Along the quiet shores of Pepper Creek near Dagsboro, a world-class attraction is beginning to take shape.
State and local officials, volunteers and supporters broke ground Dec. 1 at a 37-acre parcel set to become Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek featuring natural woodlands, wetlands, meadow gardens and a serene waterfront view.
“Delaware Botanic Gardens is probably one of the most important and ambitious projects in Sussex County today,” said Delaware Botanic Gardens President Sue Ryan. “This site epitomizes the Eastern Shore, the Delmarva Peninsula – from our native trees, the plants, the smell of the marsh, the ocean – it just does not get better than this site.”
The concept of establishing a botanic garden in southern Delaware began years ago and was solidified in 2014 when the group signed a lease with the Sussex County Land Trust to use the former farmed tract for $1 a year, renewable for 99 years.
“A project like this is a marathon,” said Delaware Botanic Gardens Board Vice President Ray Sander. “We would not have this property without the far-sightedness of the Sussex County Land Trust. They saw the beauty of this land.”
Now the minds behind the design of the gardens, including world-renowned Dutch author and horticulturist Piet Oudolf and landscape architect Rodney Robinson, have a 10-year plan to meld native plants with other eye-catching foliage, carefully incorporating green infrastructure.
“Our state of Delaware has a wonderful, rich horticultural tradition that's second to none in the United States,” Robinson said. “However, most of it has been north, and it's time for it to come south to Sussex County.”
Organizers say a grand opening is set for 2019, but a lot of work still needs to be done. So far, trails have been carved out in the woodlands feature, providing a winding walkway beneath pine groves and alongside century-old southern red oak and sassafras trees.
As volunteers cleared the first paths, they took an artistic approach, arranging brush and branches into massive bird's nests that provide a sneak-peak at the creativity expected to bloom at the site.
“We obviously have horticulture in our veins, and it's wonderful to have a project of this inspiration and potential in Sussex,” said Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation, which provided a $750,000 grant that has helped kickstart the project. That grant required the group to raise $500,000, most coming from individual donors.
“That’s a testament to them,” du Pont said of the project leaders. “Their passion shows right through and they’re delivering on what they say.”
The multimillion-dollar project, nestled among modest houses and rural countrysides on Piney Neck Road, will be completed in phases, with temporary buildings expected to be in place when the garden gates first open. As fundraising continues, organizers plan to build LEED-certified buildings, including an open-air pavilion overlooking the woodlands, a visitor center and educational features. As the garden grows, horticulturists will plant 8,000 shrubs, 2,000 trees, 150,000 perennials, 600,000 bulbs and 100,000 native plants.
“To me, a garden is just a joyful place,” said Carla Markell, Delaware's first lady and chair of the garden’s advisory committee. “And when Rodney stepped in and got involved, it just raised the whole caliber of everything.”
An annual report released by the organization in 2015 found the land, which includes 1,000 feet of waterfront along Pepper Creek, is valued at more than $1 million.
Initially, the gardens will create about a dozen jobs, not including contractors and construction crews, and will eventually provide more than 100 jobs when the project reaches maturity.
“Gardening is a passion that I think touches many people,” Robinson said. “My experience has been that gardening bridges gaps between social and economic divides and circumstances. It does bring people together, and there are many, many people to thank for this.”
While the board has secured the initial funding needed to get the gardens ready for the public, pledges and volunteers are always needed. For more information or to get involved, go to www.delawaregardens.org.