Taking Root: Delaware Botanic Garden’s Progress Report

 

Ambitious Master Plan of the Delaware Botanic Garden

 

Visiting the Delaware Botanic Garden in year two, one year later than my original visit, was an eye opener in the evolution of a major public garden. Even working as a landscape designer/installer, I was surprised at the great strides the difference of a year makes. For my first year post, go to DBG-From the Ground Up.

Just a year ago, there were large unplanted areas in the Meadow

The first thing that hits you as you enter is the wild centerpiece garden- The Meadow Garden- full of thousands of perennials that have matured with just 18 months or less of growth. Pollinators were zipping and buzzing around me as I wandered the winding pathways.

Horsemint (Monarda punctata) is a standout for structure and insect visits in the Meadow Garden

Meadow Garden

Closeup of the design of the Meadow

World renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf designed the showpiece Meadow Garden. The Master Plan describes it as  “an exuberant palette of mostly native ornamental grasses and herbaceous flowering plants that will create spectacular four-season color and textural saturations against a distant horizon”.

 

‘Matrona’ Sedum is a great late interest perennial

An old planting adage is “1st year-sleep, 2nd year-creep, and 3rd year-leap” and this second year is more than “creep”. All the perennials in the Meadow Garden have absolutely “leaped” this second year and appeared very established. Located on a sunny 2-acre area adjacent to the woodland edge, the goal was to plant sixty-five thousand herbaceous flowering plants and ornamental grasses to provide multi-season interest. The first thing that visitors will see entering DBG, the Meadow was completed this spring except for some small patches, with volunteers. It is already an undulating textural mass.

 

Close plantings discourage weed growth

The close planting will discourage weeds as the herbaceous perennials knit together as a ground cover.

‘Matrona’ Sedum edges a pathway in the Meadow Garden
Dog fennel (Eupatorium capillfolium) is a stinky feathery spiky plant that has seeded in between the perennials

Before the perennials form that weed smothering ground covering, opportunistic weeds, notably ‘dog fennel’ (Eupatorium capilifolium) have taken hold between the plants and tower over some of the new plantings. Volunteers were out in force when I visited recently and were pulling stinky dog fennel on a 95 degree humid day. Not fun for some 265 volunteers that work there throughout the year! Fortunately portable tents are set up to cast some much-needed shade and there is a camaraderie evident in everyone you speak to.

Lots of Dog Fennel to remove

 

A volunteer is mulching with pine fines; In the distance, you can see the shade tents
Volunteers can work under a canopy from the hot summer sun, photo from Janet Draper
Water hydrants are located conveniently throughout

Pollinators Abound

The native perennials are thriving and even in mid August when color is hard to find in a perennial border, texture and color abounded throughout the insect heavy plantings. Camera in hand, it was hard to keep up with all the native pollinators that were buzzing around.

Butterfly on Liatris microcephela
Monarch on Rattlesnake Master (Ernygium yuccafolium)
Dragonfly caught on Little Blue Stem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium)
Swallowtail on Stokes Aster (Stokesia)

New Hoop Houses

Brand spanking new hoop houses were just erected with a gravel base that can be put to use this winter in growing new transplants (plugs), cutting propagation, and overwintering of young, frost susceptible plants.

Inside one of the new hoop houses

 

Pine straw and pine fines are being used as mulch

Woodland Garden

Eradicating invasive plants, installing pathways, careful tree removals, and  shade plantings have been progressing in the Woodland Garden.  With a phased implementation of DBG, the Meadow Garden is the first phase and the Woodland Garden is close behind, so intensive shade loving plantings are being installed along the newly placed pathways. Curving volunteer constructed stone walls make a nice addition as well as holding soil in place along many of the pathways.

Some areas of the Woodland Garden will showcase only native plants and others will contrast natives along with non-native plants from Asia and Europe. Plantings will be planted from the upland areas to the nearby water’s edge of Pepper Creek.

Plantings along with irrigation are being installed in the Woodland Garden
Irrigation is being installed

Trimmings and prunings are being recycled  and reused as sculptural elements in bird’s nest structures and a porcupine “tree” is a sculptural stopping point on the path.

Birds Nest of twigs that would otherwise be thrown out
Funnel spider web in bird’s nest
Porcupine Tree

Learning Garden

A wetland area will be an outdoor classroom called the “Learning Garden”. A high school class of seniors has already been hosted in a learning experience there. Interactive programs and living classrooms encouraging active involvement with nature is a major component of the DBG goals.

Organic

There have been no applications of fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides thus far.  For pathway weeds, a  20% Horticultural vinegar was used which was quite effective.

Eradication of weeds in pathway with horticultural vinegar

Whats Next

A projected opening date of September 2019 is only a year away and lots of money and volunteer hours will be needed in the meantime. A fall tree planting campaign, planting of the dune gardens, and the east woodland border are next on the agenda. Frequent fund-raising is being done  to feed the volunteer efforts and plantings. If interested in donating, go to Make a donation.  This is an exciting opportunity to get on the ground floor supporting or volunteering at  the incredible new Delaware Botanic Gardens.

A volunteer working; A temporary visitor center is in the distance
Artist rendering of projected visitor center, photo courtesy of DBG

Delaware Botanic Gardens- From the Ground Up

Traveling the quiet back roads of Sussex County in southern Delaware, through residential developments, I didn’t expect to see a world-class botanic garden taking shape. At the end of Piney Neck Rd, there it was for all the world to see, ‘The future home of Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek’. My motive for searching down the steamy country roads was the opportunity of enjoying an alternative beach activity. Staying at Rehoboth Beach each summer for a week, I tire of the outlets and surf and look for other entertainment. And if there is a garden involved, all the better!

An aerial view,  photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Garden

Within the gardening world, rumors were flying of the establishment of a new Botanic Garden in Delaware. In the works for years starting as a grass-roots movement, it is remarkable to note that the project began just four years ago, and has since grown into a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. Funding has start to flow with grant monies, most notably from Longwood Gardens, but like any public garden, they always need more. The ground breaking  was launched in December 2016 and the hard work of creating an ambitious 37 acre botanic garden featuring natural woodlands, vernal ponds, meadow gardens and 1000 feet of waterfront has begun.

Looking out into Pepper Creek

Situated along Pepper Creek, which flows into Indian River Bay, the parcel of land leased from the Sussex County Land Trust for $1 a year, has an unusual feature: a hill.  As anyone knows, driving through this part of Delaware, any elevation of the land is a rare event. This valuable feature slopes down through a twelve acre hardwood forest to the water’s edge to a wetland marsh and a tidal creek-great territory for a garden. In the hardwood forest, a winding walkway beneath pine groves and alongside century-old southern red oak and sassafras trees provides a welcome respite from the hot sun of summer.

Pathways through the woodland area; native wildflowers are being planted here, photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Gardens

Building the new Botanic Garden in stages over a 10 year period, any experienced gardener knows this time line makes sense. Establishing a garden takes time and more importantly for a garden this size…..tons of money.  With a goal of being self-supporting with donor help: membership dues, admission fees, gift shop and online sales, and event rentals, there is still a huge need for the initial costs of building, installing, and planting, as well as volunteer hours.  If interested in donating, go to Make a donation.  This is an exciting opportunity to get in the ground floor of supporting the incredible new Delaware Botanic Gardens.

Proposed visitor’s center surrounded by expanses of meadow,  photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Garden
From left to right- Janet Meenehan Point, Gregg Tepper, and Ruth Rogers Clausen
Blue crabs live in the nearby water, photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Gardens

When I visited this past August, I could see many enthusiastic volunteers in action in hot, humid, and unbearable weather, and yet so excited about working there. From laying stone for beautiful dry laid walls, to planting and watering new transplants, everyone is welcomed and appreciated.

Ruth Rogers Clausen enthusiastically shows off the woodland area, one of the first areas to open to the public in 2019

Gregg Tepper, the DBG horticulturist,  comes to DBG from Mt Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, where he served as horticulturist, and director of horticulture. An articulate promoter of native plants, he is the driving force for using everything on site in a sustainable way. Brush, log chunks, and tree trunks are not discarded but used in very innovative ways. The hedgehog was my favorite. A large downed tree with multiple protruding branches is a canvas for a future hedge hog sculpture. Brush branches, instead of being discarded, were deposited in open areas of the woodlands to create giant birds nests. A great way to entice kids to enjoy the woodlands! The log chunks, Gregg said, could be used as edgers for the woodland pathways.

Nests of brush are being constructed in the woodland area using cleared brush, photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Gardens

Can you see it? The start of a hedgehog sculpture!

 

Beautiful dry laid walls are lining the woodland walkway, all done by volunteer Don Klima
Holding area for new plants

The Master Plan includes nationally and internationally recognized leaders in the field of garden design, architecture and landscape architecture, notably Piet Oudolf, an influential Dutch garden designer, nurseryman, and author. When I heard that Piet Oudolf was involved in the planning, I was impressed that DBG had snagged such a high-profile plantsman. Volunteer Barbara Katz was the impetus behind getting Oudolf involved. Known best in the U.S. for his design of the High Line and a leading figure of the “New Perennial” movement, Oudolf is renowned for using broad painterly drifts of hard-working perennials and grasses. Oudolf designed the centerpiece Meadow Garden at DBG.

The Meadow Garden

The centerpiece Meadow Garden is described on the Delaware Botanic Gardens’ website; “Taking advantage of the upland plateau’s openness, a spectacular meadow filled with broad bands of native grasses and seasonal flowering blooms will form the sweeping center of the site and the gateway to the Woodland Gardens. Herbaceous plant species native to Delmarva and surrounding areas will be featured in a breathtaking design. This open garden, designed by the internationally acclaimed Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, will support thousands of pollinators, butterflies, and birds. One of the primary objectives of this space, located in the Atlantic Flyway, is to encourage the bird population and the insects they need to survive”.

For a great day by day on-line progress of the planting of The Meadow, go to YouTube.

An army of volunteers planted 17,000 plants in the initial phase of the Meadow Garden, photo by Ray Bojarski

According to Raymond Sander, President of Delaware Botanic Gardens, when Oudolf first saw the proposed meadow site, he exclaimed, “It is beautiful, but we can make it more beautiful!! This is infinity!” And the meadow is indeed in the shape of an infinity sign, bisected by pathways.

Hand drawn meadow design by Piet Oudolf
Left to right: Raymond J. Sandler, President of DBG, Piet Oudolf, and Sheryl Swed, Executive Director of DBG, photo by Ray Bojarski

Located in a sunny two acre site in the center of the Gardens, the Meadow Garden will be planted with 65,000 herbaceous flowering plants and ornamental grasses that will provide a tapestry of color throughout the year.

Perusing the Master Plan, by Bill Jones & Ruth Clausen, a board member and volunteer

Hand drawn artistic plans of the meadow by Piet Oudolf were available when I visited and as a landscape designer myself, I was delighted that they were hand drawn and not computer generated. They were works of art.  Print these plans on silk scarves and sell them in the planned gift shop!

A closeup of the hand drawn plan of the meadow by Piet Oudolf

When I was there is August, volunteers were preparing the ground, leveling and spreading pine fines which is partially composted pine bark. Its fine texture allows water to pass easily through while providing a protective covering for the soil. Providing nutrients, decomposing easily, the fineness of particles doesn’t compact like other pine bark mulches.

The dark color is pine fines
Planting the meadow takes lots of wheelbarrows, Photo courtesy Janet Draper

Volunteers, led by DBG Horticulturist Gregg Tepper, came out to prepare and plant the meadow the week of September 5. When Piet Oudolf arrived to inspect the site, Piet decided to first have the volunteers build and smooth out the elevated hill in the middle.

The much anticipated first phase planting of the Piet Oudolf meadow, staffed by an army of volunteers, began.  Referring to the comprehensive plan, orange marks were painted on the ground detailing the proper placement of plants and orange flags were placed if the plants were currently on hand. White flags were placed  designating quantity and identity of plants still to come. The second phase of planting will occur in June 2018.

Photo courtesy Janet Draper
Melanie Ruckle and Patrick Gravel planting the meadow with grasses, photo courtesy Janet Draper

As any gardener knows, the work of digging thousands of holes is time-consuming and hard on your wrists. With the help of a power auger, the holes were dug much more efficiently.

A power auger made the plantings go quickly, photo courtesy Janet Draper

Master Plan/Field of Dreams

The Master Plan is the result of a twelve-month process led by Rodney Robinson and Allan Summers of RAS Landscape Architects. Organizing the site and guiding the process of long-term plantings, it identifies the different types of gardens and plant collections.  In a  zone 7b garden, many different types of plants can be planted as long as deer are controlled, and a deer fence is being planned, I was glad to hear. You don’t want your hard work and money to be devoured by a voracious deer population. The main focus of the Master Plan vision is as follows:

  • Always be beautiful
  • Be innovative and forward thinking
  • Provide an outdoor wetlands classroom for both passive and structured educational experiences
  • Connect children and adults to nature
  • Demonstrate the intersection between horticulture and ecology
  • Reach out to a rapidly growing year-round community
  • Attract a wide audience and encourage repeat visitation
  • Accommodate festivals and special events
Butterfly on newly planted Lobelia in Woodland Garden

The surrounding areas are being rapidly developed with residential communities and is a highly attractive area for retirees so I can see that many people will take advantage of the Botanic Gardens proximity. It is also a great resource to draw volunteers from. Buffers of plantings are planned to screen the Gardens from neighboring properties and Piney Neck Road.

Master Plan , photo courtesy of Delaware Botanic Gardens

From the entrance area, multiple pathways will wind through, connecting pedestrians to all the garden areas. Water is a recurring theme throughout the Gardens as showcased in the proposed Cascade Garden, the Bald Cypress Garden, and the unifying Freshwater Pond that will serve as a focal point. Garden components included on the Master Plan:

  • Parking and Rhyne Garden
  • Visitor and Events Center, Cafe
  • Meadow Garden
  • Edge Garden w/ Amphitheater
  • Gallery Garden
  • Demonstration and Display Garden
  • Coastal Living Garden
  • Cascade Garden
  • Freshwater Pond
  • Bald Cypress Garden
  • Discovery Garden
  • Native Plant Garden
  • Outdoor Wetlands Classroom
  • Maze
  • Woodland Gardens-Kalmia-Azalea Knoll, Pine Savannah, Grotto, Oak Glade, Magnolia Forest, Delmarva Bay Gardens, Asian-European Bank
Remains of a horseshoe crab on the shoreline

 

Quite ambitious, but with all the enthusiasm, knowledge, and verve pushing this project along, I have no doubt that it will happen.

As a landscape designer, I am always called in after the house is built and the owners are ready for the planting of the landscape. But at the DBG, their priorities are reversed – the landscape comes first and then the buildings. Buildings and structures are important but in the long-term, the landscape plantings that can take years to mature should take priority.

When it opens in 2019, the DBG will include the just planted colorful natural meadow, extensive plantings in the woodlands, and pathways in and along the edge of the existing woodlands, a living outdoor wetlands classroom, and a temporary visitors center. Additional gardens, water features, and more permanent structures will be added in the following years. Serving as a resource for local farmers, gardeners, and homeowners, I can’t wait for the opening of the Garden Gates!

Photo by Ken Arni

Many thanks to Ruth Rogers Clausen for her hospitality in opening the garden to several beach weary gardeners. Also, thanks to Janet Draper for her photos and information on the first phase of meadow plantings and Sheryl Swed for additional pictures.