Q&A with Melissa Fisher, Deputy Director of Horticulture

melissa_smallFriends of the High Line’s Deputy Director of Horticulture talks about planting on the High Line, working with Field Operations and Planting Designer Piet Oudolf, and creating a maintenance plan for the new landscape. Photo by Barry Munger.

Where were you before coming to Friends of the High Line, and what drew you to the High Line project?

I was at the Horticultural Society of New York as the director of a community horticulture program called GreenBranches.  We worked with the community, transitional work crews, and local designers to install, maintain, and program public gardens in underserved neighborhoods around the city.
I was drawn to the High Line as one of the most intriguing projects in urban gardening I could ever imagine. 

What was unique about the landscape that grew on the High Line after the trains stopped running?

It’s a fascinating example of how plants just work themselves out.  A diverse mix of grasses, asters, mosses, shrubby colonizers and weed trees gradually took hold in mere inches of railroad ballast mixed with decomposing dust and soil.  Seeds and pollen were deposited on the Line by the train cars that once ran along it, and by birds, wind, and the occasional trespasser.   The plant species that were most adaptable to harsh weather, urban pollution, and total neglect grew into the beautifully-wild space that was the found High Line landscape, as the world went on unknowingly just below.

What are some of the particular challenges of creating the High Line’s living landscape?

The biggest challenges will be the unique conditions on the structure: widely varying light and shade, strong winds off the Hudson River, extreme heating and cooling, and shallow soil depths.  The original High Line landscape seeded itself.  Now we are returning with larger nursery-grown plant material and hoping to create a similar effect.  While I anticipate being surprised by the resilience of many of the plantings, it will be an interesting horticultural opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t.  In this way, we will continue to watch the High Line landscape evolve and change.

What have you learned from working with planting designer Piet Oudolf and landscape architects Field Operations?

Working with Piet and Field Operations on the installation of Section 1, I’ve gotten a first-hand look at the intricacies and very careful, intentional design that has gone into to creating an ultimately wild-looking garden.  I appreciate the designers’ attention to pattern, color, and the subtle repetition of species.  Standing in the planting beds holding layout drawings, it took me a few days to “get” the method.  But Piet is refreshingly laid back, and enthusiastic about conveying his techniques. 

When the High Line opens in the spring, what can people expect to see in terms of the planting on Section 1?

People should expect to see a landscape that is just beginning to take hold.  It will be several seasons before the grasses and perennials have grown in to create their potential impact, but already, patterns of foliar color and texture will be evident.  I would encourage people to visit frequently, to observe the changing effects of the plantings as they begin to establish over the summer months, and to keep in mind that this is the very beginning of a park that will continue to evolve after opening day.

What are some of the most important maintenance & operations needs for the High Line once it’s open?

Moving from Gansevoort, northward, we have a lot of ground to cover, and we aim to do it in the least intrusive way possible.  We don’t want our operations to interfere with the intrinsic sense of calm that the park’s design offers, so we’re looking at alternative equipment including low-tech work tricycles and a single electric maintenance cart instead of motorized vehicles.  We need storage spaces to house our equipment, communications and IT equipment that offer innovative ways for staff to communicate with one another all the way down the Line. We need a highly motivated maintenance staff and a team of gardeners dedicated to the vision of the High Line and able to work as a team to make operating the High Line–at 30 feet above ground–as seamless as possible to ensure the park’s peacefulness, beauty, and security.


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