“You know, it’s interesting what happens around a garden,” Ken Weikal says as he stands under the trellis in the new Lafayette Greens garden. “If you have a park, people automatically know what it is, and they come and sit in it, but they don’t really interact with each other. Around a garden, though, they start talking.’’ “Yes,” Beth Hagenbuch agrees. “For some reason, a garden generates discussion among people, and gives them something to talk about.” People downtown are already talking about it, and after its opening on August 31 the new Lafayette Greens garden, commissioned by Compuware and designed by Beth Hagenbuch of Kenneth Weikal Landscape Architecture, the conversation is sure to spread.
As part of an ongoing effort to engage their employees in the community, Compuware approached Beth and Ken earlier this year and asked them to design a garden that employees and Detroit citizens could volunteer at, and enjoy on work breaks or after hours. Ground was broke at the site of the demolished Lafayette Building at Lafayette and Shelby in early June, and as it was rather late in the season the plants were grown offsite at Motavi Meadows in Howell and transplanted on June 18. “One of the hottest days of the year,” Beth remembers. Now, at the end of August, the garden is in full bloom and ready for its opening.
As she walks around the garden Beth points out the various features. The entrance is shaded by a trellis built with reclaimed metal beams from which orange and green flags are strung across the walkway. Eventually the flags will be removed and the hardy kiwi vines which are snaking their way up and around the beams will provide shade, and kiwi fruit. The promenade just outside the trellis is lined with raised beds holding lavender, grown and planted by Iris Underwood of Yule Love It Lavender in Leonard. “It’s meant to be a therapeutic element,” Beth explains. “It’s an exceptionally fragrant variety”. The raised beds which are situated on either side of the promenade are planted with a wide selection of vegetables, which will be given to Gleaner’s Food Bank. Their design required a bit of innovation, as the ground of the whole garden slopes down from Lafayette towards Michigan Avenue. The walls of the beds are shortest at the Lafayette side, and rise higher towards Michigan. The natural slope was also considered when planning for drainage during rains, as the whole area was dug out a bit lower than the streets surrounding it, and encircled by a retaining wall built of reclaimed concrete to filter the rain water before it runs into a storm drain located in the lowest corner of the garden. Indeed, the stark geometry of the lot was largely in Beth’s mind as she designed the layout of the entire garden, which can be appreciated in the sharp, angular beds and the diagonal walks that intersect the space as well as the garden “barns” which will house tools and equipment, and chalkboards where the garden manager, Gwen Meyer, will leave messages and schedules for the volunteers.
In addition to the vegetable beds, there is also an heirloom apple orchard, under which a “meadow” has been planted with flowers and plants that will attract pollinators to the vegetables. The most interesting part, though, has to be the children’s garden. It consists of several recycled juice barrels and fire rings placed in a circle, and filled with plants centered on a theme. The “Color Wheel” has flowers from the whole spectrum, the “Plant Zoo” has plants with animal names and different textures to attract little hands to touch them, and the “Salad Bowl” and “Big Enchilada” have plants one would find in a salad or those used for spicy dishes, respectively.
In creating the garden, both Beth and Ken wanted to show several things to visitors to the space. In addition to demonstrating the use of reclaimed materials in the beds and barns as well as the drainage wall, they wanted to show that a vegetable garden can be an attractive space. “Most people, when they hear of someone that wants to plant a vegetable garden in front of their house, think ‘Oh, it will be a mess’. We wanted to show that a green space can be both functional and attractive—a vegetable garden can be pretty,” Ken states. The attractiveness of the space is evident, as visitors already walk through the gates even though it isn’t open to the public yet. “It is amazing how many people walking by ask about it, and get so excited,” Beth says. “Just the other day I had a man literally hanging on the fence asking me ‘What is this?’, and when I told him it was a public garden and people would have the opportunity to volunteer at it, he said, ‘I am going to do that! And so is Flo!’” If the preliminary response to the garden is any indication of the future, Lafayette Greens will be feeding mouths, and spirits, for years to come.