The Oudolf Garden Detriot is the newest public Piet Oudolf project in the United States. As this site comes to life there is a renewed appreciation for the work, investment, talent, and team it takes to make these gardens.

This amazing project began when the Garden Club of Detroit wrote a letter to world-renown garden designer and creator of Lurie Garden’s perennial design, Piet Oudolf,  inviting him to design a public garden in their city. Intrigued, Piet traveled to Detroit to look at potential locations for one of his gardens on Belle Isle.

The chosen site is on Belle Isle located right outside of the Detroit downtown area.

Impressed by the views of downtown Detroit he selected a large underused sweep of lawn area across from the towering Nancy Brown Peace Carillon. This dramatic site is in view of the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and near a popular area often used by the public for picnics and other gatherings. After this ideal spot was identified, Piet confirmed his interest in the project and a team of volunteers began fundraising.

The issue of drainage

As beautiful as this site is, it had a particular set of interesting challenges as the park is essentially a river delta. In order for this garden to succeed, it needs to have adequate drainage, which can be quite a puzzle on an island. In fact, in early 2019 the design was complete, plants were ordered, and the project was to move forward but the site suddenly flooded.

Fortunately, the project team includes a talented landscape architect, Shannon Gibb-Randall, principal of InSite Design Studio. Shannon got to work on solving the issues around water flow.

Piet Oudolf’s design for the Oudolf Detroit Project was finalized in early 2020.

The Oudolf Garden Detroit Design

After the site’s drainage issues were solved, Piet revised his design. This new design consists of 16 garden beds. Piet designed the beds to follow the flow of how the water runs into the river during a rain or snowmelt. The organic arrangement of these beds creates interesting walking lines through the garden. Even though the site was prepared to avoid flooding, the merging of this flow concept with the design meaningfully connects the garden to the landscape around it.

Maps of each of the 16 garden beds include the list of plants and the amount of each needed.

Some beds are designed to be in a block pattern and some in a more intricate matrix planting. Over 26,000 plants made up of over 100 species comprise the planting plan. There are many species found at Lurie Garden, such as thread leaf blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) while there were also some exciting new varieties including Astilbe ‘Visions in Pink.’

The projects 100 species comprised of 26,000 plants were centralized at the planting day’s impromptu ‘nursery’. Garden phlox ‘Sweet Laura’ (Phlox paniculata ‘Sweet Laura’) was originally discovered in Lurie Garden. It has been finding its way into other Oudolf gardens.

As with many of Piet Oudolf’s gardens, he often incorporates into his design an area that echoes the native landscape. In Lurie Garden, a prairie meadow extends the full southern width of the garden. The Oudolf Garden Detroit will include a wetland, an exciting edition slated to begin in 2021.

Executing the design

Once Piet finalized the design in early 2020, the work of sourcing plants that hadn’t been ordered the year before began. In these projects, Piet estimates how many plants will be needed to fill a particular area and plant-hunting begins to find what growers carry or will be able to produce the types and amounts needed.

If a particular plant was not available, Meredith worked with Piet on selecting acceptable substitute plants. Richard Thomas, the only male member of the Garden Club of Detriot, and a stellar volunteer on the OGD team, drove all the way to Connecticut to pick up New Moon globeflower (Trollius ‘New Moon’)!

Meredith and Amy Simpson. Meredith is a key member of the Oudolf Garden Detroit team. She was the Project Manager for the planting.

Lurie Garden’s former Director, Laura Ekasetya, and Meredith Simpson of the Oudolf Detroit Project. Lurie Garden hosted Meredith as a guest gardener last year in order for her to see the process of maintaining a Piet Oudolf Garden.

Planting of the garden was originally planned to begin in Spring 2020 and included a wide range of volunteers. Unfortunately, this planting timeframe landed at the height of the pandemic. Meredith Simpson, the planting’s Volunteer Project Manager pushed the planting schedule to the end of the summer with the hope conditions would have improved.

Piet Oudolf normally is on-site during the planting of his designs but he was unable to travel so the workforce plan shifted. A small number of people who have worked with Piet and a hired crew for planting would replace the large fleet of volunteers originally planned.

The design of each bed was transferred to the beds with spraypaint by Roy Diblik and Austin Eischeid to indicate the basic location of the various plants. Annamaria Leon sorted plants at the on-site nursery to be transferred to the 16 garden beds that make up the design. Batches were assigned drop-off coordinates and, once delivered, were set out by the team, ready for planting.

Piet’s designs are transcribed onto the ground with spraypaint. Plant tags mark what circles are for which plants.

Plants were shuttled from the impromptu nursery to where they will be planted.

Laura Ekasetya - Oudolf Detroit Project - 08.2020 - Ryan Southen

Laura Ekasetya, former Lurie Garden Director & Head Horticulturist, discusses planting strategy with Project Manager, Meredith Simpson.

Plants were placed, ready for the planting crew to come through and put them in the ground.


Next steps

Like Lurie Garden, Oudolf Garden Detroit includes a bulb design, the design of which Piet completed soon after the planting was installed. This bulb design will be made up of over 47,000 very natural-looking bulbs such as species tulips and alliums. Last fall Lurie Garden installed a bulb redesign made up of over 60K bulbs to be incorporated into a mature garden. The planting of the Oudolf Garden Detroit bulb design, scheduled for the end of October 2020, in this young garden will be comparatively easier.

The scheduled opening of the Oudolf Garden Detroit is still being calculated. If everything goes smoothly the world will have yet another Piet Oudolf garden to take our breath away.

Learn about Lurie Garden’s Spring Blub Display here.

Share this post: