Getting Ideas from Public Gardens: New York’s High Line

Stachys and EmpireI recently visited the High Line in New York City. It is a beautiful garden that weaves through a part of town on a reclaimed elevated railway. It was an inspiring garden that I wanted to write about, but what would people want to hear about in a blog post from a nursery. One thought that I kept getting stuck on was, how could you translate what you see in a large and singular public garden into ideas for your own yard?. I came up with seven topics to look for in any garden and look at the High Line through those lenses.

View From the Street

View From the Street

A Sense of Place.  Every garden and location has its own personality. Much of this is out of your control. But you still get to choose how you and your garden relate to the environment around you. This can be embracing a view, framing it so that the eye wanders outwards. It can also mean enclosing your garden into a private sanctuary from the outside world. Don’t forget sounds and smells and other sensory information.

The View of Buildings from the Park

The View of Buildings from the Park

The High Line is very much a park in the city. It has open meadow areas and wooded pathways but the city is always present. I found that I was better able to appreciate the buildings and views around me, both from being two stories up but also not having to deal with traffic trying to run me over. It provided a 1.5 mile stroll through the city while somehow feeling apart from the chaos. It was still crowded and the construction noise was ever present but there is no avoiding that.

Massed grasses have a softening effect.

Massed grasses have a softening effect.

Planting Style. Every garden has a plant palate that they choose from. The site can dictate what plants can be grown, but the designer will influence what choices are made in plant material and layout.

A grove of Magnolias grow in a shady area between two buildings.

A grove of Magnolias grow in a shady area between two buildings.

Since the High Line has limited soil depth there are no large trees, but the effect of a woods was still created with 15 foot trees planted in mass.The plant layout is very informal, creating a spontaneous impression. I have read that they were trying to recreate the look of the abandoned railway gone wild that existed before it was turned into a park. In your own yard you can create cohesion using similar planting styles throughout, or add tension by having a wild meadow next to a formal knot garden.

Repeated Themes. Does your garden have a theme? The theme that stood out to me in the High Line was the contrast of hard straight lines (train tracks, lined pavers, the long narrow shape of the garden, and the vertical buildings on all sides) with a soft wild planting style. This is what sets this garden apart from any other I have seen. The contrast of these ideas is brought off everywhere.

The paths dissolve into horizontal lines in the ground and plants start popping up between pavers.

The paths dissolve into horizontal lines in the ground and plants start popping up between pavers.

Movement through the garden. You experience a garden as you move through it. Small gardens can be built with a fixed viewpoint but it is so important to look at how people will travel through your garden. The High Line is a long straight line with a curve at the end. The path is not straight nor the same size throughout. There are open straight meadows but the path will curve over the the edge and lead you through a narrow wooded section. There is a section where the path turns into a walkway over a woodland bed of ferns. With the heavy traffic, thankfully there are alcoves that go nowhere where you can step out of the flow to relax.

wide open

At some points it is wide open.

The path narrows into a tight wooded corridor.

The path narrows into a tight wooded corridor.

Plants that you Recognize.  I love being in a garden and recognizing plants that I grow in my own garden or we sell at Joy Creek. Outside of annoying my wife with all the botanical plant names, this is one of the easiest ways to get ideas for your own garden. Seeing amsonia growing between two pavers is something you could directly steal for your own.

amsonia

Amsonia softens the hard edges of the cement.

Look for New Plantings and Old. One of my favorite parts of the High Line was at the far end where they are still doing construction. There is a section where you can see what it looked like before it was turned into a park. The wild plants that seeded their way onto the tracks. This shows the inspiration that lead to the designed wild look.

There is still some of the original line left.

There is still some of the original line left.

There are also sections that are newly planted. This shows the planting patterns that will eventually lead to the look of an unplanned meadow. You can see how much effort it takes to look natural.

You can see how new plants are laid out to create a natural effect.

You can see how new plants are laid out to create a natural effect.

How is the garden being used. The last part I wanted to highlight is to look at how all the people in the garden are interacting with it. You could use the park as a elevated shortcut through the city, but what I noticed was how many people were sitting and enjoying the scenery. There were benches everywhere. The benches were not just for sitting, they were part of the look of the park.

These extremely large benches were very enticing.

These extremely large benches were very enticing.

The walkway flows up into the benches.

The walkway flows up into the benches.

Trees were planted close together to create a shady resting spot.

Trees were planted close together to create a shady resting spot.

If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend visiting the High Line in New York City. It is a singular  garden crafted out of unused urban infrastructure that has revitalized a neighborhood. Each garden you visit will teach you new concepts in gardening and inspire your own planting domain.

Andy Stockton

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