The High Line – A Prairie Garden in the Sky

By: Cecilia PalmerMonarda and mountain mint

The High Line  in New York City is a very special place in many ways.   It is an elevated garden of the highest caliber.  The garden is 30’ in the air and surrounds abandoned rail lines that once brought goods and supplies in and out of the city.

These rail lines create the backbone of the High Line Park and were a vital part of New York City’s economy from the middle to latter part of the 19th century. These elevated rail lines provided a safe means of     transporting goods by bringing the trains above the street level.  When trucking became a more popular means of transporting goods the rail lines became less important.  Eventually they were no longer used and the space was abandoned.   Over time, grasses, shrubs and trees naturalized within the space and created a wild urban green space.picture 3

The potential of this wild growth and urban decay as a design element served as inspiration for an exciting new park. The High Line highlights the history of the space, pays homage to what it became and is now an enjoyable space for millions to visit.

high line rail road and benches A remarkable team of talented architects and designers was assembled to work together to create this very special effect. What success they had!   The pavement design and seating location and design complements and accentuates the strong lineal lines of the tracks.  The plantings have the same rugged, natural character the original wild vegetation had and strongly evokes the original feeling of the abandoned space.

For me, the plantings create the beauty and allure of this space.   They demonstrate the incredible skill and knowledge of the plant designer, Piet Oudolf. Piet’s work has long enthralled me and was the motivation dragging this country girl to the city!  The High Line is one of a few gardens in the United States designed by Piet.   It was an incredible experience to see one of his gardens in person.  Pictures help convey the scene, but, will never be the same as being able to see and be immersed in the garden.

The plantings change to reflect the surroundings as one travels along the nearly one and a half mile stretch of the park.   There are many different combinations of plantings with the depth, selection and combinations all so expertly done.  It seems around every slight twist in the path a fantastic new garden setting evolves.

picture 4The scene to the left  is a nice shaded woodland walk through birches and shrubs under planted with a myriad of small sedges and perennials. The effect now is cool and green, but, the scene will change through the seasons.  Some of the shrubs will flower in the spring, others, will have fantastic fall foliage colors.  Some of the perennials will flower in the spring while some will wait until late summer and fall to show off.  Here and throughout the garden, there will always be something of interest.




In this planting scene,the airy, fluffy plumes of the Smoke Bush are a perfect complement for the modern building they are planted beside.  I even like the way these specimens are a little more open and wild than is usual for these trees.  The perennials too fit nicely within the space.  The tall silvery mauve umbels of the native Joe Pye Weed echoes the rounded form of the Smoke Bush flower and the color matches nicely with the building glass.  Prairie and grassland native Coneflower along with wild petunia add a nice splash of color during the summer.


picture 1A little farther down the same planting evolves and starts its transition to the sunny, more open prairie meadow setting.  Coneflowers are in their glory here and weave nicely through and around the billowing mounds of Willowleaf Amsonia.  A month earlier, the Amsonia would have been the dominant feature showing off its ice blue flowers.






The same Willowleaf amsonia is featured  in a much different combination in another section along the High Line.  A soft, dreamy effect is created here by combining it with different plantings.  Light, airy picture 2grasses, such as the Prairie Dropseed, along with Statice and the interesting flowers of the Hula Dancer Echinacea are used together in this soft, dreamy plantings.


No matter which part of the High Line is visited, or even which time of the year, there will always be something of interest to see.  The plants are of special interest to me, but, they are certainly not the only reason to visit the High Line.   There are wonderful views of the city and Hudson River from this vantage point.   Not to worry if you get hungry of thirsty, some great food vendors have this covered and are in a shaded area with plenty of tables and seating nearby.  Children will enjoy the  area along the Hudson River where water flows across the walkway – great fun to run through barefoot !

Echinacea pallida 'Hula Dancer'