While the High Line is meant to look like a wild landscape, it requires an extraordinary amount of work to maintain the plant life. Our hardworking horticulture team is responsible for maintaining the park's hundreds of species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In our latest staff profile Q&A, we reached out to High Line Gardener Erin Eck.
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Before coming to the High Line I worked with a researcher, studying soil quality in NYC community gardens. I transitioned into ornamental horticulture because it combines science with design. As a gardener at the High Line I have the opportunity to focus on both aesthetics and the biological processes underlying plant health.
2) Tell us a little bit about your horticultural zone on the High Line. What would one find there?
I manage the lawn area and the Meadow Walk. Both gardens are more subdued compared to other parts of the park. The lawn provides not only a physical place to rest but a kind of visual respite. Visiting the Cloisters last year gave me a new appreciation for turf grass. There's a quote I love from the Catholic saint, Albertus Magnus, who lived in the 13th century. He wrote, "The sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short." Medieval monks actually used lawns as an aid to meditation. The Meadow Walk also has a soothing effect. It's a matrix planting dominated by two varieties of grass that are lightly interspersed with more showy perennials. The best time to see this meadow is in late summer when the Korean feather grass blooms. On a breezy day, the movement of those plumes has a lovely, dreamy quality.
3) What is the most rewarding thing about gardening for a public space like the High Line?
When I first visited the High Line, I was awed by its elegance. It raised my expectations of what a free, public space should be like and I'm happy to now be contributing to keeping this park exceptional. I also think it's important for people to see gardens that, though obviously well-tended, evoke wildness rather than tidiness and order. Some visitors are little taken aback at first because the plantings don't conform to their idea of a garden. It's very rewarding to introduce a different approach to landscape design, one that emphasizes native perennials and four-season beauty.
4) Gardening is often seen as a solitary activity. But at the High Line we have volunteers, volunteer groups, tours, and random questions from visitors. How has this changed the way you think of what it means to be a gardener?
Most horticulture positions require working closely with a team, but gardening at the High Line is particularly social. A big component of my job is education and that takes different forms, from training new staff and volunteers to more brief exchanges with visitors. I get a lot of great questions from visitors and I often use those to get into a larger topic, like plant nativity or habitat creation.
5) What is your favorite time to be on the High Line? Why?
Early morning, especially in the summer, is the most peaceful time of day and the best moment to just appreciate the beauty of gardens without thinking about all the work that needs to be done.
6) Tell us about compost tea. What makes it an important aspect of "sustainable" practices?
Many people think of soil as being inert, rather than a living system. The organisms in the soil food web make nutrients more readily available to plants and improve soil structure. When we add compost to the soil we are mostly adding organic matter -- food -- for the soil organisms. When we apply compost tea, on the other hand, we are increasing the population of beneficial soil organisms. We are still learning about all the ways plants and soil organisms work together and it's fascinating stuff. Soil organisms are involved in everything from defense against pathogens to nutrient sharing from one tree to another. More and more we're realizing that we need to support these communities.
7) What is the most surprising thing you've seen while working on the High Line?
Living in NYC sort of raises the threshold for surprise. I guess the thing that continues to surprise me about the park is how much wildlife it supports. It's such a tiny green strip in this predominantly concrete environment and the birds and pollinators still show up. I had mocking birds nesting in my section this year. Last spring, we had a flock of cedar waxwings stop by on their way north. I was very impressed that they found us.
8) Do you garden at home? What types of plants are you personally passionate about cultivating?
To be honest, it's kind of a relief not to have a backyard. I would have a hard time sustaining the investment I have in my High Line gardens with a home garden. Usually, the longer I work with a plant the more I come to appreciate its distinct traits. Last year, I was frustrated with the Korean feather grass because I was spending so much time weeding its seedlings out of neighboring plants. Piet Oudolf even teased me about, asking if I'd made my peace with that grass. Now I sort of admire its vigor. I can count on it to grow happily in places where other plants are struggling. We also have some plants here in the park that are threatened in their native habitats, so I feel a particular tenderness for them.
9) How would you describe the High Line's gardens and Piet Oudolf's vision?
Piet and Noel Kingsbury have written several eloquent books about Piet's design philosophy, which I recommend to anyone interested in the High Line. Piet designs for change over both the short term and long term. Some changes he has planned for some he hasn't. Working within that design really requires patience. As a gardener you have to be able to visualize how the garden will fill in over the summer season and become more sparse in the winter. We also have to anticipate the form a planting will take over the course of years. Furthermore, the plants often decide where they want to grow. Seedling may come up in a new spot and we try not to adhere to rigidly to the original placement. When he visits, Piet often reminds us to resist the desire for total control. It's very important that a sense of wildness comes through.