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Mary Lou Heard, 57; Longtime Owner of Noted O.C. Nursery

September 18, 2002|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Lou Heard, the longtime proprietor of a popular Westminster nursery called Heard's Country Garden, has died after a two-year bout with cancer. She was 57.

Heard, of Midway City, was a struggling single mother who'd moved to Southern California from Ohio in her early 20s to seek a better life. She was 31 and being treated for depression when she developed a passion for horticulture.

"I was busy and productive," she later told a Times reporter. "I tied up the sweet peas; I asked for some flowers and over the course of months I planted them.

"When you're preoccupied, you have time to heal."

She began attending horticulture classes at Orange Coast College and, on weekends, selling baskets of herbs at the swap meet on the Orange County Fairgrounds. That eventually led to the vacant lot on Westminster's Edwards Street--site of a former chinchilla farm--where she opened her nursery in 1985.

An immediate hit, the nursery became widely known as a place to get unusual perennials--the kinds of untamed, extravagant and odd plants that were just beginning to have a wide appeal in gardening circles in the mid-1980s.

"There were no guidelines," she later said of the early years at the nursery, often described as old-fashioned and eclectic.

"I was allowed to grow slow. My focus was not on money, but rather on that packet of unusual seeds."

Over the years, the nursery garnered some major accolades. This year, Los Angeles magazine listed it as No. 41 in its Best of L.A. issue: "an American dream of an English garden club, knowledgeable, chatty and open to all."

And Sunset magazine frequently highlighted its stock.

"More than any other nursery I know, Heard's was stamped with the owner's personality," Sharon Cohoon, a senior garden writer for Sunset, recently told The Times. "Mary Lou saw no reason you couldn't have a slightly wild, slightly country garden in the middle of suburbia."

After being diagnosed with colon cancer two years ago, Heard began taking stock.

This summer, she closed the nursery after conducting a weeks-long final sale.

"One woman drove up from San Diego and spent all of her vacation money," Lisa Spruill, Heard's daughter, said Tuesday. "Instead of taking a vacation this year, she spent it on plants."

Then the well-known lover of greens settled down to spend the summer with her family.

"We are not called upon to think about how close to death we are," she told The Times last month, "but rather to consider the gifts that have been given to us."

"I had no idea that my mom had touched so many people," Spruill said. "Any time you drive by and see an amazing garden, you can know that she had a hand in bringing flowers like that to people's lives."

In addition to her daughter, Heard is survived by two grandchildren--Shelby, 10, and Cailey Spruill, 8--and son-in-law Steve Spruill.

Visitation is scheduled Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m. at Heritage Memorial Services in Huntington Beach, followed by services Friday at Calvary West Grove in Garden Grove and interment at Westminster Memorial Park.

A scholarship fund for horticulture students has been set up in Heard's name by the California Assn. of Nurserymen.

Donations to the Mary Lou Heard Scholarship Fund for the Study of Horticulture should be mailed to 3947 Lennane Drive, Suite 150, Sacramento, CA 95834-1973.

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