I’m just back from a quick 24-hour trip to NYC for a special tribute to a dear friend, Margaret Roach. Wave Hill Gardens in the Bronx, was hosting a garden fundraising dinner to salute this legendary garden communicator.
Accompanying me was NCSU CALS College Advancement Director of Development, Alycia Thornton, who manages the fundraising for the JLBG Endowment. We were thrilled to have two incredible plant people/conservationists, Eleanor Briggs (founder of The Harris Center for Conservation Education and Wildlife Conservation Society photographer) and John Gwynne (Retired Director of Conservation for the Bronx Zoo and owner of Sakonnet Gardens) as our tour guides for the day.
Arriving in NYC just after 8am, we headed downtown to visit two newly recycled horticultural landmarks, Little Island and the High Line, neither of which I’d visited before.
Little Island is a relatively new NYC park (2021), built on the ruins of the famed Hudson River pier 54, which was destroyed during Hurricane Sandy (2012). Pier 54 was once the docking point for transatlantic ships, including being the drop off point for recscuees from the Titanic. After the pier was commercially abandoned in the 1980s, it became a social hangout for an array of groups and concerts, before being destroyed in the storm.
Media executive and billionaire Barry Diller and his wife, Diane von Furstenberg, were the chief drivers of the renovation project, donating 260 million dollars toward the construction of the riverside park that would become known as Little Island..
The 132 concrete pilings that anchor the park, were designed to look like giant tulips, with some rising as much as 62′ above the Hudson River, and anchored as deep as 200′ into the river bed. The project, designed by renown NY architect Signe Nielsen, has already hosted over 3.5 million visitors since its opening in 2021. Not only does the 2 acre Little Island have amazing multi-level gardens, it also has an ampitheater that looks across the water into adjacent New Jersey.
The use of tall berms and large public areas for walking make this a very enticing space for visitors.
The level of horticultural maintenance was superb in this meadow-like style of landscaping that can easily become a mecca for weeds.
Standing at the top of Little Island gives you a birds eye view of the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, the adjacent One World Trade Center tower.
The plant selection was quite varied, but to find lovely specimens of the rare, Southeast native oak, Quercus oglethorpensis was quite shocking.
For those who haven’t heard of the High Line, it is the elevated commercial railroad tracks that run through downtown New York City. Originally built in 1934, with the aim of reducing pedestrian fatalities caused by the street level trains. For the next 50 years, these raised tracks, perched 30′ above the road below, were the main option for hauling commercial supplies, food, etc. throughout this part of the city. With the expansion of the commercial trucking industry, the tracks were abandoned in the mid 1980s.
In 1999, Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered the tracks demolished, but public backlash resulted in the formation of The Friends of the High Line, which advocated for re-purposing the tracks. In 2003, an idea contest was held, with the winning proposal being to convert the old tracks into a public park, including plants, art, and a space for relaxation.
In 2006, the project formally began. Work involved converting the rail bed into planting bed, complete with drainage, lighting, seating, etc In 2009, the first section of park opened, and fourteen years later, the final section, the Moynihan Connector, opened this year. The entire 1.45 mile park is funded, operated, and managed by the Friends of the High Line, in conjunction with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation..
The gardens are planted with over 500 plant taxa from trees to annuals. Parts of the old railroad were left in the garden as a salute to its past. Some sections are now heavily wooded, while other sections are more prairie-like.
Interpretive signage is used to teach visitors about the plants they see along the route.
Today, the High Line has generated so much excitement, that new apartment buildings are being built both beside and straddling the High Line. In its first year, the High Line saw 1.3 million visitors, and by 2015, that number had climbed to 7.6 million, with 31% of those being NYC residents. Today, the High Line ranks 9th among the most visited destinations in New York City. I’m sure the view out of these apartments is amazing, but I guess you’d need to be a real exhibitionist to want millions of strangers peering into your house from the gardens.
Art is a big part of the High Line as you can see from the replica of a coral bark maple below. We were there during the UN Climate Conference, so pop-up booths were everywhere along the central part of our walk.
An outdoor food court makes it convenient if you need food or drink while you’re there.
The gardens are completely funded by the Friends of the High Line, so donations are essential to keep this project going. I expect that anyone who lives along the route is more than happy to contribute to keeping this section of the concrete jungle green.
After leaving the High Line, we headed to our final stop of the day, Wave Hill Gardens in the Bronx. I had visited three times prior, but it had been well over a decade since my last stop.
Opened in 1965, Wave Hill Gardens are a 28 acre oasis in the Bronx’s affluent Riverdale community, situated above the scenic Hudson River. The land and two homes on the property was donated in 1960 by the Perkins family to the City of New York to become a public garden.
The annual fundraising event held by the garden, picks an honoree each year, and this year, they chose garden writer, Margaret Roach. If you don’t know of Margaret, she is currently the Garden Writer for the New York Times. Margaret’s career ranged from being a sports columnist to Senior/Executive Vice-President of Martha Stewart Living from 1995-2008. In between her career start and end was a ten year stint at Newsday and New York Newsday, where she served as Fashion Editor and later Garden Editor.,
In 2008, Margaret retreated from public life to reconnect with her garden and heal from life in the big city on her NY property, far away from the bustle of the big city, where she began her own podcast, A Way to Garden. On A Way to Garden, Margaret interviews experts on gardening and an array of related topics. Margaret has also written several gardening books during her time away from the city. We all celebrated tonight, since this was the first time in four years that Margaret had graced any public events.
Below is Marco Polo Stufano, the founding Director of Horticulure for Wave Hill, and the man responsible for it’s brilliant transformation from dilapidated estate to the world class garden it is today. Marco retired from Wave Hill in 2001 after 34 years at the helm. Marco, who still loves nearby, just celebrated his 85th birthday…congratulations!
It was great to see an array of horticultural friends, many of which I hadn’t seen in years Below is garden writer, Ken Druse, with his husband, Louis Bauer. Louis followed Marco Stufano as Director of Horticulture at Wave Hill for seven years. As you can see by the cane, Ken is sadly struggling with mobility issues.
Marc Hachadourian is a renown plantsman, and Manager of Living Collections the New York Botanic Gardens Living Collections Greenhouses. Mark is the author of the recently published book, Orchid Modern.
It was great to have time to visit with Ed Bowen and Taylor Johnston of Rhode Island’s Issima Nursery. We have been big fans of their nursery since its inception, so it was so lovely to be able to chat in person.
It was also great to reconnect with Peony’s Envy owner, Kathleen Gagan, who I hadn’t seen in years. Kathleen is a dynamo that runs one of the country’s best retail peony nurseries from her farm in New Jersey.
There was a crowd of gardening celebrities from Pennsylvania that made the trip, including magnolia guru, Andrew Bunting, Vice-President of Horticulture for the Pennsylvannia Horticulture Society.
Ethan Kauffman moved north after his 8 year stint at Riverbanks Botanic Garden and 9 years at Moore Farms, both in SC, to become the Director at Stoneleigh Garden in Pennsylvannia. There, his transformative work with native plants has become the talk of the region.
It was great to catch up with long-time friends, garden designers Charles Price (l), and Glenn Withey (r), who flew in from Seattle for the event. Glen and Charles are world renown landscape designers. For several years, it was hard to pick up a national gardening magazine without a feature on their work.
The evening ended under the open skies with a brief auction and a lovely tribute to Margaret and her contributions to the horticultural world. It was lovely that the horticultural stars came out to honor one of their own.