“He’s really the pre-eminent plantsman globally, doing new interesting work in the naturalistic planting movement,” says Meredith Simpson, a member of the volunteer grounds crew.
Click on the player above to hear a volunteer on the new Oudolf Gardens, and see photos of the planting below.
The whole project is run by volunteers and was funded by individual donors, garden clubs, and foundations.
Simpson says the project was brought to life after the Garden Club of Michigan wrote a letter to Oudolf, asking him to design a garden for Detroit.
“So that’s really the plan, is to have the garden contribute to community here in Detroit.” — Meredith Simpson, volunteer
“It literally said, ‘Dear Piet, this is a love letter from Detroit,’” says Simpson. “He said that when he got the letter, just seeing ‘Detroit,’ knowing the name, knowing the reputation… he was so intrigued. He just thought ‘I would love to visit that city,’” says Simpson.
Oudolf, who worked on The High Line, a popular rail-to-trail park in New York City, is known for his natural-looking design and for showcasing how the seasons impact foliage.
“The textures of the plants in their dormancy, the shape of seed pods, the color of stems, the way that grasses dry are all important to the overall design,” says Richard Thomas, another volunteer grounds crew member.
Building the initial garden and filling it with plants cost $2 million. Another $2 million was raised and put into an endowment to pay for upkeep.
“Piet does not design a public garden project without maintenance funding in hand for at least 20 years,” says Simpson. “We are at the base of the endowment, we successfully raised that $2 million, but we’re hoping to double it to get to $4 million to make sure that this garden is well funded, that we can bring some education and some programming to Detroiters, to school kids, to gardeners and wannabe gardeners.”
“So that’s really the plan, is to have the garden contribute to community here in Detroit,” says Simpson.
First Look: Oudolf Gardens
The garden is designed so that pathways lead visitors through beds of perennial grasses and flowers that pop up again and again in different configurations throughout the space.
“He really tends to evoke a prairie or meadow feel and a lot of the plants really move with the wind,” says Simpson. “It kind of tugs on you emotionally sometimes, being in these gardens.”
While the Garden Club had Belle Isle in mind for the project, Simpson says Oudolf selected the specific site. It’s located between Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, a pond that has kayak rentals, an old bandshell that used to host outdoor concerts and the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, a small tower from the 1930s that plays music.
The Belle Isle site includes plants from all over but many are native to Michigan and surrounding states.
“What’s wonderful for us is that a lot of of Piet’s most favorite plants happened to come from our own Midwest,” says Thomas. “And so a lot of these plants are already native to us. And yet here they are coming back to us from a Dutch designer in new and beautiful combinations.”
Wetland landscaping and a rain garden for rain water runoff from a nearby roadway are also planned for the site. The main garden is scheduled to open to the public in the summer of 2021, after ADA concrete paths are installed and the plants fill out.