Gardening in the Sky: Wild Inspiration

Much has already been written about how the High Line's gardens were inspired by natural landscapes. As he developed planting designs for the park, Piet Oudolf was influenced by the plant communities that covered the structure during its years of disuse and by natural[i] areas like the prairie remnants of the Midwest. However, the relationship between garden and wilderness is multi-faceted and runs much deeper than just design.

Over the next four posts we will explore the many connections between cultivated and natural areas. From aesthetic inspiration to the preservation of cultural and natural history, field work remains an integral component of horticulture. To hone their craft, High Line gardeners regularly visit local natural areas. Translating the beauty of nature into an aesthetic appropriate to a naturalistic[ii] garden is one of the many ways gardeners engage with the wild.

Russell Juelg, Senior Land Steward for the NJ Conservation Foundation, discusses the ecology of the Pine Barrens with the FHL horticulture team. Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

When thinking about adding a new texture, color or form to the garden, gardeners seek inspiration from wild plant communities. A striking scene may highlight an element that is missing from the garden. For example, one High Line gardener noticed lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) in a nearby forest and realized that their soft, fine texture and light green tones made them perfect for his woodland planting. He selected a smaller cultivar ('Minutissimum') that would be in keeping with the scale of the existing groundcover of grasses and sedges. The ferns give definition to the planting and break up the grasses without detracting from the subdued mood of the garden.

Minutissimum dwarf lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina 'Minutissimum') add fine textures to the High Line's Gansevoort Woodland. Photo by Ayinde Listhrop.

Gardeners also pay special attention to the patterns of wild plant communities when they think about how to lay out a planting. Does a plant grow in large groups or is it mixed in with other species? How does grouping effect the way we look at the plant? Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica) grows as groundcover in our local forests. On sun-dappled ridges overlooking the Hudson River, this sedge winds around boulders like a green stream. On the High Line, we plant it in drifts under trees and let it weave around broadleaved perennials. Planted in small clumps this sedge doesn't look like much, but allowed to spread, it creates a fine, undulating groundcover that is quite beautiful.

Finally, spending time in natural areas helps gardeners envision how plantings will look in the future. For instance, wild sumac (Rhus sp.) and chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) form dense thickets that shade out understory plants. In the gardens, we manage these colonizing trees by regularly removing stems, so that adequate sunlight will penetrate the canopy. The gardens change each year and native annuals (plants that germinate, produce seed and die over the course of one year) can be used to fill temporary gaps. We added the annual, sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), after noticing it at Hempstead Plains, a remnant of the native grasslands that used to cover much of Long Island. Sweet everlasting does not compete with established perennials in the garden, but it will germinate and quickly grow, healing over damaged spots.

Hempstead Plains supports native grassland species that have largely disappeared from Long Island. Photo by Uli Lorimer.

While a gardener might fall in love with a particular plant or combination of wild plants, it is not always realistic to use those plants in the garden. In the next post we'll discuss site conditions and how wild habitats help us predict whether plants will succeed or fail in the garden.


[i] What do we mean by natural or wild?

For the purposes of this discussion, I will apply these descriptions to nature preserves, wildlife refuges and other areas, which are managed in order to preserve or restore their unique characters and their functions as habitat. In such areas, interventions – including removal of invasive species, planting, or changes to hydrology – may be needed to achieve the goal of maintaining robust, healthy ecosystems.

In our region, many of the truly wild places – those which do not experience any human management –are overrun with invasive species. These places still have their own character and are worthy of attention, especially when designing urban plantings that can handle tough conditions like compacted soils, air pollution, and increased pressure from herbivorous pests.

[ii] What is the difference between natural and naturalistic?

The High Line is a naturalistic garden, which means that it is evocative of the wild. Unlike more formal, geometric garden designs, which convey order and mastery over nature, naturalistic plantings try to recreate the emotional experience of being in nature. While the gardens may feel natural, they are anything but. Plants that would never meet in the wild are planted together here in manufactured soil. The gardeners weed, water, prune, edit and shape. Human intervention is a constant and many conditions of the site are artificial.


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.

Recent Posts
Plant of the Week: Autumn moorgrass
view post
Plant of the Week: Viking black chokeberry
view post