How to Bring Belle Isle Garden’s Beauty To Your Own Backyard
This spring, a new garden is set to bloom for the first time at Belle Isle Park on the Detroit River near downtown Detroit. Called Oudolf Garden Detroit, the garden is named after renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, who designed this garden, Lurie Garden at Chicago's Millennium Park and the Highline in New York City.
Last summer, a team of professionals and volunteers planted 26,000 plants on 2.5 acres near the park's conservatory and peace carillon. We talked with plantsman Richard Thomas, who's been with the project from the start. He shared his garden favorites and ideas to borrow for your own backyard. "Oudolf chooses plants that grow well in community," says Thomas, "not just combinations of color but also with textural and seasonal interest."
Plant a Puzzle: Thomas says Oudolf is famous for his matrix plantings with tight, jigsaw-like planting blocks that simulate a meadow. He starts with a mass of grasses or sedges, then adds blocks of flowering natives like coneflowers and liatris. To recreate the technique in home gardens, Thomas says to plant a three-foot-wide meadow strip of prairie dropseed grasses, 'Fatal Attraction' coneflowers and white liatris. He advises to plant them tightly to create support and minimize weeds.
Add Ornamental Grasses: Thomas says ornamental grasses add year-round interest to a garden. Try 'Smoke Signal' little bluestem (below left) or tussock sedges (right).
Appeal to Pollinators: The Oudolf garden is designed with both aesthetics and pollinator appeal in mind. Look for pollinator favorites like 'Summer Beauty' allium (left) and butterfly weed (right). Thomas says the key is planting a mix of pollinator favorites that offer a sequence of blooms from early spring with flowers like Virginia bluebells to late fall with natives like asters and ironweed.
Mix in Bulbs: The team planted 48,000 bulbs that will bloom in spring, summer and fall. Thomas is a fan of species tulips that are small and grow close to the ground. In the Midwest's clay soils, he says species tulips tend to grow better and live longer than classic hybrid tulips. Try Tulipa clusiana 'Cynthia' (left) and Tulipa 'Virichic' — two species tulips planted at Oudolf Garden Detroit.
Mass for Impact: Many smaller flowering plants will disappear when planted solo, but in mass they truly shine. Thomas suggests planting clusters of 'Army Beauty' helenium (left), 'Visions' astilbe (right), 'Crystal Blue' salvia and calamint. For smaller gardens, try multiples of three to five; and for larger properties, try masses of 10 or more.
Weave Plants Together: Try juxtaposing plants like prairie dropseed grasses (left) with the dainty blooms of prairie smoke (right). On its own, prairie smoke's flowers get lost. But, when woven together with these grasses, they stand out.
Work with Wet Spots: When the park's grounds flooded earlier in the season, the team realized they needed to elevate the garden space by three feet and create a buffering rain garden to absorb excess water. In your own backyard, fill low-lying areas with water-loving plants like those in this rain garden. Thomas suggests 'Perry's Blue' Siberian irises (left), tussock sedges and blue cardinal flowers (right).
Create Winter Interest: Thomas says Oudolf Garden Detroit's plants remain standing through the winter then are mowed in late February. Several grasses and perennial flowers were especially selected for the appealing wintertime colors, texture, forms and bird-loving seedheads. A few seedhead favorites include 'Little Henry' rudbeckias (left), 'Hula Dancer' coneflowers, 'Moerheim Beauty' helenium (right), 'Matrona' sedums, 'Ceasar's Brother' Siberian iris, 'Prima Donna' Jerusalem sage and 'Moonshine' yarrow.
Borrow from Oudolf's Plant List: See Oudolf Garden Detroit's complete plant list and interactive map with plant ID and images. Be sure to check out two garden workhorses— Baptisia 'Carolina Moonlight' (left) and Amsonia hubrichtii (right), commonly known as blue star.
The garden will open its gates on Mother's Day weekend and will host an official grand opening in August. In the meantime, park walkers are catching glimpses of blooms through the garden fence.