Revelations from the Revisited High Line

I can’t get enough of the High Line.  I’ve visited three times in the last two years, but now that I’m stuck for a while on the other side of the planet, I can’t understand why I didn’t go back several times on each visit to New York.  Michael Hatton – a Shepparton-based designer – told me that he went every morning and every night for the three weeks he was in town.  Why didn’t I do that?

There’s a million things to love about it, but a new aspect that revealed itself on this last visit is the discretion that is shown, and is clearly able to be shown (for too often in public spaces the latter stands in the way of the former), with regard to when perennials are cut back in spring.

A bit of background:

My next-door neighbour visited the High Line in late winter.  It was freezing, and there was nothing but the skeletons of last year’s growth.  He absolutely loved it.

My brother and sister-in-law visited about a month before me, in mid April, at the end of the major cut-back.  They appreciated it, and could see its merits, but really noted the lack of greenery.  Hardly a plant to be seen.

One of the group that came with me in the first week of May had visited about two weeks earlier.  As I raved about it to the group in the lead up to the visit, I could see that she was being rather more cautious in her enthusiasm.  She warned me that, given the late season, I might be just an eency bit disappointed.

Some grasses are slower in recovery than others. This was May 9 2014, showing how bald they all would have been a month earlier.
Grasses, bouncing back from the cut back.  There’s two species here, and some are clearly slower into regrowth than others.
The same spot on exactly the same day a year earlier, There was several weeks difference in the season due to the harshness of the 2014 winter
The same spot a few weeks later.  On another note, how good is this? though nothing but two grasses of contrasting texture, carefully distributed.
The same spot, five months later
The same spot, five months later

No such thing.  It was incredible.  This member of the group was blown away by how it had been transformed by a fortnight of growth.

There was a little evidence, here and there, of the recent cut back, but it was very, very green, and there were lovely patches of bulbs everywhere.  Never a great show, as such, just diffuse smatterings as you might find in the wild.

Now back to the main point:  About half way along, we stumbled across this stand of dead stems – the tall, grey skeletons of one of the Joe-Pye weeds (Eupatorium sp).

That’s them – to the far left

Our eyes had become so saturated in fresh green that the dead-grey was striking.  There was probably a dozen or so skeletons retained along about twenty metres of the garden.  As you’d expect on The High Line, and any planting by Piet Oudolf, they bounced around on both sides of the path, and echoed off into the near distance.


I loved the fact that someone, in the middle of the cut-back, had decided to retain these tall stems just a bit longer.  They were probably cut down within a week or two of us being there, but I loved that their height lifted above the carpet of green growth, and curiously drew attention to or focus upon the lady tulips (Tulipa clusiana) that were reasonably repetitively planted at their feet.

It would have made good, practical sense to have cut them down with all the rest of the dead stuff, but good practical sense was over-ridden by inspired aesthetics.  How often do you see that in public places?

A few more time comparisons, for no good reason…

May 2014
Same spot, October
Same spot, October


  1. I love the High Line. I have only been there once but cannot see enough images or read enough about it. Thank you for the photos. And just to prove I have a lot to learn what are the bushes with the sprouting red blobs of foliage in the second last photo?

    1. I’m the same – can’t get enough of it. The red sprouting blobs are smoke bushes (Cotinus). The October image was taken in 2012, and obviously followed a very hard prune in the winter before that. The May image was taken this year, following either a very gentle prune, amounting to nothing but dead-heading, or no pruning at all. I was disappointed to see this latter treatment, as I just loved those great, long, unbranched canes of the 2012 pic, and that’s only possible with a very hard winter prune. Plants so treated don’t flower, but I think it’s a price worth paying, in certain situations

  2. Love seeing the things grow before my eyes in your photos Michael. So pleased you have been there so many times!

    1. Wish I’d memorised all of the positions of my major pics, so I could repeat them all from the same stand-point. If there is a next time, I’m going to take my pics with me, and replicate them.

  3. I’m seeing echoes of sticks in pots……but also agreeing with you how good this looks. Does it work so well because the form is similar to the grasses and upright bulb foliage nearby?

    1. Now that you mention it, I can see the likeness myself….. But as for your musing, I don’t think that its working is quite as subtle as that. At least part of it is simply the crude fact of anything being capable of validation by repetition. And it’s that lovely thing of dense cover at ground level dispersing into something altogether more diaphanous overhead.

  4. I’m fortunate to live in NYC. I visit the High Line two or three times a year, but that’s enough. It’s an extraordinary garden maintained to an amazingly high level. Seeing the plantings mature over the few years of its existence has been a revelatory experience. Sunset is one of the best times to see it, especially in mid-summer as the night comes on and the strange fragrance of massed Sporobolis heterolepis perfumes the air. Some visits are almost a mystical meditation. Others, with overwhelming crowds, are far more pedestrian.

    1. So glad to hear that it has the power (at times) to charm even a discerning local

  5. I’ve just been travelling through the Zagori region of Greece where I’ve been enjoying the sight of cotinus growing wild along the mountain roads showing off a wonderful range of coloured ‘smoke’, and meadows with beautifully spaced poeticus flowering amid a range of grasses, interesting challenge to successfully translate these groupings into the urban environment

    1. I’d so love to see cotinus in the wild…and Narcissus poeticus. And as you say, it’s the spacing of such plants in the wild that makes them so compelling. I reckon Piet Oudolf replicates this beautifully in parts of The High Line with amazing impact from a relatively small number of bulbs, both by repetition of the clumps at apparent random within any particular sight-line, and variable density within the clumps, always diffusing around the edges into the surrounding planting.

  6. I LOVE the highline. Every time I am in NY I visit it – I even choose my hotel so I can overlook it! I bought Oudolf’s latest book with the hope of replicating the borders in my own garden, but it is fair to say it is not for the home gardener, and here in Australia I wouldn’t be able to source 1/10th of the plants he uses. We need some more good perennial nurseries and designers!

    1. And we need a higher proportion of the continent that is appropriate to this garden style. Having said that, the ‘style’ is probably secondary to its extreme seasonality in what makes it so engaging. While the climate may assist in this, there are seasonal choices available for most climates, which we too often overlook in the interest of easy care..

  7. O HighLine, HighLine, wherefore art thou Highline…..

    Yes its true, I did have a torrid and fleeting floral fling with this mighty landscape creation they call the HighLine

    I do have some select plant and people snaps of the mighty HighLiner and it’s gatherers worthy of a look on

    Another garden worthy-visit is the Laurie garden in Chicago and a must see is the Chaumont-sur-Loire – Garden Festival in the Loire Valley France…..memorable garden exhibition of 30 quirky display gardens without the crushing crowd surfing of Chelsea!

    This years theme is -Garden of Sin

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