Plant Lady Sells Flowers With a Flourish : Liberal Doses of Motherly Love Accompany Sales

"Sweetheart, you must be in love," the Plant Lady said to 21-year-old construction worker John E. Berry. Berry was clutching a creeping Charlie plant. His face, under a Tom Selleck mustache, looked slightly worried. Would the creeping Charlie make a good gift for a girl he wanted to get to know better?

It was a typical Saturday afternoon in the converted motel from which Leucadia's Plant Lady--her real name is Charlotte Garrett--runs her plant-selling business. Officially, at least, it's a plant shop. Unofficially, warmed by Garrett's sunny disposition and her habit of mothering people, the place has become a local institution.

As she launched into some motherly advice to Berry--the gist being he shouldn't worry about the creeping Charlie because how could any girl not like a gift from such a nice man?--Garrett's German accent grew stronger. "Sweetheart" emerged as "Sveetheart." She waved her hands to emphasize her words. The accent, the gestures and her champagne-colored hair combine to make her, at 65, seem like a blend of a Gabor sister and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

"The customers come in to tell Mom their good news and their troubles," said Kathy Garrett, the Plant Lady's 25-year-old daughter, as she wrapped a spray of tuberoses for another customer. On the counter, the Garretts' snowshoe Siamese cat, Lila, curled her tail around a jelly jar for coins. The gingery smell of the tuberoses mingled with that of the roast beef the Plant Lady was cooking in the back kitchen.

"Some customers come in every week," Kathy said. "Some come in every day. This is the place where people meet. Sometimes they forget all about buying flowers and just sit around under the ferns, drinking coffee and talking."

The Plant Lady, before she was a plant lady, worked as a checker in a supermarket. She began her business in 1979 while Kathy was in Scripps Memorial Hospital-Encinitas after being attacked by a dog. It was, she remembered, a bleak month. "I was out of work. Kathy was temporarily paralyzed. I didn't even know how I was going to pay that month's rent."

One Sunday morning she was slumped in a chair, watching TV and feeling despondent, when the Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker came on.

"It was strange--she seemed to be talking right to me. She said, 'Now look at you--sitting in that chair feeling sorry for yourself. Get up! Do what you really want to do.' "

What she really wanted to do, Garrett decided, was sell flowers to people. She had always loved flowers. And people. There was, however, the basic problem of not having any money.

"I knew that Kathy--who had been selling plants by the side of the road from her Volkswagen camper--had a wholesale license. I thought I could make a start by looking for it."

While she was rummaging through a desk drawer, Garrett found $69 tucked inside some papers. "I rushed down to a local grower and bought flowers and a few plants," she remembers. Unaware at the time that she also needed a vendor's license, she set up business, selling from Kathy's camper by the side of Old Highway 101.

Instant Success

Right from that first day, The Plant Lady was a success. The profit she made from the first day went into flowers and plants for the next. The business grew . . . and grew. Many of the original customers who bought from her by the roadside are still with her.

"I come down here for Charlotte as much as I do for the plants," said Joan Keetch, who drives over from Carlsbad about once a week.

Dr. Michael Gurdin, who was one of her first customers, joked that his wife, Marlene, has purchased so many plants from Garrett over the years that their home looks like "a gangster's funeral."

Garrett was born Charlotte Kind in Raugune, a small town that has become part of East Germany. Married at 17, she was widowed during World War II when her husband, a German soldier, was shot in France. While her mother watched her two little boys, Dieter and Lutz, Garrett drove an ambulance for the Red Cross and worked for the Allied Occupation Forces in Berlin. It was in Berlin that she met her second husband, Howard Garrett, a U.S. Army sergeant.

He brought her to America in 1947, to West Virginia. A snapshot on the wall of her shop shows her a year later--too thin, pretty but tired-looking--standing with her hands on the shoulders of Dieter and Lutz, soon after she managed to get them out of Germany. Her marriage didn't work out but gave her two more children, Kathy and her older brother, Mike. Garrett moved to California with Kathy in 1978.

The mother-daughter team has been selling flowers and plants from the converted motel for three years now. It is, both Garretts say, a business full of surprises. One day a gleaming, chauffeur-driven limousine pulled up beside the parking lot tubs of irises and daffodils and misty blue delphiniums. The woman sitting in the back of the car bought almost every plant in the greenhouse. Another day a man who was a regular customer--and in the middle of getting a divorce--gave Kathy a horse, a stallion she named Studley.

Not all their experiences have been so positive.

"When we first started, we learned a lot of things by trial and error," Garrett said. "Such as which plants could survive the parking lot. Once, we put the poinsettias out there on a windy day and all their leaves blew off."

They get their share of bad checks too. Kathy is philosophical about it--"Everybody in business gets those"--but her mother seems hurt, not so much by the loss of income but by the fact that somebody would do such a thing. Especially for a luxury.

"To write a bum check for food, well, this I can understand," she said, shrugging her shoulders under her wooly cardigan. "But to buy a plant ?"

Garrett works seven days a week. She doesn't take vacations. On a typical day she's up by 6:30 on the San Marcos mini-ranch--one acre, several horses--she shares with Kathy and Kathy's fiance, Jeff Lathan.

Men Biggest Buyers

By 8:30 she has made several trips to the growers for fresh flowers, taken care of the greenhouse plants and made up half a dozen tubs of dollar-a-bunch flowers to stand under a trellis beside the shop doorway.

Although the dollar-a-bunch flowers, which make a bright splash of color for motorists passing along the coast road, attract both sexes, it is men who stop most frequently to buy them, Garrett said. Men, she has noticed, seem to be buying more flowers these days.

"I have more and more married men coming in and telling me that flowers make their wives happy."

Garrett, who calls her plants "Baby," rarely lets one leave the shop without giving liberal advice about its upkeep. She likes to spray their leaves with plant polish too, so that, like children going out into the world, they exit looking their best.

"I'll just shine it up for you," she'll cry, whisking a newly purchased plant from a customer's grasp.

"She shines up everything! I think she'd shine up the customers if they stood still," said Marlene Gurdin, adding, "I love her."

The best way to water a plant, Garrett said, is to put an inch of water in the bottom of a bucket at night, put in the plant "and let it drink while you sleep."

The two most common mistakes plant owners make are very basic ones.

"People forget to ask somebody to water them while they're on a vacation," she said. "Also, they forget to use plant food. They buy it, but they don't use it." The new plant foods, she explained, are perfect for busy people. "All you have to do is spray it on the leaves every two weeks."

In the complicated, rapidly changing world of the '80s, it's easy to understand why the Plant Lady appeals to so many people. She's a "constant." Always warm. Always friendly. Always there for others. She hasn't even changed her prices in six years.

And then, of course, there can be something very comforting about being called "Sweetheart."

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