This past weekend, on a visit to New York, we walked the High Line, an abandoned elevated railway line running right through Manhattan’s West Side that has been transformed from urban blight into an oasis of open space and urban habitat. To see how beautifully the designers of the High Line have woven grasses into the landscaping of this new pedestrian thoroughfare is nothing short of inspirational for a natural gardener…
The High Line’s planting palette contains a mix of native American perennials and shrubs and grasses, along with some tough-but-never-invasive non-native species. To quote from the High Line’s own web site:
The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the out-of-use elevated rail tracks during the 25 years after trains stopped running. The species of perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees were chosen for their hardiness, sustainability, and textural and color variation, with a focus on native species. Many of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are incorporated into the park’s landscape.
The result is a series of gardens, paths and seating areas that snakes for a full mile through the city, temporarily removing pedestrians from streetside clamor and carrying them through a variety of landscapes that evoke the expansive views of western prairies as well as eastern meadows:
Up until the past few years, most ornamental grasses used in eastern landscaping were the large Asian Miscanthus grasses, which have since lost favor because of their (often invasive) growth rate, as well as their sheer size, which makes them difficult to place into smaller landscapes. Since then, landscape designers (especially in urban areas) across the eastern seaboard have embraced the use of native US grasses in their plantings, because most of our native grasses (including wavy hairgrass, purple lovegrass, muhly grass, switchgrass, big and little bluestem, and prairie dropseed), are very drought-tolerant, needing little to no watering to thrive, and are well adapted to low soil fertility, harsh northern winters and blazing summer sun. Native grass-like plants called sedges (foreground, above) are also becoming popular for their ability to thrive in occasionally flooded soils, along with their soft texture which is breathtaking en masse…
Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway (another acclaimed urban reclamation project that has brought life back to the city’s waterfront) also uses a mix of mostly native grasses as an integral design component. Flowing drifts of pink muhly grass, little bluestem and panic grass spill out into curving pathways, brushing the legs of passers-by…
In Worcester, MA, where 1970′s-era highway projects fragmented the city and sucked pedestrian life from the streets, cars entering the city from its main artery (route 290) are greeted with an inviting series of native plant islands, including plenty of waving grasses. Not just pretty to look at, these islands are an important municipal tool for absorbing stormwater runoff, helping to reduce street flooding and filtering oil, salt and other pollutants before they reach water supplies. They also supply valuable habitat for birds and other winged wildlife.
On a residential scale, smaller native grasses make an excellent low-maintenance choice for incorporating into flower beds, or grouped along a road or drivewayside as an alternative to lawn:
Most native grasses require little maintenance other than an annual weeding and an optional early spring haircut to remove the dead stems from the previous year’s growth. The old stems make a great mulch for summer veggie gardens, or a bulk addition to your compost pile.
For help in learning to integrate American native grasses in your landscape (urban or otherwise), the following books come highly recommended :
William Cullina’s book Native Ferns, Moss & Grasses: From Emerald Carpet to Amber Wave: Serene and Sensuous Plants for the Garden (published by New England Wild Flower Society) is guaranteed to become your go-to book for researching the best grasses (and grasslike plants such as sedges and rushes) for the conditions of your yard, and his beautiful photos will inspire you to look at our native grasses in a whole new way.
Our very own Catherine Zimmerman’s book Urban & Suburban Meadows: Bringing Meadowscaping to Big and Small Spaces is a comprehensive guide to creating prairie plantings in any size garden space, including how to design, establish and maintain a meadow, plus native plant suggestions and region-specific resources for the various American eco-regions.
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