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Gardening in the Sky: Cutting Back, Springing Forward

By Erin Eck | March 22, 2016

High Line volunteers working alongside our gardeners for Spring Cutback.Julieanne Prevete

Each year, more than a hundred volunteers join our horticulture team to cut back the park’s grasses and broad leaf perennials. Cutback mimics the effect of the fires that would regularly sweep through a wild grassland. Parks and public gardens that have acres of meadow mow to achieve this effect. We cut everything back by hand using shears, pruners, and scissors.

The mixed plantings on the High Line require different approaches. Some plants are cut down to the base, some are only lightly trimmed back, and others are avoided all together. Gardeners and volunteers carefully work their way through the beds, uncovering newly emerged bulbs and other spring ephemerals as they go. Because cutback on the High Line is so labor intensive, we rely on the help of our volunteers to complete this massive undertaking. While most horticulture tasks require specialized knowledge of plants and techniques, cutback is a great opportunity for people who are new to gardening.

Related volunteers working to trim back plants.Rowa Lee

As we remove dozens of cubic yards of plant debris from the beds, we face a challenge familiar to every New Yorker: limited space. In previous years we have trucked plant material to the Freshkills Compost Facility on Staten Island. This year, however, our gardeners have been able to chip all plant debris, reducing its bulk by 2/3. This dry, carbon-rich matter can be mixed with fresh, green material to create compost throughout the season. In this way we can return some of the organic matter and nutrients back into the garden soil, mimicking the natural process of decay.

REI volunteers lending a helping hand.Stephanie Wilkins

REI volunteers lending a helping hand.Stephanie Wilkins

During cutback, staff and volunteers experience the highs and lows of spring temperatures. They twist through the thorny branches of the Chelsea Thicket, spend hours trimming Heuchera villosa in the Washington Grasslands, and sweep the railroad ties throughout the park. Their meticulous work transforms the High Line’s landscape and sets the stage for the season ahead.


High Line Members provide crucial funding for the operation of the park, allowing us to hire gardeners to keep the park’s plantings and trees in peak condition, and maintenance crews to ensure the High Line is safe for its visitors.

Become a High Line Member

REI is a Supporting Sponsor of the High Line Volunteer Program.

Friends of the High Line raises 98% of the High Line’s annual budget.
Owned by the City of New York, the High Line is a public park maintained, operated, and programmed by Friends of the High Line, in partnership with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.