Text & Photos: Carol Papas ©2012
Penn State Master Gardener
A trip to New York City might bring to mind shopping, theatre, dining and a much lighter wallet upon your return home, but gardeners can enjoy some superior examples of their craft in the Big Apple.
From Central Park, to the New York and Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, to Wave Hill in the Bronx, there are many options to escape the concrete jungle and enjoy a restorative visit with nature. On my last trip to New York City I checked out the charming garden on 91st Street in Riverside Park, made famous in the movie "You’ve Got Mail."
My favorite garden destination in Manhattan is The High Line. Located on the city’s West Side, it runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 30th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues in Chelsea.
The park was created on an abandoned rail line slated for demolition. Trains had not run on the tracks since 1980, and the industries supporting its usage in the area had nearly disappeared. With the energy and support of local residents working in concert with the railroads and city government, the rail lines were spared. The High Line is owned by the City of New York, and is maintained and operated by the non-profit conservancy Friends of the High Line.
The seminal idea of creating a garden and walking trail along the High Line began in 1999. In the ensuing years political, zoning, financial, design and construction challenges were met. The first section of the High Line debuted in June 2009. In July of 2012 the City of New York acquired the title to the final section of the High Line. This section is known as the West Side Rail Yards and it is blessed with sweeping views of the Hudson River and the Midtown skyline. The acquisition of this portion of the rail line will extend the park to 34th street.
James Corner Field Operations, a landscape architecture firm and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an architecture firm, designed the High Line. From a gardener’s viewpoint, the planting plan executed by Piet Oudolf is the most exciting aspect of the High Line. Oudolf is a Dutch garden designer who has designed gardens and public parks around the world. He makes great use of wild-looking plants, looking to their shapes and structure, whether their flowers are spiky spires or simple daisies.
Foliage is paramount in Oudolf’s designs, a takeaway all gardeners can use. The use of grasses is masterful; their texture and movement contrast beautifully with chunky shrubs and the strong, simple architecture of the surrounding hardscape. The palette evokes the wild plants that colonized the abandoned rail line prior to its becoming a park. By choosing plants with interesting seed heads or shrubs with strong silhouettes in the winter, he has created a garden that looks terrific in all seasons. The website thehighline.org provides a comprehensive list of plants used. The choices are diverse and would make a great menu of choices for a mixed border installation featuring trees, shrubs, perennials (including groundcovers) and bulbs.
One of the best reasons to visit gardens, whether on local garden tours or as destinations to visit while on vacation, is to see how plants can be put together in a pleasing way. Books and magazines cannot provide the same experience as being in a garden. Novice and expert gardeners will be inspired by the plantings on High Line.
Plants selected for inclusion on the trail are relatively drought resistant and tough. Despite the large crowd of tourists strolling on the paths I managed to snap scads of lovely plant vignettes. While most of the people walking the High Line were engaged in lively multi-lingual conversation, often dressed to be part of the experience that is New York, I was the gardener wearing sensible shoes, craning to get the best shot of plants that caught my eye.
Pirating a great idea from a garden visit is not only encouraged, but a really smart way to hone your gardening skills. As they say, “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.”
I have visited the High Line in fall of 2010 and this summer. Within that short time crowds have gotten larger and changes to the surrounding neighborhoods have accompanied the popularity of the gardens. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, and pricier vendors have crowded out some established local businesses, so there has been a downside to the project. Weekend afternoons can be mighty crowded. If possible, plan your visit for early morning or on a weekday.
That being said, in a city full of tourists and pricey destinations, the High Line is distinctly different, free (although a donation to the Friends of the High Line is suggested) and fun for all ages. Pairing a stroll along the High Line before or after a great meal is a treat. Restaurant choices within walking distance of the High Line abound. If money is no object you can even stay at The Standard Hotel- High Line and wake up to views of the gardens and the Hudson River.
Gardeners know that growing and enjoying plants add to their quality of life. Based on my visits to public gardens almost everywhere I travel, even non-gardeners respond to verdant, beautiful escapes from tourist destinations. If you’re contemplating a trip to New York City, be sure to include the High Line in your plans. Your wallet will thank you.