Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Secrets of the Highline Revealed!

Ok, I love the Highline. You've probably noticed this since I've mentioned it in almost every blog. The former abandoned, elevated rail line that runs along the southern edge of Manhattan has been transformed into one of the hippest urban parks in the country. After winning the design competition, landscape architect James Corner of Field Operations along with Diller Scofido + Renfro (architecture) and Piet Oudolf (planting designer) produced a cutting edge design that celebrated the site’s history and created something entirely new.

While the project has received widespread critical acclaim, I want to focus on a particular aspect of the park’s design: the planting design. Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf has become somewhat of an international celebrity in recent years for his projects in both Europe and America. All of Oudolf’s projects use strongly structural perennials and grasses in naturalistic drifts to create a stunning display of form, seasonality, and color. But his work on the Highline has a quality that stands apart from his other work.

Oudolf’s work on the Highline possesses a loose, breezy naturalism that smartly references the site’s former beauty as a fallow rail track. The end effect is a planting that looks at once highly designed yet absolutely natural; modern yet ecological; legible yet ineffable. As a planting designer, I’m dying to know: how did he pull that off?

A recent discovery of a piece of Oudolf’s planting plan on the internet has rocked my world. It is my horticultural Rosetta stone, the key to decoding this brilliant design. Come close, I will share with you its secrets.

The secret? Oudolf employs the strategy of a layered matrix planting. This is where a single species—or handful of species in this case—dominates the planting, forming a matrix into which other plants are blended. In the case of the Highline, five (+/-) species of low grasses become the field into which other ecologically compatible forbs blend.

The strength of this strategy is that the base material provides year-round interest and acts like a filler, while the perennials provide structure and seasonal accent. The grasses add the loose, natural look, while the perennials create the tension that gives the project its artistic edge.

As simple as it sounds, the strategy is revolutionary. Oudolf thinks of planting not in formal terms as a painter (the Gertrude Jeckyll/Christopher Lloyd tradition), but rather through time. Plants do not simply occupy a corner of the bed, but rather emerge ephemerally out of an ever changing base of grasses. The result is a site that changes hour by hour, day by day. It is a new naturalism, a perfect blend of the designed and the natural.

Can you try this at home? Well, with planting the ultimate maxim is: know thy materials. Oudolf is a master of knowing exactly what species to use to create the matrix, and which perennial accents to blend. So perhaps the rest of us mere mortals will stumble around doing bad imitations. But using Oudolf’s strategy, our designs will now be liberated from the confines of form-making that dominated planting design for the last 2000 years.


  1. very interesting post - thank you!!I am dying to visit the High Line..I feel like the feathered pathways are a weak design detail and the weird benches also will not stand the test of time..But that is from photos - really can't comment until I have actually seen it..

  2. That's interesting. Yeah, maybe we will look back on those benches in 20 years and say "those benches are soooo 2008."

  3. Seriously, I just KNEW the Highline garden design was more than just beautiful, that the designer had actually done something pretty amazing, and reading this I feel incredibly validated.

  4. Was in New York in Aug 2011. I have hurricane Irene to thank for allowing me to see the Highline since I was grounded for an extra week and I would otherwise have gone home w/o seeing it...it was breathtaking..It flowed beautifully, It's complex yet so simple, I only wish it was in my garden!!

  5. Thanks Thomas.
    Great to find your blog.

  6. Thank you Thomas for your blog. I bought "Planting a New Perspective" by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf in May and was a bit puzzled by the matrix planting until I came across this post. Combined they have not only given me a new outlook on planting, but have illuminated the point that the base plants for a matrix or two are in my back garden.


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