I just got back from a week in southwestern Michigan, which is to Chicago what Cape Cod is to Boston. Sandy beaches with freshwater waves to splash in and spectacular sunsets are the main attractions, but they come with all the accessories of beach towns everywhere: ice cream stands, art galleries, antique shops.
There are two other things you’ll find in abundance in the vicinity: Dutch names and greenhouses. Immigrants who arrived from the Netherlands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought their country’s heritage of growing everything from tulips to tomatoes in sandy soil claimed from the sea. A lot of them set out to farm fruit or flowers on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, where the soil is also sandy and the buffer of the lake means mild winters with plenty of snow and placid springs.
I have friends with summer cottages in Michigan where they can grow perennials that would freeze in a Chicago winter. The more sheltered eastern shore also is a great place to grow fruit; in Michigan, the flowers of peaches, cherries, nectarines and plums usually escape the late-season frosts that would kill them in Illinois.
My family has a tradition of wandering country roads to seek out fruits and vegetables at farms and orchards in the area. It will take me the rest of the summer to work off the buttery corn on the cob I’ve had every night for a week.
It seems like every road we wander in search of the perfect corn or nectarines has a Dutch name, and so does just about every Michigan grower I’ve ever interviewed. I’ve never been to Holland, Michigan, for the Tulip Time Festival in May—I spend May gardening, not road-tripping—but I’m told by nongardening informants that there are thousands of tulips planted in beds all over town and a lot of traditional Dutch dancing.
I have two favorite gardens to visit in western Michigan. One is the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, a ways inland from the beach. The 132-acre park has a large contemporary conservatory with tropical and desert collections; display gardens, including one designed by Penelope Hobhouse; and a formal garden of lawns and hedges to set off a collection of traditional bronze statuary. A Japanese garden is scheduled to open in 2015.
But the wow comes from the modern sculpture park—dozens of eye-popping pieces, many of them huge, by artists from all over the world including Henry Moore, Joan Miro, Louise Nevelson, Richard Hunt and Claes Oldenberg (look for the trowel). Half the magic of these sculptures is their setting in a flowing, naturalistic landscape that frames and contrasts with them and provides plenty of surprises, glimpses and vistas as you walk along the paths. As the growing season progresses and the landscape changes, the frame shifts around the art. I’ve been there in spring and summer and I long to get there in winter, when I’m told the sculptures are spectacular in the snow.
I also love the park’s little-used boardwalk through a quiet wetland along the Grand River. I’m a big hiker, and Michigan has a lovely network of state parks and hiking and biking trails. When the touristy beach towns of western Michigan start to get me down, I can seek out a secluded dune, a bird-filled wetland, a green forest or a gentle river.
My other favorite western Michigan garden is the Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve near Niles. It’s a very woodsy place that includes extensive natural areas, a restored prairie and an arboretum, though it also some modest formal gardens. I love it as a spot to pause and inhale some tranquility before hitting the interstate to head back to the city.