It all started in 2011 with a small cocktail party and a meeting at the library. Now, the governor and Delaware’s First Lady are attending groundbreakings and the endowment is growing for the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.
On the cool, sunny morning of Dec. 1, most of the leaves had fallen in Dagsboro, obscuring the ground where flowers will reappear next spring, and where miles of green briar have already been heaved out.
“The Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek will be a world-class, inspirational, educational and sustainable public botanic garden in southern Delaware, created for the benefit and enjoyment of all,” their mission promises.
The 37-acre site epitomizes Delmarva’s eastern shore, with waterfront, freshwater bay, rolling fields and woods. It will open in 2019, with the first round of plantings and structures. Eventually, it will include a visitor center, pavilion, outdoor classrooms, demonstration gardens, ecofriendly parking, wedding and special-event site and more. ADA-accessible trails will lead into the Woodlands, which end at a waterfront view. Famed Dutch designer Piet Oudolf will also create a native meadowland.
Volunteers, fundraising make it possible
Planting has already begun, with help from volunteers, including local garden clubs.
Peter Giaquinto paused from guiding Woodlands visitors on Dec. 1 to talk about his experience in volunteering.
“I got hooked. Who wouldn’t want to spend time out here all day?” he said. “It’s spectacular.”
Not having the greenest of thumbs, he said he was delighted to pick up some gardening tips along the way. He also praised the DBG organizers.
“Just trying to come up with the funding for a project of this scope is daunting,” Giaquinto said. “The board — they’re all great people. They donate their time. It’s a phenomenal effort.”
Board Vice President Ray Sander thanked the volunteers and board members, past and present:
“A project like this is a marathon, and you have to pass the baton to the next group of people” to keep the energy up, he said.
“This is marking the actual physical start of this project. We have worked so hard to get here, just to start,” said Board President Sue Ryan of the groundbreaking, adding that she felt “goosebumps” to see so many visitors onsite. “The fact that so many people are here from near and far shows the importance of the gardens.”
The Longwood Foundation will be donating a full $750,000 to the project, based on DBG having raised another $500,000.
“I think that grant really inspired everybody and put this cause on the map,” said First Lady Carla Markell, chair of DBG Advisory Board. “This [public/private partnership] is what Delaware is all about.”
The Longwood challenge worked as planned, giving significant funds to a group that proved its hard work and dedication, Gov. Jack Markell said. “The fact that you exceeded your goal months in advance, I think, is pretty extraordinary.”
Sander joked that he had originally hoped the government would fund the project. But the governor told them to start their own fundraising efforts.
“I am so impressed with what you have done,” said Jack Markell, adding that his wife had taken an immediate liking to the project. “You get elected officials to be supportive when you have an incredibly organized effort yourselves,” he complimented the group.
Starting the garden
“Our state of Delaware has a rich horticultural tradition that is second to none in the U.S.,” said designer Rodney Robinson. “However, most of it is in the north, and it’s time for it to come south.”
Gardening is a bridge between social and economic barriers, he said.
“This garden is unique, in my view, because it is a grassroots effort,” Robinson said, and not a private estate garden later opened to the public. That means DBG has had to develop its own vision, from the ground up.
DBG has a 99-year lease on the land from the Sussex County Land Trust, at a cost of $1 annually.
“We’re in the middle of the temperate zone. … Right here, we’re in the sweet spot of the sweet spots,” said land trust Chairperson Dennis Forney, adding that preserving open space is “absolutely critical to the future of this county.”
Garden founder Michael Zajic has already retired from the project, but he said he was glad to see the groundbreaking of such a special site that he helped choose.
“Besides the spectacular view of Pepper Creek … it has a big forest, plus a lot of open area… It has hills! Delaware is flat as a pancake,” Zajic noted with a laugh.
He said he had been thinking about a garden since moving to Sussex County in 1994. Soon thereafter, he asked the Sussex County Council to consider starting a botanic garden. They said that wasn’t their job.
Exactly five years ago, the former horticultural supervisor attended a small cocktail party to get people talking about the idea. He followed up with a guest column in a local newspaper, inviting people to a public meeting at the library.
“People showed up, I asked for volunteers for the board … and it went from there,” Zajic said.
The DBG has had its ups and downs, but excellent support from the volunteers and legislators who kept it going.
In starting a project of this magnitude, “People might be being idealistic, but the devil is in the details. Plans must be sustainable and realistic,” Zajic said. “Don’t give up the dream, but be prepared to have a business plan. … You’ve got to have a business plan to save the world.”
Carla Markell thanked him for taking the first steps and for his willingness to let others continue the journey.
“This project has a life of its own,” she said.
Other dignitaries at the Dec. 1 groundbreaking represented the Longwood Foundation, the Delaware State Legislature, Sussex County, Pennoni Associates, Lake/Flato Architecture, the EDiS Company, George & Lynch, Bancroft Construction and Delaware Department of Transportation.
Donations to the project may be made online at www.delawaregardens.org or by check mailed to Delaware Botanic Gardens; P.O. Box 1390; Ocean View, DE 19970. Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc. is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The garden site is located on Piney Neck Road, about 1.5 miles from Main Street in Dagsboro.