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Photo by Joel Sternfeld

Future-facing Gardens

By High Line | April 21, 2020

It’s the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Recognized in over 190 countries, this holiday implores us to plan for our planet’s future today and celebrate our resilient, interconnected, and delicate home. Since we can’t be in the gardens, we’re honoring this day at a distance with our director of horticulture Eric Rodriguez, who discusses resiliency in our gardens and how plants naturally orient toward the future.

ADAPT

Resilience, in a broad sense, is a plant’s ability to figuratively, and often literally, bend without being broken. It’s really a similar definition for people as well because ultimately we’re talking about living things with similar needs—to be adaptable to change and evolve with shifting conditions, and how to exist in a community of others that is much larger than you as an individual.

REST

Sometimes the best intervention to take as a horticulturist is to take no intervention at all and to observe it over time, to reassess, to strategize.

The main work that people see us doing isn’t so much for the immediate season, but for the following one. We plant species not to look good this year, but next year. We water plants to ensure they root in deeply, so they’ll come back stronger in the following season. We selectively let plants get stressed to produce seeds that are better suited to our environmental challenges, not this year, but in the next. Plants exist on a very different timeline from humans—their work is always future-based, but humans limit our perspective of it to the present, which is a narrow perception of time. Earth is over 4 billion years old, isn’t it? It’s a human conceit that plants can’t survive without human intervention, that they need us, but I’m not sure they would agree.

Letting the gardens rest allows native songbirds to congregate, monarch butterflies to flutter, bumble bees to pollinate and nest in the ground, the same as they would every year. When I was an urban farmer, my team understood the importance of letting a field go fallow— we purposefully allow it to rest to restore its fertility, to allow beneficial insects to repopulate, for other organisms to thrive in the landscape, to make it better for the later in the season or the following season.

Plants are now coming out of the winter dormancy. It’s a misconception that plants are “sleeping” during the winter. Actually, plants are converting sugars to starches in their roots, storing water, conserving energy and nutrients during a non-ideal time for them to grow, until better cultural conditions present themselves. Plants can also have a summer dormancy, like our spring ephemeral bulbs (think tulips, trout lily, daffodils) when conditions get too stressful for a plant to thrive and they disappear for a while. But they come back as expected at the same time the next season. There’s danger in plants breaking dormancy too soon. If spring warms up unseasonably early, and the plant starts to send out new growth, it can be killed by a sudden cold snap. For a plant, it’s best for the conditions to be right, to be safe, for it to return to the garden. Otherwise, an entire generation, and successive generations, could be lost forever.

SHIFT

Our gardens are exposed on all four sides, 30 feet in the air, adjacent to a major river, and this combination requires resilience planning. We have beds that are effectively tundras in winter, and a garden bed you could grow a banana tree in by Little West 12th Street because it sits directly about the heating system of an outdoor beer garden and the soil stays warm all winter. We have the right plants, in the right places, for all these situations.

Our gardens were designed to mimic natural ecosystems and habitats, of which plant death is a natural and essential component. In an ecosystem, and especially in our naturalistic gardens, there can be no life without death, no revitalization without some measure of decline, because these systems feed each other. Compost is a great example of something that teems with life, provides vitality to our plants, but is made from the decomposition of dead plants. We have tenacious plants, and plants that have been selected through years of scientific observation by some of the best, most talented horticulturists in the world, and plants that have self-selected to be here by surviving year after year. What’s a few months out of the gardens?

GROW

We’re working on a webinar series and talks called “At Home Horticulture” geared toward those who can’t be outside, or who want to limit their time outside but want to be horticultural. Some topics will include: how to build a tiny pollinator garden on your windowsill; a High Line Horticulture 101, discussing some of the specifics of our unique approaches and techniques to horticulture that we have honed over the years; starting seeds from your kitchen pantry; and starting food indoors. We’re also collaborating with other organizations, such as GreenThumb, which supports the work of community gardens in NYC, on some unique programs, such as How to Build and Manage Community Seed Libraries.

A seed is one of the easiest, most effective, and poetic ways to take the High Line home with you—it’s a dormant plant waiting for an environmental cue to signal the right time to grow and begin the cycle of life all over again.

I’ve started seeds at home to leave in front of my apartment building for others to take. It’s a mix of seeds from my pantry (fava beans, cilantro, peas, potatoes, fennel), and some of the most recognizable native bee and pollinator plants on the High Line, like compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).

It’s a tiny gesture in the grand scheme of things, but in the era of COVID-19, small gestures can mean so much. It’s a way to be a civic connector, share some of the beauty of the High Line with others, and help build a more resilient city. And maybe that’s how plants need people, after all: to partner, collaborate as inextricably intertwined life, to build a more resilient city, together. And in that way, the High Line is a park for all New Yorkers, people, and plants.

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.

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Special thanks to our Presenting Green Sponsor TD Bank for their generous support of the park’s horticulture and sustainability practices.

Horticulture on the High Line is supported by Greenacre Foundation.

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