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Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek 

   By Arnold Berke—

Pride of Place on Pepper Creek

If you worry, as I do at times, that Sussex County, Delaware is being paved over from stem to stern, then take heart in a band of residents creating a very different future on a former farm west of Bethany Beach.

These stalwarts are transforming 37 acres of fields, forest, and marsh into the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek, to showcase the distinctive but under-appreciated flora and fauna of the coastal plain. Hard work and high-end design talent are moving their gleam in the eye toward launching a public garden with year-round beauty and inspiration for locals and tourists alike.

In the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

In the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

When fleshed out with thousands of mostly native plants, the site—near Dagsboro on Pepper Creek off Indian River Bay—will host a meadow garden by a star designer, woodland laced with footpaths, display and demonstration gardens, pond, amphitheater, and, embosomed between woods and fields, a striking visitor center. A full menu for a wide audience—from kids giggling through their first immersion in nature to seasoned plant-lovers who can rattle off all those Latin horticultural names.

“Number one, it’s a place to celebrate the coast’s plants and wildlife,” says DBG president Sue Ryan. “Number two, it’s a place for display, for that beauty people crave.” An ex-homebuilder who owns Good Earth Markets in Rehoboth and Ocean View and an organic farm, Ryan grew up in Montgomery County, Md., and remembers visiting its Brookside Gardens with her mom. “It just formed me. I’d love to have a place like that here in our county.”


Botanical gardens preen plants for enjoyment, education, and conservation.

Hundreds dot America, from focused ones like the American Rose Center in Shreveport, La., to such huge and varied Xanadus as Longwood Gardens near Wilmington, Delaware. Typical for its era, Longwood was a private park of the wealthy (the du Ponts) and later invited in the public. DBG has always been public, “a people’s project,” says DBG vice president Ray Sander. “The people came together.” No formal plan or conservatory of exotics, but a freer-form pageant of Lower Grower Delaware.

Open-space zealot and Delaware Cape Gazette publisher Dennis Forney planted the seed, dreaming of a place to help people “develop a greater appreciation for the outdoors and the miracle of gardens great and small.” The eager community response birthed the nonprofit Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek in 2012 to tackle the what, when, where—and the crucial how.

DBG lucked out with “where” by leasing its site from the Sussex County Land Trust for a dollar a year. “How” is a multitasker: get county and state backing, redo zoning, run engineering and financial studies, write master plan, hire fundraiser, raise funds. Whew! For traction—and credibility—they added an advisory panel of big names in business, horticulture, nonprofits, and government, chaired by Delaware first lady Carla Markell, who insisted that DBG turn its pretty good early ideas into the very best final product.

Special Events at the Delaware Botanic Gardens.

Special Events at the Delaware Botanic Gardens.

So they hired top talent—led by internationally acclaimed Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, whose hits include the plant scape for New York City’s famous High Line. Oudolf’s sensuous meadow garden will meld wildflowers and grasses into a colorful, highly textured landscape varying with time of day, season, and whatever wind, sun, and rain the skies deliver. “It’s like a large-scale perennial border,” says Ryan. “He uses his plants like paint, developing a palette that will thrive in our spot.” The opposite of meadow-in-a-can.

Oudolf’s method shows how DBG is contriving to look uncontrived. “This isn’t a nature center, this is a garden,” says landscape architect Rodney Robinson, who restored the Nemours garden in Wilmington, Delaware and is helping devise the master plan. “A nature center is where you embrace the natural world. A garden is manipulated, where you see nature combined with horticulture.” Robinson is meshing the meadow with the other features (and those with each other) so it won’t “look as if it landed from the sky like the great mother ship.”

Brush at Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

Brush at the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

Visits will be gently choreographed. The parking lot, not the usual vast asphalt inferno, will soothe with a tree canopy, massed plants, lush rainwater-channel “rhyne,” and oyster-shell walks. “We want your beautiful experience to begin from the car,” says Robinson. The visitor center, by Ted Flato of the celebrated architecture firm Lake/Flato, will be broken by breezeways into ticketing and gathering spaces. One-room-wide layout, low profile, and board siding snuggle it in. “The goal for the architecture,” says Flato, “is to connect visitors to environment, and style takes a back seat.” Go to the end pavilion for woodsy views of Pepper Creek—or to the gardens straight ahead, alluringly framed by the building itself.

For beauty, stroll through Oudolf’s meadow. Want to plant your own property? See the demonstration gardens. Visit the wetlands by the pond to bone up on ecosystems. Or from a low-impact trail, explore the forest, where DBG horticulture director Gregg Tepper, the former horticulturist at Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, is preserving and enhancing an astounding variety of trees from hickory to hackberry. Like a museum, says Tepper, “DBG will be a collection, but replicating local natural environments.” He is working with Robinson and Oudolf garden-wide to select plants that thrive in the mid-Atlantic coastal plain.

Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek.

Funding is from donated services, materials, and cash, most impressive a $750,000 grant from the Longwood Foundation that has grown via matching to $1.25 million. The state has also given funding and services, and hundreds of individuals have pledged from $25 to $100,000.

Earning bucks entails touting benefits—garden delights, of course, but also ripple effects from teasing tourists in from the coast. “Everyone comes here for beaches, boats, and biking,” says Sander. “We’re adding botanic.” He and Sheryl Swed, DBG’s executive director, see 200,000 yearly visits by 2022—adding $19 million to Sussex’ tourism economy—plus benefits from building DBG and creating jobs. Groundbreaking was held in December 2016. The meadow and woodlands open in 2018; other features follow in stages.

The way things are going, this garden will be far from garden variety.


To learn more, become a member, or donate, visit

DBG is holding a lecture series, which started in fall 2016 with “Embracing the Regional Landscape” by landscape designer Donald Pell; and “Lessons from a New Garden” by horticulturist Holly Shimizu. Additional lectures in 2017 are: “Deer-resistant Native Perennials” by Ruth Rogers Clawson on Feb. 25 and “Native Bees in Delaware” by Sam Droege on April 22.  

*Rendering of the planned visitor center for the Delaware Botanic Gardens, designed by Lake/Flato Architects. Gallery photographs by Gregg Tepper, Kenneth Arni, and Michael Zajic.

Author Arnold Berke is a writer living in Washington, D.C. and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

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