Roots and Shoots: Learning from Experiencing

Lessons from a walk in the park

By Pamela Doan

If you love plants, visiting a garden like the High Line, an unused, elevated rail line in New York City transformed into a park and walkway, is similar to an art lover roaming a museum. There’s so much to look at and take in. I enjoyed a lovely fall day there and appreciated the sculptural qualities of the dried plants interspersed with spots of color from late-blooming asters, lilies and leaves turning on the trees and shrubs.

I’ve been studying a new book, Gardens of the High Line: Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes, by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, and it gave me a new perspective on the layout and the designer’s vision.

The High Line at 20th Street, looking downtown (Wikipedia)

Oudolf designed the plantings. What I did not realize from prior visits was his intentional creation of diverse landscapes. There are very often crowds at the High Line, and with so much to look at and so many people, the overall themes were lost on me.

Oudolf essentially set up ecosystems of plant communities along the mile and a half of track — including woodland, grassland, meadow, a wildflower field and a water garden — using the natural conditions that resulted from the surrounding buildings. It’s what I love best about wild gardens, mimicking nature and always changing. Each year the layers of canopy trees, understory, woody plants and herbaceous plants maneuver and shift in response to each other and the urban environment.

I was thrilled by how many plants I could identify and have in my own landscape at home. Maybe I’m doing something right if this internationally recognized landscape designer and I like some of the same plants?

The plantings inspired me to think about how I can create more interesting vistas. Oudolf uses a variety of grasses in ways that I haven’t thought about. In many yards, grasses are used to define an area like the entrance to a driveway or as a backdrop to other plants, and many are non-native. Intermixing sedges, clusters of Muhlenbergia capillaris or pink muhly grass, Sporobolus heterolepis or prairie dropseed, Schizachyrium scoparium or big and little bluestems, were striking features and added color and texture in combination with native perennials.

Sinomone toadlily blooming on the High Line. (Photo by P. Doan)

These are all much better choices than the widely used and invasive Chinese silver grass Miscanthus sinensis that is prohibited from sale or planting by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Dried flower stalks are left in all the plantings on the High Line, creating a four-season landscape of artistry. When left to overwinter, spent plants can disperse their seeds in the wind, provide food for wildlife, and look dramatic when covered in snow.

The photography by Darke is reason enough to pick up the book. I’m sure the High Line ranks high in the most Instagrammable sites in New York City and Darke shot every landscape in every season with gorgeous results.

Oudolf describes visiting the High Line many times in the process of designing the landscape. He tried to understand its natural tendencies and work with those conditions rather than to force his view onto it. Credit goes to the founders of the High Line for choosing someone with this sensibility to make it a landmark, a destination and a model for aspirational gardeners.

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