Saturday, October 23, 2010

Getting high with the king of grass

I spent last week in New York City. I'd promised my daughter ages ago that I'd take her there for her 16th birthday. Unfortunately, she was doing exams at the time of her actual birthday, so I suggested we go during October half-term (when, incidentally, it was also my birthday). We spent most of the time shopping, and eating, and shopping, and going to the theatre, and, erm, doing yet more shopping. It was fabulous.
I knew that the merest hint of garden visiting would not be popular with my daughter. However, I asked Alice at Bay Area Tendrils if there was anything she'd particularly recommend (she travels a lot) and she suggested the Highline, in the Meatpacking District. Of course! How could I have forgotten about the Highline?
Better still, said Alice, there were some very groovy designer shops in the neighbourhood, with which to lure my daughter. Perfect.
For those who don't know, the Highline is a disused railroad on the West Side of Manhattan. It was built in the 1930s to carry freight, but no trains have run on it since 1980. Property developers began eyeing it up in the 1980s but thanks to a vociferous local campaign it was saved and in 2006, work began on the task of turning it into an elevated public park. (You can read the whole story on the website.)
It begins at Gansevoort Street and extends as far as 34th Street, but only the section between Gansevoort and 20th has been completed. The second section is under construction, but the first opened to the public in June last year and in my opinion, it is one of the most delightful and imaginative public landscaping schemes I have ever seen.
The planting design is by Piet Oudolf, the Dutch landscaper whose speciality is so-called prairie planting. The overall effect is of a wild space, dominated by grasses and trees such as sumac and airy birches. At first glance, it looks just like the sort of landscape you would find on any old disused railroad, but the addition of rudbeckias, asters and coneflowers, and the contrasting heights and textures of the plants tell you that here is a master at work.

One of the plants I particularly liked was the thread-leaf bluestar, Amsonia hubrichtii. You can see its golden spires beside the lounger on the left.

Although the Highline is a continuous walkway, each section has its own distinct personality. We joined it at the Gansevoort Stair, and walked north through the Gansevoort Woodlands, marvelling at the way the original railroad tracks have been incorporated into the design.
The paths are not straight - and neither are the tracks - but follow a sort of slalom, intensifying the impression of a woodland or country park walk and forming a very pleasing contrast to the Manhattan street grid below.
Just under halfway along is a sundeck, where huge loungers have been constructed. Couples can cosy up on a sunbed for two, while more solitary types can read in peace on a solo version.

As well as the sumacs (Rhus typhina and Rhus glabra) which are showing off at this time of year in their autumn reds, trees include birches, serviceberries (amelanchier to British readers) and three-flower maples (Acer triflorum). Here, trees frame a view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The low-growing grass is Nassella tenuissima, or Stipa tenuissima as we know it in the UK.

In autumn, the grasses are the stars of this off-Broadway show. There are so many of them - Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'; Sporobolus heterolepis; Bouteloua curtipendula; Calamagrostis brachytricha. Nestled among them to provide textural variety are Heuchera villosa 'Autumn Bride' and Sedum telephium 'Red Cauli' - a Piet Oudolf favourite.

So what did my daughter think of Mr Oudolf's masterpiece? Was she blown away?
"It's grass, Mum," she said. "Get over it."


Edith Hope said...

Dear Victoria, What a marvellous time you both appear to have had. A perfect treat for both of you.

I have heard of and seen pictires of the Highline and think that this is a splendid and imaginative use of an otherwise derelict site. It certainly has breathed new life into the area and is very people- friendly. A great resource for those who live or work nearby.

It is, in my mind, much more than grass and I should love to see it. Perhaps then I should never get over it!!

Gardeningbren said...

I recently saw an article in a magazine about the Highline and thought how wonderful it would be to visit. What a glorious experience shared with your daughter..that's what memories are made of.

VP said...

Oh you've had a fantastic time!

I'm soooooo jealous - The High Line and The Lurie in Chicago are on my must-see list


patientgardener said...

what a fab girly trip, I bet you had a laugh. I have only recently come across the highline garden and would love to visit it one day

Victoria said...

Edith: We had the most amazing time. We did all the NY touristy things - carriage ride in Central Park, boat trip round Manhattan island, shopping at Saks etc etc. But the Highline was a Highlight!

Gardeningbren: Yes... I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when I told her the Highline ran from below W 12th Street to W 34th. It said: "TWENTY-TWO BLOCKS!?!" Or the look of relief when I said only the first section was open. She's at the stage where shoes are for wearing rather than walking. Bless.

VP: It was great - but I saw some great public planting in Bryant Park which I didn't manage to get a picture of. Colocasia with that bright green ipomoea that's used for its foliage. ('Sweet Caroline'?) And some gorgeous bedding outside an office near the hotel. I've got a pic of that - I'll send it to you.

Patientgardener: Remind me to tell you all about the Sex and the City tour...

Ellen Zachos said...

So glad you saw the High Line. It's probably my favorite place in Manhattan. But next time you're in NYC please let me know, or at least announce it in advance on your blog, so I can invite you for a drink and a hello.

Victoria said...

Ellen: I'm so sorry! I was going to put something on my blog, but in the pre-holiday panic didn't get round to it. It would have been great to meet you. The next time I'm in NYC, I will get in touch, I promise.

petoskystone said...

first off, your daughter is a real stunner! & it isn't what is planted but how it's planted & where that make highline so special. thank you for the tour! it is a place i would like to see, but, given certain environmental sensitivities, i probably won't be able to (even though i live just a few hours away). glad you enjoyed your trip, & a very happy belated birthday wish to daughter. :)

Dawn/LittleGreenFingers said...

Love the sun beds, love the planting, love the pathways, but most of all, I bloody love your daughter's response!

Victoria said...

Petoskystone: Aw, thanks! You mentioned environmental sensitivity - my daughter doesn't normally suffer from any pollen-related allergies, but she started sniffling and sneezing while we were up there.

petoskystone said...

can so relate to the sniffles: visiting nebraska from connecticut gave me sinus issues from being unfamiliar with new pollen. my usual sensitivities involve chemicals (car exhaust, rubber, perfumes, cleaners, anything aerosol-based, etc).

Elephant's Eye said...

Seen this one?

Victoria said...

Elephant's Eye: Wow, thank you! James has done the most incredible post - he must have been there only days before I was (and he had far better weather).

Benjamin Vogt said...

No! It's way cool, not just grass! So many folks posting on this garden, and I've never seen it. NYC is so far away--I bet you're closer. :) Lovely pics. My amsonia hubrichtii are just now turning their bright yellow. Everybody comments on them.

James A-S said...

I adored the Highline (we were lucky enough to have one of those seriously wonderful crisp, blue skied New York autumn days when we went.
The planting is seriously good and well maintaine.
I think it is extremely healthy for your daughter to have that attitude. If she was getting enthusiastic about gardens at her age I would worry that she was turning into Chris Beardshaw!
It is New york: there are shops and tall buildings and restaurants and museums and all that stuff: for a sixteen year old gardens, really dull in comparison

James Golden said...

I enjoyed your post as a contrast to my own experience of the park. I've only been at night (first visit) and in late afternoon. Both times I had the finest weather and a rather breathtaking experience. I remember the meatpacking district when there were tons upon tons of raw carcasses hanging streetside in the early hours (the area was a center of late night/early morning activities of an interesting sort even back then), so the High Line's existence seems rather otherworldly to me. I'm happy to know you find grasses exciting, even though your daughter would rather be shopping. Please announce your return visit to NYC publicly. I'd like to meet you.

Gail said...

Dear Victoria, I can hear her say it, too! So like my son would have been at that age~But, he is now a ecologist so something I said/did worked. I saw a photo essay about this garden and was completely charmed by the look and feel in the midst of NYC....I'll had this one to the list.

I am so glad you both had a good birthday celebration~


neil storey said...

Splendid stuff... the Highline is exactly as you describe, a wonderful calm oasis in amongst all the madness below and around. A pity tht they're taking so long to open the second section but, when that is completed, it'll make for one of the great walks anywhere on this earth.

Tim Austen said...

Great landscape architecture, thanks for sharing that Victoria. Would love to visit myself and recline on one of the loungers! It will be interesting to see how the vegetation develops over the long term.

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