the excessive line’s naturalistic gardening classes, with richard hayden


IT’S ONE of the best-known naturalistic gardens wherever, and but it’s perched in essentially the most unnatural spot conceivable, 30 ft excessive above New York Metropolis visitors on an deserted elevated railway line. The Excessive Line on Manhattan’s West Aspect is celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of the opening of its first part, years which were full of professional classes on gardening on this looser, nature-inspired fashion.

As we speak’s visitor is Richard Hayden, the Excessive Line’s senior director of horticulture. His workforce of 10 horticulturists manages the naturalistic gardens, initially designed by Piet Oudolf of the Netherlands, spanning parts of the 1.5-mile beloved park that welcomes about 7 million guests a yr. (Above, overhead picture by Timothy Schenck.)

Learn alongside as you hearken to the July 8, 2024 version of my public-radio present and podcast utilizing the participant beneath. You’ll be able to subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts right here).

classes in naturalistic gardening, with richard hayden



Margaret Roach: So pleased anniversary, birthday—no matter we wish to name it, to you and the workforce.

Richard Hayden: Thanks.

Margaret: It was enjoyable assembly a few of you, no less than just about, to do a latest “New York Occasions” backyard column collectively, which obtained an important response, which made me pleased. So briefly, I feel for people who find themselves listening from in all places who might not have visited, inform us the lay of the non-land over there [laughter]. I imply, it’s a nutty setup when you concentrate on it.

Richard: When you concentrate on it altogether, the truth that it occurred in any respect is usually a miracle. So after all, it was an unused, elevated railway on the West Aspect of Manhattan. And over the course of the 20 years that the trains weren’t working, seeds had drifted in and birds had most likely dropped a number of issues off and soil had gotten created, and so this panorama had occurred.

And when the time got here to contemplate what to do with it within the late ’90s, the concept it might turn into a backyard as a result of folks had been up right here it in its wild state, and there have been some superb images taken by Joel Sternfeld of its wild state that it turned this concept that it might be a backyard. And Piet Oudolf was employed and Area Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro did some nice designs.

And right here we’re 15 years later, and it’s, I feel probably the most essential public gardens of the twenty first century, as a result of it modified the best way we take into consideration how we backyard. It’s the 4 season backyard. As Piet says, “a plant isn’t value rising except it seems to be good useless.” [Laughter.] And it’s true. It’s so stunning right here within the fall and within the winter, nevertheless it’s three-dimensional backyard chess that he performs as a result of every zone is barely completely different.

And it provides you this emotionally evocative journey as you go from woodlands to grasslands and completely different combos and complexities. And naturally, all that complexity results in biodiversity. Now we have many bees and birds and different animals that go to. So it’s only a actually great respite from town.

Margaret: And the factor that once we did the Occasions story that I simply discovered once you first mentioned it to me and I simply can’t recover from the concept of it, you’ve got your soil depth up there and these beds that had been constructed for this on this elevated railway, the soil isn’t what, greater than 18 inches deep? I imply, it’s like raised beds [above, during pruning season; photo by Richard Hayden] on a raised railroad platform.

Richard: You’re proper. It’s primarily 18 inches. There’s a pair spots the place we’ve obtained some raised planters that we mound up and perhaps get to 30 inches or so. And I’ve to let you know, after I first began, which was about somewhat over two and a half years in the past, and I used to be seeing these 30-foot-tall birch bushes and oak bushes and all these massive bushes rising in 18 inches of soil, it actually stored me up at evening. Each time the wind would blow…

Margaret: I might have a panic assault on the considered it. Precisely.

Richard: After which I did some mountaineering in Northwest Connecticut on the Appalachian Path, and there had been a windstorm, and these mature bushes had blown over. And lo and behold, 18 inches of roots due to all the glacial rock. The forest was actually rising in 18 inches of soil. And I assumed, you recognize what? Mom Nature’s figured this out. I don’t have to fret a lot.

Margaret: O.Okay., so you bought began sleeping, good [laughter].

Richard: Sure, precisely.

Margaret: However it’s. It’s actually fairly a feat and it’s nice that it was impressed by that self-sown insanity that had occurred on this deserted house.

Richard: Precisely, precisely, clearly with an inventive eye. And the issue with 18 inches is that it doesn’t… As a result of there might be heat air on prime and heat air beneath, and chilly air on prime and chilly air beneath, so we don’t have quite a lot of cushion.

Margaret: No.

Richard: So throughout warmth waves, as an illustration, we’ve got to be very cautious to maintain issues with the precise moisture ranges. After which within the winter generally, we do lose a number of issues if we’ve got a moist chilly snap or one thing. So it does make challenges for that means.

Margaret: So Piet designed it in a naturalistic fashion, and he’s sort of the chief of that motion. However it doesn’t imply that it’s all native. And it additionally doesn’t imply, naturalistic doesn’t imply, like hands-off, let it do its factor; no matter occurs, occurs. It’s a design. So let’s discuss somewhat bit about that.

Richard: Proper. So it’s about 50 p.c native. We did an exquisite hort celebration final yr the place we honored New York Metropolis native vegetation, and we discovered we had 160 species that had been native or recognized to be native to New York Metropolis out of the five hundred or so species that we’ve got. And so they weren’t chosen as a result of they had been native, they had been chosen as a result of they’re simply actually good, resilient vegetation. So I used to be pleased to do this discovery.

And Piet may be very a lot about gardens are for folks, and so natives are nice, however generally there are bloom intervals the place the natives actually aren’t filling the area of interest or perhaps they don’t have sufficient winter construction. He’s pleased to mix issues so long as they’re well-behaved, and we’ve got a number of that haven’t been so well-behaved. So it’s a studying curve.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Don’t all of us, Richard? Don’t all of us have a number of of these?

Richard: Nicely, to be a profitable plant on the Excessive Line, you must have a specific amount of resilience, a specific amount of aggression. And so quite a lot of what we do is handle these. Now we have a grass, Korean feather grass that was planted in a single space, and I observed in some images, in about three years after it was planted, it had been 20 p.c of the combo. And three years later, it was 80 p.c of the combo as a result of it’s simply such a virulent reseeder. That’s one of many issues we’ve got to do, is we’ve got to handle these issues that wish to be too profitable, in order that they don’t swallow their neighbors. Maintain the steadiness.

Margaret: Nicely, and so a number of the ways that he instructed within the preliminary design and that you simply and your workforce uphold and so forth to be naturalistic… I imply, as an illustration, there was one that basically you guys talked to me about through the Occasions story interview, which, after all, it didn’t actually happen to me. I wouldn’t have observed it consciously, however there it’s and it’s so apparent now that you’ve got mentioned it aloud to me.

When you’ve got the backyard on either side of a path, that these drifts of vegetation which can be on the one facet additionally ought to generally be on the opposite facet in order that it seems to be as if the trail was added via a pure space versus… Yeah, this continuity versus these are two separate gardens and right here is my path, extra artifical. And simply most of these hints like that. Any others like that that you concentrate on? Nicely, let’s discuss concerning the drifts perhaps as a result of that’s an essential facet of his kinds of designs and naturalistic fashion. [Above, Timothy Schenck photo.]

Richard: Nicely, it’s fascinating as a result of it could be really easy to get these tremendous complicated gardens with plenty of vegetation showing all subsequent to one another. However once you’re utilizing nature as a mannequin, nature tends to not… I imply, it may be a really thick planting, however typically it’s a repetition of a collection of species. In order that’s what Piet has replicated. He’ll select what he calls his main accent vegetation. After which the Excessive Line backyard is definitely what he would think about a matrix backyard. So it’s a planting of a groundcover layer, typically flowering.

So you’ll be able to have issues like autumn moor grass or catmint and different issues that may simply provide you with a foundation a floor cowl, and that’s the type of factor that you simply’ll see typically drifting on either side of the trail. After which into which can be the bigger perennials that happen in threes and fives and sevens. At all times odd numbers for some motive, nevertheless it does all the time seems to be higher. However he retains it easy. By maintaining the drifts massive, it turns into somewhat bit extra legible.

After which most of the new gardens that he does are literally block planting the place it’s simply collection of blocks, clearly by no means a geometrical form, extra of a tear form or some type of a extra pure form. However he does that fairly often along with his newer gardens, as a result of it’s simpler to handle. what’s presupposed to be the place, what’s gotten out of steadiness.

Margaret: I see.

Richard: However right here on the Excessive Line, we’re somewhat bit extra complicated, so we’re continuously managing the dynamics of anyone species. Some issues they don’t succeed. We had a few vegetation. I’m very a lot into Helenium, and I’m forgetting widespread names.

Margaret: Sneezeweed [laughter].

Richard: Sneezeweed, proper, sure, they usually simply by no means took. And naturally, Piet doesn’t use quite a lot of pink, and it’s sort of burgundy pink, the one which he was suggesting right here. I feel it was ‘Moerheim Magnificence.’ We simply needed to search for different issues as a result of it simply was by no means pleased.

Margaret: In his unique planting designs for the varied backyard areas on the Excessive Line, he sort of narrows down… I imply, these are smaller areas than nature, however he narrows down the variety of key vegetation that we’ll be in, and he makes use of massive numbers of every one in these drifts and these naturalistically formed drifts. Since you don’t need it to simply be a zillion polka dots in all places of chaos. I imply, that’s not going to learn, is it? [Above, Liz Ligon photo.]

Richard: No. And it’s simply fascinating we’re having this dialog, and I used to be simply this morning laying out a Piet Oudolf design. Now we have a brand new plaza that’s entering into at road stage at 18th Avenue that’ll be the latest part of the Excessive Line to open in September. And it’s the primary time I’ve laid out a Piet design. And we had been wanting on the plans, and it truly is, on this specific plan, massive drifts of various sorts of grasses.

After which there’s geraniums coming in right here and geums over right here and agastaches over right here. You get a greater sense of actually what he’s doing. That is the primary time I’ve ever carried out it, nevertheless it’s actually thrilling to put the backyard out and also you get a way of actually how his thoughts sort of works. You see the construction behind what he’s making an attempt to do.

Margaret: I assume it was final yr perhaps he had a e book come out that’s about his profession, his tasks, and there have been quite a lot of his designs in it as a part of the artwork within the e book, not simply images. And you’ll see that there, too. You’ll be able to see these shapes and the vegetation which can be specified to go in every one and so forth.

The opposite factor I discover fascinating concerning the drifts is it pleases our eye, and it really works on this fashion to do it that means. However in nature, in the event you had simply onesies of one million various things, the animals, particularly the bugs who’re depending on these vegetation, couldn’t discover them and couldn’t make the most of them in the identical means. So the drifts additionally serve a goal, are you aware what I imply, in nature, within the pure world.

Richard: Completely.

Margaret: These plant communities will not be simply one million completely different sorts of vegetation all crunched collectively. There are a number of key vegetation in bigger numbers.

Richard: And in additional of the grassland plantings, as an illustration, he’s counting on sure vegetation to have the construction to carry different vegetation up, which is what, after all, occurs of their pure environments as properly.

Margaret: Yeah, the meadows and prairies are actually grasslands.

So I’m instructed by lots of people who’ve tried to or who’ve gone extra naturalistic in some space of their gardens, perhaps made a small meadow or no matter, I hear, “Nicely, nevertheless it retains altering. It doesn’t seem like the unique plan. It’s not how I imagined it.” [Laughter.] “It doesn’t seem like the image within the e book,” after they purchased it from a catalog, they purchased the seed or the plugs or no matter.

That’s type of that, oops, good day succession, pure succession: the best way issues go in nature. And so let’s discuss somewhat bit about that, as a result of that is one thing that the Excessive Line 15 years on, or any naturalistic backyard even 5 years on doesn’t look precisely just like the plan, even when it was a Piet plan [laughter].

Richard: Right. And Piet all the time says a backyard’s by no means carried out. And it’s an evolution. And the backyard will let you know what it needs to turn into. And so once we are the stewards of those naturalistic landscapes, we’re interrupting the succession, the succession being the pure world is shifting from a grassland to a mature forest. And that’s usually the course of the evolution of planting. And so we get to step in and say we wish to maintain it as a grassland, and so we have to make these interventions.

We have to make substitutions for the vegetation that aren’t working. We have to edit out those, the thugs, if you’ll, that get too pleased. We get to be fully shocked by the serendipity of one thing seeding in, or the mixture that you simply actually weren’t sure of, nevertheless it’s sort of rearranged itself in the best way that a number of the issues have seeded. It’s being awake to how the backyard needs to mature, and hopefully having a considerably mild contact on ensuring that you simply get one thing that’s pleasing and also you’re making the precise combos achieve success.

Margaret: However it’s quite a lot of enhancing. I imply, it’s not simply stepping again and going, “O.Okay., that’s carried out. It’s been planted. All completed. On to the subsequent challenge.” It’s not that in any respect.

Richard: No. And a few issues actually are supposed to be fillers in an early planting. After which as soon as the grasses get established, they may wish to turn into 80 p.c of your meadow. And so you must perhaps have methods for eradicating a number of, a number of the taller grasses, the enormous… Is it big bluestem?

Margaret: Little bluestem and… I don’t know what you name the large one, however yeah.

Richard: Huge bluestem. Which left to its personal gadgets was at one level crowding out the pathway. And so we’ve got to go in and say, you recognize what? You’re nice. We’d like you within the again. We’d like you somewhat bit extra as a punctuation somewhat than as a strong wall. And in order that’s the place quite a lot of the enhancing is available in.

Margaret: Since you had been simply saying the completely different vegetation and the way they virtually have a life cycle, sure vegetation in these designs, and a few are virtually used as nurse crops, what you may name nurse crops, at first to fill house with one thing aside from weeds that may come up from the soil. So a few of your biennials and so forth, they’re not going to final 5 or 10 years [laughter]. They’re not going to be there as a result of as you level out, the grasses and different issues could have stuffed in.

These issues which can be depending on self-sowing aren’t going to have as many alternatives to succeed in naked soil anymore and their life cycle can be over from these unique vegetation. So your black-eyed Susans or no matter that you simply who had been like, “Oh, look, there’s so lots of these. They give the impression of being so fairly,” Nicely, that will not occur in yr 3 or 4 or 5 or 10.

Richard: Proper. This morning I used to be inserting Oriental poppy, which we don’t have on the Excessive Line. It was one of many unique vegetation that had been spec’d, nevertheless it’s a type of early fascinating flower vegetation to come back up between the small grasses for the primary two or three years. They’re not terribly long-lived in my expertise, anyway, so it’s simply a type of let’s create some curiosity.

We had the identical with… Is it foxtail Lily? Eremurus, sure. The identical factor. Actually profitable, an exquisite Excessive Line plant within the first 5 years, however now it’s been crowded out by grasses. We tried to get it established once more, and it’s a tough one. It’s a type of so used to having professional drainage and sizzling, dry locations. You make sacrifices. You say, properly, that was nice at first and now we’ll transfer on to let the backyard have another facet that’s going to shine.

Margaret: Proper. So one other type of enhancing, lots of people have heard of the Chelsea chop, the timed and named for the Chelsea Flower Present in England, as a result of in late Could, sure sorts of perennials are in the reduction of half means. And doing that, they’re bushier and perhaps they begin blooming somewhat later, however they’re fuller and so forth.

You sort of take it to an excessive up there [laughter]. You guys have gotten Chelsea chops occurring. Simply inform me somewhat bit about that technique of enhancing the photographs. [Above and below, hedge clippers are used on drifts deeper in the borders; pruning shears on plants closer to the paths. Liz Ligon photos.]

Richard: Nicely, I feel it primarily comes from the facet like we’ve got so many vegetation, and the gardens are so full; we don’t have the flexibility to stake something. Asters within the tall grass prairie like Chelsea Grasslands [part of the High Line] will do O.Okay. with only one chop the place we’ll hit them just about in late Could, early June, proper across the Chelsea Flower Present. However we’ve got I feel it’s Aster October Skies which can be peppered all through the Gansevoort Woodlands of the Birch Woodlands down right here on the south finish of the park.

As a result of they’re in additional shade they usually can get floppy, I feel John [Gunderson] cuts these two or thrice. So now I feel they did them in late Could, once more in June, after which he’ll do one other lower most likely in mid-July. And so they’ll bloom later, however they’ll even be stunning, bushy, simply most likely 12 to 18 inches tall somewhat than the 30 or 36 inches that they might flop over in the event that they had been left to their very own gadgets. We try this quite a bit with vegetation. I feel Nepeta, some Monarda have been carried out often.

Margaret: I wager goldenrods too.

Richard: Solidago, and a number of the Coreopsis, too, I feel, we hit.

Margaret: Once more, it provides you, with out staking or something like that, which might simply be unimaginable, it provides you a bushier plant, which is nice and wanted. In any other case you’ll be able to have quite a lot of floppy issues, particularly as you level out within the shady areas. You’ve quite a lot of that occurring. And I think about that you simply do some thinning additionally, as a result of you’ve got quite a lot of wind, don’t you?

Richard: My gosh, sure. In reality, it was fairly windy this morning, and wonderful wind as a result of it was low-humidity wind for a change. However I do know that on a number of the Joe-Pye weeds, as an illustration, which may get somewhat dense and tall, these might be very affected. We do it additionally with Baptisia, the false indigos.

Margaret: Positive.

Richard: So there are a number of the bigger flowering perennials that basically have to be within the windier spots do have to be thinned out in order that they don’t create an excessive amount of sail.

And naturally, we try this with all of our bushes as properly. We maintain all the birch bushes and the oaks and the whole lot fairly properly laced out to be sure that we’re getting quite a lot of good dappled mild on the understory, as a result of we’re recognized for having this complicated tree cover, flowering spring bushes, perhaps the Amelanchier or the redbuds, after which the groundcover layer.

And all of that coexists, and that’s what I feel makes the Excessive Line such an important place to go to as a result of the gardens are so intense, and you’ve got all these completely different layers. However it simply takes quite a lot of administration to ensure the whole lot stays pleased.

Margaret: Proper, proper. Yeah, it’s quite a bit. [Laughter.] It’s positively, positively quite a bit. However you had been simply speaking about pruning basically the bushes. And the truth that what all of us confront, talking of issues that change in a backyard, irrespective of whether or not we’re managing it naturalistically or not, is normally much less mild, as a result of our bushes and shrubs develop as we’re there for longer. And so generally there’s the onerous choice to even take away a woody plant, as a result of it’s surviving on the expense of, as you’re mentioning, just like the groundcover layer or no matter.

There’s simply not the sunshine that there was, and the whole lot else is struggling. That’s a very tough one. However once more, it doesn’t matter what your fashion or your design aesthetic, that’s one which gardeners face who keep put for a very long time and making shrubs develop, proper?

Richard: Sure. And it’s not a light-weight choice that we make to skinny bushes out. However I feel folks had been shocked how properly bushes truly did on the Excessive Line. I don’t suppose they anticipated them to get fairly so tall and fairly so full. So it’s simpler to say it’s simply getting too crowded on this house. The simplest factor to do, somewhat than attempt to manipulate each single tree into being simply the correct quantity of open, we are able to selectively take out a tree right here or there and open issues up. And it seems to be extra pure, frankly.

You’ll be able to take into consideration getting that subsequent succession, these youthful bushes rising in your woodland, so it feels somewhat bit extra pure, and then you definitely’re planning for succession. As a result of if all of the bushes are 20 years outdated, all of the bushes are probably going to fail on the identical time. So now we’re fascinated about getting some smaller bushes on this fall. So we’ve got this completely different age stage.

And in areas just like the Flyover, which is the realm folks could also be aware of with the elevated walkway, there we’re frankly getting fairly a little bit of reseeding. Nicely, the sassafras come up in all places, however the magnolias, the big-leaf magnolias are self-seeding. A few of the sweetbay magnolias are additionally self-seeding. So we’re leaving these and we get to pick out. And even in our bur oak grove, we’ve got some seedlings that we’re going to go away, so we’ll have completely different ages. And so it simply is creating that, fascinated about what will achieve success in 5 or 10 years. It’s simply planning forward.

Margaret: I simply wished to ask an adjunct to one of many issues we had been speaking about earlier than with self-sowns. Even ones which can be spec’d within the plan and the design, even ones that you simply love. I feel John, who you referred to earlier than, John Gunderson, certainly one of your senior gardeners, he has quite a lot of Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, in his space [above; photo by Andrew Frasz]. And there might be an excessive amount of of a very good factor, proper? It could possibly self-sow an excessive amount of and warp the look. So generally you’re taking out issues which can be fascinating however not in extra. Is that one other mandate?

Richard: Sure, precisely. The Mertensia is among the conditions the place it’s nice the place we’ve got it and it seems to be so pure the best way it happens in these massive drifts that go throughout the pathway, however John does do some seedhead chopping. After which after all, it does want a cleanup within the spring as a result of the leaves as they’re fading again don’t look so nice. Usually Piet’s actually good about… If he’s utilizing ephemerals and bulbs and issues like that, he’ll have a plant that can be rising as much as disguise the leaves which can be yellowing.

He’s fairly good about that mixture. I do know, as an illustration, we’ve got fairly a little bit of Chasmanthium, the Northern sea oats, and we’ve observed that reseeds fairly a bit. As a lot as we’re the backyard that it’s best to come to see as a result of we’ve got these stunning seeds within the winter, we do selectively scale back a number of the seeds simply so we don’t find yourself with too many vegetation.

Margaret: Precisely. It’s powerful, and particularly on newer gardeners, it’s powerful as a result of nobody needs to eliminate something, or compost something, or throw something away, so to talk. And it’s powerful. It’s a troublesome choice. Nicely, the Excessive Line, I feel your gardeners instructed me that greatest instances to go to are between 7:00 and 9:00 AM. [Visiting information.]

Richard: Oh my gosh, we do get very crowded as a result of we’re very talked-about and that’s nice. But when folks actually wish to have an expertise, come between 7:00 and 9:00 AM, and even within the evenings, we’re open within the evenings within the summertime. That’s beautiful. We’re open till 10:00 PM.

Margaret: Wow!

Richard: And it’s an fascinating expertise at evening. All of the vegetation are low-lit, so you’ll be able to expertise the… However actually the morning is when it’s magic.

Margaret: Nicely, Richard Hayden, thanks for making time. I do know you bought to get down there to 18th Avenue and go determine that planting format earlier than it will get away from you.

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MY WEEKLY public-radio present, rated a “top-5 backyard podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper within the UK, started its fifteenth yr in March 2024. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station within the nation. Pay attention domestically within the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Japanese, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 8, 2024 present utilizing the participant close to the highest of this transcript. You’ll be able to subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and browse my archive of podcasts right here).