Tucked away near Frankford is a non-profit environmental research facility dedicated to restoring “the former grandeur of the Delaware Estuary.”
Birdsong Gardens sits on a 20-acre working farm, which still grows grain, corn and soybeans in cooperation with a larger neighbor farmer. However, the main focus of its owner, Dave Rickards, is to preserve the environment for generations to come.
“I’m just trying to do my part,” said Rickards. “Growing up on a farm, the environment was never that far away from my thoughts. I grew up in this area. My father was a farmer, and over the years I have watched the change in technology eliminate the buffers that used to be. When I was growing up, there was a lot of quail and you could go quail hunting... I don’t even hear quail anymore, because they’ve lost their habitat.”
Rickards first became active in environmental issues in 1999, when he became involved with the Inland Bays advisory group.
“At that point in time, the media was saying the farmer was totally at fault for all the pollution problems reaching our bays. There was a big pfiesteria problem at that point. I really didn’t believe it, growing up on a farm.
“And realizing the farmer could be at fault for some of the problem, I started doing research and learned that we had a phosphorous problem in Sussex County in the ’40s, prior to poultry. That just gave me more incentive to keep on educating myself.”
Birdsong is in its early stages, and currently seeking volunteers and monetary donations, which will help Rickards in seeking grant funding.
“Now that I am a nonprofit, I’m looking for interested people to donate to the cause and help me improve the environment,” he said. “Most of the grants require at least a 15-percent matching fund. A lot of the federal grants require a 50-percent matching fund.”
Part of the project is to grow 5 acres of milkweed to help create a natural habitat for the monarch butterfly. Birdsong has event received a habitat certification from the National Wildlife Federation.
“We’ve lost milkweed in our area. Butterflies were everywhere,” he said. “Now, everything is confined in a chicken house. The grass is cut, so there’s nothing growing wild, so we’ve lost our milkweed. We need to redevelop areas with milkweed for the butterfly, because the butterfly is really close to being put on the endangered list.
“Milkweed is the only thing that monarchs propagate on, so that’s a mandatory thing for the monarchs. I’m just trying to do my part with the little, 4-, 5-acre lot that I’ve got and putting it all into milkweed. I didn’t realize how endangered the monarch had started to become until I started reading a few articles these past couple of years and thought, ‘Maybe there’s something I can do about it.’”
Rickards said that, with a pond as a water source on his property, as well as hundreds of cedar trees wrapped around the property, it has created the perfect area for a butterfly sanctuary.
“It’s like the old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ You may not have 10,000 the first year, but you’ll have more, each and every year, show up.”
He hopes to offer tours of the sanctuary to schools in the future, and even sell little packets of milkweed seeds for individuals to start their own butterfly gardens.
Rickards also hopes to improve the waters of local estuaries, through the use of duckweed, which can absorb nitrates and phosphates, and, in essence, clean the water.
According to its website, Birdsong plans to determine which sites within the estuary will be the best areas in which to establish aquatic duckweed gardens. Eventually, Rickards hopes to purchase mussels from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and begin to re-establish them in these areas, further cleaning the waters.
The Rickards farm has evolved over the decades to house this new endeavor: “The farm was initially a 100-acre tract of land owned by Orrington and Lucille Rickards. It was a successful farm sustained by farm animals, as well as crops. As time passed, more land was needed to maintain the farm.
“Instead, it downsized and became the setting for Birdsong Gardens, a small garden and herb farm run by Lucille Rickards. When Lucille Rickards retired, her son, Dave Rickards, closed the garden center and made the sole focus of Birdsong Gardens to identify environmental concerns and work diligently to address them.”
Rickards said he hopes the community will step up and support his efforts to better the environment for today and the future.
“The environment needs people to step up and make a difference,” said Rickards. “It’s not going to happen without the public getting involved.”
For more information about Birdsong Gardens and how to support it, visit www.birdsonggardens.org or call (302) 539-9034. To make a tax-deductible donation, send a check to Birdsong Gardens, 34612 Rickards Road; Frankford, DE 19945.