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Planting at new Oudolf garden on Belle Isle: 'It's a piece of art'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Editor's note: Photo captions have been changed to correct the names of volunteers who assisted with the project.

Putting together a one-of-a-kind garden with 26,000 plants is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Just ask Roy Diblik and Austin Eischeid. They've done it.

Diblik and Eischeid are part of a team of professionals and volunteers working in the city until Friday to bring to life a garden on Belle Isle designed by world renowned Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf. But getting 106 varieties of plants in the ground in 15 25-foot-long garden beds — all in a very specific design — takes precision.

Construction continues at the Oudolf Garden Detroit adjacent to the Nancy Brown Carillon Tower on Belle Isle on Saturday, August 29, 2020. 

Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

On Saturday, Diblik, a garden designer and the owner of a perennial farm outside Chicago who has worked with Oudolf on different projects in the U.S. for nearly two decades, carried around Oudolf's plans in one hand and a spray can in the other. Stepping on one of the raised beds, Diblik looked at the plan — filled with a complicated mix of Oudolf's Sharpie markings, indicating different types of plants — and then spray-painted circle markings on the dirt, showing which plants would go where.

"We interpret it," said Diblik, who first met Oudolf nearly 20 years ago when Oudolf reached out to him about helping with Lurie Garden in Chicago. "We try to translate what's on the page into the ground."

Crews lay out what plants will go where at the new Oudolf Garden Detroit on Belle Isle.

By the time Oudolf Garden Detroit is finished, the 2.5-acre garden being installed in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon between the Remick Music Shell and Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory will be unlike anything the city has seen before. It will include a variety of salvia, sedum, molinia grasses and much more. Nearly all of the plants are perennials and a majority are native to the Midwest. They're also grown by Michiganians.

The curved garden beds are divided by pathways that will eventually be filled with crushed granite so visitors can walk through the garden and see it up close.

"Detroit has nothing like this," said Duncan Campbell, one of the Oudolf Garden Detroit Grounds Crew who has been working on the project since the beginning.

Volunteer Richard Thomas carries various plants to bed 5 as part of the landscape and design for the Oudolf Garden Detroit project on Belle Isle on Saturday, August 29, 2020.

The garden is about creating "moments" and evoking emotion, said Eischeid, a Chicago landscape designer who has worked on roughly 10 Oudolf projects in the United States.

"There are small moments, big moments" with the plants, said Eischeid. 

But installing it is "very intricate," said Campbell. "It's a piece of art. Putting it together is like a jigsaw puzzle."

A team of paid workers and volunteers will work until Friday to get all the plants in the ground; white sticks in each bed indicate what plants go in certain spray-painted circles and the quantity. Later in the fall, a rain garden will be installed on the site. A grand opening — with Oudolf, Duncan hopes — will likely be held next summer.

Spray-painted circles indicate which plants will go where at the new Oudolf Garden Detroit on Belle Isle. The majority of the plants will go into the ground this week.

This week's planting comes more than three years after members of the Garden Club of Michigan wrote a letter to Oudolf, a rock star in the garden world known for his evolving gardens, and asked him to come to Detroit to build a garden. Oudolf agreed and picked the site on Belle Isle as the location.

Since then, volunteers have raised more than $3 million — half from major foundations in Detroit, half from small donors — to install and maintain the garden. But historic flooding on Belle Isle near the Carillon last summer pushed back the first big planting by a year and forced Oudolf to rework his master plan. Crews also changed the design of the site, raising the garden beds so flooding won't be an issue in the future. There are wetlands near the carillon.

A master plan shows what the Oudolf Garden Detroit will eventually look like. The colors indicate different types of plants.

And then COVID-19 hit. Hundreds of volunteers had hoped to play a role in the first major planting — some planned to fly into Detroit from other countries to help — but Duncan said they changed course and instead decided to go with a professional crew, which will arrive Monday to start planting.

"We couldn't risk our volunteers," said Duncan. "It's a big bummer."

But by the time the garden is finished, Duncan believes it will draw visitors from around the world like the Oudolf-designed High Line in New York and Lurie Garden in Chicago. It'll also be a place for community learning and involvement. More than 20 million people visit Millennium Park, which includes Lurie Garden, every year.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Volunteers Amy Simpson, right, and Michelle Lin-Luse are part of the landscape and design crew for the Oudolf Garden Detroit project on Belle Isle on Saturday, August 29, 2020.