New garden takes root at Able center

Hard hats are hot. On a 90-degree day in late June, wearing a hard hat might protect your head but it's death on your hairdo.

But it's what you do when you tour a building that's under construction, and I joined the group of men and women who were to give me the lowdown on the 26,000 square feet that will encompass the buildings and gardens of the new Beaufort County Disabilities and Special Needs Department.

The department provides services for local residents with developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and mental handicaps. After years of planning, a much-needed facility on Clear Water Way in Beaufort is expected to open in November. Executive Director Mitzi Wagner introduced me to members of the Able Foundation (disabled people are "able") who are involved in the creation of the Able Garden that will be visible from many areas of the building.

Board chairman the Rev. Ed Cushingberry; Bill Love, director of the day program; Roger Wagner, landscape architect; Alice Massey, assistant to the garden chairman; and Helene Gruber, chairwoman of the advisory board and dedication committee, were all wearing their hard hats with practiced aplomb.

In the main building are offices, training rooms, a dining room, snack bar and a staff of 114 that offer both day and night programs. A separate building houses a pottery room. In the future, there will be a small greenhouse. Outside, there is an area where special needs individuals could make money by washing cars. There's a vegetable garden here, too.

The Courtyard Landscape, the focus of our trip, was built to provide a passive, quiet and enclosed landscaped space with covered areas for outdoor activities even in minimum inclement conditions. In the center is a large pool with a fountain, and surrounding this are gardens with a variety of plants designed to flourish in the capricious climate of the Lowcountry. The Japanese maple tree variety is the showy "Bloodgood," the hydrangeas are "Endless Summer" and the crape myrtles are Lagerstroemia indica.

It's obvious there will be no deer here; many plant varieties are favorites of mature gardeners who've had to give them up due to their extreme desirability to hungry deer. Hostas "Fire and Ice," daylilies "Stella d' Oro" and "Encore" azaleas give beauty and character to this mixed sun and shade garden.

As is usual with a large building site, the land surrounding the building has been stripped of all that is green and once growing. When the buildings are completed and this area is landscaped, the forest now seen in the distance will begin to regrow. Adding fast-growing trees and shrubs to the building site will help cool down the atmosphere.

Master gardeners on the Able team will likely put in a plug for native trees and shrubs such as the river birch and the bald cypress. Generally thought of as a tree of the Southern swamps where it towers over other native species, the bald cypress tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, including well-drained sites. This is one of our oldest surviving species -- individual plants might live 1,000 years or more, reaching well over 100 feet tall.

You can't forget the Carolina signature palms. Sabal palmetto adapts to most types of soil, grows in full sun to shade and grows to 50 to 70 feet tall. Sabal minor likes moist soil and grows to 8 to 10 feet. Add exotica with the Baja Mexican native, a Washingtonia robusta that can grow to 100 feet tall, or the Chamaedorea, a Mediterranean native palm about 15 feet tall.

Let's look out the windows of this special building and see beauty and cooling green. Gruber, an experienced gardener herself, was asked to take over the dedication of the Able Garden to take place Nov. 15. When we drove to the soon-to-be-defunct, presently outgrown, County Disabilities and Special Needs building, she said to me, "I believe that gardens are mystic places. Something happens to people in a garden."