Delaware Botanic Gardens holds groundbreaking

Kye Parsons
WBOC, DelmarvaLife | December 5, 2016

DAGSBORO, Del.- Gov. Jack Markell and First Lady Carla Markell and other notable Delawareans were on hand Dec. 1 for the launch of the first phase of the Delaware Botanic Gardens, the first public garden on southern Delmarva.

The 37-acre site, located along Pepper Creek o of Piney Neck Road just east of Dagsboro, belongs to the Sussex County Land Trust. Valued at $1.3 million, the land is being leased to the Delaware Botanic Gardens for $1 a year.

It is remarkable to note that the project began just four years ago as a grassroots movement that grew into a tax-exempt nonprofit organization.

“A group of Sussex County residents got together about how the quality of life could improve here and one of those issues was the creation of a public garden,” said Ray Sander, vice president of Delaware Botanic Gardens. “That group of gardeners researched for themselves and that mushroomed to the Delaware Botanical Gardens.”

In 2015 alone, the organization raised more than $1 million, including private donations, grants, and Community Transportation Fund contributions from many Sussex County state legislators.

“I’m so impressed with what you’ve done here,” said Markell during Thursday’s groundbreaking ceremony. He called the garden’s initial development over the past four years “an awesome job.” As he told the garden leaders—including President Susan Ryan, Executive Director Sheryl Swed, and Vice President Ray Sander—“You had a very compelling vision.”

Markell also called his wife, Carla, “a great cheerleader” in her role as chair of the DBG Advisory Council. Among her contributions to the project was persuading the noted landscape architect Rodney Robinson of Robinson Anderson Summers in Wilmington to take the lead in refining the garden’s original site plan and in creating its master plan.

The initial phase of the garden, when it opens in 2019, will include a colorful natural meadow designed by the internationally acclaimed Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, extensive plantings and pathways in and along the edge of the existing woodlands, a living outdoor wetlands classroom, and a temporary visitors center. A wide variety of gardens, water features, and structures will be added over the following years, including a visitor center designed by Lake/Flato, a San Antonio, Texas-based architecture firm.

“Today marks the actual physical start of this project,” said DBG President Susan Ryan in opening the ceremony. “This site epitomizes the Eastern Shore and the Delmarva Peninsula, from our native trees, the plants, the smell of the marsh, the ocean. It just does not get better than this site.”

Rodney Robinson of RAS Landscape Architects pointed out that most botanic gardens begin as parts of private estates. “This one started from the ground up—and is thus rare and even more deserving of appreciation for the work involved,” he said.

First Lady Carla Markell extolled gardens as places to think and relax, making the Delaware Botanic Gardens a special alternative to the traditional beach visits that are a mainstay of coastal Delaware. She also extended her thanks to the Longwood Foundation for providing vital seed money and to Rodney Robinson for his creative redesign of the original site plan.

Longwood Foundation President Thère du Pont said that the foundation was “pleased to be able to provide a grant that not only provided start up funds but also provided a matching grant that enabled them to get even more....” In November 2015 the Longwood Foundation awarded a $750,000 grant with a $500,000 match requirement that raised more than $1.3 million by September 2016.

The engineering firm Pennoni Associates, based out of Milton, Del., has provided significant pro bono engineering assistance, including creation of the original site plan and all of the requisite work to secure approvals from the Sussex Planning and Zoning Commission and the Sussex County Council.

Greg Sawka, president and CEO of Wilmington-based Bancro Construction Company, was accompanied by Michael Petka, project executive, and Bob Batley, vice president for business development. Bancro is one of the region’s leading horticultural project construction managers and has joined the DBG project as construction manager, following the recent completion of a major project at Longwood Gardens. Bancro also played a key role in managing the groundbreaking ceremony under the leadership of Rob Jadick, director of marketing.