Hartley Magazine

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Gardening Above It All

Most visitors to New York City probably don’t make a priority of visiting gardens while in the Big Apple, but here’s one to include in your next city itinerary. Located in Chelsea, in the heart of the former meat-packing district, growing on a structure that once facilitated transport of that meat to processors by rail, The High Line is a unique spot in the city. Its unusual location—thirty feet above the sidewalk– provides a stunning vantage of the skyline, and also showcases some remarkably tough plants.

If you think your garden is dry and windy, walk up the stairs to the tracks. The location is a test for any plant—growing in 18” of elevated soil, with (at much of the time) extremes of wind, heat, cold, drought and sun. Not surprisingly, many of the best survivors are prairie natives, and the best time to visit is late summer and fall when they’re at their peak.

But New Yorkers make use of this special park all year round, and not all of them notice the plant names. One popular feature is the line of built-in loungers—consistently filled with sunbathers on summer weekends. And there is plenty of room to promenade, nearly ten blocks from 20th Street to Gansevoort. The High Line is also a special place to catch the summer sunset.

Originally constructed in the 1930’s to improve street-level safety, the elevated train tracks were not used by 1980. In 1999, threatened by demolition, they were saved by a community coalition, and a competition soliciting ideas for their re-use attracted proposals from 720 teams in 36 countries. The High Line opened to the public in June 2009, and the original train tracks resurface delightfully in stretches of the new garden.

The garden’s summer and fall stars include echinacea, sumac and ornamental grasses, punctuated by drifts of little bluestem. But many of its shrubs and small trees were chosen for winter interest too; Ilex verticillata, red-twig dogwood, and various Hamamaelis varieties make the winter landscape here equally compelling.

The effect of all this vegetation upon what was once a very urban environment is interesting. High Line gardeners have observed numerous butterflies and birds in the garden, and even a pair of Peregrine Falcon have nested nearby. Other effects on the neighborhood have included a proliferation of musical events that can be enjoyed from the heights of the garden—attracting large crowds– as well as a boost for the area’s restaurants as High Line visitors augment strolling with refreshments of all kinds. The lights stay on in this special garden until 10 pm.