By Meisha Johnson

HOCKESSIN, Del. (CBS) — Closed to the general public for decades, the gardens of Mt. Cuba Center in Hockessin, Delaware, hold a secret.

Mt. Cuba Center has only been open to the public since 2013, but the vision for a lush 600-acre space was born long before that.

“This was the home of Lammot and Pamela Copeland. It was built in the mid-1930s,” said Jeff Downing, executive director of Mt. Cuba Center. “They were exquisite gardeners throughout their lives, and they became very attracted to native plants.

“Native plants are plants that were originally, and continue to grow, in your natural region,” Downing said. “They’re important because they play important roles in the ecology. They feed insects, butterflies, birds, bats and other wildlife.”

In the formal garden area, Downing explained, “They built out their gardens, mostly naturalistic gardens, but this is one area where it’s very formal in design.”

He said a path through the woods meanders through forests to the center’s ponds.

Downing said visitors come for “the sound of the rushing water, the smell of the fresh air and the flowers, the birds calling in the distance. It’s just a very peaceful place to be.”

And it’s all by design.

“It’s very manicured, but it’s manicured in a way to give it the appearance that it’s all just purely natural,” Downing said. “As someone once told me, it takes a lot of people to make it look like nobody’s been here.”

Tulip poplar trees tower over the site.

“That’s kind of intentional,” Downing said. “We call it the cathedral effect.” The trees can reach as tall as 100 feet.

Downing said Mt. Cuba Center wants to inspire people through their education programs to seek out native plants for their own gardens.

“The goal of the organization isn’t just to be a pretty place to go,” Downing said. “It’s to teach people about the importance of native plants and healthy ecosystems, so that they might go home and try native plants in their own yard.”

Mt. Cuba Center is at 3120 Barley Mill Road, Hockessin, DE 19707. It’s open for the 2017 season Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., until Nov. 19.

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