As Brian Trader, director of horticulture at Delaware Botanic Gardens, walked with visiting reporters through the gardens’ woodland area, a pair of nesting bald eagles kept watch from overhead.
The eagles’ call is distinctive, and surprisingly high-pitched for such a large, aggressive-looking bird — a succession of short, almost plaintive, notes.
Trader said he believes the pair might have moved to their current perch in a tall pine tree from neighboring property. Another pair, which he said are juveniles, so lacking the well-known white tails and heads, have also been seen around the gardens. He thinks they might be offspring of the adult pair, but isn’t sure.
While the gardens are closed to the public now, work is being done to prepare for the day when they open again. Trader, as well as the garden’s two other staff members, Jeremy Cole and Sam Cashdollar, are weeding and pruning and just generally caring for the acres of meadows and woodlands alongside Pepper Creek in Dagsboro.
Due to the mild winter, many plants are starting to “come to life” early, Trader said. Although the overall effect of the meadow now, in late March, is muted, with native grasses and plants still mostly dormant or just beginning to green up, there are enough pops of color to ensure that spring’s rebirth is under way.
In the Folly Garden, spring’s colors are more abundant, with its narcissus, tulips, anemone, camellias, viburnums and other early blooms providing a new visual feast with each step along the path.
The Delaware Botanic Gardens are home to several “plant collections.” One is the Anderson Holly Collection. Charles Anderson was a collector of hollies from Owings Mills, Md. who had wanted to donate some of them to the DBC. Although he couldn’t accomplish that before he died, his family saw to it that the DBC received 32 of the hollies from his collection.
The gardens have been the happy recipients of many gifts, some of which were unexpected, such as the bulbs donated from the Philadelphia Flower show, and plants that were displayed at the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show.
Trader said the plants were donated by nurseries that had brought them to the show, one of the largest for the nursery trade, and didn’t want to be bothered with taking them back home. “So we loaded up the truck and brought them back here,” he said.
Of the 37 acres of land at the Delaware Botanic Garden, 12 are devoted to its woodland gardens. The paths there are literally one with the woods, the edges being carefully constructed of logs and branches from the property. From majestic pines to delicate sweet bay magnolias, with several giant “birds’ nests” and small depressions, called “vernal wetlands” which are currently full of water and home to many frogs thanks to frequent rains, as strategic wildlife habitats.
Standing by one of the giant twig-built nests, Trader said “Crickets and spiders and all kinds of insects love to reside in the nooks and crannies of these branches.” “And of course, lizards and frogs and birds feed on the insects. So it’s just this wonderful ecosystem.”
Along the shoreline at the edge of the woodland, Trader points to evidence of sea level rise — including loss of trees and soil. The staff is taking steps, he said, to mitigate that loss, by use of “living shoreline restoration," which includes using natural materials from the gardens as well as native plants to reduce “energy” or waves that are damaging the shoreline.
Sources of “energy” include boats from nearby marinas as well as storms.
Trader said phragmites, an invasive, non-native plant, has been removed from the shoreline.
An electric fence around the waterfront portion is meant to keep out deer, which Trader said would see the gardens like a child views a candy store. Another deer fence goes around the perimeter of the garden, which Trader said “would be like Candy Kitchen for deer.” He said despite the fences “we do have some deer” in the gardens.
Right now, the upkeep of the gardens falls completely on Trader, Cole and Cashdollar. Normally at this time of year, dozens of volunteers would take care of much of the weeding that is necessary to keep the gardens looking their best.
Trader said he and his staff plan to “make the best” of the time that the gardens, which would have opened again to the public in March, are closed due to restrictions relating to the coronavirus (COVID-19). He has started a series of “virtual tours” of the various areas of the gardens as the season progresses and more and more plants are coming to life every day.
The “tours” will be posted on the Delaware Botanic Gardens website, www.delawaregardens.org.