How Does His Garden Grow?

Posted On February 26, 2014

Hometown boy Andy Cabe was in the right place at the best time. Skill, vision and superb training helped seal the deal.

 By Jackie Perrone

 Andy Cabe Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

 No one knows better than Andy Cabe that March, April and May are magical months in South Carolina gardens. “It’s when everything comes together to show off for us,” he says. This gardener, Director of Riverbanks Botanical Garden, also knows that the other 10 months of the year showcase beauties of their own, and are important for successful gardening. He and his staff are at it month in and month out, planning, ordering, stockpiling, digging and preparing for a bloomin’ success.

Andy Cabe is himself a home-grown product, born in Columbia, graduating Irmo High, a Clemson graduate with a B.S. in Horticulture. It was a natural progression, as his father was with the S. C. Forestry Commission. Upon graduation, he marked time for a bit in the restaurant business, but when an opening came along at Riverbanks Botanical Garden in 2000, he stepped to the front of the line and started his career part-time in the greenhouse. It was a perfect fit from the start.

“I had a lot of luck,” he likes to say. “Other staff members left and I was able to move into full-time, first as a Horticulturist, then a Curator, and now Director of the Riverbanks Botanical Garden. I couldn’t be happier to be right here, right now.”

Riverbanks Zoo, co-supported by Richland and Lexington counties, is a Midlands success story, ranking among the top zoos in the country and drawing thousands of visitors to the area. Maybe not exactly blood, toil, sweat and tears, but the Zoo was created in effort, dedication and generous support a short 40 years ago. It’s birthday party time at Riverbanks, and celebration is in the air. The Botanical Garden was added in 1995, thus it is now coming up on 20 years.

“A Richland-Lexington bond issue in the amount of $32 million has been approved,” says Cabe. “Now we have the green light for some much-needed additions and improvements. A new sea lion exhibit will bring back fond memories of one of the zoo’s most popular exhibits from years ago. The million-plus visitors headed here will find easier navigation at the expanded entrance and ticket booth, improved guest amenities, renovated retail and dining facilities, plus plenty of additional parking.”

“But the most exciting project on our Botanical Garden drawing board is the Children’s Garden coming soon. We think family visits to the Zoo are going to be fascinated with all the things they will find in the Children’s Garden. It’s to be on three acres adjacent to the big garden, educational and important but at the same time a lot of fun for kids. They’ll look, play, dig, wade, and learn while parents can relax nearby.”

This innovation lists heady activities, indeed. At the “dinosaur dig,” kids will simulate the work of archeologists unearthing history. A moving stream invites wading and exploring of small marine plants and life. A working pond will demonstrate an eco-system approach to sustaining life while protecting the environment. And hey, a tree house calls out for climbing, adventure and imagination. Of course an educational building is planned, as well as a vegetable garden; look, kids, tomatoes don’t grow on the shelf at the grocery store!

The architecture team and zoo staff visited other such facilities around the country in order to choose the best features of each. Site work begins soon, and the Children’s Garden should be up and running in late 2015.

The horticulture and landscaping at the Zoo proper is separately administered, with Melodie Scott-Leach serving as Director of Habitat Horticulture. These two departments often share resources and expertise to get big projects done throughout the zoo and garden.

Perhaps one of the best-known features of the original Botanical Garden is its Old Rose Garden. Here’s how the Director describes it: “Heirloom roses are special in several specific ways. They have a disease resistance that is not always found in newer varieties. Their fragrance is distinctive, and ease of maintenance is an important asset also. It’s easy for people to associate them with memories of grandmother’s garden. We like to display them, but it’s not a static exhibit, it’s more fluid. We mix with shrubs and trees and vary the setting.”

Different areas of the garden have themes. Perennial border plants may be divided according to “hot colored” or “pastel” or “purple” borders. Different shrubs may be featured for seasonal effect. After two decades, this is a mature garden rather than a new one. Young trees have become big ones, and the amount of shade or of sunlight must be considered for every plant. “That’s how gardens evolve,” says Andy Cabe. “It’s progress.”

Donor opportunities abound at Riverbanks. Benches and rocking chairs may be dedicated to honor someone, or as a memorial. In the rose garden, blue lights, handmade of blown glass, are given.

All year round, busloads of schoolchildren and other visitors arrive at Riverbanks. Special science camps are offered, geared to the age of the student, and summer day-camps combine learning with fun.

Away from work, the Cabe green thumb shows up at home also. Yes, he has a home garden, beautiful bulbs and flowers but also practical with herbs and veggies. Cook-able items are grown in containers on the patio. “I like to cook,” he says, “on the grill outdoors whenever it’s nice out. Just-picked fresh herbs and vegetables are important.”

Does a professional horticulturalist have favorites among the plants? “Bulbs,” is Cabe’s prompt response. “And I like big-foliage plants such as elephant ears.”

It’s a safe bet that Andy Cabe’s wife Margaret and young son Dylan will be even more frequent visitors to the Zoo when this enhancement opens. Cabe points out, “It’s hard to do everything at the Zoo in one trip. Several hours viewing the animals, and several more in the Garden – some people can walk and stand that much but young children might not hold out as long. Some families may want to focus on Riverbanks as a two-day experience; do the zoo one day and the garden the next.”

Andy Cabe says that the Zoo and Gardens survived the recent economic slump pretty well, instituting some cost-effective changes in order to maintain high standards. It has continually drawn big crowds over recent years, with an all-time high of 1,039,372 visitors during the 2012-2013 fiscal year. Lookin’ good for the next 40!

 Events at Riverbanks Botanical Garden are accelerating into their spring-and-summer mode. The official countdown for Riverbanks 40th Birthday Party begins on Monday, March 17: weekly discounts, specials, and fun happenings promised.

Saturday, March 22, sees the annual Springtime in the Garden Festival, an all-day celebration for kick-starting local gardening. “Dig up inspiration!” is this year’s slogan, with Master Gardeners from Clemson Extension on hand with advice. In addition to garden-related activities, live music and arts-and-crafts stations just for kids is offered. Free with membership or general admission.

Friday, April 25, Wine-Tasting: 7 to 9:30 p.m. for adults. This is also the day that Riverbanks marks its 40th Birthday celebration.

An eagerly-anticipated annual occasion is the Spring Plant Sale, being held this year on April 26 through the morning hours. Free admission, thousands of annuals, perennials, shrubs and more, with experts on hand to advise and assist – crowds flock to the Garden Growing Center, 1201 Seminole Drive, West Columbia to add to their planting landscape and tackle new garden projects.

Every Thursday in May, Rhythm and Blooms: evenings from 6 to 9: come for Family Night. Live music, food and beverages, visit with the staff as well as other gardeners, relax, learn and enjoy. #

 Riverbanks Zoo and Garden