Oudolph who is so much cleverer, tend to ‘colour in’ my garden adding layers year upon year. Trying to do it all at once just never seems to work. This makes me appreciate his mastery; Oudolph is a master at plant combinations. I also love the shimmering shade cast by the birches. A very descriptive and interesting post. I learn something each time! Round the world to Australia again.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Ah, we’ve reached Straya! Hello Adriana. Lovely to hear about your use of grasses. With all the sun you get in ‘Straya’ they are so well suited to make the best of the light. Apart from Lomandra it’s surprising how infrequently people use them. Probably just fashion taking a little while to change; you’re ahead of the game, I think. Yes, Oudolf is a master, but the more I research things, the more I realise that even the masters take time to get things right and can’t always predict what will work, after many years of practice. At Trentham they were changing a large area of grasses that Piet had designed because they hadn’t survived the winter well. We’re all always still learning in gardening; it’s why it stays so interesting!

  3. Suzanne says:

    Thanks for the very enjoyable virtual tour Janna. The plantings are gorgeous. I particularly like the first image, largely because I’m obsessed with trees. I also love the distinctive change in plantings. So clever, so beautiful and VERY inspiring.
    Like Adriana, I also grow grasses, three local species, and have done so for quite a few years. The first grass I grew turned out to be an environmental weed so I like to be careful with what I grow. However, it has taken a long time to get the hang of managing grasses. It’s all part of that learning curve which, as you say, makes gardening so interesting.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks, Suzanne. The trees are so inviting, aren’t they? They’re a pretty good thing to be obsessed about, I reckon! And yes, the distinctive changes, whilst all hanging together perfectly, add so much interest as you walk along the Line.
      I’ve exciting news, by the way. I’ve tracked down George Seddon’s book in the British Library, so I’m off for a re-read soon to help with my dissertation. I’m really starting to firm up in my mind what ‘your’ special concept is all about. I’m so grateful to you for getting me thinking about this a year or so ago.

      • Suzanne says:

        How fantastic that George Seddon’s book is available. I’m so pleased I had a small input into the germ of that seed and am looking forward to hearing a little [I hope] on how it germinates and grows [puns intended :-)]. You will be busy this winter!

  4. rusty duck says:

    I also loved the trees. I remember seeing somewhere, it may have been one of your posts from a year or so back, a typical Oudolf planting regularly punctuated by trees and I like the opportunity to create more height. It makes sense for me too. I planted trees before really thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest so they’re there now whether I like it or not. Thankfully I do like it.

    • jannaschreier says:

      It absolutely makes senses to plant trees first, not just because they take the longest to grow but you also need space to plant them without disrupting everything else around them. I know, once I have a garden, I should plan the whole structure before putting any trees in, but I also know this is going to be a really hard discipline to follow. We shall see!

  5. germac4 says:

    Lovely to see the High Line gardens in detail…I was brought up surrounded by trees and grasses in Africa, and now see plenty in Australia, so I really look at the grasses with new eyes in a New York garden…they are so beautiful! Piet Oudolf’s designs and plantings have quite changed my views on gardening.

    • jannaschreier says:

      The grasses work so well, don’t they? I find it fascinating that we have (all) changed our views on gardening so much over the years. I’m super, super excited that I’m off to Africa soon to see some of your natural landscape. Having become so familiar with many southern African plants whilst living in Australia, it’s a real missing piece of the jigsaw for me and a dream to go and see it.

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