No plants yet, but new Belle Isle garden moves forward

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
More than a dozen volunteers, fundraisers and landscape designers gathered Tuesday morning to break ground on the highly-anticipated Oudolf Garden Detroit on Belle. It'll be located in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon.

A highly anticipated garden on Belle Isle drawn up by world renowned Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf is beginning to take root as crews and volunteers on Tuesday broke ground, laying the groundwork for the first plantings which will go into the dirt in mid-September.

Holding shovels while banners that read "Oudolf" flapped nearby, a group of more than a dozen supporters and crew members stood in front of the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon on Tuesday as the sun shone down on where Oudolf Garden Detroit will be installed. Over the next three months, construction crews will improve the site's drainage, bolster the soil and install garden beds and gravel paths. 

"This is the beginning of a promise being kept -- for all of us," said organizer Maura Campbell, a member of the Garden Club of Michigan that brought Oudolf to the city by writing him a letter, asking him to design a garden on Belle Isle.

"This is the site of what we think will be one of the most remarkable gardens in the world -- not just in Detroit, not just in Michigan, but in the world," said Campbell.

Tuesday's groundbreaking comes just two years after the Garden Club's fateful letter and follows a remarkable timetable in which organizers have raised roughly $4.2 million to not just install the garden, which will span 2.5 acres, but maintain it. Oudolf requires that his gardens have a maintenance fund in place before they're planted.

Piet Oudolf points to a master plan he's designed for a garden on Belle Isle.

Oudolf has been hailed as a leader in the "new perennial" movement and is known for the immersive gardens he creates. He designed the Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York.

Oudolf Garden Detroit will one day be a world-class asset for Belle Isle, said Michele Hodges, president of the Belle Isle Conservancy.

"It's a big deal," said Hodges, who likens Oudolf's work and significance to that of famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Belle Isle. "It's an important moment in the Belle Isle timeline." 

But before the first plants can go in the ground, organizers and local landscape designers will first have to make sure the conditions are just right for a garden to take root. The site where the garden will be located is in a floodplain, and there's also a wetland so the soil is wet and heavy.

Drainage will be critical to make sure the plants don't just survive but thrive, said Meredith Simpson, a member of the Oudolf Garden Detroit "grounds crew," a dedicated group of volunteers. 

"It's absolutely paramount," said Simpson. "With poor drainage, you could have 20, 30 to 40 percent plant loss."

To prevent that, over the next three months, crews with Livonia-based Anglin Construction will remove all the topsoil from the site and dump it in the nearby parking lot. There, it will go through a huge grinder to adjust its pH, remove certain elements, such as limestone, and add other nutrients before it's returned to the garden.

A six-inch layer of granite-based gravel also will be laid down for water drainage. Steel edging for 26 garden beds also will be put in place. 

Jean Hudson and Maura Campell of Oudolf Garden Detroit are two of many people that were responsible for getting Piet Oudolf to create a garden on Belle Isle.

"We're draining the high ground water here so that gravel allows that water to drain away, but it still keeps it moist from below, too," said Shannan Gibb-Randall, a landscape architect with Insite Design Studio in Ann Arbor, the local firm helping bring Oudolf's vision to fruition. "That top layer then is in perfect condition for the plants he chooses for the site."  

Being in a floodplain with a wetland, Gibb-Randall said they also have to be careful about how much soil they add to the site.

"We can't have more than 300 cubic yards of additional soil here," she said. "It was a very detailed, subtle grading plan to be able make that work so we had the right soil conditions, the right look that Piet wants. It would be really easy to just raise the whole site up but we can't do that because of the floodplain. There's a lot of limitations but we managed to pull it off with everybody here."

No plants will go in this summer, but 18,000 -- the bulk from Michigan growers -- have already been ordered for the mid-September planting. Another large planting will happen in spring 2020 and the garden will likely open to the public in the fall of 2020.

Volunteers from around the world, meanwhile, are lining up to take part in the September planting. More than 600 have already signed up to help out, including people from South Korea and Lithuania.

But first, there's work to be done.

"Gardens get better as they grow," said Campbell. "This is the very beginning."

Twitter: @mfeighan