18,000 plants ordered for new Belle Isle garden by renowned designer

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
World renowned landscape designer Piet Oudolf goes over his master plan last fall for Oudolf Garden Detroit, which will be located in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon on Belle Isle.

Maura Campbell has a term for what will happen to an acre and a half swath of empty green space in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon on Detroit's Belle Isle over the next two years. And it isn't as simple as planting a garden. It's more than that.

"I call this a garden-raising, kind of like a barn-raising," said Campbell, one of several organizers in Detroit who've been working to bring a garden designed by world renowned Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf to fruition.

And with hundreds of volunteers signed up and more than $3 million raised, that "garden-raising" is inching closer to actual installation.

More than 18,000 plants in 90 varieties are being ordered for the garden's first planting, which will happen in mid-September, said Campbell. And bids went out earlier this week to hire landscape contractors to help oversee the garden’s installation. They're due back March 11.

Oudolf Garden Detroit will be installed on an acre and a half of land in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon Tower. Hardscaping will be installed this summer and the first round of plants will go in in mid-September.

Funding for the garden, meanwhile, is nearly in place, a remarkable feat given that the project was just announced roughly a year ago. Oudolf agreed to come to Detroit to design a garden after the Garden Club of Michigan sent him a letter.

"I think it's the power of Piet," said Campbell.

Campbell says they're about $300,000 to $500,000 shy of the roughly $4 million they'll need to both install and maintain the garden.

And while they've secured several large grants from groups such as the Knight Foundation, which awarded a $250,000 grant for the garden in November, now they're hoping smaller, but equally important, donations from individuals will fill in the rest of the gaps. A crowd-funding campaign will likely be launched in the next month.

"We really want people to feel like this is their garden," said Campbell. "Piet builds gardens to bring everyone in."

Maximilianpark in Hamm, Germany is an example of the gardens Piet Oudolf creates with constantly changing and evolving plants.

Oudolf is known throughout the world for his organic, dynamic landscape design. Considered a "landscape designer at the forefront of the New Perennial movement," he's known for creating immersive gardens that evolve from season to season. He designed the renowned High Line in New York City and the Lurie Garden in Chicago.

Local organizers, who call themselves "the grounds crew," have used Oudolf's earlier projects, including the Lurie in Chicago and a meadow Oudolf recently designed for the Delaware Botanic Gardens as a tutorial of sorts to get a better understanding of how these gardens come together.

Meredith Simpson visited the Delaware Botanic Gardens last April with fellow grounds crew member Richard Thomas, watching hundreds of volunteers plant 20,000 plants for Oudolf's meadow in a matter of days. The experience was invaluable, she said.

“We literally wanted to help plant, but also wanted to see and learn from their processes,” said Simpson, an avid gardener who has been following Oudolf’s work for years. “It’s a complex endeavor to organize 80-100 volunteers per day in planting thousands of perennials according to a very precise, intricate planting design.” 

Because Oudolf’s designs are so intricate and detailed, Campbell said they may need to train volunteers who sign up for the project. More than 270 have already lined up to help from all over Michigan, along with Ohio, Illinois, New York and Washington D.C.

Michelle Charette, 31, of Ferndale has signed up to be a volunteer. Though she doesn’t call herself an avid gardener, she plans to take a Master Gardener course through Michigan State University this fall. And she’s excited to see the vision Oudolf has for Belle Isle.

“I’m always looking for interesting ways to give back to our community and Oudolf Garden Detroit seems like a great way to get outside, meet fellow nature enthusiasts and make Belle Isle, a spot my fiance and I frequent, even more beautiful,” said Charette.

Some Oudolf fans from as far away as Japan and Lithuania have also expressed an interest in coming to Detroit for the installation.

"We want to involve as many people as want to be involved, but it’ll have to be orchestrated," said Campbell. "There will be a couple of training sessions for people who want to be more involved."

Most of the plants, meanwhile, will come from Michigan growers, Campbell said, a fact organizers are thrilled about.

"The plants are coming from nine sources -- seven from Michigan, one from Wisconsin and one from the Netherlands," said Campbell.

Organizers also are creating a unique database for Oudolf's garden that will allow interested visitors to not only learn about each plant included but also where the plants can be found or sourced.

"It's amazing," said Campbell. "The idea is that it's also going to be an educational tool."

Simpson said there's nothing like the garden Oudolf has designed for Detroit and hopes it will mean great things not just for Belle Isle, but Detroit.

"We want to show people a new kind of garden — using a wider plant palette including native plants and grasses in exciting combinations with other durable perennials," said Simpson. "It’s going to be amazing to see the birds, pollinators, butterflies. These gardens are literally humming with activity. I can’t wait!"

A second planting will happen in June of 2020. Campbell said the goal is to officially open the garden to the public in late summer or early fall the same year.


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Oudolf Garden Detroit

  • 18,000 plants in 90 varieties ordered for first planting, which will happen in mid-September.
  • Hardscaping, such as paths, will be installed this summer.
  • Bids out for general contractor for project.
  • Interested volunteers can sign up at www.oudolfgardendetroit.org.
  • Second planting in June 2020; garden will open in late summer or early fall 2020.