Dreaming big

Delawareonline.com | August 20, 2014

Backyard Gardener: Moira Sheridan 

Most great public gardens need two basic things to get started: a decent piece of land and someone with vision.

The DuPont legacy in northern Delaware has made the First State a tourist destination with gems like Hagley, Winterthur, Mt. Cuba and Nemours, all of which started out as farms, forests or natural lands. Fueled by deep endowments and endless creativity, their owners transformed humble landscapes into horticultural showpieces.

It has been a long time since anyone in Delaware has dreamed big enough or had the means to create a garden for future generations. A group of Sussex County residents is on track to change that.

As the nonprofit Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc., the group has cleared several major hurdles in its quest to found the Delaware Botanic Gardens on Pepper Creek on a tract of land near Dagsboro. The 37-acre parcel, acquired from the Sussex County Land Trust with a renewable 99-year lease, is an ideal mix of farmland, woodland and waterfront.

Soon, it will become a destination garden for the residents and tourists of Sussex County, a landscape that reflects southern Delaware’s unique coastal plain.

Ray Sander, treasurer of the group’s board, says the idea has gained momentum in the past two years, attracting Carla Markell, wife of Gov. Jack Markell, to chair its advisory council.

“People have cleaved to the project,” he says, citing support from Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee and Alan Levin, of the state Economic Development Office. In addition, local businesses have donated time and effort to help with necessities such as a site plan, logo and legal counsel in navigating zoning laws and leases.

“We’ve been blessed with some great people from the private sector and gotten some wonderful professional help,” says Vice President Sheryl Swed.

Sander agrees, citing the engineering input of Pennoni Associates. “Without their pro bono support, we could still be a concept on the back of an envelope,” he says.

Perhaps the biggest firepower comes with the expertise of board President Mike Zajic, former horticulture supervisor at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, and Gregg Tepper, former horticulturist at the Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin.

Zajic was tapped a few years ago by locals who lamented the lack of a world-class garden in Sussex County. A self-taught horticulturist whose property near Lewes – Millpond Garden Inc. – offers ample evidence of spectacular design, plant knowledge and creativity, he is an enthusiastic spokesperson for the project.

“We want to celebrate the sense of place, something unique to Delmarva that we don’t have to drive several hours to get to,” he says.

He envisions a botanic garden that includes lush outdoor display gardens, a conservatory, water features, bog gardens, woodland paths, a restaurant and educational facilities. His years at Brookside Gardens bring solid experience in public gardens, and his goal is for local residents to find inspiration for their own gardens.

As director of horticulture for the new garden, Tepper jumped at the chance to become involved, moving from the Piedmont’s clay to Sussex’s sandy loam. He has realigned his thinking to a Zone 7b garden where water disappears without a trace and the native plant palette presents new opportunities.

On a walk-through of the Dagsboro property, an abandoned soybean field with one-third woodland and 1,000 feet of waterfront along Pepper Creek, he pointed out existing native stands of loblolly pines, sweetbay magnolias, sweet gum, sassafras and cherry trees. Virginia chain fern formed carpets throughout the woods, and a fresh breeze ruffled leaves at the high point overlooking the water. Reaching down, Tepper scooped a handful of dark woodland soil, a familiar experience from his Mt. Cuba days.

“Here is the charm in areas deeper in the woods that haven’t been disturbed. We will have to bring in a lot of plants, but the topography lends itself to a naturalistic garden, and there are some exciting natural features like freshwater streams and ponds,” he says.

Walking the edge of the overgrown field, a flat expanse that will host the visitors’ center, parking lot and outdoor display gardens, Tepper sounded enthusiastic about the garden’s future.

“Today’s botanic gardens have to be active; people want to do something, be entertained. Eventually, we hope to have trained staff conduct eco-tours from a dock where boats will sail to explore local flora and fauna. Another focus will be birding,” he says.

As he looked out over swallows swooping across the weeds, it was clear he was seeing another picture in his mind.

Just like any great enterprise, the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek will require major funding to get off the ground, a detail not lost on the nine board members, all of whom have committed to raising money for the project.

Susan Ryan, owner of Good Earth Market and Organic Farm, will host a benefit farm dinner Sept. 11 at her Ocean View location.

Zajic contributes proceeds from the sale of his self-manufactured plant fertilizer – Mike’s Organic Fertilizer and Plant Tonic – sold in southern Delaware’s Ace Hardware stores and Ryan’s market. And Zajic is partnering with John Feliciani of Black Hog Farmstead in Lewes to breed new plant introductions whose sales will benefit the garden.

According to Sander, initial grants and donations have created a good start, but the focus is on sustaining the momentum. The organization has undertaken an economic impact study and is soliciting donations to ensure its future. The group’s website, www.delawaregardens.org, offers multiple opportunities to become involved with the project, including charter memberships for this first year only.

With groundbreaking to begin in the spring of 2015, excitement builds as this great vision starts to take shape. Soon, southern Delawareans and those who visit will have an alternative to the beach and outlet routine, a respite from the traffic and a garden to call their own.

Moira Sheridan is a Wilmington freelance writer and gardener. She is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s Master Gardener program. Reach her at masher9@juno.com.