Governor Jack Markell and First Lady Carla Markell led a delegation of notable Delawareans to launch the first phase of the Delaware Botanic Gardens on December 1. More than 175 enthusiastic supporters turned out at the site along Pepper Creek to tour and show their support for this first public garden in southern Delmarva.
“I’m so impressed with what you’ve done here,” said Governor Markell, who called the garden’s initial development over the past four years “an awesome job.” As he told the garden leaders—including President Susan Ryan, Executive Director Sheryl Swed, and Vice President Ray Sander—“You had a very compelling vision.”
Markell also called his wife, Carla, “a great cheerleader” in her role as chair of the DBG Advisory Council. Among her contributions to the project was persuading the noted landscape architect Rodney Robinson of Robinson Anderson Summers in Wilmington to take the lead in refining the garden's original site plan and in creating its master plan.
The initial phase of the garden, when it opens in 2019, will include a colorful natural meadow designed by the internationally acclaimed Dutch plantsman Piet Oudolf, extensive plantings and pathways in and along the edge of the existing woodlands, a living outdoor wetlands classroom, and a temporary visitors center. A wide variety of gardens, water features, and structures will be added over the following years, including a visitor center designed by the award-winning architecture firm Lake/Flato.
“Today marks the actual physical start of this project,” said DBG President Susan Ryan in opening the ceremony. "This site epitomizes the Eastern Shore and the Delmarva Peninsula, from our native trees, the plants, the smell of the marsh, the ocean. It just does not get better than this site.”
Numerous public officials joined in the ceremonial groundbreaking, including Delaware House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, Senator Gerald Hocker, Representatives Ron Gray and Tim Dukes, and Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett. Also attending were representatives of the Sussex County Land Trust, which is leasing the land to the garden for 297 years for $1 per year. For Dennis Forney, chair of the Land Trust and publisher of the Cape Gazette, “Open space such as this is vital to the future of this county.” He called the 37.5-acre site off Piney Neck Road outside Dagsboro part of “the world’s sweet spot” that is Delaware.
“We all work together in Sussex to make things happen—whatever we can do to help the county grow,” said Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf.
Rodney Robinson of RAS Landscape Architects pointed out that most botanic gardens begin as parts of private estates. "This one started from the ground up—and is thus rare and even more deserving of appreciation for the work involved," he said.
First Lady Carla Markell extolled gardens as places to think and relax, making the Delaware Botanic Gardens a special alternative to the traditional beach visits that are a mainstay of coastal Delaware. “Its exciting to see all sectors of the state represented here. It’s what Delaware is all about,” she noted. Mrs. Markell extended her thanks to the Longwood Foundation for providing vital seed money and to Rodney Robinson for his creative redesign of the original site plan.
State Senator Gerald Hocker in turn thanked the governor and the first lady for their support of the garden and noted that after the governor’s term ends in January 2017, he joins others in wishing that Carla Markell would remain “first lady of the garden.” Mrs. Markell later confirmed that she would accept the organization’s request that she remain chair of its Advisory Council, a group that provides professional advice on various aspects of the garden.
In interviews, Representative Ron Gray noted that this public garden "will put Sussex County and Dagsboro on the map." Representative Tim Dukes added that "this is a breathtaking property … very conducive to building a beautiful facility."
Longwood Foundation President Thère du Pont said that the foundation was "pleased to be able to provide a grant that not only provided start up funds but also provided a matching grant that enabled them to get even more…." In November 2015 the Longwood Foundation awarded a $750,000 grant with a $500,000 match requirement that raised more than $1.3 million by September 2016.
The engineering firm Pennoni Associates was represented by several of its management team, including Nelson Schaffer, executive vice president; Ron Moore Jr., regional vice president; and Mark Davidson, associate vice president. This company has provided significant pro bono engineering assistance, including creation of the original site plan and all of the requisite work to secure approvals from the Sussex Planning and Zoning Commission and the Sussex County Council.
Greg Sawka, president and CEO of Bancroft Construction Company, was accompanied by Michael Petka, project executive, and Bob Batley, vice president for business development. Bancroft is one of the region's leading horticultural project construction managers and has joined the DBG project as construction manager, following the recent completion of a major project at Longwood Gardens. Bancroft also played a key role in managing the groundbreaking ceremony under the leadership of Rob Jadick, director of marketing.
Governor Markell closed his remarks at the ceremony by saying that he likes groundbreakings, but what he loves best is the ribbon cutting when the project is officially opened to the public.
The Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek is embarking on a ten-year, multiphase plan to establish a major public garden for southern Delmarva that reflects the unique coastal plain. Its mission is to create inspirational, educational, and sustainable gardens for the benefit and enjoyment of residents and visitors alike. Founded in 2012 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the project has already attracted luminaries such as the renowned Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf, the environmentally acclaimed architecture firm Lake/Flato, and Delaware’s own Rodney Robinson of RAS, an award-winning landscape architect who has created and restored gardens throughout the country.