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."