With supporters who include such luminaries as former Governor and First Lady Jack and Carla Markell, the 37.5-acre Delaware Botanic Gardens breaks ground in Dagsboro as part of a decade-long marathon project
The first clue something big was happening was the wait to park, as this is not usually an issue in the more rural areas of Sussex County. Yet on a crisp, clear morning in early December, the line stretched hundreds of yards out from what had been a nondescript soybean field to Piney Neck Road, where the entrance of the new Delaware Botanic Gardens (DBG) is marked by a construction sign.
Nearly 200 people came out for the formal groundbreaking ceremony of the DBG. Most felt a personal connection — donor and fundraiser, board member and neighbor, volunteer and benefactor. Located on a 37.5-acre piece of land fronting 1,000 feet of Pepper Creek, the project will put, as one speaker said, “Dagsboro on the map,” with a world-class botanical garden that will grow not only plants but tourism and pride.
Central to the event were the participation of former Delaware First Lady Carla Markell — who, it is hoped, as State Senator Gerald Hocker remarked, will remain “first lady of the Garden” — and former Governor Jack Markell, both of whom have been major supporters of the project.
“I’ll never forget our first meeting,” Gov. Markell recalled when he learned of the DBG through project leaders. “You had a very compelling vision,” he told them, “and I did not fully appreciate how persistent you would be! I think a lot of people in the beginning said it was not going to be an easy challenge…to meet, and the fact that [you] exceeded the goal, many months in advance, is pretty commendable.”
Markell was referring to the $1.3 million the organization has raised, including a $750,000 grant with a $500,000 match requirement from Longwood Foundation. Foundation president Thère du Pont said the foundation was “pleased to be able to provide a grant that not only provided startup funds” but, through the matching grant, allowed the organization to raise even more.
The DBG has a long-term lease on the property, 297 years, from the Sussex County Land Trust, at the very affordable rate of $1 per year. Speaking at the event, Dennis Forney, chair of the Sussex County Land Trust, noted that the location is in the “sweet spot” of the county and the Delmarva Peninsula.
Obtaining the land was just the start. The project, which has a 10-year horizon, will take a great deal of work, but the effort will be worth it, according to Delaware House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf. “Tourism is in our lifeblood, and we in Sussex County will continue to work together in a bipartisan way to make sure things get done.” Schwarzkopf also noted that every member of the Sussex County delegation contributed to the project, in a gesture of solidarity.
Phase One of the gardens is expected to open in 2019 with leadership from some major names in the world of botanic gardens. The “Meadow” is being designed by Piet Oudolf, considered one of the finest designers of naturalistic meadows in the world. His designs may be found in the High Line and Battery Park Gardens in NYC, the rooftop Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park, and across Europe.
The environmentally acclaimed architecture firm Lake/Flato (designers of the Naples Botanical Gardens and the historic Porto San Fernando park in San Antonio, among other projects) have signed on to design the Visitor Center. Rodney Robinson, FSLSA, renowned Delaware landscape architect and founder of Robinson Anderson Summers, Inc., is also on board. His firm, which has tremendous experience in historic and botanical parks, served as the principal designer responsible for the complete renovation of exhibits and collections at the Conservatory of the U.S. Botanical Gardens.
Supporters George Robbins and his husband, Ron Bass of Rehoboth Beach, attended the event with high hopes for the facility. “Very few public gardens get to start from scratch,” said Robbins. “This will be Southern Delaware’s from the get-go.”
Readying the “shovel line” — the ceremonial moment when key members of the project turn over the first shovels of dirt for the project — DBG Executive Director Sheryl Swed and board president Susan Ryan were both visibly moved by the moment. So was board VP Ray Sander, who said, “This project is a marathon, and there’s been some appropriate baton passing,” drawing attention to the contributions of past board members.
Leading a tour of the property after the ceremonies, board member Janet Point highlighted the many features currently in development — such as the testing of native plantings and the creation of giant twig and branch “nests” on the property — and of things to come, including a visitors’ center, pond and amphitheater. When complete, the DBG will include different “environments” such as a 25-acre uplands plateau (which will include Oudolf’s meadow and a freshwater pond), the tidal wetlands of Pepper Creek and a 12.5-acre woodland with freshwater wetlands and a meandering walking trail.
Looking around near the close of the event, Point reflected the feelings of many in attendance that day, saying, “This is really going to be so cool, don’t you think? It’s the start of something wonderful.”