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A Garden's Healing Power

September 29, 2002

Mary Lou Heard ended up in the right place at the right time. For Heard, that meant any place on God's green earth where she could grow her colorful and exotic flowers. For a generation of Southern California gardeners, that meant Heard's Country Gardens, an award-winning explosion of colorful flowers that brought life to an abandoned patch of land in Westminster.

Gardening was more than Heard's life. Gardening gave her life. As a young, single mother who had moved to Southern California from Ohio many years ago, Heard harnessed the recuperative power of gardening to stave off life-threatening depression. "I was busy and productive," she once told a Times reporter about her early forays into working the earth. "When you're preoccupied, you have time to heal."

By that simple measure, Heard's Country Gardens provided countless gardeners with the seeds, gardening knowledge and self-confidence needed to set in motion their own healing. Heard was as interested in how her customers grew as in how their gardens fared.

Her business was less about selling product and more about teaching customers how to plant and care for flowers. And plant they did; Parma violets, old-fashioned hollyhocks, hydrangea--even the early-blooming peonies and clematis she'd grown up with in Ohio, but that experts said would never take root in Southern California.

Heard was something of an exotic species herself. Unlike the chain nurseries that concentrate on volume or garden shops that cater to the rich tastes of the elite, Heard's shop flowered in her own image. More so than any other nursery, Heard's Country Gardens was "stamped with the owner's personality," a senior garden writer with Sunset magazine said. "Mary Lou saw no reason you couldn't have a slightly wild, slightly country garden in the middle of suburbia."

Heard viewed gardening as a matter of trust. She championed the ugly ducklings of the plant world, encouraging customers to plant in the fall and wait for the following spring's wonders. What Heard didn't see coming when she opened her shop 17 years ago was a growing wave of interest in untamed, extravagant and unusual garden designs that matched her own vision.

Heard died this month at age 57 following a two-year battle with cancer. Not long ago she told The Times that "every lesson in life I've learned, I've learned in the garden, even the stillness. I'm not afraid of death."

Heard's Country Gardens is no more. Mary Lou Heard chose to sell off her seeds and plants. It was a fitting and restorative move that ensured her loving hand will continue to shape Southern California's gardens.

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