Nestled away along a rural Kent County road you’ve probably never heard of is a 2-acre garden belonging to Co-op members Heather Hotaling, her daughter Amanda and her mother, Grace Rishell. Driving down Sewell Branch Road during a fall, winter or spring day, the garden is easy to miss. But in late June, as the warmth of summer sets in across Delmarva, you’d be hard-pressed to not be in awe of the explosion of color.
To say Willow Rock Gardens is filled with daylilies would be an understatement. Breathtaking flowerbeds boast thousands of daylilies — Hotaling says the garden is one of the most diverse daylily gardens in the United States. For several weeks in June and early July, the garden is in full bloom, delighting visitors with bursts of orange, red, yellow, pink and every other color, except blue.
According to Hotaling, who is affectionately known locally as the Lily Lady, “It looks just like a rainbow here during peak bloom time. Visitors are probably going to see at least 4,500 varieties of daylilies in bloom. It’s an amazing sight.” In all, Hotaling cultivates about 5,000 varieties of daylilies. The seeds of inspiration for this backyard lily oasis were sown when Hotaling was a child in upstate New York.
“My grandfather lived on a 100-acre farm and had the most incredible field of orange daylilies. One day he told me he was going to dig them up with his 8N Ford tractor and all I could do was cry,” says Hotaling. “I ran down crying to a neighbor who was an arborist. He calmed me down and said my grandfather was going to split the plants so more could be planted.”
Hotaling’s grandfather gave Heather her very own plot of land on the farm so she could plant as many varieties of daylilies as she pleased. When she and her family decided to move to Delaware in 2009, they had to painstakingly dig up, transport and replant the lilies at their new Delmarva home. The first lily was planted by the garage and the expansion of the garden has never stopped.
Visitors to Willow Rock Gardens are greeted by the same Ford tractor Hotaling’s grandfather used at the New York farm — it’s had a makeover and is now painted as a ladybug to better fit in with the many bees and bugs found in the garden. There’s also a vegetable garden, a blackberry patch, several water features and other beautiful bloomers like hydrangeas and roses.
There’s also a 9/11 memorial sculpture garden. Originally built in New York, the memorial helps many visitors reflect on that terrible day. Hotaling says, “I put the memorial on a mound representing the hills of Pennsylvania where Flight 93 went down. And the outside edge of the bed is in the shape of the Pentagon. A lot of military folks appreciate it.”
For the Hotaling family, the garden is a colorful arboreal mecca, but it’s also a lot of work. Each fall and winter, they spend four months trimming back the lilies by hand to ensure the plants are not damaged. Hotaling says she loves the peace and tranquility of the gardens — she finds solace while working and planning her next additions to this backyard paradise and hopes visitors feel the same way.
“When people come here, they often don’t know what to say. They just take it in. They are curious about the plants. This is my Disney World. The colors make it so exciting, and when I get bored, I come out here, work and think of big ideas. This is my therapy, I love it,” says Hotaling.
The public can view Willow Rock Gardens from June through September. Please call 302-223-8190 to schedule a visit or check out their Facebook page.