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.

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