Photo Credit: Zinnia
Hovering 30 feet above street level alongside downtown New York City's west side, the 10-month-old High Line park showcases the "new wave planting" style of Dutch horticulturalist Piet Oudolf in old railroad tracks. Meanwhile, far uptown along 5th Avenue, the Central Park Conservatory Garden has been a tranquil refuge for visitors since 1937, allowing plant lovers to explore its three, highly refined, traditional garden styles: English, French and Italian. Though neither settings resemble your standard, orderly cutting gardens—nor are these public spaces meant for snipping resident flora—both are great sources of inspiration when designing your own. High Line gardener Kyla Dippong and Central Park Conservatory curator Diane Schaub consult.
Study your environment
The High Line is home to 210 plant species that thrive despite constant hardship: wind, irrigation issues, an average of 25,000 daily visitors who may or may not understand the difference between walkways and garden beds, and more. It is a prime example of how a garden persists despite unusual environmental challenges. While you will not have to worry about a lot of these challenges, it is still important to understand what you're up against. Is your designated location sunny, shady or exposed to wind currents? Use a compass to find out if you have a southern exposure (full sun all day), western exposure (afternoon sun) or less sunny eastern and northern exposures. Is the soil in good condition?
Avoid digging and use containers
If finding the right spot in your yard is too complicated, a container garden, which can easily be rearranged or moved, would give you more control. For containers, anything goes. You can grow flowers in an old boot. Just keep in mind that you don't want to buy a plant larger than the container because they need room to spread their roots.
Keep a journal
Before you get dirty, figure out what pleases you first—and take notes. The best thing, says Schaud, is to visit some nurseries and gardens. "If you go to a botanical garden, they have names displayed," she says. "Better yet, take pictures of things you like, because you forget very easily." Continue note-taking as you proceed with your garden—including weather patterns, budgetary concerns and other good sources of information.
Understand the roots of the plants you want to grow
Think about where your plants are coming from in relationship to where your garden is. Are the growing needs of your plants compatible with your local climate? You may love sunflowers, but if your garden gets a lot of shade, they're not going to grow. "The key to gardening is finding the right plant for the right place and conditions," says Dippong. "Some of that is trial and error. Sometimes you just have to replace them." Because of a glass-paned hotel that straddles the body of The High Line, creating a magnified heat source and ultimately drifts of dry spots, there are a lot of drought tolerant species in the park, such as perennial meadow phloxes and grasses. In fact, Oudolf designed the gardens using 80 percent of its current plants from native vegetation that had been languishing on the former rail beds.
Compost is key
Compost adds to health and richness, and is environmentally friendly. Make your own, or buy from your local retailer.
Keep them coming
Generally, people think of cutting gardens as mid-summer to August bloomers, but they can be year round, especially with dried flowers. "A lot of people who go shopping in nurseries when things are blooming early in the spring season aren't left with much in mid- or late-summer, so think about the succession of blooms," says Schaub. "You don't want everything blooming at once, so that later on there's nothing." This means planting a variety of crops so that your garden has a point of interest at any given time (i.e. something blooming month after month). Use seasonal flowers like witch hazel (winter), wild quinine (summer), chrysanthemums (fall) and tulips (spring).