Detroit's Belle Isle Gets a New Urban Garden
A new garden by a landscape artist with a curious interest in the Motor City gives Detroiters a reason to revisit Belle Isle.
Renowned Dutch Landscape Artist Piet Oudolf's work has taken him around the world, from London and Italy to New York and Chicago. But there was one place he'd always wanted to see: Detroit.
"I wanted to go to Detroit to look at the city, see how it's recovering from bankruptcy," says Oudolf, who also designed the Lurie Garden in Chicago and The High Line in New York City. So when The Garden Club of Michigan sent him a letter in 2016 to see if he would be open to designing an urban garden, he knew this was the time to finally visit.
When he arrived a year later, The Garden Club took him on a tour of the city that included Belle Isle, a 982-acre island in the Detroit River designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect behind New York's Central Park. They visited the island's beloved attractions, including the botanical garden and the Albert Kahn-designed conservatory and aquarium. But it was the grassy patch in front of the Neo-Gothic Nancy Brown Peace Carillon (erected with the help of readers of popular The Detroit News columnist Nancy Brown in 1940) that really stood out to Oudolf, who called it the most natural site for one of his gardens.
Planted last fall and set for a public opening in late August, the Oudolf Garden Detroit will grow into a work of art, characterized by Oudolf's signature use of colorful native grasses and hardy perennial flowers. It's given locals and tourists a new reason to visit the "Jewel of Detroit," which lures more than 4 million people a year to sunbathe on its beaches, bird-watch and enjoy a respite from city life.
The island has weathered many storms—both literal and figurative—including financial woes, flooding challenges and deferred maintenance of infrastructure, but has seen a resurgence in recent years. Last year it was the site of a somber memorial to remember all the lives lost to COVID-19. Oudolf's garden is expected to attract even more visitors to the island.
Knowing Belle Isle has its own special draw and needs, Oudolf designed the 2.5-acre space with features not found in his other gardens, including a native wetlands habitat and experimental rain garden. Fifteen perennial beds will showcase three of his signature planting styles.
Richard Thomas, grounds crew member and plants man with Oudolf Garden Detroit, says these styles have never been blended in any other Oudolf garden. One is a matrix design, where the underplanting is a grass (in this case, a native perennial called prairie dropseed) that holds together groups of plants and makes the bed look like a meadow. The other two styles Oudolf uses in the garden include block planting (which Thomas likens to "a quilt pattern in blocks, which translates into color and texture…almost like an impressionist painting") and grouping, a modernized take on block planting.
The terminology is a bit overwhelming, but of course, you won't need to be a plant pro to appreciate Oudolf's talent. "It's a garden where you can go and never will be bored or disappointed," Oudolf says. "It is also teaching people about plants, because you will see a lot of plants that you never have seen before or never have seen combined this way."
When Belle Isle's garden opens officially this summer, Oudolf hopes the pandemic will allow him to join many other Belle Isle revelers enjoying his creation in full bloom: "My suitcase is already packed."
Belle of the Ball
Make a day of it and visit these other popular spots on Belle Isle.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory Wander among exotic and rare plants from around the world at the country's oldest continually operating conservatory. The iconic glass building is located on a 13-acre parcel of land that includes a botanical garden; the Levi L. Barbour Memorial Fountain, designed by Marshall Fredericks; and the Peacock Sundial.
Belle Isle Aquarium Like the conservatory, the aquarium was designed by Albert Kahn and once housed a speakeasy in the basement. Opened in 1904, it's the oldest aquarium in the U.S. It closed in 2005 for financial reasons but reopened seven years later. During warmer weather, the aquarium's koi fish move from the basement to the Lily Pond located between the aquarium and conservatory.
Belle Isle Beach Enjoy a picnic while admiring Detroit's skyline from this swimming beach. Soak up the sun on the sandy shoreline or take a dip in the river.
James Scott Memorial Fountain Named for a real estate developer infamous for his scoundrel ways, the fountain boasts 109 water outlets in the shape of lions, turtles, Neptune figures and artistic horns. Sixteen carved panels depict early Detroit life. James Scott devoted his fortune to erecting the fountain, which was completed in 1925. He also demanded a larger-than life statue of himself be included. Legend has it that the statue was strategically placed so the fountain spray would hit him in the face.
Build Your Own Isle Picnic
Hit a local shop, or three, to gather the goodies for an alfresco meal.
Mongers' Provisions This well-stocked shop sells a tantalizing array of cheese, charcuterie, chocolate, wine and beer. Order picnic-ready premade charcuterie boards 24 hours in advance to feed two to four people.
Roses Fine Food and Wine Just across the river from Belle Isle, this charming diner now sells a curated selection of wine, beer and cider to go. Try a South African Chenin Blanc or a California rosé.
Ochre Bakery Pick up creative to-go mains, like a chorizo and aioli sandwich or a salad of cabbage, roasted squash and farro, at this Core City cafe. Round out the spread with a fresh baguette and Tunisian hummus or lemon pistachio cake for dessert.
Bring Belle Isle's Beauty to Your Backyard
Our garden writer shows how to take ideas from the Oudolf Garden Detroit and try them in your own backyard.