World-Class Outdoor Garden Takes Shape on Belle Isle

The musical chiming of Belle Isle’s stately Nancy Brown Peace Carillon will take on an even more beautiful air once its 85-foot tower is surrounded by a new world-class outdoor garden.
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The plan for new gardens, designed by Piet Oudolf, will include 25,000 flowers along with wetland and rain gardens.
The plan for new gardens, designed by Piet Oudolf, will include 25,000 flowers along with wetland and rain gardens. Photography courtesy Oudolf Garden Detroit.

The musical chiming of Belle Isle’s stately Nancy Brown Peace Carillon will take on an even more beautiful air once its 85-foot tower is surrounded by a new world-class outdoor garden. Created specifically for the Detroit island park by preeminent Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, the 2.6-acre, $4.2 million Oudolf Garden Detroit project will feature walkways winding through beds of 25,000 plants and include both a wetland and a rain garden, according to Duncan Campbell, who is part of the all-volunteer organizing taskforce — called the Grounds Crew — behind the project.

“We’re taking a spot in this cultural heart of the island that is really just mowed grass right now around the bell tower, and we’re creating this amazing, artistic, public garden that is free.” 

Meredith Simpson

Garden Photo Courtesy iStock
Garden Photo Courtesy iStock

“We’re taking a spot in this cultural heart of the island that is really just mowed grass right now around the bell tower, and we’re creating this amazing, artistic, public garden that is free, that will have four-season interest and will become an urban oasis in the city for anyone to enjoy,” Grounds Crew volunteer and Detroit resident Meredith Simpson said.

The first of two planting phases was scheduled to begin last summer, but high Great Lakes water levels caused the Detroit River to also rise and seep into the garden site, which put plans on hold, according to Campbell. To accommodate the variable water levels that are expected to become the new normal, Oudolf revised his design to elevate much of the garden and move it farther from the shoreline and new retaining walls. A special drainage layer below the soil also has gone in.

Flowers Along with Wetland and Rain Gardens

While that work continues, Simpson is busy procuring the 25,000 flowers and grasses that will fill the garden. “We have 90-some percent of the plants sourced from growers around the state of Michigan and nearby in the Midwest, so that’s amazing,” she said.

“Before I got into this project, I had no idea how many professional growers there were or just the extent of the horticulture industry here in Michigan.”

Instead of planting in two phases, the plan now is to get everything into the ground in one massive effort this summer. Despite the scale of the project, Campbell is confident. “We have more than 3,300 people on our email list following the progress of the garden, and we have more than 900 volunteers signed up to help with the planting of the garden.

The Plan For New Gardens Designed By Piet OudolfThese volunteers are people from around the country, and we are expecting people from other countries, as well,” he said. “I have never been involved in a project where there has been so much excitement.”

More about Oudolf Garden Detroit on Belle Isle is found at oudolfgardendetroit.org.

Leslie Mertz, Michigan BLUE Magazine.


*Photography courtesy Oudolf Garden Detroit

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