Steel walls and soft grasses in travel-influenced Mirador Garden

A week ago I enjoyed the opportunity to photograph another of landscape architect Curt Arnette‘s gardens. Frothy, rose-colored clouds of Gulf muhly, tawny spikes of Lindheimer muhly, and a chartreuse Habiturf lawn wrap the large front garden in a cozy quilt of softness that counterbalances the flat planes and sharp angles of this contemporary Southwest Austin home.

Even at curbside, you know this garden is going to be big on ornamental grasses. No stiffly pruned topiary shrubs here, and definitely no overused, faux-Tuscan spires of Italian cypress.

Instead, native grasses grouped in contemporary blocks of color and texture keep the garden organized, even as it blends into the surrounding landscape.

But the big surprise in the front garden is a tiered arrangement of rusty steel walls that comes into view as you enter the driveway. Inspired by the adventurous homeowner, who had admired a similarly terraced garden on her world travels, Curt’s design replaced an existing stone retaining wall with slim panels of steel that trace the contours of the sloping lot.

Native and adapted dryland plants fill the terraces and broad ramps that provide gardening access.

At one end, bristling heads of Yucca rostrata shimmer atop a wedding-cake tier of steel curves.

From the house, it’s a dramatic amphitheater filled with an audience of native and adopted Texans.

The Habiturf lawn, which carpets the slope from the steel walls down to the driveway, is the first residential use I’ve seen in person. I like its tufted, shaggy texture. An ecological lawn developed by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Habiturf is a low-mow, low-water alternative for the U.S. Southwest and Southern Plains.

The Habiturf lawn is allowed to spread naturalistically under and around yuccas, ornamental grasses, and other plants rather than being kept separate, which must make mowing a challenge. But then again, Habiturf rarely needs mowing. Curt told me that native wildflowers are seeded in the lawn for a meadowy spring display.

A line of native Lindheimer muhly grasses edges the driveway and glows against the red steel.

Gulf muhly and blue grama grasses catch the light atop a retaining wall next to the house.

Every view of the front of the house is softened by grasses, including this scrim of Lindheimer muhly.

At the front gate, a raised bed of agave and prostrate rosemary greets you. I didn’t enter here, however…

…but walked down the driveway to another gate set between head-high steel planter boxes.

These are filled with gopher plant, red yucca, and other highly drought-tolerant plants. The blocky walls create privacy for the courtyard garden within.

Fencing panels between the boxes admit light and frame views.

Another fence panel, this one in a stone wall along the driveway, offers a view of a see-through outdoor fireplace.

Entering the courtyard garden, you see a guest house or studio overlooking a board-formed concrete trough.

This rectangular, negative-edge pool is the focal point of a raised-bed vegetable and cutting garden.

It’s a spectacular water feature that reminds me of a similar one in Christine Ten Eyck’s courtyard garden (click and scroll for pics).

At the corner of the guest house/studio, rainwater is collected and stored in a silo-like cistern, which must be handy for watering the raised beds.

Roses, iris, and zinnias give this space a cheery, casual vibe, but it steers clear of cottage style with an open layout and the precise lines of the steel-edged beds.

Monarchs were nectaring on zinnias this morning, making a temporary, red-orange color echo.

A wider courtyard view

It’s not all edibles and cutting flowers in the courtyard. This planter contains succulents and spiny dyckias.

An inside view of one of the steel planter walls that enclose this garden

There are a lot of elevation changes here, bridged by a white, stone path that appears to float over wooden decking and an L-shaped dry stream that cuts through the courtyard.

The path leads like a conveyor belt to the sheltered front door. Large windows admit views of the garden to those inside.

Looking back from the entry, you enjoy this view of the courtyard garden, which, like the garden out front, is terraced with steel retaining walls. Frothy blue Russian sage fills one terrace; dwarf pomegranates underplanted with silver ponyfoot fill another.

I’m not sure how you’d reach the pomegranates to harvest the fruit, but they make for a pretty view from above, especially against the icy-blue ponyfoot groundcover.

Along one side of the house, where runoff from the neighbor’s uphill lot once eroded the slope and threatened the foundation of the house, a naturalistic terraced dry stream safely moves water downhill and serves as a rugged path when the weather is dry.

The water flows out to a grassy meadow behind the house. You can see a hint of their nice view of the hills.

Midway along the narrow side yard, a garden porch offers pretty views from inside and a quiet place to sit. As in the courtyard, steel planters display color-blocks of plants, including variegated flax lily, ‘Blue Elf’ aloe, and canna.

Heading around back of the house, you climb back up from a meadowy lawn. Rusty steel retaining walls again set the tone and contrast with the creamy whites of the house and paths.

Here’s a wide view of the sunny rear terrace. The lawn here is drought-tolerant zoysia, which has been allowed to grow long.

At the edge of the terrace a steel-edged swimming pool reflects the sky, and a rain chain hanging from the eave adds a vertical punctuation mark. Walls of windows must make the garden and pool seem part of the interior.

The terrace offers views of a pergola-shaded dining area and surrounding garden that Curt designed.

Koosh-ball Yucca rostratas cluster near the entrance to the space, and creamy flowering lantana attracts butterflies.

As does blue mistflower, seen in the background.

The homeowner is training figs up the steel posts of the pergola to recreate a garden arbor she admired on her travels. It’ll be a leafy bower hung with figs in a few years.

Spotted manfreda and a blue-green ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave add evergreen color and structure amid billowing white roses and blue mistflower.

Back up on the terrace, here’s a parting view of the framing hills, rounded yucca heads, meadow-lawn, and sky-reflecting pool.

My thanks to the homeowner for allowing me to share her lovely garden here, and to Curt for introducing me to another of his plant-centric garden designs. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

The High Line park in NYC, a skyline promenade, part 2

At the end of Part 1 of my post about visiting the High Line in New York City last weekend, we’d just entered Chelsea Market Passage. After the dimness of the passageway, you exit into bright sunlight on the aptly named Sun Deck.

Wooden lounge chairs resembling stacked pallets are surely the most popular seats on the High Line.

If someone stands up, a passerby darts over to snag a seat.

Some of the chairs have wheels that roll along rails, allowing you to cozy up to your neighbor.

A water feature across the path puddles water on the paving edge. A bog garden makes use of the overflow.

Sparrows were enjoying baths here when we passed by.

Nice views of the Hudson River can be glimpsed from benches and lounge chairs on the Sun Deck.

Bistro tables offer additional places to relax and enjoy the view.

While peak fall color was still a week or two away, we saw some reds and yellows on the High Line, in addition to the golden grasses.

‘Sinonome’ toad lily was in full bloom…

…as were asters and persicaria.

In the early 1900s, grand ocean liners docked at Pier 54. Today it’s used for concerts and other public events.

Just south of 13th Street you pass under the Standard Hotel.

Once again, a dim passageway segues into an open, brilliantly lit plaza and the Washington Grasslands. Earlier in the year, when the grasses are still small, the Grasslands look like this — very different, with rail lines visible amid the plants.

Farther along, you can see rail lines even amid the lush growth of late-season.

I love how the plants seem to have sprung up on their own in the rail bed — all a carefully planned illusion.

Moving on, with mellow fall color showing on either side of the path.

Turning around for a look at the Standard, I remembered reading that occasionally hotel guests give peepshow views to park-strollers below. Our view was entirely G-rated, however.

At the southern end of the High Line, you enter the Gansevoort Woodland.

The silvery trunks of gray birches gleam as they appear to spring from the railroad tracks.

A metal sculpture rises from the tracks as well.

Now we’d reached the end of the High Line, so we got off and took the subway to the 9/11 Memorial. Afterward, we made our way back to Gansevoort Street and scored an outdoor table at Bubby’s, a cafe my friend Rebecca Sweet had recommended and which is overlooked by the High Line. We enjoyed a delicious early dinner and stayed to people watch for a while before walking back up the High Line stairs.

Now the light was low in the west, and the grasses and fading perennials had a golden glow.

I noticed a perfect color echo between the Hudson River and these blue shutters.

Plank paving with “colonizing” Mexican feathergrass

Back at the Tenth Avenue Amphitheater, we saw that the traffic-watching crowd had grown. Everyone wanted to pose for a photo in front of the windows overlooking the street.

These two women “sat” against the window, which created an illusion of sitting in midair, and which must have provided an interesting rear view for pedestrians below.

We stood on the path above, leaning against the railing, and watched two artists drawing the same architectural scene.

The people-watching here was excellent, not only on the bleachers below but on the main path as people passed us. While my daughter watched the artists with rapt attention, I turned around and watched the throngs of people passing by. Young and old, fashionable and casual, tourists and locals, every nationality you might think of — as they passed I looked each person in the face, and they looked back. It was so different from the streets below, where everyone puts on blank stares as they rush by. It was a High Line connection.

Moving on, I admired this narrow planting bed with heuchera and sedge mulched with charcoal gravel.

A pretty combo

Surrounding buildings were bathed in afternoon light.

The Lawn was in shadow though.

A drummer had set up on one of the benches, and his rhythms made for a good walking beat, if you were in a hurry. We sat down to listen for a while.

By this time the streets were in shadow, with only the tops of buildings still glowing.

It was getting late, after a full day on the High Line and surrounding areas.

As the sun dipped toward the river we made our way along the rail path on the northern end.

Here we saw not just peel-up benches but peel-up tables too.

Children were playing in the Pershing Square Beams, where the underlying steel beams of the High Line have been exposed and coated in silicone for safety. Here, children are allowed to do all the things they want to do in other parts of the park but can’t, like climb and balance and jump and explore grassy planting beds up close.

An underground passage leads to a “gopher hole,” where kids can pop up to get a prairie dog’s view.

The northern end of the High Line is a curving arc with views open to the Hudson River and across a rail yard where commuter trains are stored between rush hours.

I neglected to take a picture of the rail yard, which is too bad because that industrial view will be long gone by the time I return to New York. The planned Hudson Yards redevelopment project will build a floating foundation over the trains and stack skyscrapers, parks, and a public plaza atop it. It’s a massive private development project that will transform the skyline, and the High Line will be right there alongside it.

For now, though, it’s a serene, less crowded part of the park. The gardens here are meant to look even more like the self-seeded wildscape amid the rails that people worked so hard to save.

What a loss had they not. And what a triumph of imaginative reuse the High Line turned out to be.

Up next: My visit to Wave Hill, a public estate garden in the Bronx overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades. For a look back at Part 1 of my High Line visit, click here.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Up on the High Line, a skyline promenade

Have you ever flown across the country to see one garden? I did last weekend. Rapturous articles and blog posts about the High Line, New York City’s garden-park conversion of an abandoned elevated rail line through the city’s old Meatpacking District, had seduced me for 5 years. One day last June, I suddenly resolved to go see it and invited my teenage daughter to join me on a girls’ garden-visiting, Broadway show-watching, big-city adventure. We flew to NYC last Friday, toured Wave Hill and New York Botanical Garden and saw an evening performance of the hilarious musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder on a cool, rainy Saturday, reserving sunny Sunday, our last day, for the High Line.

Wanting to get there early to beat the crowds, I set my alarm, yet managed to oversleep by an hour and a half. My daughter woke with what seemed like pink eye, necessitating a call to the pediatrician’s after-hours nurse for a prescription we couldn’t fill because nearby pharmacies were closed until 10 am (and out of stock when they did open). Undaunted, we rushed out without breakfast, took the subway from our Times Square hotel, gawked at caped and costumed Comic Con attendees streaming into the Javits Center, and entered the High Line on the northernmost end by the Rail Yards (the park’s newest section) around 10 am.

It was a crisp fall morning, and the first sunshine in days was peeking through the condos and other high-rises that surround the park and cast long shadows except at midday.

This new section of the park incorporates portions of the original railroad tracks into the pathways.

Exposed rails entice balancing acts, but the middle is smooth enough for strollers and wheelchairs thanks to a composite material that resembles the loose gravel that used to fill the space between the ties.

Cool design elements like “peel-up benches” seem to rise up out of the aggregate planking strips that make up the paths.

Old rail switches remain here and there for children to play with.

A few facts: The High Line is only about one-and-a-half miles long, and it consists mainly of narrow planting beds on either side of a zigzagging, boardwalk-style path that runs its length. Essentially a green roof, planting pockets are shallow, only 18 to 36 inches, which manage to support an extensive number of species, from wildflowers and perennials to shrubs and trees.

But all these onlys and restrictive elements can’t convey the expansive experience of walking the High Line. Liberated from the street, you’re up there, three stories high amid the architecture of Manhattan that spans two centuries. There’s a certain peacefulness to it, but also an energy and a sense of companionability. You feel connected to the city and your fellow High Liners.

If you don’t know the story of the High Line, here’s a synopsis. After 40 years of rail deliveries, trucking put the rail line out of business; the High Line fell into disuse in the late 1970s. Lined with razor wire that couldn’t keep out vagrants, drug users, and adventurers, it grew overgrown with opportunistic “weeds” like Queen Anne’s lace, chives, and ailanthus trees. Many people considered it an eyesore, and the city was on the verge of tearing it down when Friends of the High Line was formed to save it. For publicity purposes, the group hired landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld to photograph the High Line in all its wild, lonely beauty, and his images galvanized the public and the city to preserve the space as a park.

An international design competition was held, and the winning team of landscape architect James Corner Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf proposed to remake the line into a promenade and garden that pays tribute to the original, self-seeded wildscape that New Yorkers fell in love with. The first section opened in 2009, the latest in September of this year.

Development around the wildly popular park has been explosive. Cranes and construction are evident all along the park’s length but especially at the grittier northern end.

The Chrysler Building (above) and Empire State Building are visible from the High Line for now, although expected development will surely transform skyline views during the next decade.

The genius of the High Line, as many enthused critics have pointed out, is that it puts the city on view rather than closing it off with screenings of plants or manmade structures. The High Line is not a retreat from city life, at least not in the traditional, encompassing Central Park fashion, but a viewing platform for it. For example, where a billboard over 26th Street once peddled goods to passersby below, today its empty frame invites viewing of the street from built-in benches.

Park-goers, of course, are likewise framed for viewing by pedestrians on the street. It’s a playful interaction between the park and the surrounding city.

Art is also an important part of the High Line experience. Temporary exhibits of murals, sculpture, and performance art are commissioned by Friends of the High Line, which employs a full-time curator. Muralists who paint nearby buildings and street artists also find ways to put their own stamp on the High Line experience.

This explosively colorful and beautiful mural comes into view at West 25th Street and 10th Avenue, stopping southbound park walkers in their tracks. Painted by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra, it’s his reimagining of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo V-J Day in Times Square.

On a nearby bench, life was imitating art.

Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf’s grassy, American-meadow planting scheme is very much part of the park’s appeal too. You won’t see sweeping beds of colorful, pampered annuals here, nor Main Street-style hanging baskets. Instead, the gardens pay homage to the tough native and exotic plants — i.e., weeds — that grew here during the abandoned years.

Warm-season grasses, which don’t really get going until midsummer and bloom in fall, dominate large sections of the gardens and were aglow this sunny morning. Their touchable texture encourages you to run your hands along sweeps of prairie dropseed, sideoats grama, autumn moor grass, switchgrass, and little bluestem.

Alternating with open “grasslands” are sections of path enclosed by shrubbier plants.

The High Line gives you an up-close look at many interesting buildings along the way, and sometimes into the windows of residential apartments and studios.

This is 245 Tenth Avenue, one of the many new condominiums springing up along the High Line.

The original railings over streets, which create a fascinating shadow play, have been preserved.

A rectangular lawn overlooks 23rd Street along its length. A bit threadbare, it was closed for renovation during our visit.

Passing the open lawn you enter Chelsea Thicket, a densely planted, tunnel-like space that makes you feel as though you’re walking through a forest.

You emerge into another grassland and a small plaza whose openness is enhanced by contrast with the thicket.

Just ahead is a popular spot, Tenth Avenue Square, with peel-up benches arrayed under a bosque of maple trees.

Those peel-up benches make fun ramps for kids.

From the square you get a nice view of the Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve, a short, nonwalkable section that’s planted to evoke the wildscape that preceded the park.

Before the High Line was built to move the trains off the streets, Tenth Avenue was known as Death Avenue because of all the train-pedestrian accidents. Today the Tenth Avenue Amphitheater offers bleacher-style seating and a framed view of car and pedestrian traffic on the street below.

As hypnotic as a flickering fireplace, the Tenth Avenue view holds your attention, even on a sleepy Sunday morning. In the movie What Maisie Knew, a charming scene was filmed here, and I was excited to see it in person.

At this point, my daughter and I took the stairs down to Chelsea Market, an indoor retail and food market, for brunch. We came back up about an hour and a half later, sat on the bleachers for a while, and then continued our southbound High Line walk.

A yoga studio whose windows are level with the High Line had a class in session, and we stopped to watch for a few minutes.

Moving on, I noticed blush-pink hydrangea blossoms fading to green in the chilly fall weather.

Purple coneflower had gone to seed as well. Like all perennials on the High Line, they’ll be left standing through winter to provide food and cover for birds and other wildlife plus interesting views for visitors. In late winter everything is cut back to allow spring bulbs their shining moment and make room for new growth.

The design of paving strips with plants growing between them is one of the splendid design elements of the High Line, evoking the way plants colonize manmade structures over time. Unfortunately, their raised edges, which blend so well into the walkable paving, are a tripping hazard. You can see that low cable barriers have been installed, probably in an attempt to keep people out of the plants as well as to prevent tripping. But the irregular design that looks so great makes it difficult to rope off all the raised edges, and I stumbled over them a few times myself. The cables also detract unfortunately from the clean design of the paving. It’s too bad that the planted strips weren’t made level with the paths, but too late now.

Continuing south we entered Chelsea Market Passage, where trains once loaded and unloaded goods in the old Nabisco building. Today it’s a covered plaza with colorful bistro seating and art, food, and souvenir vendors.

The stained-glass windows in the Passage are an artwork by Spencer Finch called The River That Flows Both Ways, referring to the tidal movements of the Hudson River. Finch spent a day on the Hudson photographing the river once a minute. One pixel of color from each image was arranged chronologically on the windows to represent the passage of time and the elusive color of water. The actual colors at top are much bluer than my camera captured.

This is a little better.

And there’s the Hudson itself, one of many views you can enjoy from various points along the High Line.

Coming up: Part 2 of my visit to the High Line, continuing south to the steps at Gansevoort Street and our return northbound stroll later that afternoon.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.