Staff Spotlight: A Day with Gardener John Gunderson

By Christian Barclay | July 28, 2014

Gardener John Gunderson
Gardener John Gunderson has been with Friends of the High Line since 2011. Photo by Friends of the High Line

While the High Line is meant to look like a wild landscape, it requires an extraordinary amount of work to maintain the plant life. The horticulture team is responsible for maintaining the park’s more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees. In our first Staff Spotlight, we’re focusing on John Gunderson, a gardener who’s been with Friends of the High Line for three years.

Morning Walkthrough
John starts every day with a walkthrough of his section, which stretches from Gansevoort Street to West 14th Street. “This is my time to carefully observe the conditions of the garden and plan the remaining day. In addition, I remove any debris that may have been left behind from the evening before,” says John. His section is a highly trafficked area, so the early morning hours are an ideal time to take stock of the planting beds before the afternoon crowds converge.

John conducting morning walkthroughJohn begins his morning rounds near the Gansevoort Street entrance. Photo by Friends of the High Line

When it comes to watering, John and other gardeners follow the Goldilocks rule: not too much, not too little, but just enough. “Moisture levels are checked daily to make sure that the plants are receiving the appropriate amount of water. Although the High Line is fully irrigated, the hot and windy conditions sometimes make it necessary to hand water the planting bed edges,” says John. This method allows the gardeners to tailor the amount of water to the needs of individual species and weather conditions, and conserve water. While plants like the
Mexican feather grass (Nasella tenuissima) can thrive during a dry summer, the bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) requires the occasional sprinkle.

John hand watering plant bedJohn hand waters a planting bed near the Gansevoort Street entrance. Photo by Friends of the High Line

The average visitor could understandably mistake a weed for a wildflower, but an expert eye can spot the difference. “Many of the gardeners’ hours are spent removing unwanted plant species to help preserve [High Line planting designer] Piet Oudolf`s original design. In addition, we remove seedlings of many plants cultivated on the High Line, so as to control their spread and preserve the composition,” says John. While the horticulture team practices a number of sustainable and modern gardening methods, weeding is still done the old-fashioned way – by pulling.

John weeding a plant bedJohn pulling weeds from a planting bed near West 14th Street. Photo by Friends of the High Line

Along with weeding, much of the gardener’s day is occupied with grooming. The spring and summer seasons are a time of peak growth within the park, so it takes a bit of extra effort to keep the luscious landscape from looking like a wild jungle. “It takes a lot of grooming to keep the beds looking their best. Here, the older growth of
Persicaria amplexicaulis ‘Firetail’ (Firetail mountain fleece) is cut back to allow for a second flush of growth and second round of blooms,” says John. Many perennials stop blooming after they form seeds. By removing the fading flowers before they can complete the process, the gardeners ensure that the plants continue blooming.

John grooming Firetail mountain fleeceJohn grooming Firetail mountain fleece near West 14th Street. Photo by Friends of the High Line