Public garden project brings community together

In a former soybean field off Piney Neck Road in Dagsboro, a long-planned world-class botanic garden is beginning to materialize.

The founders of Delaware Botanic Gardens obtained 501©(3) nonprofit status in 2012, and the site was selected in 2013. After fundraising efforts and the retirement of founding president Mike Zajic, in 2016, professionals were hired to develop the master plan, including the Lake/Flato architectural firm, famed Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and Delaware’s own Rodney Robinson, of RAS Landscape Architects.

In September, Oudolf visited and directed a bevy of volunteers in placing 17,000 plants on portions of a two-acre meadow. The rest of it will be planted in the spring. Oudolf’s meadow is at the heart of the garden, which spans 37 acres and is in several ways different from any other public garden in the world.

“There are other places that combine different habitats, but this has got it all,” said director of horticulture Greg Tepper. “Woods, some topography, freshwater wetlands, brackish wetlands. All different habitats that all grow different plants, so we can show the public what they can do at their own homes.”

Just outside of Dagsboro town limits, the garden is a 25-acre plateau and 12 acres of woodlands that gently slope into wetlands along Pepper Creek. It’s one of few sites in southern Delaware that isn’t entirely flat.

“It’s beautiful,” Oudolf said. “But we can make it more beautiful.”

Growing gardens

The founding board members looked at nine sites in Kent and Sussex counties before settling on the Dagsboro site owned by the Sussex County Land Trust, a land conservation nonprofit. SCLT offered to lease the property to DBG for $1 a year for 100 years on the condition that the board obtain a conditional use permit from the Sussex County planning and zoning office.

Mark Davidson of Pennoni, a Delaware engineering firm, stepped up to handle zoning matters and successfully lobbied the county for a conditional use permit, allowing the garden to move forward. Pennoni has loaned Davidson out for “at least $140,000 worth” of work, and both the company and Davidson are still very much involved in the project.

“In the beginning, it was basically a group of volunteers with shovels, and they realized this was a project that was going to take a longer time frame,” said president Raymond Sander. “It was going to take not just gardeners and horticulturists but fundraisers and engineers.”

Sander and his wife, DBG executive director Sheryl Swed, are leading the project. In the meantime, the board of directors had some turnover and Swed was named executive director. She helped create an advisory council.

The couple are retirees from the Washington, D.C. area who have lived in Bethany Beach since 2010. Swed brings her years of experience leading the United Nations Development Fund for Women and working for the Small Business Administration. Sander worked for the CIA and retired from the U.S. Department of Justice.

“If you retire and sit on the back porch and rock, that’s the end of your life,” Sander said. “Well, we’re not at the end of our lives, and we want to use our talents to give back.”

The advisory council consists of people with name recognition and a reputation for philanthropy. Delaware’s former first lady, Carla Markell, heads the council. She’s joined by people like Barbara Katz of the D.C. area business London Landscapes, DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin, National Wildlife Federation director Colin O’Mara and U.S. Botanic Garden director emerita Holly Shimizu.

“Everyone on the board brings different expertise,” Swed said. “While [DBG] is a nonprofit, it has a big business aspect. It has to be sustainable financially. But we have a great project and a great group of people, and we are not afraid to ask for help.”

And ask for help they did, from the highest of places. Advisory council member Barbara Katz was able to communicate with Piet Oudolf through a Facebook gardeners’ group and mentioned the project to him. He surprised everyone by responding, “Have them contact me.” A few weeks later, Oudolf was in the States and made a trip to the garden, where he offered a proposal.

“It’s a miracle, really,” Swed said. “He’s famous worldwide, and he’s turned down so many projects. He likes ours because it’s for the public. It’s the idea of people coming together.”

Oudolf’s meadow will support many species of pollinators, butterflies and birds, one of the main objectives of the botanical garden, where no insecticides are used.

“Other gardens, if a tree fell, they’d cut it up and remove it,” Sander said. “We leave it there because we don’t want to disturb the ecological cycle. We want to attract pollinators and birds.”

Plant money

The main source of financial sustainability comes from a $1 million Longwood Foundation leadership grant, other grants, and donations. The annual farm dinner often attracts big donors, and in 2016 earned over $100,000. However, without volunteers, the DBG wouldn’t be what it is today.

“Our core of dedicated volunteers is the only way we get through,” Sander said. “Every time Sheryl and I feel there’s no hope for humanity, this project and the people we meet who want to help and donate and get involved lift our spirits. It’s just a beautiful thing.”

Angela Schaab, of Millville, volunteers at the garden.

“The contrast between the meadow and the woods - I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just beautiful, as close to Mother Nature as you can get while still being slightly controlled,” she said. “This is such a great chance to be a part of something. How could you not feel thrilled and excited to be a part of the birth of a botanical garden?”

Ten year plan

The finished project is expected to draw tens of thousands of people each year. An economic impact study commissioned by the group found that visitors will bring an expected $19 million in new spending to area hotels, restaurants and retail shops. The garden will add staff as they expand to host things like weddings, holiday light shows and educational programs.

It will likely be another decade before the horticultural vision is fully realized, but the public will be able to enjoy the gardens much sooner than that. A tentative opening of the first phase – the woodlands, Oudolf’s meadow, the entrance garden – is set for spring/summer 2019.

Find out how you can get involved and more at delawaregardens.org.