Renowned garden designer sets sights on Belle Isle

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Just days into his first visit to Detroit this past spring, world-renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf asked his hosts to return to Belle Isle, the site where he’d been asked to work his magic, to look around one more time.

“This garden will be a centerpoint between all these already existing buildings which (will) make it even more attractive to go to,” said Piet Oudolf.

Driving around the island with members of the Garden Club of Michigan, who’d asked Oudolf to come to Detroit, they neared the Nancy Brown Peace Carillon, a bell tower. Oudolf asked them to stop the car.

“He literally got out of the car, put his arms out and said, ‘Here is where my garden should go,’” recalled Maura Campbell, the club’s former president who was part of the group that gave Oudolf a tour. “It was like something out of a movie.”

Now the movie is coming to life. Oudolf, a superstar gardener who has designed gardens all over the world, including the Lurie Garden at Chicago’s Millennium Park and the High Line in New York, plans to transform a 6-acre site near Belle Isle’s Carillon with a 1.5-acre garden. The garden will likely be a mix of native and non-native plants that Oudolf hopes will inspire and surprise those who visit it.

“Surprise is something I always like to see,” said Oudolf during a meeting Thursday with reporters at Belle Isle’s Flynn Pavilion.

Oudolf — who was been called the most influential garden designer of the past 25 years — says he chose the site that he did because of its proximity to several of Belle Isle’s focal points: the pavilion, the Carillon Tower (named after former Detroit News advice columnist Nancy Brown) and the band shell.

“This garden will be a centerpoint between all these already existing buildings which (will) make it even more attractive to go to,” said Oudolf.

Oudolf’s garden comes at a significant time not only in Belle Isle’s history as the state Department of Natural Resources transforms the island into a state park but also the city’s, say garden proponents. Some hope that Oudolf’s garden is the first of several projects he’ll do in the city. Oudolf called the Belle Isle project “the beginning” on Thursday but didn’t commit to more.

“We’re excited to see what this could do,” said Campbell. “No city in the world has more greenspace opportunities than Detroit.”

But first volunteers will need to raise more than $2.5 million, which will cover the installation of the garden and its maintenance. Oudolf requires funds to maintain his gardens are raised up front, said Campbell. Installation will likely begin next year.

Getting Oudolf to Detroit wasn’t easy. Brainstorming ideas to do something big in the city, Garden Club of Michigan member Jean Hudson proposed reaching out to Oudolf to design something in Detroit, said Campbell. Oudolf has been compared to famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who designed New York’s Central Park and Belle Isle.

Oudolf’s’ work “isn’t pretentious,” said Hudson, who first saw one of Oudolf’s gardens in New York and felt a connection to it. “It looks native and natural.”

Piet Oudolf

But no one had any contacts with Oudolf. They reached out to filmmaker Tom Piper, whose film “Five Seasons with Piet Oudolf” will air Thursday night at the Detroit Film Theatre as a fundraiser for the Belle Isle project, who thought he might be interested.

In the end, Campbell says they mailed Oudolf a letter in late 2016. And in many ways, it was a love letter about Detroit, she said. It worked.

“We got a letter back in late 2016 and he said he would be interested,” said Campbell.

Oudolf, who toured Detroit in April, said he felt excited after his first visit to the city. And while he shrugs off comparisons to Olmsted, he said his legacy is about making gardens better.

The project is about creating something “for the park, but also for myself and for all people who love gardens,” said Oudolf.

Belle Isle was a natural choice for Oudolf’s garden given its connection to the Garden Club, which dates back 100 years.

“It’s also the living room, backyard and gathering space that brings Detroiters and people from the region together,” said Campbell.

Oudolf on Thursday didn’t get into specifics about the kinds of plants he’ll use in the Belle Isle garden, but said he never uses the same pattern and so much about garden design is about context, scale and composition. Oudolf said his designs are about creating a “community of plants” that will work well together.

“It will need to work all seasons and should be interesting from early spring to mid to late December,” he said. “We will try to keep the interest going year-round.”

And state officials hope the garden will have a spillover effect. Keith Creagh, the director of the state’s natural resources departments, hopes to use Oudolf’s garden as a “catalyst” to improve that entire portion of Belle Isle.

“Let’s figure out how we can make it a world-class area,” said Creagh on Thursday.

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Twitter: @mfeighan