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

IT’S ONE of the best-known naturalistic gardens anyplace, and but it’s perched in probably the most unnatural spot possible, 30 ft excessive above New York Metropolis site 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 have been stuffed with knowledgeable classes on gardening on this looser, nature-inspired fashion.

Right this moment’s visitor is Richard Hayden, the Excessive Line’s senior director of horticulture. His group 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 photograph 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 completely happy anniversary, birthday—no matter we wish to name it, to you and the group.

Richard Hayden: Thanks.

Margaret: It was enjoyable assembly a few of you, a minimum of just about, to do a latest “New York Occasions” backyard column collectively, which obtained a terrific response, which made me completely happy. So briefly, I feel for people who find themselves listening from everywhere 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 typically 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 in all probability dropped a number of issues off and soil had gotten created, and so this panorama had occurred.

And when the time got here to think about what to do with it within the late ’90s, the concept that it might change into a backyard as a result of individuals have been up right here taking a look at it in its wild state, and there have been some wonderful pictures taken by Joel Sternfeld of its wild state that it turned this concept that it could possibly be a backyard. And Piet Oudolf was employed and Discipline Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro did some nice designs.

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

And it offers you this emotionally evocative journey as you go from woodlands to grasslands and totally different combos and complexities. And naturally, all that complexity results in biodiversity. We’ve many bees and birds and different animals that go to. So it’s only a actually great respite from the town.

Margaret: And the factor that after we did the Occasions story that I simply discovered once you first stated it to me and I simply can’t recover from the concept of it, you’ve your soil depth up there and these beds that have been constructed for this on this elevated railway, the soil is rarely 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 inform you, once I first began, which was about just a little over two and a half years in the past, and I used to be seeing these 30-foot-tall birch timber and oak timber and all these large timber rising in 18 inches of soil, it actually stored me up at night time. Each time the wind would blow…

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

Richard: After which I did some climbing in Northwest Connecticut on the Appalachian Path, and there had been a windstorm, and these mature timber had blown over. And lo and behold, 18 inches of roots due to the entire glacial rock. The forest was actually rising in 18 inches of soil. And I assumed, you realize 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 could be heat air on prime and heat air beneath, and chilly air on prime and chilly air beneath, so we don’t have loads of cushion.

Margaret: No.

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

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 speak just a little 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 crops, and we came upon we had 160 species that have been native or identified to be native to New York Metropolis out of the five hundred or so species that we have now. And so they weren’t chosen as a result of they have been native, they have been chosen as a result of they’re simply actually good, resilient crops. So I used to be completely happy to do this discovery.

And Piet could be very a lot about gardens are for individuals, and so natives are nice, however generally there are bloom durations the place the natives actually aren’t filling the area of interest or perhaps they don’t have sufficient winter construction. He’s completely happy to mix issues so long as they’re well-behaved, and we have now 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: Effectively, to be a profitable plant on the Excessive Line, it’s a must to have a certain quantity of resilience, a certain quantity of aggression. And so loads of what we do is handle these. We’ve a grass, Korean feather grass that was planted in a single space, and I seen in some pictures, 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 have now to do, is we have now to handle these issues that wish to be too profitable, in order that they don’t swallow their neighbors. Hold the steadiness.

Margaret: Effectively, and so a number of the ways that he advised within the preliminary design and that you just and your group uphold and so forth to be naturalistic… I imply, as an example, there was one that actually you guys talked to me about in the course of the Occasions story interview, which, after all, it didn’t actually happen to me. I wouldn’t have seen it consciously, however there it’s and it’s so apparent now that you’ve stated it aloud to me.

When you’ve the backyard on each side of a path, that these drifts of crops which can be on the one facet additionally ought to generally be on the opposite facet in order that it appears to be like 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 a majority of these hints like that. Any others like that that you concentrate on? Effectively, let’s speak in regards to the drifts perhaps as a result of that’s an essential side of his varieties of designs and naturalistic fashion. [Above, Timothy Schenck photo.]

Richard: Effectively, it’s attention-grabbing as a result of it could be really easy to get these tremendous advanced gardens with a number of crops 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 crops. 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 may have issues like autumn moor grass or catmint and different issues that may simply offer you a foundation a floor cowl, and that’s the type of factor that you just’ll see typically drifting on each 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 cause, however it does at all times appears to be like higher. However he retains it easy. By preserving the drifts massive, it turns into just a little bit extra legible.

After which lots 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 steadily together with his newer gardens, as a result of it’s simpler to care for. You already know what’s imagined to be the place, what’s gotten out of steadiness.

Margaret: I see.

Richard: However right here on the Excessive Line, we’re just a little bit extra advanced, so we’re continually managing the dynamics of anybody species. Some issues they don’t succeed. We had a few crops. I’m very a lot into Helenium, and I’m forgetting frequent names.

Margaret: Sneezeweed [laughter].

Richard: Sneezeweed, proper, sure, they usually simply by no means took. And naturally, Piet doesn’t use loads 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 completely happy.

Margaret: In his unique planting designs for the assorted 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 crops 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 everywhere of chaos. I imply, that’s not going to learn, is it? [Above, Liz Ligon photo.]

Richard: No. And it’s simply attention-grabbing we’re having this dialog, and I used to be simply this morning laying out a Piet Oudolf design. We’ve a brand new plaza that’s stepping into at road stage at 18th Road that’ll be the most recent part of the Excessive Line to open in September. And it’s the primary time I’ve laid out a Piet design. And we have been wanting on the plans, and it truly is, on this specific plan, large 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, however 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 attempting to do.

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

The opposite factor I discover attention-grabbing in regards to the drifts is it pleases our eye, and it really works on this fashion to do it that approach. However in nature, for those who had simply onesies of 1,000,000 various things, the animals, particularly the bugs who’re depending on these crops, couldn’t discover them and couldn’t make the most of them in the identical approach. So the drifts additionally serve a function, have you learnt what I imply, in nature, within the pure world.

Richard: Completely.

Margaret: These plant communities are usually not simply 1,000,000 totally different sorts of crops all crunched collectively. There are a number of key crops in bigger numbers.

Richard: And in additional of the grassland plantings, as an example, he’s counting on sure crops to have the construction to carry different crops 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 advised 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, “Effectively, however it retains altering. It doesn’t appear to be the unique plan. It’s not how I imagined it.” [Laughter.] “It doesn’t appear to be the image within the e-book,” once 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 way in which issues go in nature. And so let’s speak just a little 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 at all times says a backyard’s by no means carried out. And it’s an evolution. And the backyard will inform you what it needs to change into. And so after 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 typically the course of the evolution of planting. And so we get to step in and say we wish to preserve it as a grassland, and so we have to make these interventions.

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

Margaret: However it’s loads 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 are going to wish to change into 80 p.c of your meadow. And so it’s a must to perhaps have methods for eradicating a number of, a number of the taller grasses, the large… Is it big bluestem?

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

Richard: Large bluestem. Which left to its personal gadgets was at one level crowding out the pathway. And so we have now to go in and say, you realize what? You’re nice. We want you within the again. We want you just a little bit extra as a punctuation quite than as a strong wall. And in order that’s the place loads of the enhancing is available in.

Margaret: Since you have been simply saying the totally different crops and the way they nearly have a life cycle, sure crops in these designs, and a few are nearly used as nurse crops, what you would possibly name nurse crops, at first to fill house with one thing apart 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 may have crammed 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 shall be over from these unique crops. So your black-eyed Susans or no matter that you just who have been like, “Oh, look, there’s so a lot of these. They appear so fairly,” Effectively, that will not occur in yr 3 or 4 or 5 or 10.

Richard: Proper. This morning I used to be putting Oriental poppy, which we don’t have on the Excessive Line. It was one of many unique crops that have been spec’d, however it’s a type of early attention-grabbing flower crops 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 difficult one. It’s a type of so used to having knowledgeable 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 side 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 approach. And doing that, they’re bushier and perhaps they begin blooming just a little 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 just a little bit about that methodology 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: Effectively, I feel it primarily comes from the side like we have now so many crops, and the gardens are so full; we don’t have the power 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 have now 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 minimize in all probability in mid-July. And so they’ll bloom later, however they’ll even be stunning, bushy, simply in all probability 12 to 18 inches tall quite than the 30 or 36 inches that they might flop over in the event that they have been left to their very own gadgets. We do this loads with crops. I feel Nepeta, some Monarda have been carried out sometimes.

Margaret: I guess goldenrods too.

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

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

Richard: My gosh, sure. Actually, it was fairly windy this morning, and beautiful 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 example, which might get quite dense and tall, these could be very affected. We do it additionally with Baptisia, the false indigos.

Margaret: Certain.

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

And naturally, we do this with all of our timber as properly. We preserve the entire birch timber and the oaks and every thing fairly properly laced out to be sure that we’re getting loads of good dappled gentle on the understory, as a result of we’re identified for having this advanced tree cover, flowering spring timber, 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 a terrific place to go to as a result of the gardens are so intense, and you’ve got all these totally different layers. However it simply takes loads of administration to verify every thing stays completely happy.

Margaret: Proper, proper. Yeah, it’s loads. [Laughter.] It’s undoubtedly, undoubtedly loads. However you have been simply speaking about pruning basically the timber. And the truth that what all of us confront, talking of issues that change in a backyard, regardless of whether or not we’re managing it naturalistically or not, is normally much less gentle, as a result of our timber and shrubs develop as we’re there for longer. And so generally there’s the laborious resolution to even take away a woody plant, as a result of it’s surviving on the expense of, as you’re stating, just like the groundcover layer or no matter.

There’s simply not the sunshine that there was, and every thing 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 resolution that we make to skinny timber out. However I feel individuals have been shocked how properly timber really did on the Excessive Line. I don’t assume 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, quite than attempt to manipulate each single tree into being simply the correct quantity of open, we will selectively take out a tree right here or there and open issues up. And it appears to be like extra pure, frankly.

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

And in areas just like the Flyover, which is the world individuals could also be acquainted with with the elevated walkway, there we’re frankly getting fairly a little bit of receding. Effectively, the sassafras come up all over the place, 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 have now some seedlings that we’re going to depart, so we’ll have totally different ages. And so it simply is creating that, fascinated by what will achieve success in 5 or 10 years. It’s simply planning forward.

Margaret: I simply needed to ask an adjunct to one of many issues we have 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 just love. I feel John, who you referred to earlier than, John Gunderson, certainly one of your senior gardeners, he has loads of Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica, in his space [above; photo by Andrew Frasz]. And there could be an excessive amount of of a very good factor, proper? It will probably self-sow an excessive amount of and deform 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 without doubt one of the conditions the place it’s nice the place we have now it and it appears to be like so pure the way in which it happens in these large 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 shall be rising as much as disguise the leaves which can be yellowing.

He’s fairly good about that mixture. I do know, as an example, we have now fairly a little bit of Chasmanthium, the Northern sea oats, and we’ve seen that reseeds fairly a bit. As a lot as we’re the backyard that it’s best to come to sea as a result of we have now 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 crops.

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 tricky resolution. Effectively, the Excessive Line, I feel your gardeners advised 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 highly regarded and that’s nice. But when individuals 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 attention-grabbing expertise at night time. All of the crops are low-lit, so you may expertise the… However actually the morning is when it’s magic.

Margaret: Effectively, Richard Hayden, thanks for making time. I do know you bought to get down there to 18th Road and go work out 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. Hear regionally within the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Jap, 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).

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