Landscapes of luxury: A guide to metro Detroit's public gardens

Americans spend many hours tending their own little pieces of heaven on private lots. But they might consider taking a page from the Europeans and let someone else do the work.

Metro Detroiters can avail themselves of the spectacular green legacies of forward-thinking universities and garden-crazed oligarchs­. Landscapes that once were private pleasure domes for some of the region's well-to-do are now quasi-public spaces where even the most unkempt freelance journalist can wander about as though he were a gentleman.

These places offer unique charms that blend the natural and the contrived, providing inspiration for home gardeners. They also give respite from the buzz of city and suburb—but they're not so far away as to drive up your gas bill.

So, seriously, take a break from pulling the dandelions from your lawn and go for a walk around one of these unique spaces.

Oakland County

Cranbrook House and Gardens

The gardens at Cranbrook evoke an old-world sensibility. The Tritan Pools near the art museum form a long, tree-flanked esplanade reminiscent of Italian and French gardens. The sunken garden’s walls call to mind English gardens, as do the brick walkways in the herb garden above it.

George Booth, co-founder of Cranbrook and owner of the Detroit Evening News, was an advocate of the Arts and Crafts movement that championed by turns simplicity and complexity. Many of the gardens here are not flashy, but they invite the viewer in, revealing themselves over time with rich assortments of leaf texture, use of vertical space and strong lines of the surrounding architecture.

“This is a thinking man’s garden,” as Cranbrook expert Judy Lindstrom says.

Perhaps the most visually exciting space is the Sunken Garden with its yearly display of geometrically arranged annuals. Last year over 10,000 begonias were planted here.  Lindstrom describes it as the “ooh-ahh” garden. The protected micro-climate of this spot also made it a perfect place for a victory garden during the second World War.

Other significant spaces include the Japanese garden, reflecting pool and sundial garden. The various elements are joined together by what Lindstrom identifies as French gardener Andre Le Notre’s concept of "cross access." Used at Versaille and the U.S. Capitol, the technique provides an extended viewing area that breaks three-quarters of the way down with a vertical element and open space on three sides, arranged in a cruciform manner.

The strength of the individual gardens at Cranbrook, as well as the way unique elements are combined, make this garden a surprise-filled pleasure for wandering.

Cranbrook House and Gardens are located at 380 Lone Pine Road, Bloomfield Hills, MI. Admission is free and more information can be found on the new app devoted to the house and grounds.

Tollgate Center

The MSU Tollgate Center is an educational space in Novi promoting plant and animal husbandry. Numerous demonstration gardens float freely in the center’s copious acreage, unmoored from a prevailing design. 
But any lack of formality is more than compensated for by the presence of adorable baby goats and lambs, as well as the center’s educational programming and the informative content of the gardens themselves. Here you'll find a children’s garden, a rock garden, a lake and wetland garden, a garden for people with mobility challenges and a small arboretum intended to help people find trees to replace ashes killed by the emerald ash borer.

You might explore the acres of woodland carpeted in wildflowers and traveled by whitetail deer, all within a stone’s throw of Twelve Oaks Mall. Some of the trees are used for maple syrup production. 
Check out the list of upcoming events and note the plant sale happening on June 4. The Tollgate Center also hosts a Community Supported Agriculture program where people can sign up for a weekly share of organic vegetables and a Plant a Row for the Hungry program that donates food to local food pantries.

MSU Tollgate Center is located at 28115 Meadowbrook Road, Novi, MI.

Macomb County

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House sits on the shore of Lake St. Clair where it provides a relaxing haven for animals and humans alike. On a recent Sunday, this author spotted an almost absurd amount of wildlife in and around Bird Island, the Estate’s primary natural area that juts out into the lake. This included a number of northern water snakes, painted turtles, blue-jays, cardinals and a mother swan and her cygnets hiding under a tree in the cove.

Like the Henry Ford Estate, this property was designed by landscape architect Jens Jensen, who helped to evolve a style of design suited to the American Midwest. Although there are many foreign influences here, from the Cotswolds-inspired architecture of the buildings to the vaguely Japanese nature of the lagoon near the swimming pool, the overall feeling is a garden that is unique to Michigan. 
There are a few formal gardens, but the informal elements of the Edsel Ford Estate seem to stand out most, particularly Flower Lane–a grassy alleyway of flowers between the formal gardens and the great lawnwhere either side is lined with perennials that bloom throughout the year. Recently, tulips were in bloom here, making it appear as a strange candy-colored highway. Appropriately, the playhouse, which is a Hansel and Gretel style house for miniature adults, sits at the end of Flower Lane.

Garden tours take place on the third Thursday of each month with a Jens Jensen tour coming up on May 19.

The Edsel and Eleanor Ford House is located at 100 Lake Shore Road, Grosse Pointe Shores, MI. It is open every day with a $5 dollar charge for visiting the gardens.

George George Park

George George Park is a riverside park in Clinton Township just outside of Mount Clemens. The vaulted entryway and fountain might make a first-time visitor mistake it for a cemetery, but it is actually a former golf course. Signs at the entrance say, “No Alcohol, No Golfing,” which makes one wonder if the first has somehow engendered the second. It’s just as likely that the long greenways were just too hard for rogue golfers to resist.

A large playscape features a rock-and-water sculpture which allows people to dip their toes in during the warmer months, and a picnic shelter and clean bathrooms make this a good space for a family get together. But probably the most interesting part of the park isn’t the manicured acres of suburban splendor, but the boardwalk that wanders through a marsh behind the Meijer and Aldi super-stores on Gratiot. 
Here, muskrats build their condominiums amid cattails and reeds and a number of birds perch atop the grass. The trail goes over the Clinton River and unauthorized trails wander off on either side. The river itself is beautiful and the queer combination of manmade infrastructure and wildness makes the area an interesting study in contrasts.

George George Park is open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. and is located at 40500 Moravian Dr, Charter Twp of Clinton, MI. Admission is free.

Wayne County
The Henry Ford Estate

The Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn is another local garden that employed the services of Jens Jensenalthough he was eventually relieved of his duties as a result of conflicts with Clara Ford over her preferences for exotic plants and his insistence on natives. Still, the grounds bear witness to many of Jensen’s ideas, including the concept of "delayed view" where he would use curving meadows and drives to withhold vistas and architecture rather than revealing them all at once. There is also the “Path of the Setting Sun”: a meadow aligned to coincide with the path of the setting sun on the summer solstice, framing it through a gap in the trees.

Although Jensen insisted on native influences and helped develop what came to be known as the “prairie school”a landscape equivalent to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright who worked on the Ford housethe grounds here have a familiarity with the work of English gardeners like Capability Brown, who constructed long lawns flanked with trees to draw the viewer out into the landscape.

This is a pleasing landscape to walk and benefits from its connection to natural areas now managed by the University of Michigan Dearborn's interpretive center. The swamp, woods and areas around the Rouge River are home to abundant wildlife, although the mosquitoes can be a bit of a problem during the summer.

The Henry Ford Estate is located at 4901 Evergreen Rd. Dearborn, MI and is open from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Due to renovations of the Ford House, it will only be open on weekdays during the summer. Admission is free.

Belle Isle

Belle Isle first opened in 1845 and is the nation's largest island park. (Read more here about Belle Isle's history, design and future). The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory with its Palm House, Tropical House, Showroom, Cactus House and Fernery is a great destination in any season. During the summer months it is also the backdrop for the lily pond, rose garden and various perennial and annual plantings. The west side of the Island has a number of other attractions including the James Scott Memorial Fountain and Belle Isle Aquarium.

But perhaps the island’s most interesting area is comprised of the woods and canals on its eastern end. Frederick Law Olmsted, who worked on the early designs for the park, championed this side of the island as its most important feature. It remains a home to rare species of trees, wildflowers and animals. The Belle Isle Nature Zoo provides an introduction to some of these and hosts regular programming on the island’s ecology for adults and children. The walk up to the lighthouse and around the blue heron lagoon is perhaps the best on the island and affords a glimpse of numerous birds and wildflowers as well as passing freighters.

Belle Isle is located at 2 Inselruhe Avenue Detroit MI and is open year-round. A State of Michigan Recreation Passport is required for vehicles.

Washtenaw County

Nichols Arboretum

Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, known as “The Arb” amongst Ann Arborites and University of Michigan alums, is a brilliant hybrid of natural areas, formal gardens and less-obviously managed spaces.

Created in 1907 as a joint venture of the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor, much of the land was donated by the Walter and Esther Nichols family.  In 1934, the university affirmed it would "become a haven of quiet one hundred years from now when our rich native flora will have become a thing of the past in most places."

The Arboretum stands on hilly ground on the Huron River and offers a variety of terrain. Of special note are the peony gardens in bloom in May and June, the wetland boardwalk with a number of interesting plant species including the American Hornbeam or “musclewood” tree and the prairie on the east side of the Arboretum, which is managed by controlled burns. Other collections feature magnolia trees, white pines and plants collected from Appalachia going back to the 1920s.

The arboretum is a great place to find out about new plant species, observe wildlife and get some exercise. This  calendar of what’s in bloom can help you plan your visit or at least know what to look for. But there is really no bad time to visit, and with so much to see it’s well worth the trip from metro Detroit.

The Nichols Arboretum is located at 1610 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, MI . It is open every day and is free to enter.