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Delaware botanic garden blooms in a soybean field

By TAYLOR GOEBEL,

Salisbury Daily Times

DAGSBORO, Del. (AP) — Like many land parcels in southern Delaware, the 37-acre soybean field on Piney Neck Road near Dagsboro could have easily become a residential development.

But instead of having houses, the field is now in full bloom, thanks to hundreds of volunteers, businesses, nonprofit organizations and a land trust that all wanted to create the ever-growing Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

The garden site is a microcosm of Delaware’s coastal region: It includes flat lands, freshwater ponds, woods and a saltwater front. Native plants comprise 85% of the gardens (the other 15% were chosen for their ability to attract pollinators.)

“In this part of Sussex County, the rate of development has been so accelerated over the last few years,” said Brian Trader, the Gardens’ Director of Horticulture. “Properties like this that are waterfront and have this unique ecology are disappearing, and disappearing rapidly.”

So when the Sussex County Land Trust offered to lease the $1.2 million property for just $1 per year for the next 99 years, the folks behind Delaware Botanic Gardens jumped at the opportunity.

Ray Sander, president of the Gardens, said that opportunity saved the organization a third of funds raised so far.

“It’s just a beautiful thing,” Sander said. “At times when you think the world is coming to an end, that all the wheels have fallen off the trolley, this project, the way people come together just renews your faith in humankind.”

Famed plantsman graces Delaware

The nonprofit commissioned world-renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf, whose perennial-rich blueprints have graced the likes of Battery Park and the High Line in New York City, to design a 2-acre meadow at Delaware Botanic Gardens.

Oudolf shaped the garden into infinity, a tamed and constantly-moving portrait of wilderness that captures the coastal region’s plant diversity. Over 70,000 perennials and grasses were “hand-planted” in the Meadow Garden by hundreds of volunteers.

Carol McCloud, who was involved in the planting of the meadow, said she volunteers for the garden 50 hours a week.

“My heart and soul is truly in the soil,” she said.

Other features include dinosaur-sized nests made out of collected debris and the re-creation of 30,000-year-old inland dunes.

“The plants that evolved to those sites became very specialized, as did the pollinators that supported them,” Trader said. “Since then, agriculture and development has taken its toll on those dunes.”

It’s just one example of Delaware Botanic Gardens’ push for education and preservation of Delmarva’s natural features.

A community effort

Few botanic gardens find success the way that Delaware’s did, with its army of volunteers, donations and offerings from the business community.

“This is a very unique and unusual instance of a garden being created,” Trader said.

Examples of in-kind donations include the Delaware Electric Cooperative, which waived a $70,000 invoice to connect the site to the electrical grid, and Dogfish Head’s sponsoring of a learning garden with a freshwater pond brimming with frogs and other wildlife.

Those two offerings barely scratch the surface.

The volunteer-built pathways weaving through the gardens and woodlands are Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, and Sander said there are three golf carts to transport visitors around the gardens.

The Gardens’ executive director, Sheryl Swed, coined the four “B’s” of coastal Sussex County: Boating, biking, beaches and now, the botanic gardens.

Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, told the Delaware News Journal last year that he expects the garden will attract more than 30,000 visitors each year.

Sander, who worked 33 years in the federal government, had no horticulture background before he joined the Gardens’ board.

“The only planting I did before I came here was when Sheryl said, ‘Dig a hole here’ in our garden,” he said, laughing. “That was my horticulture background.”

“This is just Phase one”

While Delaware Botanic Gardens officially opened Sept. 16, visitors have only seen phase one out of 10.

Expect the gardens to grow and encompass more woodlands, a bigger freshwater pond, holly plants, a climate-controlled visitor center, waterfalls and a gallery garden that could serve as the backdrop of weddings.

“Part of being a botanical garden is amassing collections,” Trader said.

The expansion will help sustain wildlife and biodiversity in the area. It isn’t rare to see an osprey flying overhead, a box turtle ambling in the woods, or praying mantis egg sacs.

Because Delaware Botanic Gardens is in its early phases and is largely volunteer-run (only two people are paid employees), Sander said they will likely close the facility for a few months in the winter.

Currently, the gardens are open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, with guided tours starting at 10 a.m.

“A garden brings something for the quality of life for everyone,” Sander said. “When you come here and see nature and walk quietly through the woods, I think it’s renewing. It’s something that’s restoring to the human spirit.”

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Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., http://www.delmarvanow.com/

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