The last train chugged along the High Line in 1980 carrying carloads of frozen turkeys. As the years passed and the railway sat unused, plants began to take root in the rocky ballast and pop up between the decomposing rail ties. These surprising pioneers’ seeds were dropped by birds or blown in by the wind, and some may have even tagged along with the last trains to travel the tracks. By the time Friends of the High Line’s co-founders Joshua David and Robert Hammond were advocating to save the railway in 1999, the path was thick with grasses, flowers, shrubs, and trees. Photographer Joel Sternfeld captured beautiful shots of that now-iconic “wild” landscape, which brought much-needed appreciation of and support for the derelict railway.
In 2004, in a major milestone, the first 20 blocks of the High Line were secured to be transformed into public open space, and the design team of landscape architects James Corner Field Operations (project lead), architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf began their work. The ballast needed to be removed and the lead paint remediated, so leaving the plants as they were wasn’t an option. Instead, the team took inspiration from the self-seeded landscape to design new gardens, using Piet Oudolf’s signature naturalistic planting style. Some plants like staghorn sumac and little bluestem—also New York City natives—were found along the self-seeded High Line and were reintroduced as part of our gardens today.
Naturalistic planting relies primarily on perennials and grasses to achieve visual interest across all four seasons. Contrasted with more traditional ornamental gardens, naturalistic gardens look more “organic” and “natural,” and less rigid. They also rely less on singular moments of peak blooms, but rather transition through the seasons with many smaller moments in which different species shine. Naturalistic gardens don’t necessarily use all native plants, though native plants are becoming much more common, even in ornamental gardens.