Garden party: Delaware Botanic Gardens an open reality

Seven years in the works, the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek in rural Dagsboro officially opened to the public Monday. Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe

DAGSBORO – For nature lovers and horticulturists, the seven-year itch is over.

Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek officially opened this week, and excitement and anticipation of the present and future have just begun to scratch the surface.

“It is a week that we’ve waiting for, working toward for the last seven years,” said Ray Sander, Delaware Botanic Gardens president. “It has been something we’ve been wanting to scratch, and now we have something to show the public that it is really here. And we’ve had a great response from people already. It is very, very gratifying.”

Located on 37 acres off Piney Neck Road not too far from downtown Dagsboro, the Delaware Botanic Gardens is the only public garden in this part of Delmarva.

“The interesting thing about this property is it has several different features,” Mr. Sander said on Wednesday prior to several presentations. “It has a thousand-foot waterfront on Pepper Creek. There are 12 acres of woods. And there is the balance of the 25 acres of pretty flat farmland that is perfect for … a meadow!”

DBG’s grand opening is set for today from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. Starting Sept. 25, the botanic gardens will be open Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon.

There is an admission charge for non-DBG members.

A multi-million-dollar project, the botanic garden incorporates design scheme of Piet Oudolf, an influential Dutch garden designer, plant nursery man and author.

Mr. Oudolf, 74, has worked with world-famous gardens, including those in Chicago, New York City, the Royal Gardens in London and the Olympic Garden in Barcelona, Spain.

“And … Sussex County, Dagsboro!” said Mr. Sander. “We feel so we very lucky to have attracted him here. He visited us. He said this is beautiful and we can make it even more beautiful!”

The botanic garden, which officially opened to the public Monday, features a series of varying gardens, dunes, swales, woodlands and a living shoreline bordering scenic Pepper Creek. Plant and wildlife abound.

Ray Sander, president of the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek, addresses the audience prior to a presentation by Dr. Brian Trader, DBG’s deputy executive director and director of horticulture, at the garden’s Dogfish Head Learning Center.

In its previous life, the property was farmland.

“This was a soybean field,” said Delaware Botanic Gardens executive director Sheryl Swed.

Partnership through a generous lease agreement with the Sussex County Land Trust helped set things in motion.

“Sussex Land Trust purchased this property to save it as open space, and when they heard about the project, suggested we come out and look at it,” said Mr. Sander.

Ms. Swed was on the board of directors at that time.

“We walked from the road to the woodlands and we couldn’t get in because there was greenbrier. We had to hack our way into Pepper Creek,” Ms. Swed said. “We have 1,000 feet of waterfront. It is absolutely stunning.”

Approval of a zoning change sparked the green light for lease negotiations.

“We entered into long-term lease. We negotiated a 99-year lease, for $1 a year. It is renewable for two more times, so basically it’s a 300-year lease,” said Mr. Sander. “Many new gardens spend the first several years of their existence raising money to buy the land. So we have been fortunate to get the land for a dollar, and then put the money into the property.”

“We have raised over $3.5 million. It’s all out here, turning a farmland into a property that can be open space for people to use,” Mr. Sander said. “Bringing electricity, stormwater management, water, roads, the parking lot – basic infrastructure and building the gardens, that is where the money has gone,” said Mr. Sander.

In June, DBG announced the board appointment of Dr. Brian W. Trader as the new DBG deputy executive director and director of horticulture effective Aug. 1.

A Delmarva native who grew up on a farm in Virginia near the Maryland border, Dr. Trader came to DBG after a 10-year stint with the Longwood Gardens, where he was director of domestic and international studies.

“This as you can imagine is so exciting for all of us here. There has been so much time and effort and passion and love that has gone into this project,” said Dr. Trader, who prior to Longwood Gardens was on the faculty at Mississippi State University for several years. “Something like this, a garden, doesn’t happen overnight.”

With only two paid staff members, just about all the work at the botanic gardens – from docents to planters – has been passionately voluntary.

“We’ve had some great volunteers,” said Mr. Sander. “All of the plants out here – 70,000 plants and grasses – were planted by volunteers.”

Off in the distance, a couple patrons walk amid gardens at the Delaware Botanic Gardens in Dagsboro.

“Right now, we have 263 volunteers in our database,” said Carol McCloud, DBG vice president. “Not everybody comes all of the time. Of the 263, we have 100 of them that come regularly. And we have group of about 50 that are insanely crazy and come all the time. They are not just volunteers in regard to building the gardens, and planting and weeding, everything is done by volunteers.”

Delaware Botanic Gardens bills itself as a “world-class, inspirational, educational, and sustainable public botanic garden in southern Delaware, created for the benefit and enjoyment of all.”

The various gardens offer magical beauty, a place for meditation, healing and exercise, a venue to walk, photograph and watch birds, butterflies, dragonflies and other wildlife, and a place to enjoy the multitude of flowering plants and trees through seasonal changes.

“We feel that we have such beautiful topography around here that we go by every day, and then we kind of don’t look at it, and don’t take notice of it,” Mr. Sander said. “What we want to do here is highlight it to make sure people understand the intrinsic beauty of the area, and to preserve this topography and the horticulture. Because there is not a lot of open space; open space is getting rarer and rarer.”

Admission

Daily tickets, including leaving and reentering the gardens, are available at the following prices:

• Adults, $15;

• Senior (65 and over) $12;

• Children (6-17) $10;

• Children (under 6) free.

Current Delaware Botanic Gardens members are admitted free of charge. For information on individual, dual, family or senior memberships, visit the DBG membership page at www.delawaregardens.org/membership.

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