Don't overlook this slice of Sussex: The Delaware Botanic Gardens

Don't overlook this slice of Sussex: The Delaware Botanic Gardens
A bee pollinates an early spring flowering amsonia or blue star at the Delaware Botanic Gardens. Photo by Michael Short

By Michael Short

Every morning, the goldfinches and bluebirds come visit the lush meadow wildflowers.

They are among the many birds and visitors to the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek east of Dagsboro. The lush meadow, shrubs, trees, bulbs and mature hardwoods lining this tributary of the Indian River include five major gardens.

"Sussex County needed a garden," said Brent Baker, DBG director of communication.

"In an unlikely place, a soybean field became a botanic garden. It's naturalistic, it's dynamic and it gets more interesting with each passing month of the season," wrote Adrian Higgins in the Washington Post in 2019. "For its maker, it allows countless permutations of plant combos. For the viewer, no matter how seasoned, it provides the thrill of discovering new varieties."

The idea for the gardens began in 2012 and ground was broken in 2016. It's located on 37 acres of former soybean fields and is leased by the Sussex Land Trust to Delaware Botanic gardens for $1 a year. It's a 99-year-lease.

Delaware Botanic Gardens opened in 2019. The major gardens include a Folly Garden with 37,500 spring bulbs around the foundation of a former farmhouse, a Knoll Garden in the oak and poplar woods and a two-acre Meadow Garden designed by renowned Dutch plantsman, author and designer Piet Oudolf. The Oudolf Garden is the centerpiece of the former farmstead.

Bringing in Oudolf, who designed High Line Garden in New York City and the Lurie Garden in Chicago, is a bit like getting Michelangelo to paint your living room ceiling.

An aerial view of the Delaware Botanic Gardens. Submitted photo

“A group of local citizens got together to look for a site to establish a public garden that would have both recreational and educational aspects, with a clear focus on native plants. Unlike many such projects, there were no wealthy benefactors, but instead a strong group of citizens who believed that they could achieve and maintain the development of a public garden with minimal resources,” Oudolf wrote in one of his books.

The impact of those many volunteers is felt everywhere in the gardens.

"If it wasn't for the volunteers, there would be no Delaware Botanic Gardens," said Brent Baker, DBG director of communication.

The gardens are located off Piney Neck Road, perhaps 2 miles from the main street in Dagsboro. Saying it's near downtown Dagsboro would indicate a somewhat larger town, but the gardens are a good fit with the small town, which includes Delaware's last remaining single screen movie theater, the Clayton Theatre.

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The gardens are designed to further education, promote sustainability and be accessible for people with disabilities. They are home to some 86 species of birds as well as deer, squirrels, butterflies, herons, ospreys, owls, eagles and the occasional river otter. There are bluebirds, wrens, and downy and pileated woodpeckers.

They feature mostly native plantings and it's all about education and stewardship in this "pollinator haven" where butterflies and bugs have the right of way.

A screech owl peers out of a nesting box at the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek. Photo by Michael Short

The bathroom recycles rainwater with a 1,000-gallon cistern and includes a living wall of plants designed to make you feel like the bathroom is part of the woods. There's a Dogfish Learning Center (sponsored by Dogfish beer) and a Learning Nest in the woodlands made out of tree branches so that it resembles a giant nest. DBG board members caution visitors to step over and around the tent caterpillars on the bathroom approach ramp.

"This is their (the birds’) breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Stephen Pryce Lea, DBG director of horticulture, during a tour of the meadow. Lea is the son of a Welsh farmer who has previously worked as head gardener and estate manager in North London, Cheshire and Corfu, a Greek island. He also served as director of horticulture at the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens.

Oudolf's meadow features 70,000 perennial plants and grasses as well as 84,000 bulbs. Like much of the garden, it is designed to always showcase something blooming or a bright splash of color during almost any time of year.

Visitors won't see the massive displays of blooms and colors you might expect of a Longwood. Instead, this is a more subtle, natural, varied garden, but there is still always something new around each and every twist of the trail. Coneflowers, phlox, eastern star, yarrow, bee balm and too many other species to name dot the grounds and 2 miles of wide, flat, accessible trails.

As you arrive, you first see the half acre Rhyne Garden with 12,000 native flowering plants, 300 shrubs and 34 Brandywine Red Maples.

The Folly Garden is built on the site of the original 20th-century farmhouse and incorporates the steps and foundation of the building. Wrought iron gates, although not original, add to the ambience. It has a reflecting pond and 37,500 bulbs and plants shaded by walnut trees.

In the woodlands as you walk the trail toward Pepper Creek you come to the highest point in the gardens, up a rock stairway to the Knoll Garden. The "mountain" is a whopping 17 feet high, but the view is worth the exhausting climb. The gardens include 1,000 feet of shoreline along Pepper Creek and lucky visitors just might catch a glimpse of deer lounging along the sandy shore.

Photo by Michael Short

“This botanic garden will become a special place that will enhance the quality of life here in Sussex County. Our residents and our visitors will treasure this botanic garden, which will also serve to educate all to understand the value of conservation," Dennis Forney, former Cape Gazette publisher, predicted in 2014.

The gardens are open Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gardens open March 17 and are open until about mid-November. Cost is $15 for nonmembers and $10 for DBG members. Children under 16 get in free.

The site tends to be quiet and reflective, although it can be a popular spot. The largest one-day visitation was on Earth Day when 368 visitors showed up to walk the grounds.

"When they walk out of here after an hour or two, they all have smiles on their faces," Baker said.

Sources include Delaware Botanic Gardens website and promotional materials.

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