Gardening in the Sky: Celebrating Death and Life in the Autumn Garden

We often think of spring and summer as the best times for visiting gardens. However, fall may be the season in which we see the character of naturalistic gardens like the High Line most clearly. The gardens are at their fullest, with some perennials having put on more than eight feet of growth over the course of the growing season. Most flowers have given way to seeds, which drift through the air like an early snow flurry. Grasses take on burgundy and rust tones. Some fruits and foliage display their most vibrant colors while others have already browned and shriveled. As the perennials begin to dry and stiffen, we can appreciate the new forms that emerge. Change happens incredibly swiftly at this time of year. One week the sumacs are crimson or the birches gold and the next week they may be bare. In these fleeting days we see traces of the past summer and hints of the coming winter. We welcome death into the garden and take the opportunity to admire its aesthetic.

Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seeds float on the wind. Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

The High Line's aesthetic – which reflects natural cycles of life and death and evokes feelings of being in a wild space – has not just happened on its own. While many natural processes take place in the park, the gardens have also been carefully designed and continuously cared for. Piet Oudolf's designs for the gardens present unique maintenance challenges and require a good eye and an understanding how the plantings will change over time. Changes in the gardens are guided by a team of gardeners who have collaborated with Oudolf over the course of years to create different moods and compositions throughout the seasons. As Noel Kingsbury notes in the book Planting Design "The design and creation of gardens is inextricably linked to the activity of gardening, as only active gardening has any hope of ensuring that the designer's vision is realized."

Perennials like this rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) go dormant in the fall. Though the portions of the plant we see above ground are dead, the roots are still alive and new growth will emerge in the spring. Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

This October we are celebrating not only the season, but the specific horticulture skills and techniques that make fall one of most beautiful times to visit the High Line. Signage at selected points in the gardens between Gansevoort and 14th St. illuminates how different effects are achieved through horticultural interventions. For example, gardeners use color in a variety of ways. Softer colors create a backdrop against which the bolder shades shine. Using pops of color can draw the eye through the planting, while combining different shades of the same color creates a sense of harmony in the composition. Gardeners envision how the planting will look throughout the year and avoid color combinations that will create muddy, garish or flattening effects. They also take advantage of the brown and black tones that begin to appear as the perennials' stems and leaves die back to the ground.

In the autumn garden, we confront the end of the growing season and the processes of death and decay. We also find surprisingly beautiful forms, textures and colors at this time of year. The High Line gardeners work with natural processes over years to create moments that open our eyes to the beauty that accompanies death into the garden.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects.


TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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