A Rainy Day Revelation: Discovering Piet Oudolf's Belle Isle Garden in Detroit

Ashleigh Smith + photo

Ashleigh Smith

May 28
7 min read
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Conservatory in the fall at Belle Isle Garden in Detroit
Written By Lara Wadsworth

When I was tasked with writing an article about Piet Oudolf a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what I was getting into! I remember learning about the internationally renowned landscape designer as a college student in my horticulture program but didn’t think much of it. You learn about a lot of things in college after all. I remember loving his theoretical style but not having much connection to it. But then I had the opportunity to visit one of his gardens, and that changed quickly.

As I wrote the article I learned about the famous gardens he had designed. Most of them are in high-profile cities such as New York or Chicago or are close to home for Oudolf in Germany or the The Netherlands. But then I learned that there was one in Detroit! “Inspired by the energy of Detroit after receiving a ‘love letter from Detroit’ from The Garden Club of Michigan (GCM), Piet Oudolf designed this naturalistic public garden on Belle Isle.” What an honor for the citizens of Michigan.

Oh yeah, that’s me! I have lived in Michigan for about 20 years and am proud to call it home. Its green forests, winding rivers, plentiful lakes, and sandy beaches will forever hold a special place in my heart. Being an introvert, another thing I love about it is that not a lot of people come here. Since the state is a peninsula, not many drive through it accidentally on the way to somewhere else. You have to intentionally make a trip to the state in order to go. Yes, Detroit has gotten a lot of media… but mainly for crime and economic collapse. There are not a lot of tourists in the state. Most travelers who visit the Michigan touristy spots are from other places in Michigan or nearby states like Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, or Ohio. So, when I learned that a Piet Oudolf Garden was less than 3 hours away by car, I knew I had to go! Luckily, we were already planning a day trip to Detroit with some friends, and I added it to the docket.

When the day came, I was sad to see that it was cloudy and rainy. We spent the morning doing our other activities, and I hoped the weather would clear so we could have a good experience in the garden. When that time finally came, I put the garden's address in the GPS and realized that it was another 35 minutes away! I hadn’t realized that the garden was in a state park called Belle Isle in the middle of the Detroit River, which borders Canada. So, yes, the garden is in Detroit but it is located as far East as you can get. I was a little discouraged and contemplated not going. It was our last stop, after all, and it was the only thing between us and dinner. But I had my heart set on it, and my husband agreed that we should make the trip.

As we drove through downtown Detroit, something I had never done before, the excitement built. The sprawling city is largely in disrepair but still has that special feeling that only a big city has. Finally, we started seeing signs for Belle Isle. We turned onto the huge bridge that would bring us to our destination and crossed over one arm of the Detroit River. We arrived at the ticket booth, confirmed our Michigan Recreation Pass, got a map of the island, and asked for directions to the Oudolf Garden. The man in the booth told us to turn left, look for the huge statue of a guy on our horse, and take a right at that roundabout. Since we had never been here before, we had no idea what to look for other than that.

After a few wrong turns (the island is surprisingly large), we spotted the man on the horse and turned to the right. Ahead, we saw a huge greenhouse conservatory and lots of cars parked around it. I thought that maybe this was it, but I was confused by the greenhouse. We parked anyway and decided to hope for the best. Apparently, Belle Isle has a beautiful conservatory and aquarium too! Unfortunately, the conservatory was closed. I saw there were some fenced-in gardens to the side of the conservatory and I was nervous that since it was closed that we might not be able to visit the Oudolf Garden. My husband dashed inside the aquarium to ask about it while I stayed outside with the dog and my son in his stroller.

At this point, it was still very cloudy, but the rain had lightened to a drizzle. Manageable. I’ve never been one to be deterred by weather unless it’s extreme so I was glad it wasn’t pouring rain like earlier in the day. I was feeling a little apprehensive that the lack of sun and blue sky would deter from the beauty of the garden, if we got to see it at all.

My husband came back outside and said that the Oudolf Garden was just down the sidewalk and across one of the side streets. We headed in the right direction, and before long, I could see a familiar style of blocking plants up ahead. I did a little hop and said to my husband, “There it is! I can see it!”. We crossed a street and found ourselves transported into a beautiful garden meadow. I immediately recognized many native plants, including asters, prairie smoke, bee balm, irises, geum, and more. The clouds and long drive had not dampened the experience in the least.

I was astounded by the variety and coexisting cohesiveness expressed in the placement of these plants. They reminded me of my home state in all the best ways. Especially being on the Detroit River, it felt so fulfilling to experience this masterpiece. Since we were there in mid-May, the daffodils and irises were definitely the focal points. Yet, the budding foliage of the penstemons and the almost-ready-to-burst salvia flowers were equally part of the experience.

As we mosied through the paths, it all finally clicked for me. This garden is beautiful no matter what. That is the design. That is the genius behind Oudolf’s method. There is beauty in the life of the plants and in their death. There is beauty in the sunny days of summer, the frigid days of winter, and the rainy days of spring. Each plant’s life cycle was taken into account and valued. The expertly blocked plants perfectly juxtaposed the wildness of Michigan’s meadows with the rigid and industrial lines of Michigan’s cities like Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. The Garden Club of Michigan had written a love letter to Oudolf, and Oudolf wrote a love letter to Michigan. At least, that is what it felt like for me.

In the end, I am so glad that we made a special trip to see this beautiful garden. I plan on going anytime I am in the area to see how it transforms throughout the year. To anyone who travels near an Oudolf garden, please visit! It is worth it!

Lara Wadsworth, True Leaf Market Writer

I am a native of Southwestern Michigan, where I also reside, and I love all things plants! I got a Bachelor's Degree in Horticulture and found the first work-from-home job I could get. Now, I spend my days writing for TLM, playing with my dog, eating delicious food with my husband, and plotting my next landscape or gardening move. I believe everyone should get down and dirty in the soil now and then. Happy Gardening!

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