A crystal clear sky reflects off the placid water at Pepper Creek as, almost on cue, one of the resident bald eagles swoops over the shoreline in a regal arc.
It’s this kind of awe in nature – like a child curiously digging through the mud or exploring unknown paths in the woods – that the team at the Delaware Botanic Gardens hopes to inspire in its visitors.
While Delawareans and tourists may be more familiar with the botanic gardens to the north, like Mt. Cuba or nearby Longwood Gardens, a natural oasis has recently blossomed in Sussex County.
The dream of many passionate volunteers, this space of tranquility and education has been years in the making. The Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek, near Dagsboro, first opened to the public in September 2019 with promises of expansions and events in the future.
But then, just as the first full season would begin in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Through virtual tours, social distancing and mask requirements, the volunteers and staff offered creative ways for people to safely experience the gardens over the last two years.
Now, as spring settles in, the Delaware Botanic Gardens has opened its gates, ready to celebrate how much it has grown and worked to feature the native plants and wildlife of the inland bays.
And staff hope more people will discover the beauties of this hidden natural gem, just a a dozen or so miles west of the beaches.
Preserving land and stories
Before it became home to a carefully designed meadow that now begins to bloom in bright perennials like false indigo and coneflower, the 37-acre gardens were once wide stretches of soybean fields.
Like much of the land throughout Sussex County, this farm could have been destined to become a housing development. Instead, in 2015, the Sussex County Land Trust offered to lease the site on Piney Neck Road near Dagsboro for $1 per year for the next 99 years to make way for the gardens.
As visitors explore the wooded and open spaces at the gardens today, they can imagine what it was like for the generations of farming families who lived here. The brick foundation of the original house is now teeming with new life as plants climb over its walls, and a little bit farther in the woods, people can see the old fishing boat and outdoor brick oven that the family used when catching dinner on the water.
One of the former residents, now in her 90s, was able to see how the stories of her family will live on through the gardens, according to Stephen Pryce Lea, director of horticulture.
This repurposing – also seen in a metal gate that a volunteer found at a local antique store and incorporated into the gardens – shows how the preservation of history and land can form something beautiful.
An opportunity to relax and learn
Whether walking around the Folly Gardens and gazing at the new reflection pool or meandering through the 12-acre Woodland Gardens where birds chatter above, Pryce Lea said he notices a change in people after they visit.
If they’ve arrived with some lingering stress or worries, he said, all that seems to dissipate by the time they leave.
“They leave feeling like a totally different person almost,” he said, commenting how smiles spread across guests’ faces when they return to the recently completed visitor’s center.
But more than a respite from visitors’ busy lives, or even the packed beaches and backed-up highways during the summer, the Delaware Botanic Gardens offer countless learning opportunities, too.
Throughout the gardens, guests can find huge bird nests that volunteers created by weaving together tree limbs, sticks and other natural materials. These nests are artistic, but they also educate people about habitats that they may not normally see up in the trees. The enlarged nests provide homes to many insects and other animals, said Pryce Lea.
Inside one of the biggest nests are a circle of wooden stools where Pryce Lea said they hope to host classes or groups who want to use that space for storytime or other teaching moments.
On Wednesday, May 18, the Botanic Gardens will host Bugs and Beer – a hands-on presentation where people will dip buckets into the pond at the Dogfish Learning Garden and identify the small organisms living there. As the name suggests, the event will also feature beverages for kids and adults alike.
Even more events will be possible with the construction of the Annette Pennoni Meadow Pavilion, a 2,500-square-foot facility that will allow the gardens to expand its annual program season and bring in more revenue.
In the meantime, the gardens recently finished construction of new modern restrooms, which include a rain-collection system and surrounding native plants.
Throughout the gardens, from the pollution-absorbing Rhyne Garden in the parking lot to the Living Shoreline project that helps mitigate erosion due to sea-level rise, guests can see the gardens’ conservation efforts in real time.
The organization has often partnered with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, as well as the Delaware Center for the Inland Bays, to make these projects happen.
There are still more plants to be planted and plans to be drawn out, but with the help of about 120 rotating volunteers, the Delaware Botanic Gardens are eager to welcome more people to experience this peaceful and educational escape this season.
Emily Lytle covers Sussex County from the inland towns to the beaches. Got a story she should tell? Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-332-0370. Follow her on Twitter at @emily3lytle.