How a soybean field in middle-of-nowhere Delaware became a buzzy botanic garden

THE WASHINGTON POST – Two years after an army of volunteers installed thousands of little nondescript plant plugs, a two-acre field of perennials and grasses near the Delaware shore has sprouted into a beguiling meadow conceived by the prominent Dutch plant designer Piet Oudolf.

In September, the garden is more a medley of textures and end-of-season earth tones than an explosion of colour – that occurred over the summer – but its power and depth are not subdued.

I adore this expression of gardening for loads of reasons: It’s naturalistic, it’s dynamic, it gets more interesting with each passing month of the season. For its maker, it allows countless permutations of plant combos.

For the viewer, no matter how seasoned, it provides the thrill of discovering new varieties.

But you can judge for yourself.

ABOVE & BELOW: The two-acre stylised meadow at the Delaware Botanic Gardens is the latest project of Dutch plant designer Piet Oudolf; and Piet Oudolf surveys the finished meadow at a gala opening of the garden near Dagsboro, Delaware. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

The 70,000-plant composition forms the centrepiece of one of the nation’s newest public gardens, the Delaware Botanic Gardens, which opened in the unlikely setting of a former soybean field and creek-side woodland near Dagsboro, Delaware, a dozen miles west of Bethany Beach.

The 37-acre attraction is a work in progress; the meadow and woodland are ready to be enjoyed, and basic infrastructure is in place, but the main visitor centre, a central water feature and other key elements have yet to appear.

Other design professionals involved in the project include RAS Landscape Architects in Media, Pennsylvania, and the San Antonio architects Lake/Flato.

The enterprise is not the product of a wealthy entrepreneur or corporation, driven rather by an eager band of individuals who have tapped into the goodwill of the local business community and other donors in southern Delaware and who found grants from an array of foundations. The land is owned by a conservation trust.

“Every time I think the world is coming to an end, this project breathes new life into me,” said Ray Sander, the garden’s President.

Sander said the goal is to get 30,000 visitors in the first season. Oudolf, who is listening keenly, chimes in, “It’ll get those, but you need a coffee bar. And an espresso machine, not filtered coffee.” Sander is silent, a little nonplussed. The European epicure persists. “And a good croissant.”

The gardening team is small, headed by Brian Trader, late of Longwood Gardens, and relies on a corps of volunteers, many of them Delmarva sun-seekers and retirees who have fled workaday Washington, DC, and other cities. Oudolf’s participation has elevated its place in the gardening world, and he said he took on the job, in part, because much of his work has been in creating highly private residential gardens that few people will ever get to see. His public commissions in the states have included the High Line in New York and the Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park. The Delaware garden, in its layout of paths through rather than around an immersive herbaceous landscape, reminds me of a similarly scaled creation at Durslade Farm in England, where the Oudolf Field is part of the art gallery campus known as Hauser & Wirth Somerset.

Oudolf sees major differences in the plant palette between them, but in both cases he has transformed what were once empty farm fields. This gets to a point that transcends even Piet Oudolf and the New Perennial Movement.

The fact that a shapeless plot can be turned into a garden with its own form, character and, especially, spirit of place is nothing short of miraculous.

Oudolf picked up on this point, saying that the metamorphosis here is all the starker for its setting. The High Line has the context of a vibrant city, as does the Lurie Garden. Delaware Botanic Gardens arises on flat land between a country road and a brackish creek.

“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

Creating so much from nothing gets to the essence and power of garden making. This is why we do it, to create a paradise out of thin air. Dream a space, make it real, and let it speak to us.

What does the Oudolf Meadow have to say? For one, that you don’t have to wait long for a garden of perennials and grasses to reach effective maturity. The vigour of the Delaware garden is fuelled by the heat and rainfall of its location. (Last year’s record rain actually caused ponding and the death of some grasses.)

Oudolf’s gardens function on two basic levels. Broadly, they are a canvas of textures, colours and horizontal lines.

Closer up, the plants are in a dance with their immediate neighbours. It’s a hoedown that changes with each step, as your viewpoint shifts, and it’s at this level that you see value in September of seemingly “dead” material – that is, the ghostly dark remnants of the yarrow blooms of June, the blackened seed heads of coneflowers or the declining remnants of the architectural eryngium known as rattlesnake master. They convey a moribund beauty that is part of what is known as the fifth season, the period of top-growth decline in early to mid-fall as the perennials retreat into the ground for the winter.

As much as I love this effect, I thought the garden would have more colour than it did in mid-September. But the asters have yet to produce a show, the pink muhly grass is subdued this year and some perennials saw their flower show compressed by what was another abnormally hot summer, Trader explained. There was still much to get the sap flowing.

The mountain mints were magnets for a carnival of lesser-spotted pollinators, the mass planting of switch grass proved an effective hedge, bulky but fine textured, and a gigantic variety of blazing star, Liatris pycnostachya, leaned under the weight of its torchlike seed heads.

More than 300 donors and other supporters gathered September 12 for a dinner marking the opening of the garden. Its limited public hours – Wednesday, Thursday and Friday mornings through November – reflect its reliance on volunteers.

It is fitting that it should open now, toward the replete conclusion of the growing season. The timing shakes up the irrational idea of gardens being for the spring.

On a hot and clammy day, the slightest breeze causes a ripple of movement through the grasses.

The meandering paths lead to a grassy viewing mound and together create 11 discrete beds. The plant beds closer to the barnlike Welcome Centre are defined by a matrix of the native grass known as prairie dropseed. The grass is still a couple of years from reaching its full, fine-textured mounds.

The distant beds find another organising grass, two varieties of the little bluestem, upright, dark and destined to become more handsome by October.

For Oudolf, all this is the fruition of a plant world he has been pushing for almost half a century, though each project is unique in its plantings. As he told the filmmaker Thomas Piper in Piper’s documentary of Oudolf’s work, “It’s the journey in your life to find out what real beauty is.”

Gardening tip: Time to order seed shallots and garlic for planting next month. The cloves grow through the winter for harvest next summer. A six-by-four-foot bed will accommodate three dozen cloves.