The mile long plantings along the former rail line on Manhattan’s West Side are now in their fifth year and attract more than 5 million visitors a year. They have had a profound effect on the street-scape and real estate market in the area. Any peace the planners imagined is currently destroyed by the constant din of machinery and jackhammers as new housing developments rear up along the borders.
Longwood trained Thomas Smarr is now in his second year as director of horticulture for the park. I picked up a brochure from the Friends of the High Line as I entered the line at the entrance by my hotel and read that they “seek to engage the vibrant and diverse community on and around the High Line”. The diversity of plant life attracted a diverse human crowd, though the few days I wandered the line I saw surprisingly few birds and a volunteer gardener told me they had no trouble with rabbits or groundhogs - wildlife that can wreck havoc in my own garden - as the line is too high up an inaccessible.
The main beds of the High Line are built up about 6” above the walkway, but the soil depth is only 18” which does not seem deep enough for tree roots although the birch,s sumach and magnolia virginiana seem to be doing fine at the moment. The beds are stunningly planted and appear to be regularly weeded and consistently watered with a very high-tec system of nosiness and underground irrigation. Truly back to nature and sustainable this is not. In fact there ar eight full-time gardeners and an army of volunteers employed to keep it looking good..The original planting design was a collaboration between James Corner Field Operations and Piet Oudolf whose trademark planting palette is very apparent, supplemented with wild plants of the now defunct rail line which were assessed to see which could be added to the new plantings. The working rule was that fifty percent of the plantings would be natives, although New York City parks have recently dictated a law that 75% of plants should be native in new plantings - hopefully the next phase of the High Line will be allowed to be slightly more flexible as this seems like a rather silly restriction.
In July the echinaceas, rudebeckias and other native perennials were in full flower and the planting schemes were stunning, I can imagine it will be even more vibrant in the fall when the sumachs, grasses and drifts of asters reach their glory. The volunteer I spoke to told me there were also 1000s of spring bulbs - not just natives but 10 types of tulips and the ice-white crocus Ard Schenk. To ensure adequate planting coverage the perennials were planted as small plugs and packed in at a higher density than in a private garden. They are immaculately maintained - the mile long track has an annual budget of over $8 million a year in running costs so not exactly a plantings project feasible for most homeowners.
I loved the zigzag shaped beds which tapered into the hard surface with little channels, I also thought the printed plant lists and lack of labels was probably a good idea aesthetically although slightly annoying to have to refer to the lists whenever I wanted to find a cultivar I adored. I also adored the wooden-slatted deck chairs, occupied day and night by New Yorkers and the way the sections blended into each other changing moods with the plantings. I found myself drawn back, first thing in the morning before the conference I was attending and then again on the walk home as evening turned to dark and the beds were spot-lit and luminescent.