LEUCADIA — "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.
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.