The Well-Dressed Garden by Marty Ross

Ideas From the High Line

The High Line is a gritty, glorious garden in the pulsing heart of New York City, full of ideas for gardens and gardeners everywhere. It is a landmark, an ever-changing horticultural and social scene -- and an inspiration.

This garden doesn't attempt to hide its industrial roots. The abandoned train tracks running through the elevated park near the Hudson River are as much a part of the garden as the flowering shrubs, perennials and grasses that flourish there. The High Line celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and opened an extension, known as the Spur, the last section of the former freight line 30 feet above the hurly-burly of the city streets. With the addition of the Spur, the thriving greenway of the High Line is now nearly 1.5 miles long. Millions of visitors explore the space every year while taking in sensational views of the bustling city and the river.

Eric Rodriguez, the High Line's director of horticulture, is the steward of hundreds of thousands of plants, many of them North American native perennials and grasses, woven into a design by the renowned Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf. The High Line doesn't represent an unobtainable model of perfection, Rodriguez says: It is a garden full of possibilities for anyone. "We are actively trying to encourage people to take ideas home," he says.

The park's design took its cues from the wild, weedy nature that had established itself on the tracks in the 25 years after the line was abandoned. It is a lively, exciting, densely packed garden -- of surpassing beauty at all seasons -- filled with hard-working perennials, shrubs and small trees. It's also an environmentally friendly place, designed to invite pollinators and conserve resources, and maintained without the use of herbicides or pesticides.

Rodriguez thinks of the High Line's planting scheme as "a vertical sandwich." In each area, he says, "we have a grass matrix, and on top of that is an herbaceous perennial matrix." In areas with woody plants, the design expands to include a layer of shrubs and a canopy of trees -- but since the soil is only about 8 inches deep all along the High Line, only relatively small trees and shrubs can be planted. Species with multiple stems, including buckeyes, fringe trees and serviceberries, thrive in the harsh conditions, exposed on all sides to wind and weather and to the reflected light and deep shadows cast by tall buildings.

Although most High Line trees will never be giants, leafy trees embrace the beds in summer; in winter, their trunks, branches and bark impart a rare beauty. Multistemmed trees and shrubs are easier to manage in the garden than single-trunk plants, Rodriguez says. When stems get too tall or too lanky, or start to grow out of bounds, they can be cut back (sometimes to the ground), and new stems emerge. It's a great strategy for home gardeners, too.

Oudolf's planting design calls for extremely tight spacing: six to eight plants per square foot. To make it work, "we put plants in very small," Rodriguez says. "In some ways, we push back on the instant gratification" by using smaller plants, he says, but the planting style allows the garden to conserve resources. Tight spacing reduces watering needs because the plants shade the soil, limiting moisture loss to evaporation. Close spacing also helps control weeds. Gardeners everywhere, including on the High Line, Rodriguez says, "are always trying to think about how to work less without compromising their aesthetics."

Spring and summer on the High Line are beautiful, of course, but fall and winter are also spectacular seasons in which to experience the garden. Drying perennial foliage and grasses rustle in the wind, and their seed heads throw elegant shadows and attract birds to the park through the winter. The winter light shining through the twiggy tracery of trees creates a dramatic contrast to the built environment all around. The dormant plants under gray skies or in the snow let visitors appreciate the season more fully. "It's important for us to have the full life cycle of the plants," Rodriguez says. High Line gardeners don't cut the herbaceous perennials and grasses back until spring.

Over the winter, the gardeners nurture new ideas for the seasons to come, Rodriguez says. They consider new species to add to the garden, looking for plants that will perform well in the changing urban environment. Buildings with reflective glass have increased the heat and light in some areas along the High Line, and wind speeds and patterns have also changed as new buildings have been put up nearby. Among other things, the gardeners are interested in introducing more plants that attract beneficial insects, Rodriguez says, "and we're adding things that we want just because they would be fun and pretty."

The High Line is not, strictly speaking, a garden but a park, and the gardeners look to nature for their inspiration. They study plant communities in native plant reserves in the region, including in coastal areas, where the vegetation has to be tough. The ideas they bring back to the city make the High Line more beautiful and sustainable, Rodriguez says, and the result may make you forget, just for a minute, that you're in New York City. But look again: This garden could be nowhere else.


-- The High Line is a public park on Manhattan's West Side. There is no admission charge. The park begins at the intersection of Washington and Gansevoort Streets, near the Whitney Museum, and continues up to 34th Street, just past Hudson Yards. The High Line is a former elevated train line, so you're above the traffic.

-- No matter where you live, the High Line is as close as your computer. The park's website,, is full of information about the history of the park, its development, pictures of plants and art you'll see in the park. There is a comprehensive plant list and a list of "plants of the moment." The website also has a calendar of events, information about tours, and information for anyone interested in becoming a Friend of the High Line or a volunteer. You can download a pocket guide to the park.

The High Line also has an app for your phone: a digital guide with an interactive map and information about food, events, vendors and restroom locations.


More Ideas From the High Line

Here are some tips and ideas from Eric Rodriguez, horticulture director of the High Line:

-- A strong design is the foundation of every good garden. An aesthetically pleasing design and well-chosen plants let you spend your time and resources on becoming a good steward of your local environment.

-- Plants that are native to your region will thrive in the climate and conditions in your garden.

-- Choose plants that attract pollinators and beneficial insects.

-- Conserving resources sometimes involves letting things go. Remember that death is part of gardening. "Gardening becomes less stressful when you have a comfortable acceptance of some plant deaths," Rodriguez says. Even experienced gardeners sometimes kill plants.

-- Learn to appreciate the full life cycle of plants. Perennials that have worked hard in the garden all summer and fall should not be disturbed through the winter. They shelter birds and insects, help prevent erosion, and create a natural mulch for themselves and surrounding plants. Cut perennials back in early spring, not in the fall.

-- High Line gardeners compost all the clippings and trimmings from plants. The resulting compost is used as a mulch in the gardens, and in places to build up the soil.

-- One of the best resources for gardeners is a good field guide to plants in your region, Rodriguez says. There is much to learn from what is already there.

-- When you're in native-plant or natural areas, look for plants you might like to include in your garden. Notice where and how they are growing, and when you buy plants for your garden, try to provide similar conditions.

-- Remember that change is constant in a garden, and that trial and error are among the most important ways to learn what works best for you.