the High line as inspiration for your rooftop garden

I don't know about you, but when I walk along the High Line, I feel like it is almost impossible to take it all in. First of all, you're elevated, and weaving through buildings in NYC. When has that ever happened in a city? Your vantage point for seeing the city is totally changed. Then there are the layers of a rich and complex landscape architectural design to observe and experience (design provided by Field Operations)--the hardscape, benches, design detail, people,art, architecture everywhere. And yet, beyond all of this excitement and sensory overload, the real show stoppers are... the plants. There are so many, (hundreds in fact) that it may feel overwhelming to actually consider which ones might actually work in your garden. So I thought I would use my rooftop garden as an example of plants that were inspired by the High Line, that do so well with so little maintenance that it's hard to believe sometimes.

Photo by Iwan Baan

The thing about the High Line plants that is important to note is that they are, for the most part, extreme sun-lovers. There are micro-climates along the High Line--places with more shade and different soil conditions--and therefore the plants have been tailored to those specific environments. But generally speaking, these plants love sun and are also tolerant of wind and urban conditions. There are plants that took hold along the High line when it was an abandoned railway, and they are considered native plant species , and so they have been incorporated, and represent a significant portion of the current planting design.

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Photo: Matthew Williams for Gardenista

As I mentioned, it was hard not to be moved by the High Line, and when we moved to our current home, the only open space was up. So it made sense to look to the High Line for guidance with our home project. My garden's main ingredients: Ipe wood decking, River stones, Fiberglass Planters (from Planter resource) Soil and Plants. Then there are the secondary features, like lighting (by Jesco and Bega), Synthetic lawn (by Syn lawn)  irrigation (all drip), a BBQ and BBQ area with a built in refrigerator for wine and beer, mostly. The soil and stone were hoisted up by a cherry picker from the street, which seemed insane at the time, but it all worked out. 


I wanted the diagram to be as straightforward and simple as humanly possible. So the walkway is the main axis connecting two areas, one for lounging, and one for dining. The dining area (square deck on right)  is oriented towards the Manhattan view. Then over-layed onto that was lighting, bbq area.


A tricky thing about roof gardens is the allowable area that you can cover the roof with materials that are considered to be "combustible", i.e. can catch on fire. Regulations vary according to City (and year) so check your local codes. This was a determining factor in the design because the use of wood decking had to be limited.

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But I am getting sidetracked. This is mainly about plants...and when it comes to plants, don't be intimidated. Maybe you are not a "green thumb, but so what who cares (as the wise Joy Behar would say). Do some research, and ask questions at your local nursery (Michelle Palladino at Gowanus Nursery in Brooklyn is awesome if you are in that area), but don't make yourself nuts. The thing about plants is, they are pretty much always an experiment, and sometimes they don't work in the place we want them to. I recommend picking up a book by Piet Oudolf. He is an artist that is very generous in his extensive knowledge, which is a gift to the world, and his books include detailed planting layouts. I recommend two books by Piet Oudolf from Amazon  Gardens of the High Line or Designing with Plants

10 plants to know:

Here are 10 plants that I have used on my roof. There are many others, and some have cycled out, but these are the ones that have soldiered on, tried and true:

For more on all of this:

A post on the project on Gardenista is here: 

A post on roof garden basics is on Gardenista here

A new book on the Highline by Designer James Corner of Field Operations and Diller Scofidio Renfro is on Amazon

You tube tour by Time Magazine here

High Line Site