How does a soybean field become a world-class garden? One plant at a time.
Although work has continued quietly at Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek for a few years, this week was especially noteworthy, as volunteers planted the first part of the gardens’ meadowlands, designed by world-renowned designer Piet Oudolf.
“It was a huge operation. We have had about 50 volunteers. They came from everywhere … from Boston to Tennessee,” said Executive Director Sheryl Swed. “When Piet comes, he takes a look to see if it’s perfect, or he does tweaking.”
Just outside Dagsboro, some onlookers thrilled to see the Dutch designer pick up a rake to help shape the grass mounds. Others begged an autograph or two.
“My idea was to make a perennial meadow with the use of many natives, but in my own way. I have a very impressionistic style,” Oudolf said while examining the grounds.
The 1.5-acre meadow is a controlled mass of plants, shaped rather like a figure 8 or an ampersand. The thick pathways curve through the meadow, the plants clearly delineated from the walkway.
“The whole layout is so that people can meander and walk through the garden,” Oudolf said. “Every turn is a different perspective. … You want people to feel like they discovered something.”
All the 17,000 plants are snugly packed, sometimes grouped with their own species and sometimes sprinkled among many species. He included two large grassy mounds “so people can sit on it. From the top there, you’ll be able to see the whole meadow.”
This section of the garden needs longer to grow, and the DBG will likely plant the rest next summer. The meadow will eventually contain more than 65,000 plants.
Even the board members who have undertaken such a bold project said they were amazed to see the former soybean field sculpted into a meadow garden. The meadow is still blocked from immediate view from the road.
“Maybe you don’t see it yet. But it’s going to happen,” Oudolf said.
“I work with seasons and texture,” he noted, so the meadow will change year-round, from blossoms and flowers to decay and winter’s floral skeletons. “Every week you come, the color is very different. The change is most interesting.”
About 85 percent of the 54 plant species are native, which means more food and habitat, but less maintenance.
Does anyone still think that native plants are boring?
“Oh, wait ’til you see what Piet does with them,” Tepper added with a laugh. “Piet is iconic for the block designs like this.”
The 37-acre public garden near Dagsboro is expected to open in 2019. Eventually, the meadow will stand beside a pond, pavilion, wedding/event area and woodlands that lead to Pepper Creek.
Volunteers learn some tips and make a mark
Volunteers have made this happen, from the executive board to the citizens digging in the ground.
“Personally, I wanted to leave my mark on the first botanic garden on the Eastern Shore. … Hopefully, it will encourage more people to come,” said Jan Poli, former owner of a Manhattan shop called The Secret Garden.
“I feel like these are my children,” she said with a laugh among the new plants. “I feel very blessed” to be here.
Indeed, Roy Diblik compared gardening to parenting. and Oudolf brought him to physically layout the garden, from paper to ground. After he marked the boundaries for each planting, volunteers planted each of the 17,000 young plants.
“It’s a community garden,” said Karen Dudley, a member of the Barefoot Gardeners club. “It’s a community that’s building this garden.”
This was a learning experience, even for — or, in some cases, especially for — local garden clubs. Volunteers learned to “fluff” the plant roots while putting them in new soil, and not to tamp down on the soil afterward.
Eventually, the volunteers reluctantly paused for lunch. But so did the insects.
Bees were already dipping into the low flowers for a midday meal.
“The butterflies have found it. We saw a monarch zipping by” as soon as the plants were unloaded from the trucks, said volunteer Amy Cornelius.
“The whole garden will have exotics, [but] I want to make sure it can be a habitat,” said Greg Tepper, DBG director of horticulture. “I define beauty as not only aesthetics but the ability to support life.”
His focus has been clearing and planting the woodlands to create “a place where people go to heal.” He envisions a staff of “stewards” — not just gardeners — who will engage with visitors for one-on-one teaching moments, even while working.
The public can still help by contributing donations, becoming members or volunteering. Donations may be made online at www.delawaregardens.org or by check mailed to Delaware Botanic Gardens; P.O. Box 1390; Ocean View, DE 19970. Southern Delaware Botanic Gardens Inc., is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
The garden site is located on Piney Neck Road, about 1.5 miles from Main Street in Dagsboro.