Gardening: Belle Isle conservatory plans Oudolf garden

Nancy Szerlag

If you haven’t visited Belle Isle in the past few years, put it on your “must do” list for 2018. Since the Michigan Department of Natural Resources took over the operations in 2014, the island park is well on its way to becoming the shining jewel it once was.

Under the direction of horticulturist Jeremy Kemp, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory currently houses a huge and diverse assemblage of tropical plants, including extensive collections of ferns, cacti, succulents and orchids. A visit to the conservatory in the dead of winter is a perfect way to find respite from the winter blues in a balmy setting stuffed with lush greenery and blooming plants. If you have a state park pass, entry to the island is free and there is no cost to visit the conservatory. While you’re there, plan to visit the Belle Isle Aquarium next door. It, too, has free admission. A daily pass to access the island is $9.

More exciting news is in the near future Belle Isle will feature a spectacular display of modern landscaping created by the internationally renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf.

The Dutch designer — who has been likened by some to the late famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City and Belle Isle — was charmed by the island, and it’s there that he can see one of his famed gardens.

Oudolf is a rock star in his world, says immediate past President Maura Campbell of the Garden Club of Michigan, who is spearheading the project.

Oudolf designed the famed Lurie Garden in Millennium Park in Chicago, several gardens at Battery Park in New York City and the full design of the High Line Gardens in Manhattan, as well as gardens throughout Europe.

Now the hard work of raising the money begins. Like the High Line Gardens in Manhattan, the Oudolf garden on Belle Isle will be a public-private partnership. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and a nonprofit organization will provide the financing and personnel to maintain the garden. Along with paid staff, volunteers will be a big part of the mix.

A feature length documentary, “Five Seasons: The Gardens of Piet Oudolf,” will be screened at the Detroit Institute of Arts at 7 p.m Jan. 4, as a fundraiser. To view the trailer go to Tickets for this event are $10, and may be ordered from DIA box office, (313) 833-7900, or

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.