Spring Cutback: A Model for Maintenance

image: Liz Ligon
image: Liz Ligon

“Landscape design is the art that engages with all aspects of a sustainable world: elemental forces, materials, humans and other living beings. Thus it is the responsibility of landscape artists to create the work and develop the aesthetics that will make experiences of a sustainable world highly enjoyable and desirable.”
–Diana Balmori, FASLA, A Landscape Manifesto

In late March, the Friends of the High Line team began its annual “Spring Cutback.” For most perennial gardeners, and especially those who align themselves with the Piet Oudolf “New Perennial” aesthetic, the process of cutting back ornamental grasses and the skeletons of last season’s herbaceous perennials is as much a harbinger of spring as the first bulbs poking through the soil. In New York City this process is no different, as volunteers flock to the High Line to play a part in the preparation of the park’s plantings for another year of glorious, wild exuberance. This community event has quickly become a tradition that many New Yorkers mark on their gardening calendars, and it has particular relevance to landscape architects who are interested in creating well-maintained, long lasting, and luxuriantly planted urban environments.

The most limiting force exerted on planting design is maintenance. A recent ASLA survey of emerging trends for 2015 in residential landscape design emphasized “low maintenance landscapes” as one of the top consumer demands. Landscape architects often justifiably associate complex planting maintenance requirements with increased operational costs and consider it a potential obstacle to the long-term sustainability and viability of the landscapes they design. These constraints have spawned an exciting branch of planting design research in Europe, where pioneering horticultural ecologists like James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett at the University of Sheffield are developing seed mixes and modular planting systems that can be implemented in public spaces to provide an exuberantly diverse aesthetic spectacle with minimal maintenance involved.

These are indeed exciting developments and must continue, but what the High Line Spring Cutback illustrates is that there is another strategy to ensure diverse, ecologically functional and aesthetically engaging plantings thrive in urban public spaces. Rather than propose a planting like those being developed in Europe that thrive on neglect, the High Line’s model requires that the planting designer craft a vegetal environment that is so undeniably beautiful and easy to fall in love with that its life will never be in danger, regardless of economic circumstances.

image: Liz Ligon
image: Liz Ligon

The High Line is far from low maintenance. Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch designer who composed the rail park’s plantings, freely admits that they are intended to evoke the wild, rather than function as a wild plant community free from human interference. Though wild and woolly, the High Line is heavily gardened and dependent on human intervention. The full-time horticulture staff at Friends of the High Line numbers 11 dedicated and skilled gardeners. Many would interpret this as a weakness of the park and incompatible with its vision for long-term sustainability. Yet the High Line’s plantings continues to endure and thrive, as economies ebb and flow. Part of its endurance is undoubtedly owed to Oudolf’s genius and intelligent plant selections of New York State natives and well-adapted, robust horticultural varieties to reduce the burden of maintenance that a conventional garden of the same size would demand. The main reason, however, is due to the plantings’ ability to thoroughly engage the public so that they take ownership of the space and offer both physical and financial horticultural support.

image: Mike Tschappat via Flickr
image: Mike Tschappat via Flickr

We have an innate desire to engage with our environments. The High Line’s Spring Cutback showcases this desire for intimate connection by encouraging the public to play a role in the stewardship of a treasured landscape. People show up to cut back grasses because they love the place. When landscape architects create quality places that people are passionate about, the spirit of volunteerism and public engagement suddenly reduces the burden of maintenance and upkeep. Many of the High Line’s early donors gave money not because it made financial sense as a good investment (the park’s opening coincided almost directly with the 2008 financial crisis), but because they loved what the park could become.

Admittedly, the High Line does owe much of its success to incredible community fundraising campaigns and donations from exceptionally wealthy patrons, luxuries that most parks simply don’t have. Fundamentally, however, the park’s success and the success of its plantings are due to the simple fact that they’re utterly delightful, deeply compelling, and easy to fall in love with. Their romantic beauty, evocative wildness, and incredible ability to intimately engage people with urban pollinators and wildlife have compelled people to care about them. As Jules Pretty writes in his book The Earth Only Endures,

Nature provides a number of things: experience of continuity and stability (the world still turns and the birds still sing, despite our very human problems); opportunities to develop new social relationships; a rejuvenation effect in a non-institutionalized environment; improvement in self-worth; [and] the opportunity for close observation of non-judgemental nature … The longer the time that people spend, or the more often they return, the more fond they grow of those places.

image: Oliver Rich via Flickr
image: Oliver Rich via Flickr

The High Line, thanks in large part to its socially and ecologically engaging naturalistic planting design, is a place where people can escape the intense urbanity of Manhattan and closely observe, personally connect with, and immerse themselves in the evolution of their nearby “non-judgemental” urban nature. As the volunteer energy of the Spring Cutback illustrates, New Yorkers have clearly grown fond of the High Line, reinforcing the truth of Pretty’s words. People don’t donate millions of dollars or volunteer to cut back grasses and dead perennials to maintain a boring, uninspiring place.

It is paramount we design places and plantings that people can love. It’s the only way the High Line’s model for maintenance works, but the glorious railway bursting with wildflowers, grasses, trees, and shrubs are proof that it can.

image: Liz Ligon
image: Liz Ligon

Further Reading

Planting: A New Perspective – by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
Designing with Plants – by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury
Dream Plants for the Natural Garden – by Piet Oudolf and Henk Gerritsen
The Dynamic Landscape – by Nigel Dunnett and James Hitchmough
Ecological Landscape Design – by Travis Beck, ASLA
The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden – by Roy Diblik
The Living Landscape – by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy
High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky – by Joshua David and Robert Hammond

Grounded Design – by Thomas Rainer, ASLA
View from Federal Twist – by James Golden
The Friends of the High Line Blog
The Lurie Garden Blog

The Lurie Garden with Piet Oudolf – Directed by Tom Rossiter

A version of this post originally appeared on Ben O’Brien Landscape Design‘s website on April 6, 2015.

by Ben O’Brien, Associate ASLA, Planting Design PPN Officer

6 thoughts on “Spring Cutback: A Model for Maintenance

  1. Greg Paris April 23, 2015 / 4:31 pm

    I find The Field interesting, useful, and enjoyable,

    Wide variety of topics related to landscape architecture & related disciplines,

    Good information & visuals in whats posted in The Field,

    Links to related issues discussed in The Field, and

    Other sources of information on the topics, inc. people & books, papers, etc

    Much appreciated,

  2. Kai-Tai Lin ASLA May 2, 2015 / 3:01 am

    I recognized your article is ultimately great for students. Thus, would you always forward these kind of news/paper to me through email also? Then I can forward them to my students. Thanks.

    • asla staff May 4, 2015 / 1:34 pm

      Please note that if you enter your email address on the upper right side of The Field (in the box under the statement, “Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.”), you’ll receive an email when a new post is published.
      Alexandra Hay, Professional Practice Coordinator

  3. Jane Macdonald July 6, 2015 / 8:54 pm

    What a beautiful, inspiring and intelligent post. We’ve public and commercial lands here in Prince Edward County in Ontario that we’ve been dreaming about, and this post makes the dreams seem possible. Thank you!

  4. David Hopman September 22, 2015 / 8:09 pm

    Very well written and inspirational post. I have found that people everywhere are looking for worthwhile community activities and gardening is a great example. We have the opportunity and the obligation as ‘expert’ stewards of the land to take a leadership role in these types of activities.


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