An aerial view of the High Line park, photographed in 2011.
Photo by Iwan Baan

Thirty feet above New York City’s bustling streets, the High Line park, spanning about 30 blocks in the west side of Manhattan, is an oasis for starved-for-nature New Yorkers. If you happen to glance up as you’re walking underneath the historic freight rail line, you might think it’s just another abandoned, deserted track system. And it was, until the late ‘90s, when an organization worked to preserve and transform the elevated railroad into a space the public could enjoy.

Climb a flight of stairs, and you’re greeted by chirping birds, luscious perennials and grasses — such a rarity in the urban center of the U.S. that residents and tourists take off their shoes and lie in the designated lawn areas, strangers resting inches from each other.

This isn’t your traditional garden. Instead of tight, pristine rows of roses or bedding plants, the gardens of the High Line, operated and nearly completely funded by the Friends of the High Line, was inspired by the plants that busted through the tracks and made a home on the out-of-use railroad spur for more than two decades. Composed of about 50 percent native plants, the garden features ornamental grasses, wildflowers and hardy bushes that attract local birds, bees and butterflies. Some spaces within the park are named for the plants they highlight, including the Gansevoort Woodland, which features dense plantings of grey birch, serviceberry and redbud trees, and Washington Grasslands, which, like the name implies, is full of tall grasses that change color with the seasons. There are more than 350 varieties of plants in the park, which are all listed by common and scientific name on the High Line website.

The High Line’s pest control team even prioritizes native species, says Andi Pettis, the Friends of the High Line’s director of horticulture. “We depend on native and introduced populations of beneficial insects to manage pest and disease issues rather than using chemicals.”

The garden also manages pests by maintaining good horticultural practices. “We make sure our plants are suitably situated. We cultivate healthy soil with well-balanced microbiology,” she says.

The High Line also works with growers that follow similar practices.

“I don’t pretend that the High Line was the first garden, or the first urban garden, or the first garden to focus on these kinds of things,” Pettis says, adding that the focus on more native plants was emerging as plans for the High Line got underway in the early 2000s. “As far as gardening techniques, I think the High Line was just a little ahead of the curve. A lot of home gardeners were already thinking along these lines. I think the High Line helped popularize it.”

A photo of the historic freight rail line from 1934, when the tracks opened.
Photo courtesy of Friends of the High Line

The High Line’s gardeners are frequently asked by park visitors about the plants to which they are tending, and the Friends of the High Line field many phone calls with inquiries about the plants displayed, she says.

“People’s perceptions of what a garden is has changed since the High Line opened,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be a rose garden or nice straight lines of bedding annuals. It doesn’t have to be flowers all the time, and it can look good in the fall. It can look good in the winter.”

The High Line is one of many gardens representing a shift in thinking among many gardeners: instead of focusing on what’s most brightly-colored while in bloom, these plants have their own beauty year-round. Instead of worrying about plants being eaten by pests, gardeners are beginning to see their plants as attracting - and sustaining - local wildlife.

“To me it is about connecting with the thing that is your land, and your country, without being awfully nationalistic,” says Michele Paladino, who owns nearby Gowanus Nursery and carries many of the plants showcased on the High Line. “One of the points of having a native garden is attracting local wildlife, but that means imperfect plants.”

Although she doesn’t directly advertise the fact the nursery carries High Line plants, Paladino says, a handful of times a year, customers will come in and request a specific plant they saw at the public park.

“I will mention it from time to time with customers,” she says. “Most designer colleagues drop the High Line name to give a plant ‘credentials’ when they want to sell it to a client.”

Gardens in the High Line were inspired by the plants that took over the abandoned freight rail line after it stopped service in 1980. This photograph was taken in 2000, before the High Line was transformed into a park.
Photo by Joel Sternfeld, 2000

Wherever they are planted, native gardens showcase what is special about locales, Pettis says.

“Using native plants not only creates a sense of place that fits the region you live in, it also helps to preserve biodiversity and provides the ‘right’ plants for the native pollinators and other animals that depend on them,” she says. “It’s relatively easy to create small but effective wildlife habitat corridors, which can help alleviate fragmentation by creating more connections between larger natural areas.”

She calls native gardening good stewardship.

“As wildlife habitat is destroyed and becomes more and more fragmented by building, development, and infrastructure, it’s important that anyone who has access to land, or even any open, outdoor space like a rooftop or balcony, be good stewards of that space,” she says. “Diverse, lush, naturalistic plantings of native perennials, or a mix of natives and exotic species, will support a much wider range of fauna than homogeneous landscapes. And, of course, these landscapes are really, really beautiful, all year long.”

Nikki is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Editor’s note: Please click here to read the hits and misses of the High Line from a professional landscape designer’s point of view.