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Thoughts on The High Line Public Gardens in Manhattan

In October, 2010, The Spirited Gardener had the opportunity to walk The High Line on Manhattan's West Side in New York City. Open from 7AM to 8PM daily in the winter, the hours change with the seasons as do the vistas.

The impression as I walked up to the Line via a steep stairway, was that I was about to enter a space of transformation. I was a "mountain climber" rising above the grit and traffic of New York City to a space that married Nature and design in an exciting new way. The experience did not disappoint. I immediately felt that wonderful drop of tension in my shoulders that often comes with a light breeze that carries the scent of Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed) in bloom. And the list went on Schizachryium scoparium (little bluestem grass), Helenium (sneezeweed), Geum triflorum (prairie smoke), wait, had I been transported back to my home, Chicago? But of course, the environmental conditions of the park would be somewhat prairie like would it not? The elevation would create a windier environment and the thin Rooftop conditions of the park were, after all, more like a mesic prairie in its flooding when there are heavy rains and then drier state because of the winds and low soil volumes. The plant list is extensive and they explain on the website that 30% of the vegetation is regionally native of the 50% North American native plants. But any "exotics" had all been deemed noninvasive for the region. The list is available on the High Line's website. (thus I was able to at least get close to which cultivar was in the pictures!)

HL BlueGrassIn this picture Schizachyrium scoparius 'The Blues' (Little Blue Stem), Parthenium integrifolium (wild quinine) Rhus glabra (smoothsumac), Sedum x 'Matrona' (stonecrop) -Aster � this could be anyone of 8 varieties planted in the "park".

So the idea of the non-invasive foreigners plants draws my attention once more to the question of �well, good or bad? And then I remember what had brought me to The Highline to begin with. It was a lecture by Rick Darke, author of many volumes and most recently The Wild Garden: Expanded Edition. In September last year, he spoke at the Cultural Center overlooking Millennium Park , an impressive setting. And he was speaking to the Ethics of Landscaping with large-scale tracts of land, often publicly funded parks and such. The expense of upkeep and the very nature of change in environment, gives us pause to see how to manage these things. He spoke of the change the Native Americans made to the landscape because of their need to keep the prairies expansive for easier hunting. Human beings have been roaming around the planet for millennium creating change. So what makes this time so different from before? Perhaps the powerful ways that we are able to destroy and alter our environment, which is so much more effective than the generations before us?

Ultimately Rick Darke, longtime horticulturalist at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, seemed to come to a sense of compromise. His idea is to "edit" certain aspects without needing to change everything because some things are "out of place". The idea of editing allows certain interlopers as long as they are playing well with the other plants in the community. It was an idea that made sense to me. As designers, we are not going to stop people from doing what seems attractive to them or makes them feel like they belong to their chosen aesthetic whether it comes from Martha Stewart or The Wild Ones. We can lead the charge in a direction we feel is important or we can quietly take away what doesn't seem to be working and replace it with a "better plant" that may just give a home to a regionally lonely insect before its population becomes too weakened to continue or it adapts with us by finding a new host that has arrived from abroad. Some things ultimately are not in our hands, but we can do our best to help them move in a reasonable direction. In his lecture, Darke, spoke about how nature itself had inspired this High Line Park to be built up by man. It was nature itself, coming in and setting seed over the wasted set of tracks that no longer served man, that inspired us to yet another use for the space on this piece of earth we had already "disturbed".

Central Park

A view of Central Park.

So I've digressed. The experience of visiting The High Line was all the more delightful because earlier in the day, we had been in Central Park, and the contrast of the more traditional open space park with the more contemporary wild grasses feeling of The High Line, was like a breath of conceptual fresh air (one that many after me will continue to breathe, at least for now).

Bur Oak

Quercus macrocarpa(bur oak) nestles next to Eryngium yuccifolium (rattlesnake-master) and (I think) Nassella tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) in the foreground


Wetland plants overlook the Hudson River. Rhus coppalina (flameleaf sumac), Ilex verticillata 'Red Sprite', Ilex verticillata 'Southern Gentleman'


The Chelsea Grasslands: Rudbeckia subtomentosa, Parthenium integrifolium


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