Before it was restored, the High Line was an untouched, abandoned landscape overgrown with wildflowers. Today it is much more than that; it’s a central plaza, a cultural center, a walkway, and a green retreat in a bustling city that is free for all to enjoy. But above all else, it is a beautiful, dynamic garden with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf, one of the world’s most extraordinary garden designers. Gardens of the High Line, by Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, offers an in-depth view into the planting designs, plant palette, and maintenance of this landmark achievement. It reveals a four-season garden that is filled with native and exotic plants, drought-tolerant perennials, and grasses that thrive and spread. It also offers inspiration and advice to home gardeners and garden designers looking to recreate its iconic, naturalistic style. Featuring stunning photographs by Rick Darke and an introduction by Robert Hammond, the founder of the Friends of the High Line, this large-trim, photo-driven book is a must-have for anyone who appreciates the nature of design.
“A wholly enchanting celebration of the transformation of one sliver of urban industrial landscape.” —
Booklist starred review
“Darke’s photos, taken from the park’s start to its end and at all times of day in all seasons, tell the story best. . . . Oudolf’s aesthetics and mastery of plants will engage gardeners, landscape designers, and city dwellers everywhere and inspire a new regard for the regeneration of abandoned spaces.” —
Library Journal starred review
“If you can''t get to the High Line, the image-rich publication is the next best thing. In some ways, it''s better, because its pictures bring home the seasonality of the plants. . . . pore through the book.” —
The Washington Post
Gardens of the High Line is exquisite, and a treat for regular High Line visitors and those who can only admire the space from afar. . . . a plant lover’s dream.” —
NYBG’s Plant Talk
“Provides a richly illustrated and informative tour through the total expanse of the High Line. . . . Whether you are a repeat visitor to this unique park or preparing for your initial tour, this book is an engaging and helpful guide. Studying its photographs made me eager to plan yet another visit. I’m willing to bet it will have the same effect on you.” —
“The copious photographs are the book''s glory.” —
Choice starred review
“The text is at its best when sharing practical design and horticultural insights.” —
“Let’s you see and learn from Manhattan’s High Line Park.” —
“A love letter to this remarkable garden.” —
Smith Mountain Laker
“A photo-driven account of Piet Oudolf’s planting designs for New York’s celebrated elevated linear garden. . . . this soft-backed, coffee-table book documents the sequence of its 13 distinct gardens. The photography owes much to Rick Darke’s knowledgeable plantsman’s eye. There’s no trickery with misty light or abstract close ups of flowers. Instead, the intricate planting palettes and their patterns are clearly legible.” —
Gardens Illustrated UK
“This lush, oversize paperback brings to life one of America’s most sought-after destinations.” —
“One of the things the book captures so beautifully is what [the High Line] looks like through the seasons, and the different ways people use it throughout the seasons, and respond to it.” —
“Their book provides what has been missing from this crowd-generating park, a species-by-species detailing of the plants.” —
“One of the most beautiful gardening books to cross my desk in recent years.” —
Three Dogs in a Garden
“A fine, insightful work. At first glance it has the air of a coffee table book, but this is a considered offering that will speak to anyone who has walked the garden.” —
The English Garden
We are both pleased to be collaborating with our friend and colleague graphic designer Lorraine Ferguson and Friends of the High Line to produce a book exclusively devoted to the High Line''s gardens.
Piet Oudolf is among the world''s most innovative garden designers and a leading exponent of naturalistic planting, a style that takes inspiration from nature but employs artistic skill in creating planting schemes. Oudolf''s extensive work over 30 years of practice includes public and private gardens all over the world. He is best known for his work on the High Line and Battery Park in New York, the Lurie Garden in Chicago''s Millennium Park, and Potters Fields in London.
Rick Darke''s work is grounded in an observational ethic and is devoted to the design and stewardship of living landscapes. Internationally recognized for his work and books on the use of grasses in managed landscapes, Darke has also been studying North America''s indigenous and introduced flora for many decades. His projects include parks, public gardens, transportation corridors and post-industrial brown fields. He has been photographing and studying the High Line since 2002.
When I first stepped up on the High Line in 1999, I truly fell in love. What I fell in love with was the tension. It was there in the juxtaposition between the hard and the soft, the wild grasses and billboards, the industrial relics and natural landscape, the views of both wildflowers and the Empire State Building. It was ugly and beautiful at the same time. And it’s that tension that gives the High Line its power.
Joshua David and I founded Friends of the High Line to try to share that magic. At first we just wanted to keep the space exactly as it was. We would leave all of the plants in place and simply put a path down the railway. It would have been a completely wild garden. That turned out not to be feasible. We had to remediate the structure, removing lead paint and putting in new drainage. This meant we had to take up everything—the rails as well as all of the plants.
So we had to find a new way. We were not architects or planners. We thought New Yorkers should have a say in what happens on the High Line, so we asked the public for their ideas at a series of community input sessions. At one of these sessions, I received a card that said, “The High Line should be preserved, untouched, as a wilderness area. No doubt you will ruin it. So it goes.”
I kept that card posted above my desk. Because that has always been my biggest fear. That we couldn’t capture that naturalistic beauty in its wild state. That we would ruin it.
What New Yorkers fell in love with was a series of photographs by Joel Sternfeld taken on the High Line between 1999 and 2000. These images gave many New Yorkers their first glimpses of that hidden wilderness and helped to catapult the movement to open it as a public space. Just one glimpse of Joel’s photography conveys the tension that we wanted in the reconstruction. With that image in mind, we hosted a design competition, looking for visionaries with more experience and talent than us who could conceive and carry out what the space called for—something as unexpected as the original. And we finally saw it again in the design that James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf created. Drawing on the dynamic community of plants that had crowded the High Line for decades, the team designed a totally new experience that captured the soul of the space.
Other designs we received were either very architectural or tried to exactly recreate the original wild landscape. Neither of those concepts were right. A strictly architectural approach would certainly have sacrificed the magic of the wilderness. The opposite idea, of putting all of the wild plants back “exactly” as they had been, though logical at first glance, was too logical. We felt that approach would anesthetize the final effect. It would be like a wax museum of the old elevated tracks.
At the time, I was reading Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s
The Leopard and was struck by the quote, “Everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” And that’s what this design team did. They didn’t try to put something new on the High Line and didn’t try to slavishly recreate what was up there before. They created an all-new magic that captured what Josh and I and so many others had fallen in love with.
The High Line of today is not the abandoned field of wildflowers we saw in 1999. It has a new tension. You can see it, in part, in the fact that it is a hybrid space, built on contra- dictions: it’s an art museum on an industrial structure. It’s a community space running a mile and a half through several neighborhoods. It’s a botanical garden suspended over city streets. Unlike Central Park, it’s an immersion in the city, not an escape from it.
But what I’m most often struck by is how clearly that original tension is captured within Piet Oudolf’s planting designs. Breaking design tradition, Piet envisioned a multi- season garden of perennials, where the skeletons of plants have as much a part in the landscape as new growth. Throughout the year, tall grasses and reaching flowers grow and fall back like tides. The winter garden is as powerful as the summer, with the texture provided by dry stalks and seedheads. The brown plants against new growth echo the larger contradictions of the High Line: the wilderness in the city, the art museum on a train track. Like the park itself, the gardens hover between beauty and decay.
In many ways, today’s High Line plantings are more dynamic than the plants they replaced. On the old tracks, the plants changed gradually through the seasons. In contrast, the High Line gardens change every week.
They are filled with native and introduced, drought-tolerant perennials that behave as wildly as their forebearers did. These plants thrive and spread, trying to take over more than their originally allotted space.
This constant change, the tension between beauty and decay, is akin to the energy that drives New York. Like our city, the gardens reveal a dichotomy that becomes a force of inspiration. And people react to it in unexpected ways. Like using it for dating apps. One of our staff members collected profile photos taken on the High Line for the popular hook-up app for gay men, Grindr. Why do Grindr users choose this backdrop? Like Joel Sternfeld, they see haunting romance and excitement in the contrasts. It’s perfect for a clandestine encounter. It’s beautiful but still urban not suburban. For maybe slightly different reasons, it’s also very popular for engagement photos.
It takes a special kind of gardener, with an artist’s eye, to maintain the tension of the High Line. Other designers have a rigid view of how their visions should be tended. But Piet’s openness to change and the freedom he gives to the plants elevate gardening on the High Line to an art form.
It requires an incredibly dedicated level of stewardship as well. Just like a minimalist building is harder to design and keep-up than it looks, the gardens require much more care than their wild, natural-looking abundance suggests. For this reason especially, Friends of the High Line is deeply grateful to our members and donors, as their support makes tending to this complex wildness possible.
When people talk about the High Line they talk about the plants, but they also talk about the crowds. One might think I’d look back fondly on the time when I could walk up on the High Line alone. But it’s better with people. Josh and I talked about this effect when it opened: it was the people within this landscape that kept it alive, that kept it from being a sterile botanical garden. The people are as important as the perennials. We create a new kind of tension.
Before it was restored, the High Line was a spontaneous wonder. Today, it’s something more. The untouched landscape we saw, covered with wildflowers, was surreal. The High Line today is incredible—it’s a botanic garden, a central plaza, an art museum, a cultural center and an evolution of the wonder that was hidden in the middle of Chelsea for decades. It’s always free. It is a living, changing space where anyone can experience that irresistible tension. And that, even more than wildflowers in the city, is something I never thought could be possible.